Note: I first wrote this essay in 1998 for a major magazine. I have slightly updated it for 2018 but the topic remains relevant today.
Baby boomers. Echo kids. Baby busters. GenXers, Milleniums. If a new demographic shift develops, the futurists will find it, the marketing people will name it and the ad execs will eventually exploit it. Then you’ll “read all about it” in tomorrow’s news. But there is a tremendous shift in values and lifestyles that has developed in the western world that didn’t really catch the attention of ad people and demographers when it first began. For want of a better term, it was named the “social potential movement.” Some writers referred to it as Integral Culture. Those who shared the values and lifestyle were tagged as Cultural Creatives. Chances are you may be one and never even heard about it.
Ever since the court of Louis XIV when commoners forced their way into the governing process, people have been loosely categorized as either right wing (sitting to the right of the king) or left wing (socialists). Left-wingers became known as liberals, looking to changethe social order; right wingers were conservatives, preserving the status quo. Starting with the 1960’s, however, those terms began to lose their meaning as more and more people grew disenchanted with public life and dropped out of the political process.
Way back in 1980, as pollster Daniel Yankelovich noted in his book New Rules, western culture started to undergo a major values shift. In 1984, one survey identified an emerging population too small to have influence on the larger culture. In 1994, however, a prominent sociologist with 30 years experience in gauging the public mood was commissioned by the Institute of Noetic Sciences and The Fetzer Institute to study this new trend. A major survey of 350,000 Americans was undertaken by a prominent scientist, with results published in 1996 under the title The Rise of Integral Culture.
Dr. Paul Ray was that scientist. What he found in the demographic survey was a “shift in the dominant culture pattern which occurs only once or twice in a millennium.” A new grouping had emerged to join liberals and conservatives, or Heartlanders and Modernists as Dr. Ray described those groups at that time. “Cultural creatives” were neither right wing nor left wing. They rejected the traditional puritan ethics of Catholic and Protestant thinking, wrote Ray, espousing instead new values based on a “planetary perspective” between humans and nature, and between humans and the spirit (variously defined) and between humans and humans all over the globe. In other words, it was the emergence of the “global citizen” as we know it today.
The social potential movement started to take shape and form initially in the 1990s in think tanks and institutes formed to study that new trend in a critical way. On the Internet, literally thousands of official and unofficial grassroots organizations with a planetary and community perspective emerged, ranging from ecological movements to community economic development projects. Few achieved public mainstream media recognition because, according to Ray, media managers in the Information Age are for the most part Modernists, proud of their rationality and objectivity. Modernists place a high value on personal success, materialism and technological rationality, tending to see the world “through the same filters as Time Magazine.” Social potentialism, to Modernists, was nothing more than silly New Age thinking.
Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, who coined the term “social-potential movement” in her book Conscious Evolution; Awakening our Social Potential, argued that in the new millennium “evolution proceeds ever more by choice than chance. In understanding our possibilities we take appropriate action.” Feminist historian Riane Eisler went further:
“Evolution is a contingent process. We have the potential for a better world, as long as we are willing to consciously intervene. People who believe in the potential of our species have to get out of the New Age personal growth sandbox and intervene in key areas of society.”
So who exactly were these so-called Cultural Creatives? New Agers were only a “postage stamp part of the group,” wrote demographer Ray. While Creatives included some disenchanted Modernists, some ex-hippies, former GenXers, and even some Heartlanders in exile, for the most part they constituted an entirely new demographic profile.
Most were well-employed, middle to upper class, professional, well educated, highly paid, located more in the west and coastal regions of North America (although a corresponding profile existed in Europe as well). The racial mix ran across the spectrum. While Heartlanders comprised 29 per cent of the adult population, and Modernists 47 per cent, both those demographic sectors were stagnant or in decline. Cultural Creatives grew from just four per cent in the earliest studies done in 1980, to 24 per cent in 1998. Where are they now and what is the percentage and what are they called?
Six out of ten Cultural Creatives in the initial studies were women. Both male and female CC’s were information junkies, avid readers of alternative magazines and community newspapers. They shunned TV and the tabloid press. They scanned the Internet, devoured books, and listened to radio but made their own syntheses and put together their own world view.
They were optimistic by nature, having never lived through the Depression. They rejected hedonism, materialism and cynicism and were often skeptical of world views based on scarcity or fear. They embraced ecological sustainability, voluntary simplicity, globalism, women and minority rights, self-actualization, social consciousness and holistic living. Poised between two major polarities of right and left wing, they “tried to heal the split between inner and outer worlds” through community action, altruism, volunteering and mentoring
In the past, as Ray wrote, cultural change occurred very slowly, taking centuries to evolve into coherent patterns. In an accelerated and electronically connected world, change takes place literally overnight, virtually unprecedented in human history. First in think tanks and then via cyber-space, people are beginning to realize that “a new culture is synthesizing a new set of concepts for viewing the world which incorporates personal growth psychology, the spiritual, and service to others as all one orientation.”
This cultural shift, wrote Ray, is still an unconscious process, and will accelerate only when it enters the conscious public domain. When the so-called Cultural Creatives eventually become aware of their own strength and numbers, will profound social and political change start to take place?