The Reflexive Age

Most of us would like to see important aspects of our societies change: reducing local, national and global inequality; heading off the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change; renewing democracy; and enhancing wellbeing. Opinion pollsters find widespread hope that the Covid-19 crisis will be the midwife to a new and better stage for societies like the UK. But what kind of society should we seek to build? In my 2020 annual lecture as Chief Executive of the RSA, I combine ideas I have shared in previous years and apply them to the current moment. We could be entering a new era of social development. I will try to define what that era might be.

Crisis and change

In broad terms, the history of Western liberal democracies over the last 80 years can be seen to comprise three periods, each connected to crisis. The post-war settlement was a response not just to the conflict and the need for reconstruction but to the conditions of economic depression that preceded hostilities. The oil shocks of the early 1970s and the collapse of the Breton Woods system marked the end of the post-war settlement and the emergence of a new system of financial globalisation, and with it the rise of neoliberal ideology. The global financial crisis of 2007/8 accelerated public disenchantment with the consequences of neoliberal globalisation, creating conditions that have proven to favour populism.

None of these periods started or finished precisely with crisis, and even in their heyday, each manifested in different countries in different ways depending on national traditions, resources and institutions. Even at the height of neoliberal orthodoxy, Sweden was still a very different country to the US. New eras are usually prefigured in the old. Silvio Berlusconi was the proto-populist modern leader, but he first became Italian Prime Minister in the mid-1990s. Equally, even if a defeat for Donald Trump this November signals a turning point, it is unlikely that populism is simply going to fade away.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the pandemic there is at least the opportunity — and certainly the need — for a new form of progressivism to build momentum. At the RSA we have argued that crisis is most likely to lead to long-term intentional change when three conditions apply:

  • Where there is demand and capacity for change before the crisis;
  • Where the crisis itself sees that demand growing but also the future prefigured in some of the ways we respond; and
  • When, as the crisis recedes, political coalitions and practical policy programmes are ready to take advantage of a greater public openness to change.

To give two examples. First, rising concern about social inequality before the crisis has been reinforced by the differential impact of the pandemic and its economic consequences on different groups as well as a greater appreciation of the contribution of many low-paid, low-status ‘key workers’. Add in the power of the anti-racist movement in response to the brutal death of George Floyd in the US, and with the right coalitions and ideas there is an opportunity to make concrete progress on social justice. Second, and similarly, increasing awareness of climate change may have been accelerated by an appreciation during the crisis of the role of effective state action in building resilience. Emerging from the crisis there are now technological, financial and policy tools available to take the urgent action needed.

Out of the tragedy of the crisis and the disruption in its aftermath, there is potential for change. But it could be squandered. Only sometimes does crisis lead to periods of accelerated progress. A full understanding of these times rarely occurs contemporaneously; it is historians who apply labels like ‘the progressive era’ or ‘the post-war settlement’. Yet, ideas matter. There is merit in looking for an organising principle for a new era. That is the purpose of my speech.

The balanced society

In my 2012 annual lecture I set out a way of thinking about the functioning of organisations and society. It starts with something into which we all have insight: our own lives.

The decisions we make every day reflect core sets of motivations, each with deep evolutionary and cultural roots. First, from obeying the law to responding to the weather forecast we are primarily motivated by the authority of rule makers and experts. Second, from caring for our friends to our sporting or cultural affiliations to our political outlook, we are primarily motivated by shared values and the sense of belonging we get from being part of a group. Third, from the type of coffee we buy to the way we pursue our ambitions and pleasures, we make choices which — although they have been shaped by circumstance — feel like they represent our own conscious individual preferences and that together make up our unique personality. Finally, from being politically apathetic to ignoring issues in our own lives that we know we should address, we simply avoid deciding or doing anything.

If you think about your whole life or even the course of a single day there are moments when these different motivations — authority, values and belonging, individual aspiration and fatalism — push in different directions. What should you put first, obediently climbing the career ladder, living by your values, doing what you enjoy or simply carrying on because nothing else occurs to you? What should most guide your consumer choices; what you want, what experts say is healthy, what’s good for the planet or simply what you have got used to buying every week? Those times when we feel able to make choices which satisfy all our active motivations feel good. For example, when you are succeeding in a job that you find enjoyable and is making the world a better place. But when satisfying one set of needs seems to require ignoring another, perhaps when personal fulfilment seems at odds with the norms and expectations of our friends and family, life feels tough and we can revert to fatalism.

The idea that fulfilment comes from aligning our needs and desires provides a different lens on inequality. It is generally easier for the privileged to combine their different needs and desires while those with less economic power will, for example, have to take jobs with little or no satisfaction beyond a basic income.

Society is constructed out of the choices of its members. We should not be surprised that these personal motivations and dilemmas are replicated at every level of society, from life choices being debated at the kitchen table to policy dilemmas in government.

In culture and politics the categories of human motivation manifest in methods and ideologies. Our authority drive aligns with a belief in strong leadership, the inevitability of hierarchy, the value of strategy and expertise. Our values and belonging drive summons up various ideals: solidarity, loyalty, tradition and collectivism for example. Our individual aspirations evoke principles of choice, autonomy, innovation and the value of competition. Fatalism is deprecated, but in many situations it is the default.

As all of us are motivated by these drives and the worldviews and methods derived from them, it is hardly surprising that when they come together things tend to go well. Staff surveys tell us the most effective organisations are those with a balanced scorecard; where employees say they respect leaders, believe in the values of the organisation, feel they are part of a team but also have some autonomy and the opportunity to develop and progress.

A meta-study of policy effectiveness undertaken by the Centre for Public Impact found that the most successful initiatives combined good strategy and design by leaders and experts, public legitimacy based on ideas of the collective good, and effective implementation, the most important part of which, is aligning individual incentives.

In his recent book The Third Pillar, the Indian economist Raghuram Rajan echoed a long line of thinkers in suggesting social resilience and progress are functions of the right balance between the state, which is the centre of authority, the market, which is driven by and fuels individual aspiration, and civil society, which is the principal domain of values and belonging. Indeed this balance may have been one of the reasons for the advances of those post-war decades, a period referred to in French as Les Trentes Glorieuses.

Maybe all this seems obvious, but it also raises a question. If expressing and balancing our core motivations and perspectives is the best way to do things, why does it so rarely happen? Why do most people feel unfulfilled at work and why does social policy generally fail? Why are societies more often out of kilter than motoring ahead? And why are we so far away from a society where everyone feels they can flourish? I would suggest at least three explanations.

Firstly, each of our motivations is, in part, driven by its reaction to the others. Many years ago, I found myself in a long, slow-moving queue at a London underground station. There was a problem with the service and we were waiting to be allowed into the ticket hall. Then, a small number of people started to duck under the barrier separating the crowded entrance from the empty exit, and marched to the front. We, who stayed queuing, registered our disapproval through icy looks, disgruntled murmurs and abusive comments. The queue had formed in obedience to authority mingled with fatalism. However, the unashamed individualism of those who thought they had a right to push to the front evoked a solidaristic response. We were now people who shared something; our commitment to fairness and our disdain towards selfish rule breakers.

You may have seen the same pattern repeated in the way, for example, that too much top-down control often evokes a collective culture of resistance or individualistic gaming of the rules; something, for example, seen in response to the imposition of target culture in public services. The chequered history of experiments in communal living shows that the more rigidly groups assert common rules and status, the greater the risk that talented or ambitious individuals will find ways to exit.

Secondly, each motivation has benign and malign features. A sense of belonging can bring security and inspire generosity, but it can also lead to groups being inward-looking or sectarian. The individualistic world view can be dynamic and egalitarian but it can also be selfish and irresponsible. A burst of strong leadership is often necessary, but over time hierarchical control becomes self-serving and stultifying. Fatalism has a positive side in terms of realism and stoicism as well as manifesting as apathy or pessimism.

Thirdly, even when a social or organisational balance is achieved and progress seems assured, changes in context disturb the balance by favouring one or other drive or method. For example, external threats tend to strengthen the case for authority. Economic cycles are partly driven by the way booms encourage individualist exuberance; what John Maynard Keynes called ‘animal spirit’. In the world of the mainframe, greater computing power favoured hierarchy, but social media — which is a more effective tool for individualism and group mobilisation — has tended to undermine authority.

The reflexive age

So far I have suggested that crisis creates opportunities for change. And that core human motivations are inscribed on organisations and social processes. In the second half of the speech, I’ll put these ideas together to make the case for a new era of social development. I call this ‘the reflexive age’.

In grammar, the term ‘reflexive’ denotes a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the clause in which it is used, for example, myself, themselves. What do I mean by a reflexive era? It is what could result from cultivating a deeper and shared awareness of ourselves, our nature and the social patterns that result from that nature.

This might seem both unrealistic and self-serving; the head of a think tank arguing that the world would be better if we were all more thoughtful. But I believe we have no choice but to pursue this new stage of social development. The plight of liberal democracies like the UK is that of a society and its leaders unable to manage and balance the drives of its citizens: an insatiable and shallow individualism; an angry and unyielding tribalism; a toxic combination of unreasonable demands and cynical expectations for authority; and a society that deprecates fatalism but suffers deeply from it.

Without a new mindset, our future looks bleak. This is the challenge. But there is comfort too. Crisis only leads to change when the conditions for that change precede the crisis. Like all possible futures, aspects of a reflexive age exist already.

Reflexive individualism

Think first of our individualistic motivations. The neoliberal era was underpinned by an arid and mythical view of human nature; homo economicus. That view of people as rational, perfectly-informed, utility-maximisers has been forensically dismantled by experts, ranging from behavioural and institutional economists, to evolutionary and social psychologists, to climate philosophers and theologians. There is greater understanding of our cognitive frailties as we relate to a complex and fast-changing world using prehistorically evolved brains. We understand too that while we can be motivated by self-interest, we have other instinctive responses; empathy, altruism, disgust and obedience to name a few. In his recent book Humankind, the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, demonstrates that the widely promulgated view of human begins as selfish and ruthless is based much more on ideology than evidence.

Alongside a more realistic model of human nature, we have seen a growing public awareness of issues of mental health and wellbeing. Much of this draws our attention to the way our society makes us fragile and unhappy: on the one hand, a competitive, consumerist, celebrity-obsessed culture; on the other, an economy which systematically generates inequality and insecurity.

Changes in how social scientists portray human cognition are reinforced by our own account of what matters most. The World Values Survey shows citizens of more affluent nations prioritising self-actualisation over materialism. The Office of National Statistics reported that around half of working age people said they had noticed lifestyle improvements during the Covid-19 lockdown, with the two most often mentioned being spending more time quality time with loved ones and having a slower pace of life.

Since before the 2007 Stiglitz Commission on economic data and social progress, there has been a growing case for developing metrics of individual and societal wellbeing, which go beyond personal income. There is global academic and civic movement rallying behind the science of happiness. As part of the good work agenda that I have promoted to government and beyond, metrics of work quality place ideas of autonomy, purpose and teamwork alongside income and progression. One of our largest ethical investment funds is prioritising the existence of credible mental wellbeing strategies as the criterion for backing companies. Celebrities who might a few years ago have been parading their expensive clothes and houses are now more likely to be revealing their battles with mental illness or displaying their commitment to good causes.

There is more we could do to enable people to reflect more deeply on the foundations for personal fulfilment. We need changes in how and why we educate children. We need to continue to find better, more humanistic, ways to measure national, local and institutional success. We need to critically examine the behavioural assumptions underlying public policy and the ends to which that policy is put. Yet, overall, in countries like the UK, we do seem to be on a journey away from an acquisitive and shallow account of human fulfilment to something more complex, rounded, and, yes, reflexive.

Reflexive authority

There is also evidence of greater reflexivity in the exercise of authority.

As multiple indexes of opinion tell us, authority is under siege in the modern world. The dominant model of leadership in liberal democracies relied on what Max Weber called ‘rational-legal’ legitimacy: the idea that leaders serve a higher interest; either objective truth or the will of the people.

The credibility of those principles has been severely undermined in several ways. These include policy failure, reflected in stagnation in the living standards of most people and high-levels of inequality. Experts have failed to predict major events like the global financial crisis or the pandemic or have been perceived to be on the side of the establishment, for example in relation to Brexit. The harsh spotlight of 24-hour media and ever-greater scrutiny of decision and motives has further undermined faith in authority.

It is a good thing that humans have the capacity to question authority. It has probably saved us from many a disaster. But in the modern world that useful capacity has turned into a lazy predisposition with destructive consequences.

Yet there is hope. Leaders may continue to struggle to deal with their own expectations and ours, but from the American systems analyst, Peter Senge, to Harvard’s professor of business, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the clearest thinkers have consistently argued for a more self-aware approach, one which lives with complexity and sees effective leadership as a quality of systems as much as individuals. In terms of public reputation at least, Covid-19 seemed to be another nail in the coffin of the macho management style of the likes of Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin or Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley. In many organisations the necessary response to Covid-19 subverted traditional hierarchy as we communicated from our kitchens and ways of working became more informal and autonomous. Hopefully, more organisations will now take seriously the benefits offered by the kind of alternative, flatter, more collaborative models described by the former business coach, Frederick Laloux, in his book Reinventing Organisations.

More can be done. The anti-racist movement will hopefully accelerate the move towards a more diverse profile of leaders. Greater transparency is forcing leaders to be more open. Many initiatives, including the excellent Forward Institute set up in response to the excesses exposed in the global financial crisis, are guiding future leaders towards more intentional and ethical outlooks. More organisations now accept that leadership roles require adequate training, professional development and coaching, recognising that leaders must continually reflect on the nature of their leadership and leadership in general.

Turning specifically to political leadership, some countries, including our own, have leaders who have convinced voters to double down on the illusion of mastery and control. Indeed, the populist assault on constitutional liberal democracy — what the American political scientist, Nancy Bermeo, calls ‘democratic backsliding’ — involves dismantling the restraints put in place by those who understood the inherent perils of unbridled authority. But elsewhere — from Germany to Taiwan, from Paris to Barcelona — we are seeing more humble, open, engaging, lighter touch forms of political authority. It is worth noting that women seem particularly willing to act lead differently; think, for example, of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern or Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris. Instead of seeing power as something that is simply grasped by winning elections, the best national and local leaders create it by mobilising civil society behind a shared vision, devolving responsibility and enabling citizen initiative.

Reflexive authority requires new thinking from the led as well as the leaders. Whether it is workplace partnership or deliberative democracy — ideas which are both moving up the agenda in the UK — the point about effective engagement, is not only that it holds those in charge to account. Just as important, it also enables the rest of us to appreciate the challenges of decision-making and understand the role of citizens and communities in making progress.

These are broad observations. Human stories can be more powerful. The other day I spoke to a white, middle class senior leader in the uniformed forces who has chosen to be reverse mentored by a gay colleague, a black colleague and a single mother. Imagine that even 10 years ago.

There are then some reasons to hope. The war against unthinking authority is not won, but the battle has been joined.

Group reflexivity

There is less reason right now to be optimistic about our solidaristic needs, particularly in the domains of politics and ideas. The rediscovery of the importance of belonging and group identity to our world view, wellbeing and decisions has been a major theme of social science in recent decades. Not only do most people want to belong to cohesive groups with shared identity and values but it doesn’t take much provocation for us to pitch the rights of our own group against the perceived wrongs of others. Populism is based on two core ideas; that those in authority have abandoned the interests of the people and that the righteous are under threat from various groups hell-bent on their destruction. The cynical, profit-gouging architects of social media have created petri dishes for the virus of group polarisation. We urgently need to appreciate the perils as well as the comfort and inspiration of solidaristic motivation. And I suggest there are three areas of priority.

First, feeling affiliation for one group has an inevitable effect on how we feel about rival groups to which we do not belong. Of course, this effect is much stronger and more difficult when groups are competing for the same resources or when one group has suffered, feels it has suffered, or fears it might suffer, at the hands of the other. But social psychology small group studies also show that irrational in-group out-group bias can be summoned up by nothing more than randomly assigning each half of a control group different coloured t-shirts. Empathy cuts both ways.

Second, we need to observe the dynamics within groups. Our individualistic instincts may lead us to admire the rich and famous, and our hierarchical world view may lead us to defer to experts and leaders. But if what motivates us is shared values, then the strength of feeling and purity of thought become signs of virtue. Evidence from group studies and deliberative processes show that when a group starts off sharing a belief their closed interaction is likely to lead them to becoming more dead set in their ways; this favours and rewards those with the most extreme and sectarian perspective. This is one reason why the beliefs of political party activists are so often so different from those of the general public or even the party’s mainstream supporters. Strongly bonded groups are often guilty of transference; blaming others for their own intellectual and political dilemmas.

Third, because solidaristic feeling can be hostile to hierarchical authority, groups based on strong shared values are better at some things than others, in particular, at resistance than the hard process of decision-making, at campaigning rather than at running things. The Tahrir Square protests, organised bottom up through social media, helped bring down the Egyptian regime, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood with their established organisation that grasped power. The carnage of the first world war was partly as a result of defensive technology that was so much more effective than the offensive. Similarly, the febrile nature of politics today reflects the fact that social media is so much better at slogans and abuse than mediation or problem-solving.

A lot of what we are seeing is reaction. Neoliberal orthodoxy was blind to the ways we belong and believe; whether tradition, cohesion and national identity, on the one hand, or inclusion and equity, on the other. A backlash was inevitable. As the centre has lost purpose and confidence, populism and the politics of identity have risen to meet a popular yearning for solidarity.

Policymakers must never again forget the importance of attachment, belonging, fairness and cohesion, but in discourse and policy we need to distinguish between healthy and problematic forms of association. Local identity tends to be more inclusive than national. Diverse groups may be less prone to extremism than homogenous ones. It may not matter that football fans gleefully see only one side of an argument but it is disastrous that so many academics and opinion formers apparently choose to wear blinkers. Bridging human capital, which loosely connects different people, may be less comforting than bonding capital, which tightly connects those with much in common but it is a more progressive force in lives and societies. We need to be in groups, but we also need to reflect on what being in groups does to our worldview.

Reflexive fatalism

What about the least honoured but arguably most ubiquitous of human responses to the possibility of change: fatalism? Is there anything more to say than that we need to acknowledge its existence and to try to distinguish between realism and stoicism on the one hand and pessimism and apathy on the other?

Let me talk about something which rarely appears in speeches about social progress; death. In his influential book The Denial of Death, American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that our dread of death, and our need to manage and deny it, is a fundamental human motivation and the driving force behind various forms of mania. As Becker knew death is the great humbler and leveller; his book was completed and published as he succumbed to terminal cancer. Yet, as we have become more individualistic, we seem to have found it ever harder to deal with our powerlessness in the face of mortality. Is it a surprise that the world of commercial technology, the domain of the privileged and libertarian, also exhibits an obsession with transcending mortality?

Coming better to terms with death could help us enjoy our lives; witness the powerful testimony of so many people who have found the acceptance of the inevitable has allowed them to see the world afresh. In 1994 the playwright Dennis Potter, close to death from cancer, agreed to be interviewed. Between drags on a cigarette and sips from a bottle of morphine Potter becomes poetic: “Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is wondrous, and if people could see that…There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance …’.

If we could stop seeing death as defeat, we might also stop seeing ageing as decline. Ageism is the last overt prejudice still permissible in progressive company. It was structural ageism that contributed to public and policy maker negligence when Covid-19 started to sweep care homes in the UK.

Facing death can help us lift our eyes to a further horizon. As the Australian philosopher, Roman Krznaric, argues in his book The Good Ancestor if we are to rise to the climate emergency, we need to think and act long term. He writes about the “cathedral thinking” involved in contributing to something that not will be completed in our lifetime. We could also learn from the seven-generation thinking, or similar belief systems, used by some indigenous communities; ways of being which demand humility in the face of our duty to the community, to nature, to the future.

Systemic reflexivity

Finally, as well as being reflexive about our core drives and worldviews, we need to reflect on the systemic nature of today’s social and organisational challenges. As we ponder life after Covid-19, we need a different way to think about the future.

Our view of progress is often too narrow and reactive, wanting something to be different but without an account of the wider changes this would entail. And when the picture drawn is bigger it is often facile, envisioning a world where somehow the inherent tensions between and within people have been magically resolved. Instead system reflexivity starts from an assumption that pays tribute to pluralist philosophy, functionalist sociology and the insight of behavioural science; namely, that tensions between our needs and their social forms are inevitable and that the key to progress is to build and sustain systems which carefully balance them.

This was the collective mindset of the intellectual, civic and political architects of the post-war settlement; leaders who understood that the fundamental challenge for the state was to achieve and sustain a balance between the pillars of society and the values they exemplify. Aiming for social progress is a task that requires an unusual combination of ambition and humility. A successful social or organisational system is not one that makes change happen — that is a hierarchical perspective — it is one that allows a better future to unfold despite the dynamics of conflict and risk of breakdown.


Ten years ago, in my fourth annual lecture, I argued for a twenty-first century enlightenment. This would be based on the core principles of the eighteenth century equivalent — autonomy, universalism and humanism — three ideas which are the idealistic expression of the human motivations I have explored in this lecture. But a twenty-first century enlightenment would appreciate not just the strengths of those ideas but also the terrible wrongs committed in their name, the ways they conflict, their dangers, how they can and have been be hollowed out, overblown and exploited. And a twenty-first century enlightenment would refine and enrich the centuries old philosophical and political case for liberal democracy with new scientific and social scientific insights into human nature.

It is the greater cognitive capacity of human beings and the sophistication of our social relationships that mark us out as a species. But the question hanging over the liberal democratic project is whether we have created a world we no longer have the capacity to manage. Is this why we have become so divided, so angry, so pessimistic? Is it why we give serious credence to the idea that we might fail to tackle climate change or that one day soon we could be the slaves of machines we have invented?

As its champions have always recognised, the resilience of liberal democracy rests on some degree of social consensus. Yet, whether it is the illiberal democracy of populism or the view among some radicals that the principles of liberal democracy are indelibly tainted by exploitation and oppression, we seem ever further from common ground. If we cannot reach a consensus on abstract principles, could we perhaps look for some agreement about the strengths and the flaws in our nature as human beings?

Meeting the urgent challenges we face requires channelling and managing who we are.

We may not create a more just or sustainable society unless we reject shrill and shallow accounts of personal success in favour of a deeper and more realistic view of human need and flourishing.

We may not have the leaders we need to help us act wisely, for each other and for the future, unless we understand that benign authority rests not with individuals and their power but in the strength and integrity of the relationship between leaders and led.

We may continue to become angrier and more divided unless we recognise the myths and extremes which can so easily occur alongside the satisfactions of identity and belonging,

We will not restore our belief in social progress unless we appreciate the conditions for progressive change, and accept that even when those conditions are in place all human systems are prone to tip and stumble.

Crisis can lead to change. This time we need it to. We need another revolution of the mind. We need a reflexive age.

Listen to Matthew’s 2020 annual lecture in a special edition of the RSA’s Bridges to the Future podcast.




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