What do people value the most? According to a fascinating new survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago, the priorities and preferences of what Americans value and want in life have changed materially in the past two decades. When the poll was first done in 1998, 70% of respondents said patriotism was at the top of their list as a very important value. Religion came in next at 62%, followed by having kids and community involvement.
In the past 25 years, all of those values have declined precipitously. Now, only 38% of respondents said patriotism was very important to them, and 39% said religion was very important. The share of Americans who say that having children, involvement in their community and hard work are very important values has also fallen. Tolerance for others, deemed very important by 80% of Americans as recently as four years ago, has fallen to 58% since then.
Bill McInturff, a pollster interviewed by the WSJ, said that “these differences are so dramatic, it paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America”. He surmised that “perhaps the toll of our political division, Covid and the lowest economic confidence in decades is having a startling effect on our core values”.
Perhaps even more depressingly, the only priority tested that has grown in importance in the past quarter-century is money, which was cited as very important by 43% in the new survey, up from 31% in 1998.
What could be driving this change?
The tectonic socioeconomic shifts of the past 50 years provide a clue. Data show that in the US, incomes rose more or less in line with the economy up until the 1970s. Being a professional afforded one the benefits of participating in a solid middle-class existence, perhaps enabling people to prioritise other non-material values.
Life was comfortable enough, so having a family and loving your country simply made eminent sense. With the democratisation of comfortable suburban living, believing in God and being socially tolerant were self-evident truths.
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After that, capitalism lost its way. Incomes started to stagnate while asset prices continued to rise, even accelerating. That meant that unless one was part of the ownership society, with a house and a stock portfolio, achieving a middle-class life became impossible. Housing, healthcare, and decent education prices have been rising at three times the official inflation rate in the last two decades.
The financial crisis only accelerated this trend. Quantitative easing and low interest rates further inflated asset prices and made borrowing on existing assets such as homes and stock portfolios effectively free, while productivity and wages went into reverse. Neo-Marxist economist Yanis Varoufakis called this “fiscal austerity for most and state socialism for bankers and the 1%”.
Conspicuous consumption obviously doesn’t help. Twenty years ago Generation X was perhaps best summed up by the dropout character played by Ethan Hawke in the cult indie film Reality Bites. After being fired from yet another job for stealing a Snickers bar, he muses with Winona Ryder: “You see, Lainie, this is all we need… couple of smokes, a cup of coffee… and a little bit of conversation. You and me and five bucks.” In this era of Instagram, the Kardashians and Dan Bilzerian, his insouciance seems quaintly laughable, if making one deeply nostalgic.
South Africa abandoned
We are all saturated by images of people who want and get more and more and more, while we are supposedly meant to be building our “personal brands” and “human capital”. Loss of trust in government does not help either. As Senator Elizabeth Warren memorably said, we live in a world of: “I’ve got mine, you are on your own.”
Sadly, these trends do not only apply to the US. In South Africa, they are even more pronounced. Due to a paucity of productivity and economic growth, the middle class in South Africa has been broken. It is forced to deal with the parallel realities of stagnating incomes and a failing state which is incapable of delivering even decent roads, power and potable water, not to mention healthcare, security and education.
No wonder middle-class professionals are abandoning South Africa in their droves. If a similar survey were run in South Africa, it would most likely show even more starkly extreme conclusions.
In the last two decades, neoliberal capitalism failed to deliver the democratisation of opportunities it once promised. Combined with a maliciously extractive state, this is brutally apparent in South Africa almost more than anywhere. The question now is simply, for those sticking around, how much worse can it get? DM/BM