John Zogby: America’s Secular Spiritualists

Why they’re still optimistic

By John Zogby -The following column was previously published on

NEW YORK (RushPRnews)12/05/08-I’m not naturally an optimist. And I’m saying that because my latest book, The Way We’ll Be, is very optimistic. I guess having lived my entire life in upstate New York, where downturns have been so numerous, doesn’t make you a natural-born optimist.

When I first thought of writing this book 10 years ago, I set out to write a completely different book, almost a dirge, focused on the tens of millions of Americans who had given up on the American Dream. That’s because what I had been capturing since the late 1980s was the steady number of people I polled who were giving up eating meals for an entire day because of a lack of money to buy food; and also the growing phenomenon of Americans working at a job that pays less than their previous job.

From the early 1990s to the time I wrote the book, I saw that percentage climb from 14% to 20% by the late ’90s, and to 27% in late 2007–and this is all prior to this recent official recession.

But instead, as I probed deeper, I found a renewed spirit, a survival instinct, a readjustment of life’s expectations and a redefinition of the American dream. I have found for years now that more Americans say the American Dream has more to do with spiritual fulfillment and leading a genuine and honest life than with the attainment of material things.

To be sure, there are still about a third of us who do define our American Dream in material terms, like owning a home in the suburbs, going from rags to riches or having our dream job. But the simple fact is, in the last decade more than 40% of people consistently relate to the American Dream primarily in spiritual terms. I call them “Secular Spiritualists.” We’re already a religious nation, but this is something more.

What are the sources of this secular spiritualism? First, it’s the 27% of Americans and growing who work for less, who have been downsized, outsourced, eliminated, thrown aside, who generally have been thrown lemons, but have learned to make lemonade. They are the new consumer and the new voter. With a shrinking dollar in their pocket, they are less apt to fall prey to pitches of fantasy and the abstract.

Don’t try to sell them a truck just because it has an American flag, and don’t try to pitch a product with a supermodel when consumers look like real women. These are people who trade down on a daily basis, and who populate the checkout lines at Wal-Mart, Costco, dollar stores and even Target. They want the best quality for the best buck.

The second source of this secular spiritualism can be found on the other end of the economic spectrum: the 9 to 10 million Americans who actually have made it and who are now saying, “I have too much, I don’t need any more. In fact, I can do with a whole lot less.”

There is an active and engaged simplification movement in this country that is very informal and is composed of people who say: “I don’t really need the next iteration of the iPhone. The one I bought six months ago did not make me a better person. I don’t need to put an addition onto my humongous home. I already have too much.”

Baby boomers are the third source of secular spiritualism–I call us “Woodstockers.” We are a group that peaked in our late teens and twenties. Too much was made of us–we feel we changed the world but now, later in life, we’re in need of a second act.

Give or take a few years either way, add all of us together and we will be the first age cohort to have 1 million of us achieve age 100, which means that as we contemplate retirement many of us will have 25 to 35 more years of healthy living ahead of us.

This leads to a very important question–now what are we supposed to do? With that group of Americans just older than us, the group I call the “Privates,” we will redefine old age. We will be working and heavily engaged in what historian Robert Fogel calls “volwork,”–meaning we want to teach, mentor, coach, travel and learn in pursuit of more fulfillment.

And the fourth source of this secular spiritualism is a confluence of technologies and events. More Americans are ready to make sacrifices to live in a world of limits, and more are ready to be aware that we are not the only people on this earth. I have noted this phenomenon over and over again, that Americans’ greatest moments and victories have come when we’ve sacrificed together. Winning World War I and World War II are the most obvious, but we also need to be reminded that in the 1970s two different presidents, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, asked us to save energy, wear sweaters and turn down the thermostat–and we did.

The earliest work I did as a pollster in the 1980s revolved around local communities, recycling, restricting smoking and littering. In every case I was warned by local government officials that Americans were selfish. But in every case Americans told me that if there is leadership that requires change, a cause that has a higher purpose and the pain is shared by everyone, then they are ready to serve.

So today we all recycle, we don’t litter our streets and highways, and if you want an idea of how little we smoke, travel to Europe. Americans just made history. We elected an African-American who defeated a woman and a septuagenarian. Great changes lie ahead, perhaps more to do with the transformation of the American Dream and character than we have experienced in the last decade.

John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International and the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream.

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