New Age Is Now

Why a movement rooted in idealism and spirituality is making a comeback.
by : 

Molly Trimble

January 1, 2010

Is New Age really relevant in 2010? As the publisher of New Age Retailer, I’ve spent many hours thinking about this question. Periodically through our 23 years in print we have wrestled with the idea of changing the magazine’s title to something more easily understood and less “loaded.” Each time it’s the same. We spend a few days brainstorming possibilities and then someone invariably says, “You know, nothing we’re coming up with captures the spirit the way ‘New Age’ does.”

At that point, we remember why we have kept our name all these years: because New Age is more than a name, it’s a whole paradigm for living. That may sound far-reaching and idealistic, but that’s pretty much the point. New Age also is as relevant today as ever—perhaps more so.

During the first decade of the 21st century, New Age has moved steadily into the mainstream, helped most recently by Oprah. Her mixture of beliefs is an interesting, and I believe sincere, blend of mysticism, Christianity, and positive psychology. She is an adventurer in the realm of spirituality, and as an important media figure, she is spreading elements of New Age that have been considered too esoteric for the general public. Her series on Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret about the Law of Attraction is a good example.

But more is at work in the flow of New Age to mainstream than Oprah’s seal of approval. Over time things that are considered esoteric gradually become accepted as advocates spread the word and the media popularizes it. Think yoga, alternative medicine, feng shui, meditation, and even slang (“karma police,” “good vibes”). When the time is ripe, worthy alternative beliefs and practices eventually work their way past the high cultural wall of resistance.

And New Age is what again?

At its core, New Age is a search for meaning and liberation. This search is universal and ageless, a basic effect of the human condition. When conventional wisdom fails to provide the answers we need, we look for new frameworks to solve our own and society’s problems. New Age supports this important search.

Writers and social critics have attempted to define and describe New Age for decades, but their attempts are often subjective and based on their own pre-formed opinions. They’re either for or against New Age, and they hope to convince their audience to agree. As David Spangler, a spiritual philosopher and writer, laments, ”The press report the carnival sideshow and ignore the acts in the big tent.”

Call it a branding problem or simply ideals that don’t make easy sound bites, but the often-asked “What’s New Age?” question has met with negative labels: flaky, self-indulgent, shallow, weird.

Many have formed opinions of New Age based on news stories that sensationalize the fringe elements, but if you’ve ever been part of a group, organization, religion, or cause that has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, or ridiculed—and who hasn’t?—you understand that, as Dilbert creator Scott Adams said, “Everybody is somebody else’s weirdo.”

Back to the future

For some, New Age brings to mind the ’60s and ’70s, when tie-dye, peace signs, and the Age of Aquarius moved into popular culture. And, indeed, the social and political turmoil of the ’60s proved the perfect soil for New Age thought to flourish. New Age both supported and was supported by the many cultural and political movements that roared to the forefront in that epic decade: civil rights, anti-war, gay rights, women’s rights, the environmental movement … and the list goes on. Many in that time were willing to put their values and compassion into action.

New Age stores sprang up in most cities across the country. Social activism was at a peak. As the political and cultural storms calmed through the ’80s and ’90s, however, one’s personal power and inner landscape became the next frontier. Gone were the mass movements for social justice. The turn to more personal arenas left those committed to a utopian society all dressed up with no place for their idealism to go.

All movements have one thing in common: They believe wholly in the power of human beings to change things for the better. If I were to reduce New Age to just one idea, that belief in the power of individuals to change things for the better would be it.

Spirituality, New Age style

In a 2009 national survey on spirituality in America by Parade magazine, 24% of respondents put themselves into a new category: “spiritual but not religious.” According to the article’s author, Christine Wicker, this can mean “someone who has combined diverse beliefs and practices into a personal faith that fits no standard definition.” Additionally, 59% of respondents said that all religions are valid, and another 59% believe that faith can help solve the world’s problems. Just 12% said their own religion was the only true faith.

These responses tell us that Americans’ ideas of spirituality are becoming significantly more expansive—and leaning in a New Age direction. The concept of a personal spirituality of one’s choosing, built on one’s own experience rather than on prescribed dogma, is New Age through and through.

Other signs that practices under the New Age umbrella are becoming mainstream were revealed in a Gallup poll in 2002 that reported 10 million people in the U.S. meditate; that’s twice the number reported just a decade earlier. Also according to Gallup, 16.5 million practice yoga today, 42% more than in 2002.

Social forecaster and trend tracker Patricia Aburdene, author of Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism, believes spirituality is today’s most important megatrend. She contends that values-driven consumers are increasing in number and their values are being reflected in their shopping choices. For retailers, this shift toward honoring transcendent values in their shopping choices means your customers will be looking for products that support their search for greater meaning in their lives.

These consumers will be looking for products that are “virtuous,” in the words of Paul H. Ray, Ph.D. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D., coined the term Cultural Creatives in 2000 to describe this values-driven demographic, which they estimated to be 33% of U.S. consumers. Cultural Creatives (www.culturalcreatives.org) are socially aware, mindful of the environment, and interested in self-improvement and spiritual exploration.

A consumer movement and U.S. marketplace serving Cultural Creatives was identified around 2000, termed LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, www.lohas.com). LOHAS is associated with categories such as alternative health, natural healing, organics, self-care, environmental stewardship, cultural awareness, sustainable economics, social responsibility, nonviolence, positive thinking, and spiritual exploration.

Sounds remarkably New Age, doesn’t it?

The pool of products that interest the values-driven LOHAS consumer—estimated to be 35 million Americans—is deep and wide, ranging from the natural and organic to the recycled, handcrafted, chemical-free, fairly traded, or simply beautiful and uniquely special. When you sell giftware made with spiritual intention or books by authors sharing hard-won wisdom or music that calms frayed nerves, you serve notice that you believe in making the world a better place.

Yesterday’s conspicuous consumption has been replaced by today’s social responsibility. The mantra is conserve, buy locally, contribute to your community, and above all, do no harm. People are more reluctant today to separate their spirituality from their everyday lives. We have all been shaken by a sudden recession, large-scale business corruption, unemployment, terrorism, wars in the Middle East, nuclear threats, climate change, dwindling resources—the list is long and scary. With so much to worry about, no wonder “sustainability” is the current buzzword on people’s minds. We all would like nothing better than to sustain long-term well-being for our natural world, and for ourselves. Where to start?

One of the places we can and do start is with our pocket-books. Aburdene estimates that 70% of our economy is controlled by consumer spending. How people spend their money reflects their beliefs, which in turn shapes our world. People today want to help. They need to help. That’s why when they walk into your store, they’re buying with their values up front and center. Quoting futurist John Naisbitt, “In turbulent times, in times of great change, people head for the two extremes, fundamentalism or personal, spiritual experience.”

New Age is squarely in the latter camp. The Age of Aquarius is less a time frame than it is a frame of mind. In a world that too often seems unpredictable and frightening, holding on to hope, optimism, creativity, goodness, and generosity is a challenge of the first order. Yet, your business demands the kind of possibility thinking New Age nurtures: a firm belief that a better world is dawning.


The heart of the matter

To really understand New Age and judge its place in today’s business landscape, it helps to start with the five underlying principles of New Age thought.

1. One Spirit connects us all. This is called the Perennial Philosophy, and it’s ancient. Most traditional as well as nontraditional religions the world over are based on this philosophy, which upholds the divine unity of all things.
2. Idealism. A healthy, peaceful, and tolerant world is possible. We can help ourselves and others, and we should. Differences of gender, race, religion, or sexual identity alone are not sufficient grounds to deny or oppose another.
3. Independence of mind and spirit. New Age has no headquarters, no hierarchy, no membership rolls, and no clergy to tell people what they should think or believe.
4. Inclusivity. New Age is based on spiritual awareness across boundaries. One does not need to stop being a Catholic or Buddhist to participate.
5. Inquiry into the nature of reality and human consciousness. Life is ultimately a mystery, and what we know through our five senses is only part of the picture. The rest of the mystery merits exploration.

New Age is variously identified as a movement, a cultural shift, a tradition, a point of view, a lifestyle, a milieu, a community, a network, a philosophy, or just a “coherent current of thought.” It’s a common misconception that New Age is a religion. It’s not. New Age honors the spiritual richness in human experience without insisting upon any one path as the answer. Diversity of faith is a hallmark of New Age thought. This spiritual aspect puts it into the category of a paradigm for living—and makes it relevant in the world today.


Molly Trimble is the publisher of New Age Retailer.