Re-perceiving Happiness

“It is high time we admitted that, taken on its own, GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress.”

- UK Prime Minister, David Cameron

The rise of Post Materialism is set to transform the Australian economy.

During the ascension and eventual dominance of Materialistic values over the past forty years, millions of Australians have directed their focus towards the pursuit of visible economic achievement. Happiness, we were told, came in the form of a 42-inch plasma screen.

This desire for bigger, brighter, newer, faster material possessions has had the greatest impact across every industry in this country.

However, with the economic goals of many now being satisfied, more Australians are set to adopt a Post Materialistic outlook, placing greater emphasis on lifestyle and quality of life, as experiences overtake possessions as desired collectibles.

And if Australians increasingly move beyond material possessions as the symbol of status or success, then the nation will need to broaden its measurement of what constitutes social well-being and progress. Further indicators beyond mere economic transactions or GDP will need to be developed.

This is where the growing interest in quality of life and happiness measures will play a role. Gross National Happiness has been established in the Kingdom of Bhutan for a number of years, where it was perhaps too easily dismissed as a radical or fringe idea. However, the recent embracing of the concept of national happiness by the British government shows that there is a growing discomfort within Western societies with our absolute focus on economic measures.

Every paradigm or system obviously contains ‘true’ or positive components – they have to, otherwise why would we be attracted to them? On the flipside, every system also contains ‘false’ or negative components, and it’s the rising awareness of the ‘false’ components of Materialism (Stress, Debt, Time Poverty, Inequality, Mental Health, etc.) that has people convinced ‘there must be a better way’.

This is the context that will lead people towards Post Materialism and towards alternate measures of social progress.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index measures progress in 9 dimensions: standard of living, good governance, health, education, community vitality, environmental resilience, cultural diversity, balanced time use and psychological well-being.

Whether Gross National Happiness is the absolute answer, only time will tell, however, what is certain is that broader measures of success and progress will receive greater attention as Post Materialistic values rise.

As a weak pointer to the growing interest in lifestyle and happiness, the campaign Buy Nothing New in October is worth monitoring. The campaign kicked off in 2010 in partnership with Salvos Stores and encourages people to resist buying anything new in the month of October except necessities. According to Salvos Stores Sustainability Manager, Donald Munro:

“Buy Nothing New reflects a growing movement of people switching off from shopping and tuning into life.”

According to the ‘S-Curve’ theory of social change, the Gross National Happiness movement remains in its embryonic stages, however perhaps it is an idea whose time has come. As Post Materialistic values rise, and per capita consumption declines, Governments will seek alternate measurements of national progress to convince the public they’re doing a good job.

These are the circumstances than can see an idea move in from the fringe very quickly!


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Savouring Time

Appearing with Peter Switzer recently on his Sky Business program Switzer, I was asked which industries will be hot in the future and which will not –

Now, as a futurist you are always being asked for predictions about the future. You also know that not only is the future not predictable, but to make such predictions on a nationally televised business program could be a little misleading.

However, whilst the future might not be predictable, what we can know, and what we can study, are patterns of social change, and methods for understanding why the future might be different.

One such method is the Pendulum Theory of Change.

According to this theory, whenever we gain something, we lose something else. Over time what we lose becomes scarce and increasingly valued, causing a re-perception in our attitudes, and ultimately driving a shift in social behaviour.

So how does the Pendulum Theory help to answer Peter Switzer’s question regarding ‘Which industries will prosper in the future?’

Well, if we look at social change in Western economies over the past 40 years, the major driver of this change has been the shift in values from Traditionalism to Materialism – the desire for visible economic achievement and material wealth. Industries or areas of the economy that have gained from this shift in values have included housing, construction, fashion, finance & banking, retail and even cities.

But what about the losers?

In a social context where the accumulation of possessions has been seen as a form of status, our natural environment has been reduced to being perceived merely as a source of raw materials. Because of this view the environment has been a clear and visible ‘loser’ of social change over the past 40 years.

And true to the Pendulum Theory of Change, as resources have become scarce, society’s perception of resource usage is changing, and sustainability has become the growth area of 2011.

Just as clear a loser, but less visible, is the other great victim of the past 40 years – time.

Our desire to express who we are through what we own and what we earn has come at the cost of our scarcest resource – only recently the Courier-Mail reported that Australians in 2011 are working an extra 6 hours a week more than they did in 1997.

In essence, the silent epidemic of time poverty has overwhelmed us as we have become beholden to constant activity and busy-ness.

And if this epidemic were to continue are we to believe that in 2025 we will have lost another 6 hours per week to work?

I think not!

Just as the environment as an issue has reached a tipping point, surely the same is about to occur with time poverty?

Our focus on time saving innovation as a potential saviour has failed.

Instead, what’s required is an internal re-perception on how we think about time and how we choose to use our time.

And as this social re-perception occurs, as always there will be industries that are winners and losers.

So, as I tried to explain on the Switzer program, rather than make a hard and fast prediction about the future, let me put forward the following scenario:

Our changing attitude towards time will be as great a catalyst for innovation and industry success in the future, as our changing attitude towards the environment has been in the present.

As an outcome of increasing dissonance with time poverty, society will switch its focus from Saving Time to Savouring Time, and experiences rather than possessions will become the new collectible. Industries that meet the rising demand for experiences are therefore likely to prosper from the trend of Savouring Time.

How will you spend your time in the future?


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Focus on mental health sure to cause retailers stress

The recent political focus on mental health in Australia has been generally well received by the media and public alike. In promising to allocate billions over the next 5 years, the federal government has indicated that it is getting serious about the silent epidemic that is mental illness in this country.

Yet whilst the government has been applauded for its belated attention to mental health, retailers would be well advised to get on the front foot and prepare for a consumer landscape that is vastly different to today. By highlighting the issue of mental illness, the government has unwittingly set in place a chain of events that will accentuate a paradigm shift in Australian values from Materialism to Post Materialism. A shift that will drive major changes in consumer attitudes, expectations, and behaviour across this country.

To understand the relationship between mental illness and future consumption you need to reflect on the range of responses to the government’s funding announcements.

The first reaction tends to be surprise. Namely, surprise at how prevalent the issue of mental illness is. Did you know that 20% of Australians will experience depression at some stage of their lives? Or that suicide is our biggest killer of young people, not car accidents?

Consequently, the second reaction tends to be disbelief. The issue of mental illness didn’t just arrive overnight, so why has it taken governments so long to put adequate resources behind it?

A third and deeper reaction tends to be dissonance; the feeling that something’s not quite right, that perhaps the goalposts of success need to be modified. And whilst this response may be slower to emerge, growing community dissonance stands to be the driver of significant change across our society in the future.

Why? Because increasingly Australians will ask:

What is it about our lifestyles that causes 1 in 5 Australians to experience depression?

And as more Australians reflect on this question they will draw the conclusion that something is clearly missing. Whilst the pursuit of the materialistic dream has delivered an abundance of many things, including twenty years of uninterrupted economic growth, it’s what we have foregone, what we have a scarcity of, that will drive the shift to a Post Materialistic society.

If we look at social change through the behaviour of a pendulum, oscillating between periods of abundance and scarcity, we can see that in a world of finite resources, whenever we gain something, we lose something else. And so, over time what we lose becomes scarce and increasingly valued, causing our behaviour to change once again, and driving future social change.

So what do we have an abundance of in 2011? And more importantly what is becoming scarce?

We have an abundance of material possessions… yet we have a scarcity of time.

We have an abundance of connectivity… yet we have a scarcity of silence & reflection.

We have an abundance of information… yet we have a scarcity of attention spans.

And now we know that we have an abundance of mental illness.

And with this awareness, society’s pendulum is poised to swing back from its position of materialism overdrive to a more post‐materialistic setting. And it’s this change in values that has profound consequences for retailers.

A post materialistic society will place greater value on those aspects of life that have become scarce over the past 30 years. And this is where the real impact on retailers will be felt.

No longer will there be an insatiable social drive to consume just because we can ‐ capability is not the issue here. Nor will there be a burning desire to express oneself through what one owns ‐ gone will be the mantra ‘I shop therefore I am’.

At the core of this change will be two fundamental shifts:

1. A re‐defining of what constitutes status – movement away from material possessions as a sign of success; and

2. A greater sense of personal identity that comes from within, as opposed to being expressed superficially

Both of these shifts pose a major threat to the structure and philosophies of the retail landscape as it exists today.

Among the many positive outcomes that the government’s focus on mental health will achieve, retailers need to be aware that mental illness is now on the cusp of moving from an embryonic issue to an emerging issue in the minds of the public. And this shift will hasten the rise of post materialistic values in Australia.

So, whilst the government is to be applauded for its response to the silent epidemic that is mental illness in this country, it must now prepare for what will no doubt be an unintended consequence of this focus. That is, more Australians challenging the notions that growth is good and more is better, and instead opting to consume and earn less in the future.

Check out the following article regarding lifting the veil on suicide reporting, a key to moving from ignorance to social awareness & eventually social change.

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Low Consumption not Low Carbon the Future Issue for Australia

It’s easy to look at the recent downturn in retail expenditure in Australia and dismiss it as a temporary blip as a more cautious consumer attitude arises out of the Western financial crisis.

But what if consumers are not merely re‐thinking their attitudes towards debt and credit? What if the real driver of this decline is a fundamental shift in how society perceives consumption and materialism?

The rise and dominance of Materialistic values in Australia over the past 25 years has delivered the Age of Want – An age where consumers have felt compelled to accumulate, renovate and update to an unprecedented level. It was a period which saw social expectations evolve from lay‐by (delayed satisfaction) to buy now, pay later and 48 months interest free purchasing.

Even better for retailers, it was during this period that a more fundamental shift in the consumer psyche occurred. Whereas previously it was products that came with a physical obsolescence which forced consumers to replace goods when they broke down, the materialistic age has seen the rise of a mental obsolescence which exists in consumers’ minds. The consumer now sees product obsolescence where none physically exists.

With retailers and manufacturers preying upon this social urge for newness, the materialistic consumer mindset has become such a powerful driver of retail and economic growth over the past two decades.

However, mindsets change on the basis of different circumstances or different information; for example, the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. As the debates about climate change, global warming, and carbon taxes abound, Australians are being shocked from their position of mindless consumption (“That’s just what we do around here”) to a position of awareness ‐ we are becoming aware of our consumption lifestyle. And with this awareness comes a whole new set of questions many are asking.

We’ve already seen questions like “How did it get here?” and “How was it made?” being given greater consideration as consumers broaden their interest beyond the retailer’s shelf. However, the paradigm shifting questions are “Do I really need this?” or “Do I really want this?” These questions represent a clear shift in consumption attitudes and will have a profound impact on the future of consumer expenditure in this country.

And if such an attitude shift were taking place then it would make sense that declining retail figures would be an early indicator of the changing consumer perception. Due to its heavy reliance on stimulating want, retail is the canary in the coal mine for all industries of the coming new age – the Decline of Want.

The most dangerous aspect of planning is to carry trends forward in the false assumption that the future will repeat the past. To avoid this mistake, retailers should prepare for a new consumption paradigm; a post materialistic landscape where a substantial and permanent decline in the want to consume becomes the norm.

Forget the proposed carbon tax, or even the loss to internet sales; this new consumer paradigm represents the greatest challenge to the existing planning models of Australian businesses going forward.

Read more about how consumer perceptions are the essential source of foresight.


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Time to slow down

‘I feel the need… the need for speed!’ so goes the famous line by fighter pilot Maverick and his buddy Goose in the 1986 film Top Gun.

And following suit, 25 years later we’ve become a society obsessed with short-term speed, to the detriment of long-term planning – a metaphorical nation of hares, eschewing the qualities of the tortoise!

So what’s the driver of this need for speed?

For many companies, it’s their limited perspective of time and space – their focus on the here and now, and ignorance of the there and then.

We obsess over minutes, hours, days and weeks, whilst paying scant regard to years and decades.

And here lies the source of the problem.

This short-term, blinkered approach to time and space is leaving businesses vulnerable to the vast amount of change that is building just outside their scope of vision.

When it does arrive, this change inevitably catches them by surprise, disrupting existing plans, and forcing a company-wide panic mode. This ensures the perpetual need for speed, and so the cycle continues…

So how do you break this cycle? How can you slow down time?

By broadening your perceptions of time and space; extending your planning horizon, and widening your scanning sources.

After all, as futurist Joel Barker writes, ‘Speed is useful only if you are running in the right direction’.

Read more about reclaiming time here

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