Sunday, February 7, 2010

Welcome to "The Age of Precariousness"

I want to touch on a phenomenon that has gained a lot of attention in the media and in pop-culture lately: the growing anti-establishment and anti-government movement. The two examples of this ideology that caught my attention are a bit extreme - fringe groups looking to push their own agenda - but they serve as great illustrations of the inner demons and feelings that are percolating within mainstream society in response to the post-recession "Age of Precariousness" and uncertainty.

The first example is a documentary called The Zeitgeist, which is a dissection of most of the cultural and economic establishments and institutions that we rely on to organize ourselves in modern times. No institution is left unscathed, including the Catholic Church and the idea of religion as a whole, the Federal Reserve, IMF, and the modern monetary system, big banks, global corporations, and even the governments and political leaders that serve them. Below is a poster and a trailer for the movie:

As you can see, the film is a bit over the top in its criticism of all modern institutions, but it does demonstrate the increasing skepticism and anger towards "the establishment". During the recession, many people questioned the stability of the current economic system and the potential for instability that results when all major institutions are connected to each other on a global basis - ie. globalization. And so we've seen and heard a lot about the "anti-globalization" movement, the increasing trend of "buying local" in order to stimulate the local economy, protectionism, and the shift towards self-reliance and isolation as a means of ensuring stability. Many people wondered whether these trends were signaling the end of globalization as we know it - is the world about to get a whole lot smaller?

“The global downturn has been so swift and so savage that it is calling into question the whole idea of globalization.” -The Globe and Mail, March 14, 2009

The second example is the Tea Party movement in the States. The Tea Party is a fringe political group made up of people who are fed up with big government, stimulus packages, and the lack of jobs. They're against government spending, taxes, control, and the Obama administration as a whole. Below is a video on this rising movement:

What the Tea Party movement represents is a growing distrust and dissatisfaction with major institutions like the government and big corporations - institutions that are viewed as being in control of the social and economic climate. Corporate greed and corruption, huge bonuses for CEOs, and government spending scandals have only fed the skepticism.
“The financial crisis has put a spotlight on corporate governance, in particular the malfeasance of some executives.” -Harvard Business Review, August 2009

Amongst the growing doubt towards the global economic system and the skepticism towards major institutions is another feeling that has dominated the post-recession world: uncertainty. People are worried about their jobs and the current mindset is that no one's job is safe.

Okay, so the stability of the global economic system is in doubt, the government and the corporations that supposedly fund it can't be trusted, and you live in fear of becoming the next one to go at your workplace. What's one to think? It's the end of the world, of course! We're seeing a handful of movies that are touching upon the feeling that the world as it is is broken, and one wonders if it's time to scrap everything and start over.

One recent movie that explores what the world would be like without government, corporations, or the economy is The Book of Eli. In this post-apocalyptic world, civilization has fallen apart and vigilantes stalk the land looking for victims to rape and pillage. Money no longer exists - people barter with formerly inconsequential items like shampoo and wet naps - and the towns that do exist are run by the power-hungry. Below is the trailer:

So, what do all of these feelings add up to? A whole lot of stress, that's what. A couple of articles in a recent issue of The Toronto Star touch upon the post-recession "Age of Precariousness". In the first article, Sandro Contenta calls the feeling of ongoing stress "21st Century Syndrome". The recession, extended office hours (thanks to the BlackBerry), the weight of a mortgage and the daily fight through rush hour traffic are just a few of the contributing factors.
"Life today is overall more stressful than it used to be. People live at a faster pace, sleep less, and eat food that is less nutritious." -Dr. James Wilson, chiropractor and naturopath

In the second article, Stephen Marche writes of "The Age of Precariousness" and the current feeling of uncertainty. Catastrophes like the Haiti earthquake, along with fear of the end of the world (discussed above) are just a few of the contributors, but the end result is adrenal fatigue and the high amount of stress we must deal with every day.
"The precariousness of life has entered the quotidian experience more intensely than at any other time in the modern era. The World Health Organization has just this year recognized a new syndrome, which they're calling '21st century disease'." -Stephen Marche, The Toronto Star, January 24, 2010
Marche continues to describe the current state of uncertainty and insecurity, using the rise of the temporary workforce as a key example:
"It's not that life is harder than ever before. In material terms, we are more prosperous than at any other time. The cost of that prosperity has been insecurity. Essential elements of our lives, such as work, are now defined by their total lack of security. The United States is leading the world into a future of never knowing when or for how long a job will last. Even before the recession began eroding historically high American employment numbers, a study at Rutgers University on "The Anxious American Worker" generated some startling numbers.
One in three American workers worries about personal job security. Twenty-seven per cent of Americans had anxiety levels that amounted to distress. Forty-five per cent had a high level of anxiety and only twenty-nine per cent reported low levels of anxiety. Thirteen per cent of the people they talked to had been laid off in the past three years.
The brutalities of the recession have only exacerbated a pre-existing condition: the rise of the temporary worker, with less pay, no benefits, no security, and no connection to the companies they work for. A recent cover story in Business Week, entitled "The Disposable Worker," described the larger movement of companies shifting the risks of capitalism onto their employees. The article quoted Barry Asin, chief analyst at Staffing Industry Analysts, about the future: "When I hear people talk about temp vs. permanent jobs, I laugh. The idea that any job is permanent has been well proven not to be true."

What does all of this mean to a marketer? It means that there are a growing number of insights that can act as consumer pressure points by tapping into current feelings. If used correctly, they can result in marketing programs and advertising that are more relevant. Here are a few examples of insights that are borne out of "The Age of Precariousness":
  • A stressed out consumer is a more pragmatic consumer - rational, smart decision-making is the new normal
  • Planning for the long-term - including education and retirement savings - will be much more important for all age groups
  • Safety, security, and sanctuary are the "Three S's" in the post-recession world: brands that offer any one of these will see more success
  • The little things start to matter more - "little luxuries" like alcohol, lattes, candy, and even hair dye can provide cheap ways to lift our spirits
  • Kids and teens will be more educated about personal finance and will shift towards a culture of responsibility and virtuosity, rather than recklessness
  • Stressed-out parents will begin to let go and seek temporary escapes from the world of parenting
  • The simplicity trend will continue to grow - the less stuff we have, the less stuff we have to worry about!
  • People will realize what really matters in the world, and so the environment, social issues, and even religion will gain more importance
  • The trends towards thinking locally, reducing interdependence, and relying less on "the big man" will continue, with more and more people opting to become entrepreneurs
  • Accountability will become a huge issue for all major institutions, including government organizations, businesses, and CEOs
  • Finally, consumers will continue to usurp the establsihment by embracing piracy and free content (Google apps, Skype, YouTube) in order to beat the system
We're definitely not in Kansas anymore...

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