Cultural Creatives

By Judy Kramer

Reprinted with permission from Timeline, July/August 2001, bimonthly publication of the Foundation for Global Community,

The bedside clock said 2 am. At midnight I had settled under the covers after a long day. Rather than my usual fast-paced mystery, I had picked up a different book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World, thinking, "This will probably be slow going and put me to sleep." Whoops, wrong assumption. Here it was, two hours later, and I was thoroughly stimulated.

What could be so fascinating about a sociological treatise that a tired person couldn’t put it down? Why do I want everyone I know to read this book?

First, the book describes a profound shift in values and worldview among a growing number of Americans. This shift, mostly unrecorded until now, is so significant that those of us interested in the future should know about it, whether our arena is business, public policy, the media, education, community services, or societal values.

The Cultural Creatives is written by a married couple, sociologist and researcher Paul Ray and psychologist and author Sherry Anderson. Thus it brings together both the macrocosm of collective change and the microcosm of individual change.

The first third of the book is devoted to describing the results of Ray’s sociological research, based on extensive surveys and focus groups. According to Ray, for several centuries, two worldviews and sets of values have competed for dominance in the U.S.—what he calls Modernist and Traditionalist.

The Modernists are economically oriented, focusing on material success and what can be seen or touched. While they may belong to mainstream religious institutions, their practical values are more secular. The Traditionalists, in reaction to Modernism, look back to what they call "small town values" and a social order of religious conservatism, male leadership, and traditional relationships.

Then in the last 40 years, a third group holding a new set of values has surfaced, whom Ray has dubbed the Cultural Creatives. Their outlook is global, and their concerns include suppression of women’s voices, the destruction of the environment, violence, materialism, and corporate power. Relationships, self-actualization, authenticity, and spiritual development are important; and in politics, they seek a third way beyond "left" or "right."

Perhaps the most amazing assertion in this section is that while 50 percent of the current U.S. population is Modernist and 25 percent is Traditionalist, the remaining one-quarter of the population is Cultural Creative. Let me repeat that: Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population, or 50 million Americans, hold neither Modern nor Traditional worldviews but are part of a sea change in values.

Another interesting assertion is that 60 percent of Cultural Creatives are women. Having joined 25,000 other women in China for the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women, I was not surprised by this statistic. In my experience, women tend to have less invested in the status quo, and we have a long history of working for social change.

The second third of the book gives an historical perspective on the rise of the Cultural Creatives, from when they were too few to count in the early 1960s to now. Ray and Anderson describe some of the movements that affected the last decades of the twentieth century— for gay and lesbian rights, alternative health care, spirituality, human potential, and world peace. Then they focus on three basic movements that had a profound impact on American values and policy—the ecology movement sparked by Rachel Carson and The Silent Spring; the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the women’s movement, catalyzed by Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique. The authors tell, in condensed form, the stories of these movements.

Individuals have stories, too. After all, if most people were Modernist or Traditionalist in 1960, where did the current Cultural Creatives come from? The lives of many ordinary "extraordinary" individuals are profiled in these middle chapters, with their "aha" experiences, new perspectives, and subsequent initiatives. Incidentally, this use of stories, both individual and collective, expresses two values of Cultural Creatives—relationship, built through telling stories; and authenticity, how people "walk their talk."

Ray and Anderson describe three characteristics of the great movements of the last 40 years. In the first place, Cultural Creatives have made up the activist core of each movement, and from them waves of change have reached every part of American life.

Second, these movements are now converging. One need only look to the activism around the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 to see new alliances being formed. Cultural Creatives, and those in the making, are seeing that their various causes—such as the environment, women’s empowerment, the global economy, or human potential—are interrelated.

The third characteristic of the great movements is that they reframed debate. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t just say that black people deserved their piece of the pie. He said that civil rights are an underlying value for all Americans, and that all Americans will benefit from inclusiveness. The ecology movement is not just about saving a particular species or place, but rather about leaving a healthy, sustainable environment for our children and other beings in the web of life. The women’s movement is not about women replacing men in power, but rather about women, and men, reaching their full potential and contributing to the well-being of the whole.

Another reason I found the ideas in The Cultural Creatives so stimulating is that it offers a reframing of its own. That is to say, the book presents a structure for thinking and perceiving that might change how one understands this unusual time.

It is no small feat to make sense of the world we live in. It is the best of times—more environmental awareness, more understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, more tolerance for interracial relationships, more women in the public arena, expanding global communication systems. It is the worst of times—systemic environmental degradation, growing religious extremism, consumerism invading every arena, a global economy with no community accountability, ever more sensationalist news. You can make your own list.

Even more, if one has a set of values that finds expression in neither our contemporary materialistic society nor a return to the "good old days," what is one’s place? One of the findings from focus groups is that Cultural Creatives feel quite isolated. They are surprised to learn that others share their values and concerns.

Since I read the book, my own frame of reference has changed. When I peruse a mainstream newspaper or watch main-stream television news—the central, if limited, mirrors for our time—I can recognize some of the Modernist or Traditionalist threads. It makes more sense now that Cultural Creatives are generally either invisible in the mainstream media or the targets of ridicule and hostility. The mainstream media is mostly Modernist and reflects Modernist values. In fact, the paradoxical state of the world, which reflects the consequences of people acting out of Modernist, Traditional, and Cultural Creative worldviews, makes more sense to me as well.

At the same time, I can see my own place in this era of change. And I feel hope. Are there really 50 million Cultural Creatives in the U.S., with many more in Europe and other parts of the world? I don’t know from direct experience. But with the possibility planted in my mind, I see Cultural Creative initiatives everywhere.

Anderson and Ray spend the last third of their book addressing perhaps the most intriguing questions raised by their work: What is happening now and what happens next? Since the most important aspect of the future—to quote the character Doc in the Back to the Future movies—is that it hasn’t been written yet, the authors invite us to consider "Maps for the Journey," the title of their last section.

We each have a contribution to make—in modeling the world we want to see, in constructing new institutions, in understanding the sometimes surprising diversity of the Cultural Creative movement, in seeking connections and new alliances with others, and especially in communicating our values and worldview.

It is through this last action that Anderson and Ray make their boldest contribution. They have dared to present their findings and their vision to the public, for our critique and our engagement. It is their expressed hope that the isolation of Cultural Creatives can be broken and the true power of the movement can be expressed. At this time, they are preparing their own next step, a book on the "culture of wisdom" they see emerging. I am sure that, like The Cultural Creatives, it will have ideas worth losing a few hours of sleep over.

Excerpt from The Cultural Creatives

In the end, there can be no step-by-step description of how to become a Cultural Creative. It is a process of culture making with tens of millions of people doing it in their own ways. Since they are part of a subculture that cannot yet see itself, these millions of Cultural Creatives do not know what a potential they carry for our common future.

Miriam MacGillis, a Dominican sister who founded Genesis Farm in Caldwell, New Jersey, tells a story that makes clear why this matters. An old woman in the Middle East planted a date: "When you plant a date, you know you’ll never eat from the date tree," Miriam says, "because it takes about eighty years to grow roots deep enough to go to the scarce water. The date trees get so buffeted in that time by windstorms and droughts that for the most part, the tree looks like it’s dying. If you didn’t understand its process, you could easily cut it down. But if you understand the process, you can make the commitment. You have to have an image of what will happen. Once you do, it makes all the difference."

This is how it is for all of us now. Cultural Creatives especially need a picture of what they are doing and what it means. To bring a new kind of culture to life, they need to be able to stay the course. And they need to know where they have come from and where, as a collective body, they can go.

Perhaps it is true, as Václav Havel observes, that the modern age has already ended. But if it has, how could we tell? Will new maps be sold on every streetcorner? Hardly. As we shall see, we are in the midst of a transition. Mapmakers must be content with seeing the new territory from afar—which means their maps will have serious limits. Still, all clues are helpful when you’re scouting beyond the known boundaries.

The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D., and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D. Harmony Books, Random House, Inc., New York, 2000. $25.00.


Judy Kramer, a former editor of Timeline, is currently the non-profits liaison for a California state legislator.

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