Welcome to the new age of uncertainty

Will Brexit ever happen? Could Trump win? Is my job safe? The future right now looks headspinningly unpredictable. Is there any way to avoid this fear, anxiety and paralysis, and learn to thrive in a world in flux?

One day recently, I sat in a school hall listening to a headteacher explain why us parents should entrust our kids to her institution. We will, she announced terrifyingly, prepare your children for jobs that dont yet exist. We will make them ready for careers that involve changing jobs repeatedly.

Good luck with that, I thought. Its tough enough preparing children for jobs that we might reasonably suppose will exist in the future nurses, teachers, doctors, refuse collectors, the poor sap of an England manager, cyber-fluffers to curate your social media profile. Its harder, perhaps even incomprehensible, to prepare them for jobs that we cant imagine. And even harder still to train them to have the skills and flexibility to change jobs mid-career say from, ooh, time-machine engineer to a dementia care specialist based in sheltered accommodation on the new Martian colony.

Her speech was fascinating, since here was someone expressing confidence in mastering a future that most of us feel is ungraspable. The future is always to some extent uncertain, but never more so than now. Disruption is the new normal, says Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. Now, more than ever, you cannot lock down the future.

Following the EU referendum, it feels as though our uncertainty is rising exponentially, soaring in inverse relation to property prices, interest rates, sterlings value, the Labour partys effectiveness as Her Majestys opposition, and (silver lining) Michael Goves career.

Will post-Brexit strawberries be left unharvested? Photograph: Phil Clarke Hill/Corbis via Getty Images

Consider strawberries. Even now Im looking forward to a bowl of strawberries for tea. But for how many more summers can I live this life of obscene luxury? Dismal reports reach me that soft-fruit prices are set to rocket as a result of Brexit, as all those hard-working east-European pickers may well be heading home. Theres an even worse possibility post-Brexit strawberries will be unharvested because our mimsy natives are too hungover, self-entitled and busy screenwalking to have what it takes to fill the necessary punnets.

So much is uncertain. Should our Polish friends start packing or not? Should we join them and resettle in Krakow, given the disastrous economic prognostications of City soothsayers? Will article 50 of the EU constitution be triggered or not? And if it is, will that make a timetable for Britains departure from the European Union any clearer? Business analysts are already fretting that economic uncertainty, already rocketing in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, will not fall until the government lays out concrete terms something that could take months or years. Legal analysts, such as Oxford law lecturer Frederick Wilmot-Smith, contend that the EU referendum changes nothing in itself, but rather had no more legal effect either within the United Kingdom or on the UKs legal relations with the European Union than a straw poll of your friends (or mine) … The UK is still a member of the EU and has not, legally, indicated its desire to leave the Union. Everything is so uncertain that even the result of the referendum, apparently expressing the will of the people, seems to have made it less clear what will happen next. Will we Brexit? Could there be another referendum? What will happen next?

Is Donald Trump heading for the White House? Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Not all our current uncertainty is a result of the EU referendum. We worry increasingly about things that never concerned our parents. Will Donald Trump be US president in November? Will the combination of rocketing property market and burden of student debt mean that youll never be able to afford downpayment on something bigger than a lock-up in Willesden? Is it more financially wise to keep your money under the mattress rather than entrust it to a bank following warnings from NatWest that it may charge customers for depositing their cash? Is it worth saving at all now that negative interest rates are being considered? Possibly worst of all, following a spate of murderous attacks across Europe and now Japan, were increasingly uncertain about our safety when we go beyond our front doors.

Perhaps the uncertainty principle that physicist Werner Heisenberg hypothesised governed the sub-atomic world (roughly, that when the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa) has made a quantum leap and now governs British life in 2016. I say perhaps because Im not sure. Everything is as an imponderable morass from national security (who wants to kill us and why?) to the wisdom of appointing Sam Allardyce, historic galvaniser of footballs loser cloggers (no offence) into some semblance of organisation, as England manager.

Werner Karl Heisenberg: developed the uncertainty principle. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Much of our current mood of uncertainty has specific causes. Some of it is due to the consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown. The resultant rise of zero-hour contracts, exploitative internships and the Sisyphean labour of so-called portfolio careers has made the future seem head-spinningly uncertain. That mood is also due to the agenda, pursued by successive governments, of introducing choice into public services, from education to hospitals. The reason I was sitting in a school hall listening to a headteacher make her case to look after my daughter for five years was that the government has extended choice to state education. Thanks to that policy, Im encouraged to explore a dizzying array of choices (girls only, mixed, grammar, mixed, faith, academy, comp) and yet Im uncertain which is the best option. My only consolation is what Bertrand Russell wrote in The Triumph of Stupidity: In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. The parents who know, with vexing self-confidence, which school would be best for their little horrors are really deluded, while Im a genius because of my very uncertainty. That must be whats happening.

What the headteacher meant, I suspect, when she said she would prepare children for jobs that dont yet exist, is that kids should emerge from her school literate, numerate, with some experience of coding, probably little French but maybe some Mandarin, be unlikely to respond to a teacher telling them to pipe down by pulling a knife and generally able to initiate social interactions without going pre-verbal or sub-automatic. But most of all, I suspect she was extolling the virtues of a very old way of being, one set out by the poet John Keats nearly 200 years ago, when he wrote about negative capability roughly, the ability to thrive in uncertain circumstances of which more later.

Can schools prepare children for jobs that dont yet exist? Photograph: View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images

As a 21st-century British parent, I am like you, perhaps already living in a world of uncertainty, insecure about what the future holds and unsure of my place in that part of it that isnt a junkyard for humanitys expendable. The leading result of the governments choice agenda is to extrapolate my panicky mood of buyers remorse from shopping to public services, from choosing between minimally different and borderline unacceptable trousers to choosing between minimally different and borderline acceptable schools/hospitals/primary care centres. Every choice feels like a gamble, every decision relies on making a prediction about an unpredictable future. To make a plan for a life in such circumstances feels like a fools wager.

Bourgeois life, wrote the philosopher John Gray in his 2002 book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, was based on the institution of the career a lifelong pathway through working life. And not just the middle classes the working classes, too, thanks to apprenticeships and peer mentoring could envisage a future in which their lives made a narrative sense. Today, professions and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times. What has happened to the labour market since the spread of a culture of short-termism in jobs and investments that makes it even harder for workers to construct a narrative, still less pay the rent seems to have confirmed Grays thesis.

And yet, as Gray argues, we have faith in the future even if we can see no path through we are always hurling ourselves into its temporal abyss. Our only real faith is a shallow faith in the future, argued Gray. But, like employment contracts, that faith in the future is short term. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles the rest of us live from day to day.

Gray was writing about Britain and the US, the most advanced (or, to look at it another way, socially retrograde) capitalist countries. In Europe and Japan, bourgeois life lingers on. In Britain and the US it has become the stuff of theme parks. The middle-class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.

How can we overcome the inertia and anxiety that results from living in uncertain times? One answer comes from Jonathan Fields. He counsels that we should train in what he calls the Alchemy of Fear. Counterintuitively, this turns out not to be a death-metal combo or a new franchise of academy schools headed by Michael Gove and Sarah Vine, but a systematic philosophy for overcoming uncertainty. Whether youre just looking to thrive in uncertain times or deliberately amplifying uncertainty in the name of creating better things and experiences, argues Fields, you can train your mind to not only handle the unease that comes from having to consistently act without having all the answers, but embrace and invite it as a signpost that what youre doing matters. Rather than grasping futilely after a sense of certainty thatll never come, learn how to dance with the unknown. Its possible, it just takes a bit of work. Then look for the opportunity that always goes hand in hand with upheaval.

I know what youre thinking. Sheez, another American apologist for capitalist values masquerading as a spiritual guru. Dance with the unknown? Isnt that a Kevin Costner film? Fieldss book certainly inhabits the same bookstore shelves as those queasily upbeat American business morality tales such as Who Moved My Cheese?

In Spencer Johnsons bestseller, two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two little humans, Hem and Haw, lived in a maze looking for cheese, a symbol of happiness and success. The 1998 parable invited readers not to adopt the over-entitled victim mentality in face of cheese privation, as did Hem and Haw, but to become flexible in the face of change, like Sniff and Scurry.

Doesnt Fieldss philosophy of uncertainty similarly call for humans to mutate, to become rodent-like virtuosos of manipulating a heartless economic system? A stop-whining, start-acting mindset? Not quite. Who Moved my Cheese? was about bending the knee to ceaseless change; Fieldss book, rather, is about mastering uncertainty. Whats intriguing about Fieldss bestseller is that, usually, the experience of uncertainty is inhibiting, whereas for him uncertainty can be a catalyst.

The imponderables of Brexit, for instance, can lead to fear, anxiety, paralysis, destruction. Uncertainty, Fields argues, can gut creativity and stifle innovation. It can keep you from taking the risks necessary to do great work and craft a deeply rewarding life … That is, unless you know how to use it to your advantage.

How would you use uncertainty in practice? Fields cites his own life story. He quit a high-paid job at a law firm to become a personal trainer working for $12 an hour. When everyone was asking me how I could possibly walk away from the money, power and promise, I asked them how I could limit the next 40 working years of my life by what had happened during the last seven or eight. What he means is that to counter the feelings of uncertainty and worry he felt when friends asked him why he was taking a leap in the dark, he narratively reframed what he was doing. I discovered that if you want a different answer, you need to start asking different questions. Ones that are realistic, but also allow you to create answers and storylines based not in paralysis, but opportunity.

At the start of the new millennium, Fields set up a yoga centre in Hells Kitchen in New York. He had just married and had a three-month-old daughter. Then 9/11 happened, and his business future once more became uncertain. All the above fears came roaring back, but with a wife, a child, a home and my city in flames, they were magnified tenfold, he recalled. Still, the experience of already having built and sold one business, along with the awakening that we only have one shot at life, was enough to push me forward. That business grew into one of the most successful centres on the East Coast and touched the lives of tens of thousands of people.

John Keats: coined the phrase negative capability. Photograph: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Good for Jonathan Fields. His life story is a homily to mastering uncertain conditions. There is, though, another option. Instead of mastering uncertainty, go with the proverbial flow and accept that uncertainty is the cosmic deal. Keats, when he coined the phrase negative capability, imagined something along these lines. Negative capability, he supposed, was when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason and Keats took that passivity or willingness to let things remain uncertain to be essential to literary achievement.

Acceptance, then, isnt just a stage in the grieving process, but an attitude towards the cosmos.

Heres a consoling thought: earlier historical eras have not felt any different to those struggling through them. In 1977, for instance, the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith presented a BBC TV series called The Age of Uncertainty, contrasting the great certainties in economic thought in the last century with the great uncertainty with which problems are faced in our time. Uncertainty and scepticism for false prophets just feel like the signature moods of our age when perhaps they are the lot of humanity they drag along with us like Jacob Marleys chains.

In 1996, Belgian Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel laureate, argued in The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature that uncertainty is an inherent cosmic expression, deeply embedded within the core of reality. To be fair, Buddhists got there before Prigogine. But what is striking is that some psychologists have applied the Nobel laureates thoughts on uncertainty in physics to our human lot. We may think were particularly cursed, that our current uncertainty is an unusual fate, but rather, uncertainty is deeply embedded in the structure of reality. In the face of that (possible) truth, whats the best solution to living in uncertainty? Acceptance even of the very anxiety we feel in the face of that uncertainty.

The denial principle: Patsy and Edina knock back the Bolly with the self-destructive gusto in the Absolutely Fabulous film. Photograph: Courtesy Ev/Rex/Shutterstock

But mastery and acceptance in the face of uncertain times arent the only possibilities. Lets not forget the existential power of getting trollied. Its an incredibly interesting social barometer, watching people drink, Willy Borrell, who runs the Ladies and Gents bar in Londons Kentish Town, told the Evening Standard in the wake of the EU vote. In the weeks before the referendum, the place was quieter. Then, directly post-Brexit, we saw hardcore, drinking-to-get-really-drunk drinking Now, theres just this incredible sense of carpe diem hedonism. Its as if were thinking: I dont know whats going to happen. And I dont care, because its Armageddon.

We drink to obliterate our anxieties, to silence for a few hours the nagging doubts that otherwise possess us. In such a context, it makes perfect sense that the Absolutely Fabulous film has just come out, featuring Patsy and Edina chugging the Bolly and Stolly with the self-destructive gusto that doesnt exist on the uninterestingly well-adjusted other side of the Channel. The film is in tune with our Brexistential crisis, with our unbearable mood of uncertainty. Denial not so much a river in Africa, as a British solution to a British problem.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/26/new-age-of-uncertainty-brexit-trump-future-world-flux