Leading demographer Bernard Salt on the “post-consumer search for meaning”

By Bernard Salt

In the post-war world both within Australia and across the western world, the Great Depression generation revelled in the convenience and the modernity of consumerism. Mass market culture at this time delivered McDonald’s and Disneyland and sitcoms like Father Knows Best and later The Brady Bunch.

In the 1950s American psychologist Abraham Maslow explained the new consumerism via a hierarchy of needs in which he posited that consumer spending initially prioritises survival (food and shelter), but that eventually this economic force is used to deliver self-actualisation or the attainment of personal growth and understanding.

Fast forward six decades to 2020 and the world has moved on from the survivalist, consumerist world of those who survived the Great Depression. Post-war baby boomers (born 1946-1963), then Generation Xers (1964-1982) and more recently the Millennial generation (1983-2001) have evolved and shaped different views of consumer spending and priorities.

In what may be termed a 21st century post-consumerist world, the thinking and the priorities driving consumer behaviour are vastly different to those that shaped consumer thinking in the early years of mass consumption. And nowhere is this transition to new-world consumer values better evidenced than in the field of travel for business and/or leisure. The early mass-consumption era supported the rise of 5-star hotel chains like Hilton, for example, that delivered more or less the same experience across a global network of hotels. 

And indeed that was precisely what the market at that time wanted.
However, many decades later and the consumer market has been flipped by the new technologies. Online retailer Amazon, for example, is now a bigger retailer than bricks and mortar retailer Walmart. Uber is a transportation business that doesn’t own a vehicle. And in the accommodation space, Airbnb now offers more accommodation globally than does the Hilton hotel chain.

The consumer market in the developed world has moved beyond survival—just as predicted by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—and is now looking for something different: experiences, validation, a sense of worth and meaning, perhaps?
The average consumer in the developed world is now less concerned with securing food and shelter, and more concerned with achieving not just personal growth and understanding but perhaps something that lies beyond consumerism – and that is concepts like purpose and regard. In this brave new world, qualities like authenticity and meaning are the emerging forces shaping consumer behaviour. Consider, for example, the values of the Millennial generation (now aged 19-37) who are increasingly likely to question the provenance and the supply-chain ethics of any consumer product. And indeed they will ask the same questions of workplaces, of political parties, of social causes.

Here is a generation that wants not so much a big salary from wherever they work but the idea that their work contribution has both meaning and purpose.
But there’s a paradox with this kind of thinking: there isn’t enough purpose-driven jobs to meet the demand for this kind of work. This kind of thinking also seems to be shaping the consumer preferences and behaviour of the generation following the Millennials, the so-called Alpha generation (2002-2020), who appear
to be even more purpose driven.

In this world the old idea of a 5-star hotel delivered in a cookie-cutter model not only fails to hit the mark, but to some at least this model is regarded as inauthentic and consumerist. In the 2020s and beyond, the newest generation of workers might well seek out meaning and purpose not so much in the workplace but in other areas of their lives such as on a weekend, on holidays, by volunteering, by teaching, by learning and discovering specialist insights.

Many of the new disruptive businesses offer scope to fulfill the demand for authenticity and meaning. The newest consumers want bespoke, engaged, ethical and above all authentic products, services and experiences.
And it is into this market that Airbnb, for example, seems to be pitching its accommodation and Experiences service.  Visiting Kyoto? Stay in a local’s house… and take a cooking class with a local. This isn’t a service or a logic that would have survived – let alone thrived – in the latter part of the 20th century.

But today, given the purpose-driven priorities of the modern market, this offer, and others connecting with the idea of authenticity, really do appear to be hitting the mark.

This post represents the individual views of Bernard Salt and was commissioned by Airbnb.