This moment in time is unlike anything America has experienced since the 1960s. During that period over half a century and a couple of generations ago, lifestyle values were changing rapidly. Individuality was in ascendance. More and more people were rejecting institutional authority and relocating their loyalty and identity from society to self.
Yankelovich, the firm I ran for over a decade, was a pioneer in tracking this value shift toward individuality that began in the 1960s and became mainstream by the end of the 1970s. The original purpose of the Yankelovich MONITOR service, launched in 1971, was to track the emergence and evolution of these so-called “new values.” In his 1981 book, New Rules, Dan Yankelovich referred to this swing in values as a shift from self-sacrifice to self-fulfillment, which is to say, less about the greater good and more about what’s good for me. This was a profound reorientation of society and the marketplace. It shaped everything that came afterwards. Despite the crescendo of sound and fury about trends and novelty and trend-watching in the years since then, the foundational values of American society, and indeed most of the world, have been unchanging and fixed in a bedrock of individuality.
With the turn of this century, though, values have again been turned inside-out. Social values today are changing just as rapidly as the shifts that occurred in the sixties, and just as radically. Public attitudes have flipped quickly across a series of social issues related to equity, discrimination and social justice. For example, Pew surveys found only 35 percent of people in favor of same-sex marriage in 2001, but it was half by 2013 and it stands at 61 percent today. Similarly and even more dramatically, a USA Today survey from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project found that whites holding an unfavorable view of the police shifted from 18 percent to 31 percent over the course of one week immediately following the death of George Floyd.
From same-sex marriage to the #metoo movement to climate awareness to racial justice to the woke movement to monuments and more, a wave of new values is sweeping through American society and the commercial marketplace. This is not to say that values have been completely transformed. It is just to say that something rarely seen is happening all around us. It is the start of something as big as the changes that occurred at the start of the second half of the last century.
A New Era Of Conscience
The shift in values during the 1960s and 1970s was toward individuality — self above all else. The shift in values today is toward conscience — others no less than self. We are entering a new era of conscience. Self will still matter, but others will matter much more than before and will no longer be reflexively subordinated to self.
The pushback against self is seen in the politicized fight over wearing face masks in public because of the coronavirus pandemic. Apparently without even realizing it, many people have been “hippie-fied.” At root, the hippie ethic was freedom without responsibilities — free love, acid tests, dropping out, do our own thing. The resistance to masks in the name of freedom is the same sort of thinking — self above all else, or freedom without any counterweight of responsibility toward others. This attitude stands out not simply because of the surge in COVID-19 cases but because it runs against the shift in values now taking hold — others no less than self, or a responsibility for public health that carries equal weight with individual freedom, if not more.
With the rise of values rooted in conscience, a feeling of responsibility for others is stronger now than it has been for many decades, and it is trending in the direction of becoming even stronger.
In his mid-1990s book on the culture war, The Twilight of Common Dreams, sociologist and former SDS president Todd Gitlin describes the two competing political and cultural forces fighting one another on different battlefields — the right at the ballot box and the left in the academy. The results of the 2016 presidential election looked as if the ballot box strategy had finally won the culture war. But in the few years since then it has become clear that the lessons learned at school by the generation now on the rise cannot be underestimated. Many dismiss this as inconsequential whining by a mollycoddled group of näive young people rich in participation trophies but short on ideas with substance or staying power. Such a view ignores the lesson from the last period of transformational value shifts during the sixties.
Shift With, Not Against
Dan Yankelovich always emphasized that the counterculture of the 1960s represented a very small percentage of the total U.S. population. It was a minority of college students, and college students themselves were a small group. By Dan’s reckoning, the first stirrings of value change in the 1960s affected only 2 percent of all Americans. But it turned out that this small percentage of people, largely found on college campuses, was leading the way to sweeping changes in values across the entire society. As Dan put it, what began as political individualism in the mid-1960s eventually extended into social and cultural individualism. Business leaders were concerned that these new values would disrupt the commercial landscape, which was the impetus for the Yankelovich MONITOR. It began as a tracking study to see if the new values were being taken up by mainstream Americans, and if so, how rapidly. As it turned out, the changes pioneered by this 2 percent were, in some form and to some degree, the values of almost all Americans by the end of the 1970s.
Just to be clear, the shift in values during the sixties and seventies was the ascendance of individualism not liberalism. This is a frequent misunderstanding, so it’s important to emphasize this distinction. The various strands of individualism came together during the seventies and by the end of that decade, both liberals and conservatives had embraced a radical form of individualism. Despite vast differences on everything else, deep-seated individualism (often to an avid extreme) has been the common touchpoint of liberals and conservatives.
Now, in an upheaval no less fundamental than what happened before, values rooted in conscience are growing and taking hold. It is a shift being carried forward by a new generation and a new way of thinking. The implications for business are found in the question; ‘Are you aligned with the shift in values or aligned against it?’
At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change. Please email us for more.
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education