What do the "signs of the time" tell us about the world we live in today?

A “sign of the times” may be the poor attitudes of teenagers today. But wait, wasn’t that a sign of the times during the days of Socrates? Perhaps a sign of the times is the “great recession” or the increased unemployment or maybe the “war on drugs” or maybe the increased road rage. A sign of the times is an expression used to denote something that seems symbolic or emblematic of the era we are living in. “Sign of the times was a phrase strongly associated with Roman Catholicism in the era of the Second Vatican Council. It was taken to mean that the Church should listen to, and learn from, the world around it.” (Wikipedia.org)

The problem is we do not have any good reference points to compare our times to. Most of us do not have a very good knowledge of history or of what happened even a few years ago. We all tend to forget how things really were. So we think: crime is worse today, teenagers are worse today, life is harder today, etc. Then we say: “it’s a sign of the times.” However, it could easily be a sign of many times and eras gone by. What then are the dependable and predictable signs that would allow us to say with certainty that our times are different (for better or worse) than past times?

Very few things really emerge that make good signs of the times. Rising costs and rising taxes have been true forever. War, famine and pestilence were frequent during the days of the Pharaohs and are still with us today. Disease kills millions yearly and people do not really seem any less or more happy than in days gone by. Is life easier or more difficult? You would probably notice that it depended on who you asked. How then can we find a true and accurate “sign of the times?” Bottom line is you will probably not. The idea sounds good on paper but it is just too subjective. There are few signs that exist today that could irrefutably tell you what year or even decade it was, without the value of hindsight. Twenty years from now, it will be possible to look back at today and say things about it with some certainty but the present is never certain. That is why the past cannot predict the future.

We seem to dwell on the “bad signs” but maybe you can think of some good signs of the times. For instance, income levels are rising across the world and many diseases have now been eradicated that plagued humanity for centuries. What do you think are the signs of the time today? How would these compare to your signs twenty years ago? Do you think your signs would hold up if you went back two thousand years? Will these still be signs five or ten years from now? When do signs become obsolete? Do your signs tell you that things are better or worse today?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 16:24:01

    The only long term measures I can come up with to judge whether we are getting ahead, falling behind, or merely spinning our wheels are life expectancy, average standard of living, and rate of technological innovation. On all three, and on a world-wide basis, we have been progressing in unprecedented ways for the past 3-4 centuries. Not without bumps in the road, and not without costs (the loss of traditional ways) but accelerating progress nevertheless. But as the investment ads say, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” We have gone so far down the road in our dependence on technology that a collapse to even early industrial conditions (due to some catastrophe or other) would reduce the carrying capacity of the Earth to less than a billion inhabitants, just like it used to be before we went down the road we did. We have bet 6 out of 7 lives on the continuation of recent conditions. I hope our bet turns out well.



  2. John Persico
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 13:01:42

    Thanks Bruce for the data. I wonder if people are any happier today than say 100 years ago? I know I can say I am happier now than I was ten or twenty years ago but I have no basis or facts on which to interpret my feelings. Thanks for adding some data to the discussion. My feeling is that we are progressing but I often wonder.



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