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Opinion

Why the era of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll is about to go global

As prosperity becomes the global norm, expect a sea change in social values. 'Survival' values are waning and 'self-expression' values are gaining.

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Why the 1950s produced the 1960s

For a sneak peek at what's in store, we can look to American history. In the postwar boom of the 1950s, mass prosperity became the norm. For the first time in history, a generation of kids – the baby boomers – was raised with their material needs taken for granted. And the economy had reached new heights of complexity: By 1960, as author Todd Gitlin notes, the US became the first society with more college students than farmers.

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What followed was the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and '70s. Groups long marginalized or stigmatized – blacks, women, gays and lesbians – rose up to challenge the established order. New values – in particular, environmentalism and hedonism (sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) – emerged as reflections of the new focus on quality of life and personal fulfillment.

The resulting tumult produced ideological divisions that persist to this day. The left brought together those who were most eager to explore the new possibilities of mass prosperity but who at the same time questioned the market and the middle-class work ethic that created those possibilities. The right dutifully defended the institutions that had created prosperity, but feared the cultural change they were unleashing. One side rejected capitalism but gobbled up its fruits; the other rejected the fruits while praising the system that bore them. Sound familiar?

While the details differ from country to country, the American drama is now playing out on a global scale. For evidence, there's no better source than the World Values Survey, a worldwide effort to track changing cultural attitudes. The director of the survey, Ronald Inglehart, has found a clear pattern: As development widens the circle of people who enjoy material security and amass human capital, "survival" values wane and "self-expression" values strengthen. People start caring more about personal growth and less about mere acquisition, and they grow more tolerant and less deferential to authority.

Economists talk about capitalism's "creative destruction" as old firms and industries topple to make room for new ones. But creative destruction isn't confined to the economic sphere; it's occurring in the cultural realm as well. And the rise of the global middle class promises to unleash this disruptive but liberating force as never before.

Brink Lindsey is a senior scholar in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the author of "The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture."

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