Adam, Faith and Maggy return after a brief hiatus to connect with author John Allen, and discuss what makes a home, the importance of a place to call home, and how the pandemic has affected our sense of home and community.
Maggie Wilkinson: Are you feeling jolty? Who isn’t? I’m Maggie Wilkinson, CEO of Athena Global Advisors and host of Jolty, a podcast designed to help you navigate the giant jolts, daily bumps and smaller shocks of the world we live in. Today we’re excited to introduce author John Allen and discover the importance of home, and I mean home beyond the four walls around us. I’m joined today by our proven futurist and good friends, Faith Popcorn and Adam Hanft. With that, let’s jolt.
Adam Hanft: Hey, so it’s really exciting to have professor John S. Allen with us today. I will read off his bio because he’s had so many honorary titles, I’ll never remember them. So he’s a Neuroanthropologist and a Research Scientist at, now, get this, the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.
Faith Popcorn: Oh my God.
AH: He’s wrote this book “Home” before the pandemic, before we were all sequestering and quarantining and being locked in. And it’s even more relevant now than it was then. So it’s gonna be a great conversation and we can’t wait to speak with him.
FP: Anyway, I think John’s in the waiting room.
AH: Let him into our little home here.
FP: Okay, good.
AH: Hi, John.
MW: Hi, John.
John Allen. Hi.
FP: Hi, John, thank you so much for joining us. I’m Faith Popcorn, Adam Hanft is the one that reached out to you and Maggie Wilkinson. We’ve been looking at your work, following your work, and we have so many questions for you. So do you wanna just give us a little background on how you came up with all these brilliant thoughts about home and food and…
JA: I’m mostly interested in the evolution of human behavior and interested when someone says, “People do this intuitively or instinctively,” like, “Oh, we all know what home is, we all have a feeling for home, or we all know why we like to eat there or everybody likes that.” There’s a question there, how does that work in terms of cognition? How does that work in terms of evolution? That’s why I get interested in those kinds of topics.
AH: Yeah, I loved in the book when you talked about home. We know it, just intuitively as a place you go to recharge and it gives you the intellectual and emotional fortitude to go back out into the world and do battle. That was really interesting insight in terms of what happens to us when we open the door and then close the door. We’re in our world.
JA: Right. And the world doesn’t have to be physical. It is physical because, well, we need shelter, and it has been, but it actually, it doesn’t. And I have a friend who camps a lot, and he feels… And he takes his own little kit, coffee kit and cooking kit and he says when he gets out there, he puts those things out, he’s defining a home in a sense to him. It makes him feel like he’s somewhere even though he is nowhere, and it’s not his real home. But for a moment, cognitively, it is.
FP: But John, I don’t know how familiar you are with our work collectively or individually, but we, in my company, a lead trend called cocooning framed in 1982. So talking about the meta-verse where a house was just sold, as you know, the Mars house, for $510,000. It was our last guest, was Krista Kim. How is that home, seeing it’s not bricks and mortar?
JA: It’s like I said, it’s, again, this idea of defining home from the inside out. And we have now available to us technologically to create that universe in a way that was not available in the past. And so to be technologically connected or to be connected by ideas and memories are just important for us as a physical structure.
FP: Interesting, you said that home encourages or creates empathy.
FP: How so?
JA: It is, and I use the Portman phenomenon for senator Portman and other Republicans who become more sympathetic to LGBTQ issues when someone close to them in their family, someone they share a house with, it is that familiar. It’s biologically, it’s usually the person you share a close living, are related to you in someway, but it doesn’t necessarily… It’s also that they’re close to you physically and they share this world, then all of a sudden they become sympathetic, empathetic to the issues, because it’s shared by someone in their families. But also the psychology side showed that when people share a living space, they start to have sympathy, they synchronize, especially if there’s probably sharing in terms of rank. If they are more equal ranked, their viewpoint become shared. And that’s the whole thing that happens in a boot camp, right?
JA: You throw people from all over and you mold them into a single group, and part of the way to make that happen is to make them live in the same place, on the same schedule, and that synchrony has a powerful effect. The flip side is that if you share a place and the people in the house aren’t synchronized, someone’s getting up here and someone’s eating and someone’s leaving, and someone is coming, that’s actually not… That probably undermines some good feelings about the home. It makes it feel like it is not really a home. It’s a waste, it’s a hotel.
AH: Right. So as you reflect on what happened during the pandemic, the quarantining, the direct-to-consumer, all of this new world, work from home, has that… I don’t wanna say has it changed your view, but has it enriched or enlarged your view of the primacy of the importance of the home?
JA: I don’t think it’s changed it, but it makes me curious about the future of what is the long-term effect of this, because this is one of these large-scales social experiments, it’s just happened, and there will always, of course, be people who really are working home and it really was a stretch for them to be at home. Their job requires them rarely to move and that will happen. But as we’re finding out, there’s a lot in the gray area that actually can go either way, in terms of how the job can be done, and I do think it will lead to… I think it will make it more of an option. Because more people, you expose it to, you’re gonna find people who like it and find people with jobs and then it will become part of the option for how work is done.
AH: I read your book when it first came out then I went back to it and it struck me that the comfort that people are finding with work from home suggests that the tension of the office-home dichotomy was mitigated by having to work from home. And that’s one of the reasons people don’t wanna go back, ’cause if the fixed space is real and they wanna be home, then why leave?
JA: That’s right, as long as you’re… And I suppose, I guess, because we have options, if home is driving you back out, if your relationships at home are less satisfying than relationships in the office, then you might wanna go to the office. That’s what happens there, home and office can become a two shared sort of home bases, and in fact, you’ll discover people are discovering that about themselves.
MW: And I’m thinking about my own office, I have about 85 employees in Philadelphia and we’ve just opened back up and have a hybrid model now where people are coming in or not, and there are some people who very much wanted to be in the office, and there are some people who have, I think, no desire to ever be in an office again. I think it was much harder than any of us realize for them. I’ve noticed that those who get into a routine and designate certain days that they wanna come in seem to be having more success balancing this than people who just sort of wing it and I’m just wondering about the importance of routine. So, I was thinking about routine and your comments about synchronicity in a house together and that that makes it much more of a home versus a hotel.
JA: You people know more about that future office thing and designing work spaces where people can gather. Some people are saying that isn’t really panning out as much as they thought it would. Yeah, and then look, it is partly the more flexibility the workplace has, the more flexibility it has for different sort of personalities. And we see how personality is, whether it’s how hard or hard-wired it is or soft, by the time you’re an adult it’s pretty hard to change. And so, if it’s more accommodating and more flexible, then it should be more productive.
AH: Yeah. You mentioned in the book that the home could be an inspiration for creativity because you’re so distressed and you can daydream and the imagination could go wilder, but the other side of that is you lack the stimulation of people around you to provoke creativity. So, I guess it depends on your individual characteristics. If you’re more of a self-generator, maybe you’re more creative at home, if you need catalysts outside, maybe you need a different environment.
JA: It is fun to go out and see other people on a neutral ground, it’s a shared space, it’s interesting that we think about how… And this gets [0:08:31.2] ____ in the book where I talk about how our houses and homes are weird because they become economic. I asked its units… Explicitly in the US, your house is designed to be your old age pension, and before Social Security. It was this idea, people should have a house where they have money and then they can invest and that’s what will protect them when they’re older. And so that, and then this sort of the anomia of the modern life of separation, that does require in a physical sense, a place where we can interact as opposed to a more traditional housing set up where this is your place, but your place is part of that place too. And many people work in quite gendered workplaces, but even though we have a lot of mix-up, a lot of jobs are still quite gendered. And maybe people like that, to some extent.
AH: It’s true in the party and is true in the playground in sixth grade, in the cafeteria. It’s just sort of an in-group, out-group phenomenon on the gender level.
MW: Well, and that leads me to something in your book, John, where you talk about the home, even in… Forgive me if I don’t have this quite right, but even in male-dominated societies, that it’s really the domain of the female.
JA: Well, I think it’s, partly it is because it’s a reproductive unit, home, so women, obviously, are more intricately involved in that. It’s smaller scale, it’s not a place where alliances, as they might go back to a primatological way, conform within sexes rather than between. It, in fact, if there is a pattern of greater, whatever men are doing, it covers more ground, typically, ’cause they’re not encumbered by children or young children, and therefore the women’s world becomes more localized, men’s is more expansive, then all those things lead to the home being a place where there is probably a more equal, let’s say, a representation.
AH: Before we had houses, the cliche of the man going out and hunting and dragging the food back to the campfire to be cooked, pre-home if you will, is that anthropologically sound or is that just folklore?
JA: One of the first chinks of the armor of that is, well, if you just count the calories of even if the men do well, tend to cover more ground and whatever it is they’re collecting, doing things, what women are doing at the same time may provide actually more calories and more nutrition and so on. And they may vary by lays in geography and so on. And so men’s activities may be more ranging, but this sort of model where this is so critical as opposed to emphasizing, “Well, what they’re doing is cooperating,” which is really the critical, because the thing you don’t see in our closest relatives is men being involved, or only in a very limited way chimps or gorillas males, or in a range not at all directly involved with providing food to a female and an offspring that he may or may not be responsible for, but are in his [0:11:21.5] ____ humans, this cooperative aspect of foraging and hunting and food is primary.
MW: Do you think the fact that you see this in humans is more conventional than, I guess, nature? Or do you think it’s deep in the human…
JA: I don’t think what we’re doing… Or so much of what we do in terms of occupation and economics is much less connected to nature. Obviously, there are biases and certain areas, I don’t know off hand what there would be, but what we’re seeing is a reflection of systems that have been in place for a really short period of time.
FP: And now that women are working so much, back to your previous statement, so are they moving around, are you saying less because they’re working more and not at home as much?
JA: No. Well, if we look over… Again, if we skip back just not 5000 years, women have always worked a lot and men have always worked a lot, and so as we get more to what the systems that we lived in, the way we structured everything from education to how we treat children and adolescents, and we analyze them and we extend childhood to 22 years or whatever, it’s really an interesting thing. This is not the world of our ancestors. And so… In some ways, some of these personality aspects at individual levels are really almost more powerful than I think some of these sort of classic, how can we get the hunter to gather time into the present? The present has really squashed that in so many ways, from population density to just having a currency-based exchange.
FP: I know of a study that says that when women and men get divorced, when the woman is 60 plus she never wants to get married again. Would they really prefer if they didn’t have to have kids and they could have sex some other way, not living together, would they be together? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I wanna ask you about food, you wrote a lot about food, this whole idea of super omnivores, that you wrote about, the compulsive need also to label foods as good or bad. Can you talk about super omnivores a little bit?
JA: If we look at humans before the modern world, we see that they live in every possible environment that we have on earth. We occupied from the Arctic, we came out of probably a tropical jungle, but then went into all sorts of temperate grounds. Went into the cold, went into the hot dry, and people find things to eat. We have preferences that are based on flavor profiles and so on, terrestrial probably too, but we’re not wedded to any of that. And then the flip side to that is that people live in places where they don’t eat half the things they could eat for whatever reason, and then that becomes part of cultural identity. We are the people who don’t eat rats and those people over there, they eat this, they’re crazy. We hate them, we’re better than them because we eat these things, that’s well beyond just being an omnivorous animal. We have a lot of things we eat, we have lot of things, we don’t eat because it’s all mixed up with our histories and our culture, plus our digestion and our nice generalized teeth and the tools we can make.
FP: So what do you think this trend towards vegetarianism is? Where do you think it’s coming from?
JA: If you tie ideology and your spirituality with what you eat, that’s quite a powerful thing, and that’s what you see when you say, “Oh I’m a vegetarian because this or that.” It’s harder to become a vegetarian and say, “It’s for my health, my doctor tells me I have to.” But if I say, “Oh I’m helping the planet, I’m helping this animal, this animal has as much right to live as I do.” I’m making it a real decision, that’s an emotional decision too, and so with food, that becomes really powerful.
AH: It is, but that’s true with a vegan, it’s an ingrown background thing, it’s the same thing. People who don’t want to kill cows have a certain lack of respect or scorn or they devalue the morality of people who do [0:15:22.5] ____.
JA: It will be interesting to see in the long run, If we think of veganism as an enlightenment diet of the current era, whereas gluten free, people aren’t really tying that to any ideology, right, then you would think veganism probably has more legs than gluten freeism.
AH: Can we just shift to something in your book that struck me, which is home sickness as a phenomenon and how powerful that can be for people, and how we can feel that emotion for something that is bricks and mortar.
JA: Yeah, it isn’t the bricks and the mortar, it’s what happened within it right.
AH: Inside yes.
JA: And the relationships within it. If there’s anything that kind of, it shows how we’ve become anchored to place, and you can shift it. If you don’t ever shift it, then you’re in a pathological state, but people can shift it. Just because you can get used to a new place doesn’t mean that the old place wasn’t really firmly important to you, but that’d be nice to have a broader view of it.
FP: Yeah. So John, do you think the success of Airbnb is because people like to be in homes, not in hotels?
JA: I don’t know. As an Airbnb user, I do it often as an economic decision. I think, oh ’cause it’s such a great deal if you have five people or six people who [0:16:37.3] ____. It is personality, the reality of the hotel is perfect, but no matter how nice the hotel is, if you really stop and stay, well, this is anonymous, as a turnkey house. And if you’re there longer, if you’re gonna be there a week then pretty soon, it does start to feel like your place more than I think a hotel would be.
AH: You know what struck me is depressions of talking about the way that offices are trying to feel like home, and in the book that Faith and I wrote, we talked about that, that convergence of home and office. And I remember the first time I went to a WeWork and you look at the kitchen, the couch is very intentionally designed to be mimetically like the home, and I think when we come out of the pandemic, we’ll see employers who want to attract people, they’re gonna try to create more of a home-like environment and not a sterile one. What are your thoughts on the convergence of the home, the zeitgeist of the home, even if it’s in an office?
JA: Well, I think it’s probably gonna be positive, it’s something that some places have already done, I guess it’s becoming more common, I guess it also leads to… It’s another area for conflict because shared spaces without rules, it’s just opposed… There must be rules in these sort of works, how do you… If somebody is cleaning up for you all the time, then it can work, but where these basic conflicts of maintenance or who has access to certain shared spaces when…
AH: Do you think millennials who stream everything in order to experience it and don’t necessarily wanna acquire it, do you think the home, do you think renting will continue to grow, it’s grown a lot, and then millennials would be less traditional home buyers versus previous generations?
JA: Again, it interacts with these economic factors, is it gonna be easier, say if you live somewhere that’s so expensive that you can’t really consider home ownership? A lot of millennials seems like, I don’t know how you would define it but a lot of young professionals who had the option of remote living, part of the remote living is they leave San Francisco or New York and they move somewhere where they can afford to buy a house. It still seems to be their desire. Yeah, but again, that desire is supported by the government, subsidized by the government and encouraged at every turn.
FP: What do you think, Adam, about home buying and renting?
AH: So what we’re seeing is that there was a theory that said millennials are not gonna buy homes at the same rate, but then we’ve seen the trends to drive the point even before the pandemic. Student debt has been an issue, they just don’t have the capital and later family formation, having children later also delays the traditional homeownership, but it seems to be the same rate of home ownership and desire for home ownership as previous generations. And as you say John, people are leaving Brooklyn or wherever it is, and they’re moving to Hudson, New York, which is a Columbia County, it’s the fastest-growing destination in the country. And then you have the whole phenomenon of immigrants who were not allowed to own property wherever they came from, and they came to this country and being able to scrimp and save and buy a house or buy a building and then buy more and more became their version of the American dream because it was just impossible for them in other cultures to own homes that were prohibited.
JA: Right. And it also relates to the whole transfer of public housing from lower middle class working people to warehousing people or how it’s viewed, anyway, isn’t always that way, but certainly, that’s how it became viewed, that again, you got… Home ownership as the way out of public housing, which was quite acceptable and was not necessarily looked down upon, but it still was how do you move in where as a second… That would be more of a second generation thing.
AH: Right, exactly. And you talk about this in your book, you kind of alluded to it also just now, which is the ability to buy a home, first get a mortgage, buy a home and accumulate wealth and then transfer that wealth to the next generation, disenfranchised people of color and other minorities for a long time, and that’s why if you look at the household wealth of Black families versus White families, it’s like four to one or some crazy number. So in the sense, home ownership was politicized to benefit a certain population.
JA: No yeah, if you’re red lining… And then zoning creates, in terms of the appreciation changes everything, and you just do it by a red line on a map or freeway through it, where do you put the freeway.
FP: I just wanna say, John, that it was such… I don’t wanna keep you too long. It was such a pleasure to talk to you. I learned so much.
AH: Yeah, thank you.
JA: No, thank you. Thanks for inviting me.
FP: You’re delightful and thank you so much.
AH: Thank you, John.
JA: Thank you. Nice to see you.
MW: Thank you.
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