BOSS Blog 2: Cultures change. So what?

Cultures change. So what?

Culture change's consequences

This is Gert Jan Hofstede speaking, with the second blog in my BOSS series (Basics of Social Science). In BOSS Blog 1, I mentioned the authoritative study by Beugelsdijk and Welzel (2018) on cohorts of people born in over 100 countries. The study found that from 1900 to 2000 there is substantial change in national culture. In terms of Hofstede dimensions:

  • Across the 20th century, individualism goes up (and power distance goes down)
  • Across the 20th century, long-term orientation goes down (and indulgence goes up)

Here, I’ll investigate what this might mean for societies. This will be a more speculative blog. After all, it is simply not possible to isolate the influence of culture change from the major changes in wealth, geopolitics, population size, and human mastery over the natural world that have occurred in the 20th century.

Temperature rise in society

The analogy with the climate can serve again. A rise in temperature implies that there is a rising probability of extreme weather events such as tornadoes, floods, heat waves, and droughts. We cannot predict where and when exactly, but we can reliably predict that trend. At atomic level, temperature rise is caused physically by molecules moving faster. This is why ice melts and water boils: water molecules move too fast to stay in the structure.

The culture shifts found by Beugelsdijk and Welzel constitute a rise in the temperature of societies. Consider: Rising individualism and falling power distance mean that it becomes more acceptable for people to leave a group. This could be a marriage, an employer, a country, a political party, a religion. Rising indulgence means that it becomes more acceptable to be free and do what you want; be it make love, or make war. Shorter-time orientation means living in the here and now.

Loyalty and duty versus freedom and depression

All of this means that values such as obedience and loyalty are under pressure, while values such as freedom and self-expression gain more importance. We see this in our societies. In the Dutch political landscape, for instance, I remember the political pillars of my youth (‘zuilen’). They have all but disappeared, and voters are now more focused on their own short-term interests than about loyalty to a denomination. Fixed employment has gone down. Divorce is the most ordinary of events. Also, many young people suffer from depression or burn-out. This fits the trend: a century ago, society was more like a crystal. It was a firm structure in which everyone ‘knew their place’. Today, society is more like a gas with freely moving atoms; ‘the best thing you can become is yourself’. In 1919, if you were 35, had a job like your parents, and two children, you were an upstanding member of society, doing your duty. In that same situation in 2019, you can worry about a better job, your physical beauty and fitness, your children’s school performance, a new love. Is it ever good enough, and are you ever free enough?

This example was from my own perspective in the Netherlands. Other societies see similar developments, but with a different starting point and a different path. The changes are small compared to the length of the scales of the dimensions of culture, and rarely change the order between countries on any of the dimensions.

So what?

Despite being ‘small’ on their measurement scales, these changes have a big impact. Societies can melt down, just like a mere two degrees of global warming can melt global ice caps and devastate the liveability of countries and regions. In the coming decades, there will be outbreaks of violent emotions, there will be political upheaval.

The metaphor has another side. A nice thing about melting is that it can also break down barriers, allow things to move, and bring elements together. This should be our hope. I am convinced that we need a new social cohesion before we can tackle climate change and other big challenges.

Let’s look on the bright side. We may be seeing the revival of a European sense of purpose, and loyalty. The media give room to fear, geopolitics are grim, but there are no major wars, and Europe has not fallen apart. The success of Macron’s En Marche in France, and of my compatriot Frans Timmermans’s campaign for social justice during the European elections these days, gives hope.

Gert Jan Hofstede


Sjoerd Beugelsdijk and Chris Welzel (2018) “Dimensions and Dynamics of National Culture: Synthesizing Hofstede With Inglehart”. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 49(10) 1469-1505. DOI: 10.1177/00220221 18798508