How Trends Start — Demographics
|June 27, 2002||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
How Do Trends Begin?
The Psychological Center of Gravity
by David B. Wolfe
This article appeared in the April 1998 issue of American Demographics magazine.Changes in the median age of all adults may precipitate sudden changes in values and consumer behavior, such as America’s current passion for spirituality. Following the psychological center of gravity can help you anticipate these changes.
What do blue tits have in common with America’s spiritual renaissance? They both follow the same patterns. Blue tits are a common bird species of Europe. In 1921, they began removing the caps of milk bottles in England and drinking several inches of milk before moving on. Almost overnight, blue tits all over Europe were doing the same thing. Ornithologists were baffled because the new practice spread so fast. The tits had somehow acquired the skill all at once, without being taught by other tits.
The rapid spread of milk guzzling among blue tits was due to “morphic fields,” according to biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Morphic fields are non-material regions of influence that seemingly have no boundaries of time or space. Like Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, they are the deepest influences on behavior, transmitted across the ages, that link us all to shared themes and strategies for survival.
These days, millions of Americans have suddenly acquired a passion for spirituality. The suddenness and scope of this change is a signal that a massive shift in cultural values and personal behavior is taking place. It may be more than a coincidental confluence of individual thought. Some force, such as Rupert’s morphic fields or Jung’s collective unconscious, could be serving as a catalytic agent for the change.
Some say the arrival of a new millennium is such an agent. Others say that after decades of materialistic self-indulgence, boomers are looking in new directions to find meaning in their lives, and the realms of spirituality are a logical place to look. Both explanations are credible. But there is a broader perspective in which everyone — not just boomers or the religious — can be seen changing their behavior on a group basis, much as blue tits did nearly 80 years ago.
The End of Youth Culture
The world’s pre-eminent youth culture is becoming a middle-aged culture. The values of youth, which have long been promoted on Madison Avenue as ideal, are losing influence. America seems to be responding to the ideal described by George Bush in 1988, when he called for “a kinder and gentler nation.” Crime is plunging; marriage rates are edging up; divorce rates are slowly going down. President Clinton, despite scandals in his personal life, is garnering sky-high public approval by acting as a strong moral advocate for children.
Even young Americans are changing in the direction of temperance. Time magazine recognized this in a recent cover story on music for the young that said, “Macho music is out. Empathy is in.” Young adults may dye their hair green and pierce their noses to shock their parents. But at the same time, millions of them attend church weekly and make regular contributions to a retirement fund.
The second most-watched show on television today is CBS’s “Touched by an Angel.” The show is popular across all age groups, not just among mid-life boomers trying to find a spiritual anchor. A show like “Angel” would never have been aired by a major network ten years ago. The most popular show of the materialistic 1980s was “Dallas,” which glamorizes the lives of greedy, philandering oil-industry executives.
Now it seems that America’s spiritual awakening has even touched the hard-edged world of sales. A recent issue of Sales & Marketing Management began its cover story this way: “There’s strange talk being spoken in the hallways of Corporate America today. It’s about inner peace and a desire to gain more from business than a hefty paycheck. . . . Spirituality, folks, is taking hold of the workplace.”
Forty-nine years after Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, its hard-driving hero, Willie Loman, has finally passed away. America is being changed by a massive and unprecedented shift in what I call the psychological center of gravity. This is the center of influence on popular culture and values. Its midpoint has moved from the young adult years to the middle years, when people’s values characteristically undergo a major realignment.
It seems that boomers’ mid-life concerns with the meaning of life and other cosmic issues are reflected in popular culture, and popular culture is influencing everyone. But previous generations have passed through middle age and grappled with the same issues without exerting such a major influence on the entire society. What’s different about boomers is their sheer weight of numbers. They are 29 percent of the U.S. population, and they head nearly four in ten households. They form the critical mass needed to propel an idea into the collective unconscious.
Behind Unforeseen Change
The epicenter of the psychological center of gravity, or PCG, is the adult median age, which is currently nearly 43. Its outer boundaries are marked by those who are five years younger or older than the adult median age. The present PCG contains about 40 million people, or more than half of all boomers. History suggests that those who inhabit this span exert a disproportionate influence on all of society.
During the tumultuous 1960s, the PCG’s epicenter was in the mid-30s. It’s important to note that the leaders of massive cultural change in that decade were not boomers, who were between the ages of 5 and 23 in 1969. The leaders of the 1960s were people in the PCG, including Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and Bob Dylan. Members of the 1960s PCG provided the inspiration for boomers, who simply followed the traditional path of youth by challenging the existing order at any opportunity.
A friend born in 1946 entered St. Cloud University in Minnesota in 1964. Within the year, he says, people in the surrounding town were talking about how different the new freshman class was from previous ones. He was among the first wave of boomers who provided millions of willing soldiers for the leaders of the protest culture. The change seemed to happen overnight, like the sudden passion for milk that swept over the blue tits in Europe decades earlier.
Consumer researchers and marketers have long tried to figure out what causes an idea or product to suddenly become pervasive. What, for example, made the hoola hoop an overnight sensation? More recently, what strange cultural current caused Beanie Babies to become a craze? Anyone who could accurately predict the next fad would certainly hold a ticket to untold wealth.
On the other hand, there are products that ultimately enter the “must have” category years or decades after they are introduced. Television, for example, was first commercially available in 1927. The fax machine was invented more than 100 years ago. Perhaps the desire for those products had yet to permeate the collective unconscious as an unseen but compelling influence.
A strong bias exists in Western cultures, and especially in the U.S., against the notion that people act unconsciously en masse. Everyone wants to believe they know what drives them. Yet the new passion for spirituality has taken hold too quickly to be explained by the glacial pace of demographic change, or the incremental changes in behavior achieved by marketing. And it hardly seems adequate to explain these rapid, large-scale changes as merely the cumulative sum of millions of conscious individual thoughts and actions.
Rupert Sheldrake has studied many examples of sudden, amazing changes in behavior across entire species, from lower animals to homo sapiens. Like Jung, he believes that there are regions of influence beyond the reach of our senses and our rational intellect. These outer regions of influence, which he calls morphic fields, play major roles in shaping our behavior. The PCG hypothesis melds with these views.
The values of many adults in early mid-life, as described by Jung, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, and others, closely match the profile of a group that American LIVES, a San Francisco research company, calls “Cultural Creatives” (see February 1997 American Demographics). This group represents 24 percent of all adults. Their average age is 44, with a median age of 42 — almost precisely the epicenter of the PCG. Cultural Creatives are the most active group politically, and hence may be the most influential of all adults.
The values of other groups profiled by American LIVES do not reflect as strongly the transcendent values of early mid-life identified by Jung, Maslow, and Erikson. In part, this is because the other groups are either younger or older than those in the PCG. Nevertheless, the shifting of society’s ambient values toward a more spiritual footing suggests that the resident values of the PCG, as expressed by the Cultural Creatives, influences virtually everyone’s outlook.
For example, take the recent dramatic decreases in crime, especially violent crime. Politicians, prosecutors, and police chiefs are all taking credit for it. Yet the decrease is too fast, and too sudden, to be wholly attributed to changes in the law or police work. Two other factors are playing major roles. The first is a decline in the young-adult population, the most crime-prone group. But that cannot fully account for the dramatic fall in crime rates either, because the decline far exceeds the rate of population decline.
The moral influence of the PCG may be the hidden factor that explains sharp, sudden declines in the crime rate. These moral, middle-aged influences could be changing the behavior of nearly everyone above the age of reason. Again, like the blue tits, a kind of unconscious consensus seems to be at work. It is transforming the values profile of the nation while it changes the demand profile of consumer markets.
A real-world test of the PCG hypothesis is in the works. If the hypothesis is valid, the present trend toward “kinder and gentler” values will continue because the PCG is still moving upward. Its epicenter will be nearly 50 in about 15 years. The more mature values of an older PCG will force changes in product design, marketing, and service. Companies unable to do this effectively will fail. Already, many companies have suffered from the effects of changes that have taken place in the 1990s. The next decade should be even more challenging.
Survey research is the leading approach for determining the most influential values in consumer behavior. But survey research is flawed in two ways. It produces snapshots of current reality, but these snapshots rarely give users any reliable clues that they can use to make inferences about the future. Second, survey research assumes that people provide information to surveyers that accurately reflects how they feel, and this assumption is frequently wrong. As every politician knows, how people feel about themselves and life can change radically in a single day.
The PCG hypothesis provides a way to understand the leading values in society. This understanding is possible because our core values, as well as many of our needs and much of our behavior, evolve somewhat predictably according to patterns laid out in our genetic heritage. Maslow, Jung, and Erikson were among the first to describe this evolution in values, but it is still a poorly understood phenomenon.
By studying the core values that are common among adults within five years of the PCG, a picture will emerge of the commanding values in all of society. During the “greedy 1980s,” some pundits predicted that “self-absorbed” boomers would age without grace and fuel a major spending boom with their inheritances. In my 1990 book, Serving the Ageless Market, I predicted instead that boomers generally would come to terms with their aging; would become less materialistic, and more spiritual; and would transform the nation into a “kinder and gentler” place. Serving the Ageless Market also predicted trouble for the fast-food industry, retailing, and other industries whose marketing was based on the values of youth. The predictions were accurate because they recognized the power of the PCG.
Because the age at the epicenter of the PCG is still rising, the narcissistic, materialistic values of youth will exert less and less influence on consumer behavior. This will deepen the challenges of survival and growth in many industries.
There is no better way to begin dealing with those challenges than by making a concerted effort to learn more about adult development. Few consumer researchers and marketers have any grounding in adult development psychology. This is a costly deficiency. Knowledge of adult development can provide critical information about consumers that is not available from traditional survey and focus group research. To thrive, researchers must learn how to meld traditional forms of knowledge about consumer behavior with the emerging power of the PCG.
Taking It Further
Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields is described in A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance (1995: Inner Traditions Intl. Ltd., $14.95) and other works in print. To learn more about Cultural Creatives, contact American LIVES at 2512 Filbert Street, San Francisco, CA 94123; or see the article “An Emerging Culture,” American Demographics, February 1997; the text is posted at Internet address http://www.demographics.com.
About the author
David B. Wolfe heads the Wolfe Resources Group, a consumer behavior consulting firm in Reston, Virginia. If you like this article, you may like more of the offerings of American Demographics magazine.
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