In times of rapid or sudden change we are often compelled to assess the way in which we look at ourselves. The surprise of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Trump in the USA, not to mention the meteoric rise of Macron and Marine Le Pen in France has questioned how we might know ourselves.
It is in this context that we should consider David Goodhart’s book ‘The Road to Somewhere’: a useful response to the events of the last year but also rich in potential for understanding other cultural and sociological phenomenon. Before we do so, let us first consider the previous ways in which we’ve split our populations into identifiable groups in order to appreciate what is happening across society.
In the years following World War II, predominantly male magazine publishers and their advertisers were confused by the new positions that readers had taken in a society that had changed a great deal since the 1930s; particularly women. Some had returned to a purely domestic role that they had occupied before the war. Some remained in the work place. Others had assumed new positions. The ABC classification system was primarily an attempt to understand not just a reader’s economic potential but also – of vital importance to the nuanced world of editorial – their identity as expressed through a lifestyle.
The means by which we make classifications and the way we use them, says a great deal about the times we live in. In 1992, William Strauss and Neill Howe published their book ‘Generations’. The book, which gave us the word Millenials, provided an insight into shared generational characteristics and how these might play out over a life-time particularly in relation to a series of major events (all the way back to the US Civil War up to the Summer of Love) that occurred evenly through time. Al Gore sent a copy to every member of Congress and age cohorts – such as Generation X and Millennials – began to dominate our thinking.
In their subsequent book dedicated solely to Millennials, Strauss and Howe imagined the eponymous group as a privileged generation that would come of age following an unspecified event during the mid-Naughties. ‘When the two come together, the young people of America will dazzle the nation,’ they wrote. Steve Bannon, editor of Breitbart, strategist to Donald Trump and a huge fan of Strauss and Howe’s book, believed this to be the Banking collapse at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008. This age group certainly doesn’t appear to have made an intervention in subsequent events in the way that Bannon hoped. Indeed, they largely voted against Trump and against Brexit.
Despite the persistence of its terminology, generational demographics failed to predict or even explain, the shock of the Trump election and the Brexit vote in the UK, revealing itself to be “an elaborate historical horoscope” as Jonathan Alter wrote in his review of the book in Newsweek. Age still had a part to play but not in the way that Bannon or the authors suggested it might. Even if generational thinking was true, perhaps that generations thinking changes so much as to make it irrelevant? An article in The Spectator on the issue used a quote ascribed to Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re not a socialist at the age of 20 you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at the age of 40, you have no brain.’
What if generation has nothing to do with it? No sooner had the term “youthquake” become the OED word of 2017, than it was suggested that the impact of a generational politics in the election of 2017 was largely a myth. What if it didn’t matter so much about when you were born but how you saw the world? One of the first books to really get to grips with this concept was ‘The Road to Somewhere’ by David Goodhart – the founding editor of the political magazine Prospect and director of the think tank Demos. Goodhart wrote the book to explain political events but he also provided valuable insight into the evolving worldviews of the British people, in particular. Goodhart organised the division in society not around generation or economic group but around worldview, and a worldview based on collective responses to the defining social and economic phenomenon of the epoque: globalisation.
Goodhart notices a distinction ‘between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.’ Whilst the division is not new, he says, it has become more important and now provides a far more illuminating and decisive distinction than a traditional left/right one. The group called Somewheres, according to Goodhart, form just over half of UK society and are more rooted. They have ascribed identities such as a Scottish farmer or a Cornish housewife. They can’t be broken down into a single economic group but they tend to include those who have lost out economically by globalisation with the decline of well-paid jobs that don’t require a degree.
The book directly addresses the issues that make the two groups uncomfortable. Goodhart points out that about 60% of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14. He also shows that while university courses have increased, vocational education has decreased by a similar order. This has led to the polarisation of the job market between insecure McJobs and professional jobs. The impact of immigration is positive for Anywheres, but had negative impact on low paid jobs. It is Goodhart’s intention to show that most Somewheres are not stupid and xenophobic, and have legitimate gripes.
In endeavouring to show how the Somewheres have reacted in a political way in response to the threats real and imaginary to their livelihoods and community identity, the book perhaps overstates the cultural hegemony and certainty of the Anywheres – around 25% of the population. This is the other group in Goodhart’s scenario. In distinction to the Somewheres, the Anywheres tend to do well at school then usually move from home to a residential university and on to a career in the professions that might take them to London or even abroad for a year or two. They identify with cosmopolitan values and dominate the upper echelons of the media and the political class.
And yet if we consider how younger Anywheres have expressed themselves culturally we begin to see that the groups Goodhart has defined have an even more complex relationship than he perhaps realises. In his TV programme Hipster Handbook, the writer Peter York identifies place – a somewhere – as being of huge importance to cosmopolitan Anywheres. He describes Shoreditch in East London thus: ‘It used to be an actual place but now it’s a state of mind.’ Whilst the political affiliations of Anywheres may be internationalist and liberal they are drawn to former working class district because, they feel, it nourishes their authentic selves. York points out that this group assumes other attributes of the original class such as the wearing of plaid shirts: Anywheres playing at being from Somewhere.
What is particularly significant for brands today is the way that the young Anywheres will construct the attributes of the new place-led identities they have adopted, with varying levels of irony. It is also notable that they are willing to assume the clothing of the historical Somewheres – even if their political and social outlooks today makes them uncomfortable. Furthermore, Anywheres are willing to reconstitute what they see as missing components from the stage-set of this historical world they seek out. Beer is the perfect example: a product associated in both its production – involving benign, non-dangerous small-scale factory work – and consumption with the working classes. A product such as Brooklyn Lager is thus highly emblematic.
Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of Goodhart’s generally political focus is the further sociological implications. Typifying the Anywhere world view the author says they feel comfortable about the modern world, have a loose idea of national identity and a preference for liberty over security. Arguing that they have little to lose from this arrangement whereas Somewheres do, Goodhart describes how the Anywheres are political in favour of open borders and free immigration within the EU. Taking this a step further than the book though and thinking in terms of their wider lifestyle, it should be no surprise how important travel is to the Anywheres. Yet it is travel of a specific kind.
According to a poll conducted by Harris on behalf of Eventbrite in 2014, 69% of the young people interviewed believe attending events makes them feel more connected to others. We have a situation where Somewheres travel to feel more connected with individuals who are largely strangers. Anywheres like to constitute communities endlessly wherever they go. It is in this context that Airbnb’s new Trips service should be considered. In one regard Trips addresses the Anywhere value of self-fulfilment; in other regard Trips is enabling users to develop a more thorough relationship with the place they visit and a community within it.
Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it of course and although Goodhart’s book primarily identifies a new political and social fault-line, it also shows us new territory for thinking about social groups. He offers fertile territory for exploration by all kinds of professionals, including an opportunity to think about how the two groups enjoy the qualities more inherent in the values of the other.
Also published on Medium.