Society’s rules: past, present and future

America legalised interracial marriages in 1967

We need rules in society, without them there would be anarchy. Society’s rules aren’t static and change over time, usually for the good: women can vote, slavery is illegal and same sexes can marry. When we look at where we were and where we are today, there’s an underlying trend with where society’s rules are heading — so let’s take a look. But before then, let’s look at the different types of rules within society.

The types of rules within society

Society’s rules which are commonly referred to as social norms in sociology are influenced by social values, ethics, and religious influences. Society’s rules can be broken down into four categories:

Sometimes referred to as “customs,” folkways are forms of behaviour that are socially approved but not morally significant. Examples of folkways include: queueing in line, not farting in the lift, saying “please” and “thank you”. Abiding by folkways is analogous to being well-mannered, it’s the distinction between rude and polite behaviour.

In the hierarchy of society’s rules, mores are stricter than folkways. Mores are considered moral behaviour and the difference between right and wrong. Depending on where you live and whether you are part of a religious group will influence mores. Examples include: being openly racist or sexist, living together outside of wedlock, joking and laughing at a funeral.

Again, in the hierarchy of society’s rules, taboos are even stricter. Taboos can result in disgust and expulsion from the social group. Some examples include: incest, eating pork, abortion/birth control and adultery.

When it comes to society’s rules, laws are considered the most serious. Breaching folkways, mores or taboos normally don’t involve going to court and potential prison time. Laws exist to discourage certain behaviour and serve as a norm of conduct for citizens.

How society’s rules have changed

What’s considered normal changes over time. The young are sometimes considered rude by the older generation but the young would consider some behaviours of the past as misogynistic or racist. Many folkways, mores, taboos and laws have changed to reflect what’s currently acceptable. I see five categories where social norms have changed the most, these are; communication, family & relationships, equality, health and religion.

How we communicate

How we communicate in-person and via technology has changed significantly. “Good morning Mrs Jones” was the polite thing to do not that long ago but now it’s commonplace to address everyone by their first name. The topic of conversation has also changed significantly, it’s fine to talk about anything today whereas before it would have mostly been polite small talk.

Technology has changed how we communicate and the rules of etiquette, it can be considered rude to phone someone out of the blue as instant messaging is the preferred method unless it’s an emergency. The multimedia dimension of instant messaging has driven its popularity; video, memes, voice notes and especially emojis  have prioritised Whatsapp over speech.

The communication trend over time has been the decline of formality. Today anything goes and the English language has changed to support this. The reason for this change, in my opinion, has been the increase of individualism (more so in the Western world). The East is more formal due to the traditional collective nature of society (but is becoming less so with Western influences). The West used to be less individual-centric but consumerism and now social media has turbo-charged the individual to do and say what they want.

A young chimney sweep

In Victorian Britain, impoverished children from the age of four went to work as chimney sweeps, in dangerous coal mines and in “dark, satanic mills” (as described by Charles Dickens). Reform started in 1819 with the Cotton Mills and Factories Act which forbade the employment of children under the age of 9.

Before 1967 interracial marriages were illegal in the US and so was homosexuality in the UK. More recently, same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK (2013) and in the US (2015). Change is never as quick as people would like but when we step back – the improvements in equal opportunity have been stark. Society’s rules once allowed you to be a misogynist, racist and homophobe but in today’s society, these views could get you fired and a criminal record.

Family and relationships

The divorce reform act in 1969 made separation much easier in the UK and since the 1960s, divorce and living outside of marriage have become accepted. One of society’s biggest shifts has been the decline of marriage which is reflected in the chart below.

Society's rules changing: the decline of marriage
Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples. Source: ONS

As well as marriage, birth rates across the developed world are in decline, what’s considered normal today from a family-size perspective is much smaller than before. Women in the UK and US have on average 1.8 children and in South Korean as few as 1.05 (a trend that results in halving the population). Most demographers put this down to urbanisation and cost. Children used to be an asset (free labour) when we lived on farms but in the city, children have become a luxury.

Relationships have changed as cultures have become more permissive and there’s no reason to see this trend changing. In addition, urbanisation is likely to continue so birth rate declines are unlikely to reverse. While it’s difficult to know the cause of marriage rate declines, all of the following are thought to play a role; high divorce rates are off-putting, the decline of religion, cost and a change of priorities with an emphasis on individual freedom.

The future trend points to increased cohabitation and fewer children. In addition, whatever feels like deviant behaviour today will most likely become less so. How much more liberalised can relationship types become? One answer could be the rise of non-monogamy or what’s being referred to as ethical non-monogamy and polling from the global analytics firm Gallup supports the social acceptance shift in polygamy. From albatrosses to monkeys; sexual monogamy is rare in the animal kingdom and to think humans are special is maybe flawed.

Enjoying a smoke on the plane

Changes in what’s considered socially acceptable with regards to health have mostly been driven by science. Unsuspecting victims of tobacco advertising weren’t to know it was bad for their health. In general, people want to live healthy, long lives. We adapt to what science tells us and this changes society’s rules. Not that long ago smoking was accepted in public places and ubiquitous in pubs and bars. Today, people look down their noses at anyone that smokes near them.

Opium dens once thrived and chemists sold cocaine. There will always be something we look back on and think: what the hell were we thinking? Smoking cigarettes has changed from a social norm to being frowned upon and illegal. So what’s socially accepted today that will likely change over time? There’s still social pressure to accept alcoholic drinks but its waning, alcohol is losing its appeal (especially among the young). It seems inevitable that societies obsession with alcohol will gradually decline. Sugar’s another topic and we may look back in shock at our sugar loaded diets and consider the breakfast cereals we feed our young as child cruelty.


Religion was the single biggest force for dictating societies rules and had all the answers until the scientific method came along which contradicted much of what religion had told us. Add into the mix Charles Darwin and all of a sudden, Jonah living inside a whale for three days was starting to sound unlikely.

Up until the 19th century in Britain, priests were in charge of villages and everyone had to pay a church tax. Sunday School and choir used to be the norm but the church’s influence on society has dwindled. Today, in the UK, the non-religious outnumber the religious and the 4th largest reported religious group is Jedi. It’s sports teams and politics that draw passionate commitments now — we are giving up on God.

Wrapping up

As generations roll by, everything points to a more equal society driven by the egalitarian motives of humans with social norms governed by science over religion and superstition. The trends are unstoppable and while these shifts never happen quick enough for the activists, they will happen. Looking back it’s easy to think we are morally superior to those of the past. We are not. Our views are determined by history and we shouldn’t forget that.

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4 thoughts on “Society’s rules: past, present and future

  1. Another insightful piece! Yes, added sugar is a big one that will declinein the 21st century I think.

    In terms of what will increase, I think mindfulness/meditation and eco-travel will also see a rise.

    1. Thanks, Peter! That’s a great point regarding mindfulness and the eco-economy. I’m sure there will be increased social pressure to live environmentally aware as time passes; which will be reflected in government policy and how businesses operate.

  2. Very interesting and yes, wonder what other views will change as time goes by. Perhaps even some of the habits which have been newly adopted during these lockdown times will become embedded into society norms.

    The alcohol thing is interesting – my boss is a milennial and I think she has wondered on occasion if I’m an alcoholic (I’m Gen X so drinking regularly is normal!). I’m not an alcoholic by the way!

    1. Yes, I’m the same generation cohort– we were brought up on alcohol and cigarettes!
      I find how young children were once treated as small adults, fascinating! Parenting is a new phenomenon which has had a significant impact on personality and society. You can debate whether for better or worse!

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