John Zogby, famous for his political polls, predicts that by 2020, we're going to be more Zen-like, less materialistic, and more tolerant. If that sounds overly idealistic, consider this: In one of his surveys, over one third of respondents said they believed they could achieve the American dream through spiritual fulfillment rather than material success. And since 2001, the percentage of people who say they intend to spend less on Christmas gifts than the previous year has been growing. To Zogby, that suggests that for more people, "The test is how fulfilled we are spiritually. Their quest isn't for bigger houses and more cars; it's an inner search, a quest for spiritual meaning." He calls such people "spiritual secularists."
Zogby spoke with U.S. News about his new book, The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. Excerpts:
You found in your polling that many Americans who are in debt are actually scaling back their material ambitions. Why do you say that surprises you?
What makes the headlines is that there's a record credit-card debt crisis, and Americans are spending themselves to death. But when you deal directly with the public, what you find typically is all the people who don't make the news. Most Americans put a limit on what they can do, and most Americans are cognizant that they can only do so much. They are self-imposing limits.
That sounds like a pretty big shift—why is it happening?
Americans really are learning to cope with limits. [Spending limits have] been imposed on the 27 percent of Americans who tell us that they're working at a job that pays less than a previous job. When I first started looking at this group in the late 1980s, early 1990s, I got a completely different image of them. People who were earning less were going into debt, figuring they were going to get back to where they were. Then they moved to anger—remember the angry voter in 1992, 1994? It's almost an Elisabeth Kubler-Ross sort of thing. They went from denial to anger to understanding to coping to re-adjusting. Now you go to a job that pays less and they say, 'So I don't buy at Bloomindales.' It's no surprise that Costco and dollar stores are exploding.
On other end of spectrum, there's a smaller group who have done very well financially but who've come to realization, "Do I really need the next iPhone? When does this stop? It's stopped making my life a better life, let me simplify a bit—there's more to life than just chasing after the next thing."
The third factor is what I call the private generation, those in their mid-60s and 70s and boomers. We're going to reach a point where there will be 1 million of this group who will reach the age of 100. Translated, that means, for people in their 50s and 60s, all of a sudden I'm thinking about retirement and then 30 more years of healthy living—I want to do something that matters. I want to be known as something more than the desk job I had. That's where you're getting a redefinition of the American dream, away from material acquisition and more toward a secular spiritualism.
Are there any notable demographic exceptions to this trend?
Yes. The 18- to 35-year old, low, middle-income, rural, exurban males. That's NASCAR, country music, 'That's my country, right or wrong.' That's still out there, to be sure. There's always about 15 percent for whom the American dream is just dead. There is no question about that. There are many books on the shelves that describe what went wrong, but I made a conscious decision, I wanted to report on the story about how we're moving forward.
Were there smaller groups that represented this "secular spiritualism" in the 1960s, like hippies?
We did have hippies, The Greening of America—it was a counterculture, but it was different in that it centered on one demographic and a limited demographic. It focused to a great degree on satisfaction and solipsism—"It's all about me and satisfying myself."
I was at Woodstock. I went for the music. What I saw was disgusting. People sleeping in the mud, having sex in the mud, no one being able to give directions because they were stoned. I was thinking, "That's not the greening of America, this is pure selfishness."
In this instance, I'm seeing middle Americans of all incomes who are adjusting to new realities, and what we have is a reverse cultural lag. In this case, the people are getting it. It's the institutions and leadership that's lagging.