Research note

Cultural values have reached a tipping point

The principal social fact of our time is the vast increase in human population numbers. In the ten years from 1999 to 2009 the global population grew from 6 billion to 6.8 billion, and is generally expected to continue rising until the middle of this century.

The growing population reflects the worldwide expansion and success of the modernization process. This has caused an unprecedented improvement in the material conditions of life of billions of people, with great increases in income, life expectancy, and wellbeing. Hand in hand with the globalisation of industrialisation, communications, travel and the level of business activity have all vastly increased.

This in turn has fundamentally altered old assumptions about social order. There has been a progressive relaxation of social norms and an increase in personal freedoms, as the justification for earlier constraints has weakened.

This increase in wealth and freedom also has a downside. Environmental degradation and social inequality have both been rising sharply in most countries since the 1970s. This has been happening even as the inequality between countries has by some measures been falling.

This combination of factors has had a paradoxical effect. The potential for increased affluence has been universally welcomed, and has stimulated an apparently endless growth in desire for more. At the same time virtually the whole gain in subjective well-being comes from just the first $10,000 or so of increased annual income. As incomes rise beyond this they do not increase the sense of well-being and happiness further; they prompt a shift in values.

In simple terms, as predicted by Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid, as people’s incomes rise and they feel their basic survival is secure, they progressively climb a hierarchy of values. Some may detour into hubris and greed, but past a certain point, most become more interested in—or more free to pursue—self-actualization than ever-greater material wealth. The shifts in personal perception that accompany this process also expand ethical boundaries—ultimately leading to a feeling of concern and responsibility for the planet as a whole and all its living species.

Media coverage of worsening environmental damage reinforces this concern. If affluence and ‘over-consumption’ is causing the planet to die without even increasing personal happiness, then there is a double reason to question the fundamental endless-growth assumptions of modernization.

Evidence of a shift in cultural values has been accumulating for the last 20 to 30 years. Among the early indicators was a study published in 1981, sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute of Mental Health, in which national samples of ‘psychologically normal’ American adults taken in 1957 and in 1976 were compared. The objective was to understand changes in the way Americans subjectively experienced life. By 1976, adults, particularly younger adults, had become much more uncertain about their futures. But the way they dealt with the uncertainty was changing. The researchers reported ‘a shift from a socially integrated paradigm for structuring wellbeing, to a more personal or individuated paradigm for structuring wellbeing. We see the 1957 population taking much more comfort in culture and the 1976 population gathering more strength in its own personal adaptations to the world’ (Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff, “The structure of psychological well-being: A sociohistorical analysis” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 43(4), Oct 1982, 653-673)

The report’s authors rejected the idea that this was evidence of growing narcissism and instead saw the shift ‘as a social development in a very affluent society. Concerns about self-development occur when society moves to a level of complexity that makes…social integration more difficult. To the degree that [life choices] are no longer simply and ritually worked out for people…there is an inevitable refocusing on the self. We do not see it as a disintegration of values, but as an adaptation that people have made to a complexity of choice in…society.’

The 1976 adults no longer regarded marriage and parenthood as their standards for judging successful personal adjustment. Instead they looked to opportunities for self-expression and self-direction. But simultaneously there had been a ‘shift from integration through social organizations to integration through interpersonal intimacy.’ The authors also reported that, ‘It is clear from the data that men and women have become much more psychological in their thinking about themselves and attempting to understand their own lives. The most dramatic findings illustrating this theme come from two sources: the increase in formal help-seeking and the decrease in people’s denial of problems in their lives.’

A decade or so later, some social researchers were willing to announce a cultural shift in industrial society. In 1990, University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart published a 20-year, 24-nation study of the evolution of values in the late twentieth century. Titled Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, the report found a shift to what he called ‘postmaterialist’ values as a result of the economic and physical security prevailing since World War II. Newly emerging values included the right to individual voice and influence, both politically and within organizations, and an emphasis on self-actualization and issues related to quality of life (Ronald Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, 1990).

In 1997, the World Values Survey—one of the components in Inglehart’s 1990 study—was expanded to include 43 societies, representing 70 percent of the world’s population, up from 25 countries in the first survey in 1981 and 1982. Evaluating the data collected, Inglehart found that the shift to postmaterialism was confirmed and he offered a new framework he called ‘postmodernization.’ He suggested that modernization had helped society move from poverty to economic security, and that the success of this had then led to a shift in ‘what people want out of life.’ In postmodernity, as he used the term, people valued autonomy and diversity over authority, hierarchy, and conformity. According to Inglehart, ‘postmodern values bring declining confidence in religious, political, and even scientific authority; they also bring a growing mass desire for participation and self-expression…today, the spiritual emphasis among mass publics is turning from security to significance: from a search for reassurance in the face of existential insecurity to a search for the significance of life’ (Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization, 1997).

Inglehart found these values among the more highly educated, more articulate generations that grew up with affluence and choice in the late twentieth century. The new values were expressed most strongly in Western Europe and the United States, with a cross-national consistency that Inglehart described as remarkable.

When Inglehart was writing in the late 1980s, he compared both American and Western European data collected from 1970 to 1980, and observed a marked shift to postmaterialism during that time. In 1970, materialists outnumbered postmaterialists by 4:1, but by 1988 the ratio was only 4:3.

At the time, this led him to predict that the year 2000 would be the tipping point in Western Europe, as about half of the adult population would then have been replaced by a younger cohort born after 1950. At that point, the ratio of what he called materialists to postmaterialists would then be approaching 1:1, and he anticipated that the articulate and educated postmaterialists would have a disproportionately larger influence on the culture.

Writing in 1997, he compared time-series data for 21 countries in which values surveys were administered in 1980, 1981, and 1990. He found a shift to postmaterialism in 18 of the 21 countries, with a double-digit shift in North America, most of Europe, and Japan. In 1981, only Finland had a higher percentage of postmaterialist to materialist values, but by 1990 postmaterialist exceeded materialist values in 9 countries, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, West Germany, France, Belgium, the US, and Italy.

If Inglehart is right, we are either at or approaching a social tipping point. The crossover point will not be a mathematically precise moment in time: it will be a zone extending over several years when the percentages are converging. The survey numbers suggest that we have already entered that zone.

Relevant publication

The following article written by Synthesys' CEO, Hardin Tibbs, explains the cultural value shift in more detail.

Click to view PDF

Click to view PDF

Changing Cultural Values

Modernity is in decline, and is being eclipsed by the new values of transmodernity. This paper, which forecasts an imminent tipping point in cultural values, was published in the March 2011 edition of the Journal of Futures Studies (Vol 15, No 3).