You may remember that in the early to mid nineties there was much pious speculation that the new Millennium would bring a return to more earthy endeavours, community mindedness and spiritualism.

This was off the back of the hedonistic eighties, which social researchers in the 23rd century will only need to rent the video Wall Street to get a sense of, a stock market crash and a major recession.

Well, it would seem the renaissance is taking a little while getting here. However, researchers suggest that there are signs emerging that suggest some of us are thinking about other things besides Manolo Blahnik shoes.

According to Grey Advertising's annual study into consumer attitudes - Eye on Australia - its 1999 study revealed that self-indulgence was rife with the question on everyone's lips: "will this be as good as it gets?"Its 2000 study confirmed that consumers believed this to be so, therefore spent lots because they believe tough times lie ahead. What ever happened to putting it aside for a rainy day?

We are more satisfied with our lives, more willing to spend, more willing to haggle, but not to the same extent as in 1993, and will more likely shop where there are rewards offered.
The top category we are expected to spend more on is the Internet, followed by furnishings, beer and wine, toys, electrical goods, entertainment, homes and renovations, sport events, holidays and home PCs.

The survey revealed an interesting point. Rather than trawling the shelves for the cheapest tin of tuna, and hang the odd dolphin that got hacked in the process, we care if an organisation is perceived to be ethical and decent. In fact, 91 per cent of us reacted positively if a company was seen to be doing the right thing. It is proven that organisations that incorporate social causes into their marketing actually do well out of it - financially as well as improving their brand's perception.

Is mainstream Australia developing a social conscience? Is this a precursor to that predicted shift? Sarah is general manager of a public relations company and Steve is manager of a restaurant and bar. They have a two year old and have almost finished renovations on an inner city home in Melbourne. Prior to the birth of their child, both had enjoyed an independent and what could be described as self-indulgent lifestyle.

"Since the arrival of Johnny, spending and lifestyle has changed to be more focused on 'family' things. Rather than eating out, going to movies, buying clothes, luxury items such as CDs, traveling and massages, we're now more focused on ensuring Johnny has what he needs: day care and good food," explains Sarah.

"We're also looking much more at maintaining an even keel in all areas of our life. For example, because we have a baby, we can't afford to be tired, so spontaneous late nights are out, as is heavy drinking. We can't afford to be unhealthy, so regular exercise and consistent good eating is important."

They both feel that as a community we continue to be obsessed with belongings. "We tend to want what we can't have, always thinking that what someone else has is better," says Steve. "Cars in particular for Australians are an obsession. When Sarah was in London people who she would consider of a similar financial and social status were amazed that her family had two cars plus a spare for the kids.

"Even though people in our circle seem to be backing off from material things, we think that may be more about our age group (mid 30s). We've found that because there is a growing divide between the rich and the poor, people will become more obsessed about showing, through material belongings, which category they belong to."

So how do they feel when they see people going on the trips they used to, driving flash cars and indulging in designer clothes?

"Depending on the model of the car, or destination of the trip we will be momentarily jealous - definitely. But having been through a lot in the last 12 months, we're very happy and quite content with our lot at the moment. We tend to ask ourselves, how happy are those people within themselves? Is that new car or jacket just a crutch?"

Carmel, who works full time as a real estate agent, has two children and lives in a defacto relationship with her partner Ian, agrees that the scope of hedonism or the 'me factor' is dictated by the haves and the have nots. "I think hedonism is prevalent among the wealthy, because they can. For the rest of us, including the middle-class, it is more about survival because we have to."

Material things are less important to her now than five years ago purely based on her ability to acquire them. "You have to adjust your expectations accordingly, or you would just go nuts."

"I do think, however, as a society we will continue to worship materialism. As people choose to not have children or have smaller families, have dual incomes, and credit cards becoming a way of life, there will be a need to demonstrate success."

Since the birth of her son Max, Tania would love a bigger house. But she insists it is not for the sake of having a bigger house, but because it is now cramped with the additional, but welcome, family member.

She and her researcher husband Paul are a single income family, but she will be returning to travel consulting within 12 months.

"Giving up the regular dinners, movies and outings is a choice we have made to accommodate our new lifestyle. However, we don't fret about it because it is about priorities, and we knew what we were getting into. There was plenty of prior mental conditioning."
She sees the importance we place on material belongings diminishing. "I think people are realising that belongings don't make you happy in the long run, but there will always be individuals who are obsessed with having the best of everything. But, I think they are in the minority."
Regardless of whether we are filthy hedonists or hedonist wannabes there is a good reason for the affliction. According to leading Australian social researcher, Hugh Mackay, it's all about control.

He believes there is too much going on in Australia for the average Aussie to cope with. What with the radical shift in relations between the sexes, the redistribution of wealth that has created a poverty problem, the fundamental changes in our culture, due to our links with Asia, new voices like 'grey power' or 'gay pride', the inexorable march towards republicanism, and the commercialisation of sport, is it any wonder we spend our weekends salivating at the local BMW dealership.

"Most of us find it difficult to imagine what's coming next, partly because dealing with the present seems challenging enough and partly because we sense that, quite apart from the prospect of greater economic prosperity, there is a new kind of change taking place in our society ... a wave coming at us that might dump us if we don't catch it. We are being called on to think of Australia in a new way. We are at a turning point. Why wouldn't our heads be spinning?

"For some people, the preferred strategy for dealing with all this uncertainty is clear: disengage. They are turning their focus inward; shifting their gaze from the distant, national horizon to something closer, more local, more personal. If I can't control unemployment or the reconciliation process, if I can't work out whether deregulation is a good thing or a bad thing, if I can't control how the corporation that employs me is going to resolve the tension between the social conscience and the bottom line what can I control? One answer is that I can control which video I'll rent, which school my kids will attend, where we'll go for our next holidays, whether we'll put another room in the roof, which car we'll buy, what we'll have for dinner tonight."

Hugh describes materialism poignantly: "There's nothing wrong with a bit of material comfort and prosperity, as long as you don't expect it, alone, to bring you happiness. If you do, you might discover what late-20th-century Westerners have been discovering in droves: that when materialism is unrestrained, when it is enshrined as a core philosophy, it rots the soul but it might take half a lifetime to detect the smell."


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