According to a new theory of social change developed by a psychologist, the current worldwide financial crisis may be all set for a complete reversal, at least temporarily, in the direction of modern societies.
The theory was developed by UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) distinguished professor of psychology Patricia Greenfield.
"In the United States and in other parts of the world, we are now moving in the other direction," Greenfield said. "I see signs of people becoming more community-minded as people are getting poorer," she added.
For example, former executives who are out of work are doing much more volunteering for nonprofit organizations, moving toward a focus on the common good.
Lawyers and bankers are becoming teachers.
"I see this shift even in the election of Barack Obama at a time when we were all becoming poorer; he talks about community, and was a community organizer. There are already signs of more volunteering for community service projects, more time spent with family, more cooperation within families and less concern with material goods," said Greenfield.
"If economic conditions continue to get more severe, I think we'll have more of a communitarian value system. However, these changes will only slightly reverse hundreds of years of movement in the other direction," she explained.
Greenfield predicts that more young people will be focused on helping their families and the community, especially as they get poorer.
"My theory has to do with the idea that there are behavioral and socialization adaptations to a Gemeinschaft environment and to a Gesellschaft environment - and different adaptations, different behaviors and socialization are adapted to thrive and survive in each environment," she said.
Her theory is based on concepts developed by the 19th-century German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, who distinguished between two social systems: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.
Gemeinschaft ("community") refers to a small, rural, low-technology, face-to-face community that is relatively poor and based on informal education at home.
Gesellschaft ("society") refers to a large, urban, heterogeneous, high-technology society that relies on electronic communication and formal, school-based education.
According to Greenfield, "We have become more Gesellschaft - more urbanized, richer, more high-tech, more formal education - over time. That long-term trend has been temporarily reversed, at least in the variables of wealth and commerce."
"I believe that people are beginning to adapt to that social change by socializing an altered course of human development," she added.