3_TRENDS_Vol.15: Sarah Unger: Memento Mori, Natural Awe + Four Day Week
3_TRENDS is an interview series with the world's leading cultural researchers and thinkers, sharing their favorite overlooked trends.
Sarah Unger (SU) is the co-founder of CULTIQUE, a cultural advisory for businesses such as Apple, YouTube and HBO. Sarah has led sessions at SXSW & VidCon and is a frequent commentator for The Atlantic & Fortune. In 2015, Sarah was named Forbes 30 Under 30, and while not culturally exploring for clients, Sarah is a passionate adventure traveler.
MK: Sarah, what’s on your mind?
SU: Translated as “remember you will die” this ancient practice served across many cultures and eras as a reminder of mortality, but takes on new meaning post-pandemic, as the world has been faced with death in a starker ubiquity than ever before. The philosophy of Memento Mori is a profound practice to embrace when facing life’s challenges and embracing the world’s wonders.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” - Seneca
By accepting the inevitability of mortality, society is able to refocus and contemplate humanity in a whole new light.
A carpe diem mantra that has applicability to travel (approaching journeys with awe and wonder), lifestyle (the rapidly ascendant memento mori art and home interiors movement), mental health and wellbeing (the ephemeral transient nature of anxiety, trauma, and any single choice), and even workplace (the existential push of the great resignation).
Thinking about the fact that time is not infinite can help the present world achieve a level of self-actualization that society is starting to collectively grasp.
One might call it the more sophisticated elder to YOLO.
MK: The upside of mortality salience (a reminder that death is inevitable) is an appreciation of life — a new perspective, pause and gratefulness.
But the downside of this, and what I feel so many more are experiencing is: a deterioration of cohesion and sanity.
There are of course multiple contributing factors here, but since 2020 we’ve statistically seen increases in killed pedestrians via cars, drug over-doses, car thefts, gun sales, murders and drinking habits. I won’t accept coincidence.
Terror Management Theory (TMT) originating from anthropologist Becker’s 1973 work, The Denial of Death, proposes that most of human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. Becker suggests that as an individual becomes more mindful of the inevitability of death, they will reflexively attempt to suppress it out of fear.
So when a global pandemic hits, killing upwards of +6.18M people in just a couple years — oh, and we add a war on top, how is it that we can metabolize death on such a significant scale?
This urge to ignore death but simultaneously face it on a daily basis is leaving us in quite the predicament. Carry on, back to work. Slack notifications are piling up.
Zoom out. Truly. How many net-positive institutional changes have transpired over the last two years due to the pandemic? Barely WFH?
Our flexibility and nimbleness at best, or apathetic insensitivity at worst, is a force to be reckoned with. We missed an opportunity.
It’s this death salience + unfazed resiliency that are unspoken drivers behind so many behaviors today.
But as organizations or individuals, our outstanding task is to convert this downside of Memento Mori (ex. anxiety, inertia, disregard) into the proactive upside: deep contemplation, re-prioritizations and mass self-actualization.
If not now, when?
SU: Much has already been said (even here via Zine) about the push towards the outdoors and more nature-infused lifestyles. Be it biophilic interior design, the growing concern over climate change and push towards regenerative living, National Park attendance, or the simple fact that COVID is less transmissible outdoors — there’s many data points through which to view this new, more outdoorsy world. But this theme has always been about more than just nature, at least from the human lens. It’s about awe and wonder.
Science has backed the effect of having our systems shocked by something profoundly awe-inspiring that it grounds us in the present. It’s why I love living in the mountains to inspire my best work, riding full blast on a motorcycle down the highway, or adventure travel locally and overseas.
It’s impossible to not feel a burst of magnificence at the sheer majesty of the world around us, when thrust in our face so tangibly.
More simply, forest bathing taps into this theme and even catching a glimpse of a sunset or full moon — accessible and free — can push our brains into this humble state.
MK: Everything is a story. And in our COVID-19 narrative, “inside” is our villain. Cooped up, isolated and unhealthy when together. Inside = Bad. It’s the outdoors that’s our reliable protagonist. Refreshing, free, and healthy. Nature = Good.
It’s why we don’t just see park tourism increasing, but why nature is stitched into and printed on clothing left and right — “Nature Merch” — why plants are feverishly brought inside — real and fake — and why outer space is continually obsessed over — the radical, gnarly limits nature. Since March 2020, the outdoors has become our hero. Our savior. Swoon.
Netflix cracked the code with their latest series, Our Great National Parks, a tour of the U.S.’s greatest spaces narrated by none other than Obama. Beat it Baby Yoda, Barack at Yosemite is our latest cultural Xanax.
Only when we acknowledge how puny we are in the scheme of it all, does the incessant screech of insignificant daily nags finally quiet. Our insignificance is liberating. Cosmic humility.
But, we don’t have to travel too far for this sedation. In light of our pandemic tethering, there’s been a newfound appreciation for the close and near. The continued rise of outdoor micro-transit (scooters, bikes, skates) is allowing more to explore their backyards and become tourists in their own neighborhoods. Natural awe and wonder can exist on a micro-scale too.
As the planet deteriorates, this respect for the lush green and blue — whether a block or miles away — will only increase. If it’s not self-motivated, perhaps it will be our doctors, who are already prescribing the outdoors to patients for various conditions.
But is this all too late? Or just in time?
Four Day Week
SU: My consultancy is currently in a four day week research pilot. In doing this, I’ve learned about the broad cultural perceptions of this structure, which don’t always align with the comprehensive philosophy behind the pilots taking place globally. The goal, pure and simple, is to adopt a 80-100-100 model of working: working 80% of the hours, while retaining 100% pay and 100% of a worker's productivity.
When a company’s employees are working smarter, both profits and employee happiness have net positives.
As cultural researchers, this extra day frees up our mental bandwidth to further engage beyond our laptops and in the external world, to the benefit of our craft and our clients. For some companies, the time off may not be an actual day, but staggered shifts across days, to reduce the overall number of working hours. Fresher, sharper, and more inspired brains mean the flow of work will be even higher quality and more streamlined, as it forces a company to ruthlessly find and eliminate inefficiencies.
It’s almost shocking that it’s taken so long for the five-day workweek to be evaluated against productivity and happiness levels, especially when it can so positively affect profit and retention.
MK: There seems to be a bifurcation on the worker front: Those counting hours, participating in the r/AntiWork Great Resignation Reshuffle, and then those anteing up in the Creator Economy Side-Gig Hustle (Mirco-)Entrepreneur Grind.
But these two approaches aren’t antithetical to one another. They share the same sentiment: desire for more autonomy and control.
I was recently having dinner with a friend who is in their medical residency, and he was detailing his back-to-back 24-hour shifts at the hospital — or rather, the parts he could remember.
As unfathomable as those demands are to me, I couldn’t help but jab, “Well at least when you’re home you can’t work.”
As those in the professional-services field can attest, it’s becoming harder to detached from work — especially if your work revolves around cultural analysis which doesn’t turn off.
The Four Day Week makes sense in this regard — dedicated time to “hunt and gather” and leverage those external insights for the other days. Without that distinction, invaluable immersion spills over into (later) nights and weekends.
If it’s not a distinct day to immerse, perhaps it’s another benefit which acknowledges our truly endless hours.
A problem — I for one — am grateful to have.