People have always been sensitive to change and it is sometimes said that it is the only constant. We all view it differently, sometimes seeing it as a threat, sometimes an opportunity. As this study shows, all over the world we strive for a better future, but often yearn for the past.
We detect persistent concern about the direction of change, especially at global and national levels. The world is considered an increasingly dangerous place by 82%, more than in 2013 (despite suicide killing more people than all wars, terrorism and crime). A similar 79%, another increase, think that the world is changing too fast, a trend which sits alongside a shift towards a desire to slow down and simplify life.
As well as a sense of detrimental change, there is greater conviction that “people led happier lives in the old days when they had fewer problems to cope with”. Nostalgia is also evident in 50% wanting their country to be the “way it used to be”. Traditions remain universally attractive; eight in ten see them as an important part of society with relatively little variation across continents.
Globally, 59% say that “more and more” they don’t identify with what their country has become and 46% admit to “feeling like a stranger”. A sizeable 40% say they feel “left behind” by progress and changes: all this is a common denominator underpinning Brexit, the rise of Trump and Western Europe’s right-wing parties. Even more significant, immigrants have become “the bogeymen for populist adventurers who take advantage of voter fear and uncertainty about the future”.21
Change and threat in all its guises is unnerving significant segments of every population; while the world is better, safer and improving in many respects,22 it doesn’t feel like that. Most people in most countries think their country is going wrong. This isn’t, though, a new phenomenon and nor is sentiment headed in the same direction. For example, most do not see their country’s decline as irreversible,23 and there has been a shift towards seeing globalisation as “good for my country”.
Is the personal different to the political? We find a recognition that risk-taking is ever more necessary to achieve things in life and a majority countenance “total change” to the way they live if it allows them to achieve personal and professional success. Nearly half, 46%, agree that the pace of life allows them to achieve more, while those nostalgic for the past do not automatically rule out change themselves; 29% agree that they would like their country to be like it used to be, but also countenance “total change” to the way they live for personal and professional success (the largest quadrant in our graphic on the previous page). At the same time, traditionalists and those who are open to personal change differ little in their views on key social issues.
People have a complex relationship with change. At present, many of us can’t live with it, or live without it. Traditionalism and nostalgia are appealing and powerful.
Modern technology makes the past even more accessible. And as uncertainty lingers alongside disappointment and scepticism, some will want to escape into other more comfortable worlds, be they alternative (and virtual) realities or just more familiar ones. As anxiety and mental disorders rise, we will seek solace and our own form of Danish hygge.
People want a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ society – traditional but also progressive – creating challenging territory requiring careful navigation by governments, businesses and brands. How can they absorb forward and backward change, providing the excitement of the new with the reassurance of the past?
One thing they will have to change is the narrative around change, presenting its upside, providing comfort while being honest about downsides, equipping populations and consumers with the skills and confidence to embrace it, while not ‘nannying’. The same could be said of traditionalism.
Complication also comes in the variety of contexts and concerns. As an example, populations in emerging economies are more likely than their counterparts in established economies to say they want to achieve success personally and professionally even if it means totally changing the way they live. This story of change anxiety certainly isn’t a tale of two worlds; there are important generational and other demographic differences cutting across geography. Time will tell if these are lifecycle or period effects.
To borrow the models used by change management consultants, perhaps we are in the ‘Crisis’ phase and will work through to ‘Acceptance’24 of change. But this seems overly optimistic and hard to reconcile with what our research has shown to be a fairly warped sense of reality and key social trends,25 plus profound disconnection with democracy.26 It is also conditional on the nature of future change and the extent to which it is managed, or not.
For established economies, the challenge is how to secure sustainable growth again. In emerging economies, it is how to manage growth. Across the world there is an imperative to share the benefits of change better.
If change is the new normal, change management needs to be too. That means leaders taking control in a way which gives people control. That really would be a break from tradition, a change worth having.