Post-material matters

How will Covid-19 change what we value in life?

May 4, 2020 · 10 min read

by Matthew Taylor @RSAMatthew

In recent weeks the RSA’s work has focussed on the idea of ‘Building Bridges to the Future’; how organisations, policymakers and citizens could and should use the crisis and recovery to accelerate the shift to a better, more resilient society. Our starting point is that crises are most likely to lead to long-term intentional change when three conditions apply:

  • A pre-existing demand and capacity for change
  • The crisis strengthens that demand and prefigures alternative mindsets and practices
  • Political alliances, practical policies and innovations are ready to be deployed in the period after the crisis when people and systems are more open to change.

Having identified and explored changes taking place in communities, institutions and policies, my colleague Ian Burbidge has developed a typology, which has proved popular and practical.

Understanding crisis-response measures

There is much speculation about how the crisis could be the midwife to change but this needs to be grounded in first-hand intelligence about what is being adapted and invented.

The return to a wounded pre-crisis world is still the default. We need to be realistic about whether change can endure in different circumstances. It is important to be ready with practical ideas as we move into a different stage of the pandemic, and eventually beyond it.

It is with this mind that the RSA website has featured colleagues and practitioners sharing their experiences of crisis-related change. Through a series of events, podcasts, long reads and blogs, the RSA is providing a range of organisations, working at full stretch to cope with the present, added bandwidth to think about the future.

While trying to keep my feet on the ground, in this essay explore a broader, more speculative question: could the Covid-19 crisis mark a turn towards post-materialism?

By post-materialism I mean beliefs and behaviours, which prioritise psychological growth and fulfilment over the acquisition of money, goods or competitive power.

The American political scientist, Ronald Inglehart, first developed the modern idea in his highly influential 1977 book The Silent Revolution. Inglehart then set up the World Values Survey, which he stills directs.

This identified two long-term trends in public aspirations:

  • first, the rise in post-materialist values
  • second, that this rise was strongest in Western and particularly Northern European countries.

These findings are in line with the theory of American psychologist Abraham Maslow, first set out in his 1943 paper A theory of human motivations, that people have hierarchy of needs starting with physiological and moving through safety, love and esteem before reaching the zenith of self-actualisation.

In the last decade evidence of a further increase in post-materialist attitudes is limited. This may reflect stagnant living standards, the prevalence of economic insecurity and growing pessimism about the prospects facing future generations. However, there are other shifts at play.

From schools to corporations, the idea of wellbeing has taken root. Whether yoga, mindfulness or massage there is a major industry. There is also a greater awareness that, beyond a certain level, rises in personal or societal affluence delivers diminishing returns in terms of reported happiness.

Conversely, mental illness has moved out of the shadows and been acknowledged as a widespread and often debilitating symptom of our modern way of life. And, of course, our patterns of accumulation and consumption are incompatible with the urgent imperatives of climate change.

Some prior demand and capacity for post-materialism exists, but what about the pandemic? Might that provide impetus?

We can start with nature and culture. Amidst the tragedy, fear and pressure of recent weeks, many have expressed delight over cleaner urban air, hearing birdsong, seeing the stars more clearly, spending time in the garden (for those people lucky enough to have one). If this is what a greener future looks like, people seem to want it. Local politicians — showing once again how they tend to be more responsive and agile than their national counterparts — have been quick to react. Through the C40 Cities a group of city mayors are working together on plans to make improvement in the environment and air quality long lasting.

These include Milan introducing one of Europe’s most ambitious cycling and walking schemes, with 22 miles of streets to be transformed over the summer, and Paris allocating €300 million for a network of cycle lanes. Bogotá’s 75-mile network of streets has been turned over to bicycles one day a week and Barcelona is adding 30,000 square metres to its pedestrianised networks and 13 miles to the biking network.

In the UK, Manchester City Council has announced the pedestrianising of Deansgate and in London some boroughs, including Lambeth and Hackney, have announced measures to widen pavements, close roads to traffic and improve walking and cycling.

If gardening, walking, cycling and running have been activities that have become more vital to us during the crisis, the pandemic has also seen people inspired and comforted by arts and culture.

The National Theatre has closed its doors but hundreds of thousands enjoy watching its free online shows on Thursday evenings. Pop stars have performed for free, film stars have read their favourite poems, and arts and music tutors have put lessons on line. Art may have been systematically marginalised in the state school curriculum over the last decade, but every home-schooling parent I know has been using arts and crafts as a way of combining education with enjoyment. Millions of homes proudly display children’s rainbows. Yes, we have all probably spent more time watching box sets than reading Shakespeare, but somehow culture in the crisis has felt warmer, more intimate, and more democratic.

Perhaps our attitudes to work have changed a little too. An aspect of materialism is the weighing of a person’s worth in terms of their wealth and market status.

The crisis has reminded us how far detached market value and social value often are. It is often the case that human tragedy draws attention and praise to health workers, but the ripples of appreciation have flowed wider this time, something emphasised by the length of the government’s list of key workers.

I hope that I have always said thank you to the women who serves me at the Co-Op store on the corner but now I make a point of it and, because I am concerned for her, I hope she smiles back. Last Thursday at eight o’clock, as we clapped with neighbours, including a corporate banker and a partner in a management consultancy, a Deliveroo driver came down the street on his scooter. It was as if we were giving him a guard of honour, so some people laughed. Then, almost by telepathy, we all applauded in earnest, cheering him and his heroic pizzas on their way.

My Good Work report to government in 2017 called for every job in the British economy to be “decent and fair with scope for development and fulfilment”. It would a brave politician to argue against that aspiration now.

The lack of alignment between market worth and social value is even more marked at the top. A few years ago, the anthropologist David Graeber’s blog post about bullshit jobs — his first example was a corporate lawyer — was so popular he was commissioned to write a book with the same title.

I have spoken to many people whose work used to seem much more important than it does today. For many of us the psychological challenge of lockdown has included warding off feelings of utter irrelevance.

It is not just the self-worth of some middle-class professionals that has declined, the incentives are a little less compelling.

Like everyone else I have not had an expensive night out — or any other kind — for several weeks. Am I bothered, really bothered? I have never had a taste for fast cars but several in my street are getting dusty.

My family has lost the deposit on our European spring break and we are pessimistic about our globetrotting summer trip too, but right now Margate on the English coast would feel exotic.

I have learnt I can cope with less money and day-to-day affirmation. Long-time palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware has listed the regrets dying people most often express: not letting themselves be happier, caring too much about other people’s opinions, working too hard, not giving more time to friends.

Before, knowing this felt a long way from doing anything about it. Perhaps it is just my age but that has changed. While the strings of materialism have not snapped, they have become less taut.

The other assault on materialist assumptions is all the stuff we are doing for no reward. The hundreds of thousands of volunteers, the mutual aid networks, the millions of small donations, the thought and time we are giving to any friend or relative we are worried about. It was the combination of a better local environment and stronger community spirit that led the vast majority of respondents to an RSA poll to say they did not want things to go back to how there were before the crisis.

Prior demand and current reinforcement — the first two conditions for crisis to lead to change — suggest a post-materialist turn is possible, but what of the third, the concrete capacity to embed change when the crisis passes?

The obvious objection is that for shattered economies, fragile balance sheets and populations scarred by unemployment and squeezed finances, the only priority is a rapid return to any kind of economic growth.

After all, one of the likely effects of the crisis will be to further strengthen the market dominance and political sway of mega-corporations of which the ubiquitous Amazon is the most obvious example. I am told that inside Whitehall the argument about the future is finely balanced between the ‘normalisers’ and the ‘changers’ but the former have the advantage of inertia and an existing template.

So is a post-materialist turn completely unrealistic?

First off, I am not advocating a revolution. This is about direction of travel.

Second, I do not like prediction. Little is ordained and many outcomes are possible.

One of these — the core issue in the Whitehall battle — is that we choose a green recovery. This might mean investing in the infrastructure we need to hit our carbon emission targets, from changing our cookers and boilers from gas to pedestrianising town centres to a million new electric car charging points.

Much of this is conventional economic activity that can be delivered by subsidised markets, but as well as improving our day-to-day environment it also reinforces the idea that a distinction should be made between benign and malign economic development.

Also, if we do face high unemployment, subsidised job creation (possibly underpinned by a modest form of universal basic income) could focus on worthwhile activities, which improve our quality of life; enhancing public spaces, expanding cultural activity and strengthening community ties.

While a green new deal has long been a popular idea on the environmental left it is noteworthy that in the UK and US there is also a growing debate on the right of the spectrum too. There has always been a strand of conservativism that sees protecting the environment as core business. The UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, asserts that the crisis has taught us ‘there is such a thing as society’ and virtually no one is currently to be heard demanding the roll-back of the state.

Before the pandemic, privatisation and cost-cutting public private partnerships had already fallen out of fashion. The crisis has seen the further abandonment of public sector quasi-markets with previously competing public service and third sector organisations working together in the public interest.

The final death of New Public Management and its ill-fated attempt to commercialise the culture of public services might accelerate the emergence of a new public value ethos, which sees the critical synergy of the state being with civil society not the market.

Interestingly, it is among some of the private contractor organisations that I have most strongly heard a recognition that the game has changed. The opportunity, particularly at city and city region level is to develop a new generation of public-private-civic partnerships with strong public engagement and oriented to real world outcomes.

We are also likely to face some big choices about social justice as the crisis passes. Investing in core public services like health and social care will mean raising revenue. Government will need more tax income and the poor have already been squeezed dry.

Middle class assets and income will take a hit and, even with a Conservative government, the net outcome is likely to be redistributive.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Might some of the privileged choose to make a virtue of living on tighter budgets? Even our most thick-skinned celebrities seem to have realised now is not the time for showing off.

Scandinavian countries have widely-used words expressing disapproval of the ostentatious display of success and wealth; perhaps we could invent our own.

Over the last few weeks, my habits and my outlook have altered. Sometimes it has felt difficult and disorientating but mainly it has felt like growth. I could snap back but I hope I don’t.

Of course, it is a great deal easier for one person to question their assumptions than to transform the systems that govern society. But now we have been forced to have a glimpse of a less materialist future — might we find the strength to choose one?

Matthew Taylor is the Chief Executive of the RSA. This essay forms part of a series of events, long reads and podcasts — Building Bridges to the Future — exploring how society’s response to the Covid-19 crisis could prefigure a better world after it has passed?

Covid-19: Building Bridges to the Future

How could, and how should, the world change after the pandemic?

Covid-19: Building Bridges to the Future

Emergent thinking from the RSA Research and Impact team on ways the UK should respond to the coronavirus and build bridges for the future.


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We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

Covid-19: Building Bridges to the Future

Emergent thinking from the RSA Research and Impact team on ways the UK should respond to the coronavirus and build bridges for the future.

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