A report to be published tomorrow, shows that far from being given a role in life or a sense of identity according to their age, sex and social class, a growing number of people are changing their beliefs, actions, values and desires depending on who they are with, to cope with the frenetic change of pace around them. This is particularly true for younger, educated, professional people who are constantly re-inventing themselves to fit the environments they inhabit, according to economists at the Henley Centre, the marketing consultancy that did the research.
Those that can cope with the change are leading more liberated lives than at any other point of this century, because they have more choice and freedom than ever before. However, the research shows that many who are forced into "spider lives" are overwhelmed by the sheer number of roles they are called on to play and the absence of clear guidelines on how to perform them.
The researchers identified an "apartheid of confidence" between those for whom stress is something to harness, to enable them to transform themselves, and those who hanker after stability and feel the future is something that only happens to them rather. In a climate where every aspect of life is in a constant state of flux, the key to prosperity and well-being is flexibility, says the report.
Down-shifting, where people opt to lead a simpler life, working from home or choosing to live with less material wealth, is no escape from lives that require multiple roles, said Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at the Henley Centre.
He said: "True down-shifting and leading a peaceful, tranquil and simple life, is still a dream for most people because they still have to pay the mortgage and look after the kids. There is less certainty and more complexity in every aspect of life today and one of the ways that people cope with that is to adopt multiple personalities. Switching into different roles offers fantastic opportunities for some people but can be a double-edged sword.
"We are much freer than any previous generation but it is hard work to keep switching roles. Increasingly, we need to find our own solutions, rather than operating according to received wisdom or traditional standards."
The report, entitled Planning for Consumer Change, contains a survey of attitudes of 2,000 people from 1986 and 1999, which shows that the cornerstones that build individual identity have changed in the last 13 years. At the end of the Nineties people take much more pride in the skills and knowledge they possess than in their class, political allegiance or the sort of job they do. In 1986, 78 per cent of the population said that their job was a source of pride, compared with 59 per cent in 1999. Even earning power is less important than it was in 1986, as people become better off.
People in the top social groups, A and B, have become so familiar with the fast pace of change that their sense of job insecurity has dropped from 39 per cent to 27 per cent in the past four years.
Young women and the highly educated are particularly able to take advantage of these changes. Those who have reduced their stress levels were five times as likely to have improved their well-being and more than twice as likely to have changed their life skills. The findings have big implications for businesses and house builders, because they argue that directing products at people as a demographic group, on the basis of age, religion, gender, does not work anymore. Because household structure is so fluid, builders need to incorporate more flexibility into their designs, the report says.
In what constitutes a social revolution, the report argues, the growth of the "spider generation" means that living alone or with a group of friends, rather than in a family unit, is becoming the norm.