The new consumer obsession of my generation isn’t white goods, trainers or designer labels. It is — whisper it — quiet. We, the under-30s, are almost allergic to noise, so much so that many of us would happily pay extra to sit in a quiet carriage, or in the café seat furthest from the speakers, or drink in an upholstered alcove in a bar.
Two of the three things — privacy, space, quiet — that our parents wanted when they bought houses with gardens in leafy streets and town suburbs are lost to us. We’ve been invading our own privacy on social media since school, and now in our late twenties, we despair of ever getting out of chicken-coop flats and into detached (we’d settle for semi-detached) houses with gardens and garages to keep the neighbours at bay.
So it is quiet we want, and quiet we’ll pay silent spondoolicks to get. Call us the Murmuring Millennials, or Generation Shhhh. What we want more than anything is refuge from a phone-bleeping, car-honking, fridge-alarm world.
If one must live in a shoebox, let it at least be a soundproof shoebox. Consulting the man in the John Lewis kitchen department about a new fridge, I had only one requirement: that it didn’t beep. He says this is a common plea. My parents’ fridge has a prissy little alarm that goes off if you take more than 30 seconds to return the milk. My washing machine beeps ad libitum. The oven has a high-pitched, querulous beep-beep-beep.
Enough. Dyson is leading the charge with ever-quieter fans, hoovers, and hair-dryers. Others must follow. I’ve seen friends’ relationships falter when, on first moving into studio flats, they discover their partner has a roaring morning routine of electric razor, hairdryer, Nespresso machine and Nutri-Bullet. These must get quieter. Manufacturers will no longer promise bouncing curls or maxi fruit-mashing, but noiseless settings, whispering smoothie blades and silent spin cycles.
I’ve heard the future, and it’s quiet. Technology firms have long realised that bleeping and ringing are on the way out. Wearable technology — watches, bracelets, necklaces — vibrates against the skin to alert you to messages and phone calls. Wearable tech firms like the London start-up Vinaya already design minimalist rings, bracelets and pendants which connect to your smartphone and vibrate when you have a message. They can be programmed to alert you only to phone calls, freeing you from the tyrannous ping of messages and emails.
The demand for hush will bring about a quiet revolution in housing, too. Our Scandi–worship, which started with noir television and now embraces fashion, food and such lifestyle trends as the Danish ‘hygge’ — enjoying life’s cosier, simpler pleasures, then smarming about them on Instagram — is going to change the way we build. The Swedish construction mega-firm Skanska is already building houses here that are insulated as if against Nordic winters. The firm’s first UK housing scheme, Seven Acres, is in Cambridge, city of freezing Fenland winds. The houses are airtight and triple-glazed. No chill breeze nor wail of car alarm gets in.
Skanska build on ‘Passivhaus’ principles. This method, developed in the early 1990s by Professors Bo Adamson of Sweden and Wolfgang Feist of Germany, insulates houses so effectively that they stay warm without any — or with very little — conventional gas or electric heating. The Passivhaus Trust campaigns for the method in the UK, pointing out that their houses or flats consume 75 per cent less heating fuel than a standard UK new build. Lower gas bills, better for the environment, and never a peep or bleep from your upstairs, downstairs or sideways neighbours.
I predict a low-decibel boom in the leisure market, too — in mindfulness weekends, yoga breaks and silent retreats. Holiday cottages on Hebridean islands without phone signal or Wi-Fi will double their rates.
Cities, too, will be quieter. Dogs will not bark in the night-time. Anti-bark collars, already available, will become more sophisticated. Electric cars will purr through the streets. Driverless cars will not honk their horns because they are in a rage, or because the lights have changed, or because they’ve spotted their sister on the pavement.
Train delay announcements won’t come over the Tannoy, but straight to our phones — or wristwatches. Already you see it. When trains are delayed, passengers check rail-line apps and Twitter feeds for updates. We will miss the camaraderie of the collective groan at the announcement of the signal failure at Didcot, but not the old, intrusive announcements about buffet cars and unattended luggage.
In 30 years, of course, our teenage children will rebel. They’ll cast off their noise-cancelling headphones and take up yodelling, or go to ululation raves and beat their chests and howl at the moon in protest at their sotto voce parents. But today’s teenagers are quiet.
On a night bus this summer, coming home from south London, a gang of boys came swaggering on to the top deck. The other passengers braced themselves.
But the six boys sat down and took out their phones. Each sat scrolling through his social media feeds. From time to time, one of them would see something funny and laugh. And another, not looking up, would say: ‘Send it, bruv.’ And the first boy would send it to the other five on WhatsApp or Snapchat or ClapTrap or whatever it was, and they’d all see it arrive on their screens, and laugh, and fall silent, and go back to scrolling.
No fighting, no swearing, no shankster-rap music played through speakers. Now, I know this raises worrying questions about the splintering of society and the atomisation of youth and so on — but at least they were quiet.