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Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social Values at the End of the Millennium

by Michael Adams

What is it with these guys? Earlier this year we had demographer David Foot telling us in Boom, Bust and Echo that demographic research explains “two-thirds of everything.” Then we had Angus Reid warning in Shakedown that Canadians have left the “spend-and-share era” and are now in the “sink-or-swim era,” in which our collective compassion grows thinner daily.

And now, we have Environics pollster Michael Adams writing a provocatively titled book in which he delineates “the changing character of Canadians” by identifying 12 “values tribes.” The tribes Adams describes are simply wedges of the demographics pie sliced more thinly than either Foot or Reid envisions, based on the work of French pollster Alain de Vulpain, and using the 3SC Social Values Monitor research system Environics imported to North America as a means of tracking socio-cultural trends.

After 25 years of polling, what does Adams say about our values? He says, no surprise here, that we “like people everywhere, have been changed in ways that reflect American and global influences.” Canadians’ new posture, he says, has been shaped by three major quests – for personal autonomy, for pleasure, and for spiritual fulfilment. Further, he maintains, “the stereotype of Canadians as respectful and reserved, and not that imaginative, is fast losing its validity.”

Instead of maintaining lock-step conformity, Adams argues, Canadians have been “transformed” by a social revolution over the past quarter-century that has seen a shift from “authoritarian pyramid to a heterarchical model of how society should function.” As a result, he writes, there has been a “radical transformation in the psyche of average Canadians that enables them to define and redefine” themselves.

Yes, that brings us to the “12 tribes.” Not satisfied with the Boomers/Non-boomers breakdown, Adams comes up with three fragmented groups of Canadians: The Elders (born before the mid-1940s), consisting of Rational Traditionalists, Cosmopolitan Modernists and Extroverted Traditionalists; The Boomers (aged 30 to 49), consisting of Autonomous Rebels, Disengaged Darwinists, Anxious Communitarians and Connected Enthusiasts; The GenXers (born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s), made up of Thrill-Seeking Materialists, Aimless Dependents, Social Hedonists, New Aquarians, and Autonomous Post-Materialists.

Adams asks us to trust that his research supports these monikers, then proceeds to assign personality traits to each title – do I sense a board game of the Scruples variety in the offing? – so that we all can decide our place within our own demographic subgroup and predict the behaviours of those not like us.

For instance, as one of the loathsome Boomers, shall I flatter myself to be an autonomous rebel (respect for education, strong belief in human rights, suspicion of authority) or shall I dub myself a Connected Enthusiast (hedonistic with a need for immediate gratification)? Certainly, I would hate to think I was a Disengaged Darwinist (fearful, with a nostalgia for the past) or an Anxious Communitarian (needing respect, ruled by duty), though my enemies might disagree.

You see how seductive these labels can be? But will any of this really “advance the cause of democracy,” a claim Adams makes for polling, and help us know ourselves and our neighbours better? Not likely, though it may replace everyone’s infuriating complexity with a comforting label.