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Goodbye Charlie Sheen, hello Charles Dickens. What we'll talk about in 2012

This past year, apart from our personal obsessions of health, love, family, work and money, we talked about greed and corruption, global financial crises, natural disasters, sexual imbroglios (hello, DSK), and the idiocies of celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian. (I'm still not sure who she is and I like it that way).

So what on earth are we going to be talking about in 2012?

According to a recent BBC World News poll which surveyed people in 23 countries, the topic of unemployment is on the rise. Makes sense. If those relatively few folks hadn't been so greedy and corrupt, we wouldn't have such high unemployment levels, leading to what some fear is a lost generation of twentysomethings.

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Keeping in mind that shockers – the Japanese earthquake/tsunami of last year, the Norway massacre –- will come out of nowhere and spark intense discussion, here are six compelling conversational topics in 2012, whether you're around the family dinner table or trying to run the world.

Rising food costs. We steel ourselves now when we go to the supermarket. Three bucks for a bag of green beans? Those packages of chicken thighs used to cost no more than $12, now they run to $18. Even the comfortably off are suffering sticker shock and discussing what just isn't worth the cost any more. Reminds me of a scene from the movie Sense and Sensibility, based on the novel by Jane Austen, when an 18th-century widowed gentlewoman and her three daughters glumly realize they simply have to do without beef.

Equity/inequity. Our financial health will continue to dominate our private chats and public conversation. Are more bad times on the way? Will our houses stay valuable? And thanks to the Occupy movement, there is heightened awareness of the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, and the damaging effects of a winner-take-all economy. But maybe we will also mull over what actually qualifies as rich and admit it might be the face in the mirror: Just before the holiday I was forwarded a Power Point presentation from something called Lightning in a Jar that read, in part, "If you have a full fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are wealthier than 75 per cent of the world's population." It also suggested you have a nice day.

Obama. Well, of course. Now mired in a still dicey economy and gridlock party politics that have voters disgusted, the U.S. President will once again be dissected (too cool), dismissed (didn't step up to the plate), praised (are you kidding, he knocked off Osama, reformed health care and shut down the war in Iraq), prodded (only connect!) and prognosticated over (he's toast, he's definitely going to win) on the campaign trail. Get ready for Obamathon II.

Competence. We all have to be competent at our modest jobs or we lose them, so why can't our leaders be uniformly competent? The obsession with competence will dominate the Euro crisis, and competence is what it will come down to in the U.S. presidential campaign if Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination (which he should, if the GOP is not brain dead). Apart from an incident in which he strapped the family dog on top of the car for a little road trip to Canada, there's little dirt to dish on the former governor of Massachusetts. (Unless of course Newt Gingrich (serial adulterer, Tiffany overspender) gets the nod, in which case the chatter will be about character.) And competence is what will generate buzz in the federal NDP leadership contest. Jack Layton was enormously competent and the party deserves no less in his successor.

Reshaping consumerism. Shopping, especially driven by technology and the need for yet another smartphone, will never die, but James Surowiecki reports in a recent New Yorker column that in the U.S., layaway – popularized in the Great Depression – is back. What you do kids, is forget the plastic, just keep making payments on that flat screen TV until you can walk out of the store with it fully paid. What if instant gratification turned into the consumer equivalent of drunk driving?

Charles Dickens. What better time, in the midst of continuing economic turmoil, to celebrate the bicentenary of the greatest Victorian author of all time, one who knew all about the gap between the rich and the poor? Born in Portsmouth in February 1812, Charles Dickens wrote such classics as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. His novels will have star billing this year at book clubs, the more than 100 movies they spawned will be shown around the world and even China and the Philippines are hosting Dickens retrospectives. So when it comes to Euro bailouts, tax breaks and better opportunities for everyone to make a living, perhaps the going phrase in 2012 will be "Please, sir, can I have some more?"

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