Τετάρτη, 2 Δεκεμβρίου 2009

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Forget the silliness. It's time to get serious in 2009

We've gone off on too many ridiculous diversions, says an adviser on future trends. We need to adopt a Blitz mentality

This is a tricky time to be a futurist; the world is changing so quickly that predictions can be out of date almost as soon as they are made. But when our lives are in a scary state of flux, this is precisely when we want to have some idea about what's going to happen next.

Enter Richard Watson, a brave man who has been persuaded to make ten predictions for 2009. As a futurist, Watson makes a living by advising big companies on future trends. A Brit of 47 with a background in advertising, design, headhunting and publishing, he lives in Sydney but commutes regularly to London, which gives him plenty of air miles in which to read every report that's available and look for patterns.

“You work out where the drivers come from and try to group things, talk to people and look for connections,” he explains. “When there's so much uncertainty, volatility and anxiety it's harder to identify trends. You're not so much trying to predict the future as trying to create a conversation about where the future might go. Most of the time you're illuminating the present.
“Personally, I don't think that what's going on is all bad because it reminds us that actions have consequences. Things had swung too far and have been brought back again. If we got rid of Heston Blumenthal and his molecular cuisine, and things such as organic water, I would be so happy.

“We've gone off on so many ridiculous diversions and we don't need a lot of this silliness. It's good to be serious again. We have suffered from too much choice and there will be less. People will be more self-reliant and they will learn to say no, which is a big shift. Family and community will be pushed back together - it's almost a Blitz mentality. We just need to keep calm and carry on.”

Eco-cynics

Are you getting hot and bothered about global warming? Does a cup of carbon-neutral cappuccino or a packet of environmentally friendly crisps make you go environ-mental? If so, you could be suffering from environmental exhaustion. When the economy is in a mess we've got more immediate things to worry about; we're worried about now.

People are getting fed up with being told how to behave, especially by hypocritical politicians and celebrities who drive a Toyota Prius one minute and hop on a private jet the next. Not that acting on behalf of the environment is a bad thing, but in many instances environmental consciousness is nothing more than cynical marketing or stealth taxation - and the hotel habit of asking you to re-use bath towels while the air-conditioning is on full blast is just tokenism. People won't fall for it any more; sales of organic food will continue to nosedive.
The risk is that in refusing to be manipulated by green claims, people will ignore the need to use fewer materials, avoid pollution and so on. There's a balance to be struck here.

Seriousness

In times of economic upheaval and anxiety people can resort either to escape (everything from movies to virtual worlds) or find out what's going on. Those with a taste for seriousness will seek out analysis of complex issues and ideas in the media and in books, and they'll debate philosophy in the pub.

Dress-down Fridays will disappear (to be replaced by No e-mail Mondays) and the distinction will return between the formal business suit of the office and clothes for playing out at the weekend. Hemlines will go down, hairlines will go up: if you want to hang on to your job or get a new one, you'd better have a smart suit and a decent haircut. And your business card will say Head of Policy, not Head of Imagination. No more pretentious job titles. For students, expect a swing away from doctorates in Emmerdale to the mainstream, especially science and engineering.

Unplugging

Digital technology has reduced the need for face-to-face contact. But as those who boast of having 150 “friends” realise that most of them are merely digital acquaintances, they are starting to crave the real thing. With this comes the understanding that you can be too connected, and that it's time to unplug.

This means that people will start to edit and unwire their lives, removing unwanted “friends” and dropping out of social networks as they reclaim personal or family time. There is an aspirational element here, too - just as owning a mobile phone was once seen as a mark of sophistication, not owning one (or using one sparingly) is becoming a signal that a person has sorted out their priorities or has staff to take mundane calls. Hence the new phrase “digital diets”, and an interest in analogue products: fountain pens, wet-film photography and vinyl records.

Ditch the debt

The piggy bank is back. The era of cheap borrowing is over and individuals and institutions are reining in their spending and getting rid of debt as fast as they can. Think of the 1950s and the savings culture; it's not clever to hold debt any more.

For individuals this means paying off credit cards and overdrafts, though selling their largest asset (or debt) is problematic because they usually live in it. The only real strategy is to spend less by cutting back on non-essentials. This means fixing things rather than throwing them away, getting rid of the second car, getting a smaller car and possibly renting rather than buying.
Expect to see downsizing and second homes on the market while people stay in their main homes rather than move. They will also try to stay in their jobs rather than look for a move, though the nasty end of this is that businesses will be cutting their head counts.

Authenticity

When life around us is uncertain, we want authenticity to give us a sense of safety and control. Authentic people, authentic, uncomplicated products, tradition and nothing flash. Forget designer water; it's tap or, if you must, local. Showing off is dead, provenance and patina are cool; flawed doesn't mean imperfect, it means interesting.

It will be acceptable to drive around in a car with scratches and dents because you don't want it to stand out. If you have a really old car, don't over-restore it - cracked leather speaks of its history and will give it a higher value than an old car made pristine. If you have a new Lamborghini, you'll keep it in the garage. It's not the sort of signal that you want to send out. At home you will lust after an original, if battered, Edwardian fireplace, things that show their age and character. Shabby chic will be back.

The same goes for faces. Cover images of celebrities whose eyes are too tight to smile will no longer sell magazines. The taste will be for being true to yourself, rather than the same as everyone else - crinkly like Paul Newman with lines that tell a story, rather than stiff with Botox and impossibly white-toothed like American newsreaders. As the population ages and money is tight, interest in plastic surgery will wane.

Imbys

Nimbys are people who object to things happening in their local area (Not in My Back Yard); Imbys (In My Back Yard) are the opposite. They want things to happen locally because they support local production and consumption, and they will campaign to get their way.

Their motives are social, economic, ethical and environmental. They're interested in anything made by hand, and will support a small family business or a village shop rather than a national or global brand. Expect a renaissance in arts and crafts, home-based hobbies, do-it-yourself and self-assembly kits. The litmus test for this trend will be how much space the big supermarket chains give to local producers, or whether fashion retailers allow the sale of products created by local customers. Good news for farmers' markets and British manufacturers; Imbys won't buy Chinese.

We not me

To get through this mess, we will have to stick together, and that means a new emphasis on the wellbeing of the family, the team, neighbours, the community, the common good and looking after each other rather than being a selfish individual. People will withdraw from the wider world and do whatever needs to be done with their own guys.

You are trying to regain control, and this takes you back to the familiar. You are less likely to deal with people you don't know because you don't trust them; you are not in the mood to experiment. Organisations will respond by becoming increasingly driven by values as they recognise that it is people's experience they are buying or selling, not just their time. Newly reinvigorated trade unions may mean that we see a demand for salary and profit caps in some industries.

Delayed gratification
We have had 20 years of instant gratification, and as the mood changes, incomes drop and values shift, some aspects of life will become slower. This chimes with the trend for tradition, home-made, simplicity; in some ways, after years of being overloaded with complexity and too much choice, we're returning to the 1950s.

Expect to see a resurgence of home cooking because it's cheap, and a stressrelieving activity that pulls the family together. You will eat comfort food because it makes you feel safe and warm, and there will be none of that frying the batter separately and serving it on top of the fish. Basics will replace frills, treats will be little things - a tiny box of chocolates - not grand gestures.

Delayed gratification will also hit money. Today's youth are famous for their inability to wait for anything, and for the first time some of them are going to be told, “No, you can't have that”, first by their parents, then by the bank manager. If they want something, they'll have to save up for it, and they'll stay in education for longer because it's safer.

Fear and loathing
We are living in nervous times and the result is a new age of insecurity. Things are out of our control, and someone, somewhere, is to blame. Anxiety and resentment breed fear, and this means that people are looking for scapegoats. If you are immune to the economic downturn, you're unlikely to be popular, and if you're perceived as being in some way responsible - a banker, a high-earning CEO - then you are regarded as loathsome. This kind of resentment will get worse before it gets better.

Fear also means that people will need to protect themselves. Economic protection means doing everything they can to hang on to their jobs. If the boss wants you there until 8pm, you'll stay, and if that makes employers more powerful than they have been recently, this is not the climate in which to complain. It's time to keep your head below the parapet.

Anger

We are entering a nasty period, possibly as much as a decade, in which economic uncertainty will become a catalyst for some unpleasant attitudinal and behavioural shifts. Just as racism and patriotism grew in the wake of the 1930s Depression in the US, economic issues will bring nationalist attitudes (and the BNP) to the fore.

This is the downside of the instinct to look after our own during a crisis. If jobs have been lost locally and a neighbour buys something from China, some people will get upset. There will be a backlash against immigrants - not to the extent of Enoch Powell's apocalyptic warning of the social consequences in his 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, but a contemporary Alf Garnett could be popular. People will want to keep jobs in the community.

Expect to see rising levels of racism, more verbal abuse and physical attacks. As tension grows, there will be more opportunistic street crime targeting wealthy-looking individuals, especially in big cities, where wealth is in close proximity to poverty. Resentment will come out and even grumpy old men will have flashes of real anger.


Richard Watson is the author of Future Files, published by Nicholas Brealey.

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