January 2, 2009

Commentary:

Americans Dream Simpler Dreams Part I: The Consumers

By John Zogby

The New Year is typically a time to look ahead and hope that this will be the year to lose weight, get a promotion, to improve our lives in some significant way. But for many Americans, 2009 is shaping up to be the year they hope to be able to put enough food on the table and still afford health care for their families, to have enough money to cover the mortgage and the car payments, and to hold on to the job they have. Nevertheless, the American Dream is very much alive.

We at Zogby International have been tracking beliefs and attitudes about the American Dream since 1998, wondering if the American Dream is considered to be mainly about achieving material goods or more about finding spiritual happiness. Even in these uncertain economic times, my polling shows the American Dream is still alive and well, but is undergoing an historic transformation.

In my book, The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, I refer to two distinct groups of American Dreamers: Traditional Materialists and Secular Spiritualists.The Secular Spiritualists are clearly the ascendant group, and in a June 2008 Zogby Interactive poll, they surpassed the Traditional Materialists. In our November 2008 post-election poll, 37% of the nearly 25,000 Americans polled most closely identified themselves with what I call Secular Spiritualists - compared to 27% who take the Traditional Materialist view of the American Dream. The Secular Spiritualist view of the American Dream has been adopted by Americans across the nation, in all walks of life. They are Americans who are becoming more satisfied with fewer material assets and less wealth, even as the nation’s harsh economic climate has made living with less a reality for many.

Who are these Secular Spiritualists? It comes as no surprise that people who attend religious services at least weekly are more likely to share this life goal. However, these frequent service-goers who make up 44% of Secular Spiritualists are just one component of this group - 33% of Secular Spiritualists rarely or never attend services, demonstrating this is a philosophy about far more than religious faith alone.

We are accepting a world with limits not only because we may have to, but because more and more Americans long for a simpler life. In a June 2007 Zogby Interactive survey, we found that 22% of Americans said their expectations for their career and possessions had decreased. For many of this 22%, this was a conscious choice, not a decision forced by soured circumstances. More than one-third of them said they just want a simpler life. This is greater than the one-in-four who said they realized they couldn’t attain their goals, or the same number who were working at a job that paid less than their previous job and did not expect to ever be as well off again. Some of the groups most likely to say they are choosing a simpler life are those age 18-27 (46%), Hispanics (50%), those who live in rural areas (41%), and those with between $50,000-$75,000 in household income (40%). They are turning their backs on excessive consumption in search of something more.

The growth of Secular Spiritualism is not simply the result of making do with new personal and national economic realities. I believe it is something more: A growing rejection of a lifestyle obsessed with consumption and too often devoid of deeper meaning.

That view is reinforced by 18- to 29-year-olds, a group Zogby International calls the First Global generation. Despite the usual 20-something preoccupation with consumerism, brands, and self, this age cohort has accepted Secular Spiritualism in the same numbers as their elders. For these young Americans, Secular Spiritualism is not just an adaptation to changing times, but is instead formative, and very likely to shape their priorities and behavior throughout their lives.

As I note in The Way We’ll Be, all of this does not mean that Americans don’t buy - they do, of course - but they buy in accordance with their re-prioritized values. For marketers, communicators, Fortune 500 companies and mom-and-pop store owners the message is the same: cut the frills, mute the whistles, and give good value. It’s back to basics for this new stealth force of American society.

As more Americans make the conscious choice to move away from materialism to seek the kind of personal fulfillment that can’t be found at a mall, business will need to adapt to target these shifting values. Understand that for many with a shrinking dollar, as well as for those who want to leave the rat-race behind and simplify their lives, products still reflect a mix of values - from wanting to express our uniqueness to feeling a sense of community. These consumers don’t need or want to feel more macho, glamorous or cool. Older values like patriotism, sexual prowess, avarice, and social status are far less effective than ethical practices, social responsibility and just plain utilitarianism. And above all else, authenticity works.

John Zogby is President and CEO of Zogby International and the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House). His next column, Americans Dream Simpler Dreams Part II: The Voters will be released next week.

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