We already have a better picture of how 2023 might unfold. From the shadows of a global pandemic has emerged an economic hangover. War in Europe fuels geopolitical tensions, shaking up the current world order. And powerful algorithms have entered our collective consciousness. Now, more than ever, marketers have a chance to minimize business risks and maximize social impact. Here are seven cultural trends that will shape the next decade.
History is often shaped by the ideas of the most powerful empires. The Persian Empire connected Africa, Asia and Europe. The Roman Empire introduced modern governance and welfare. The Mongol Empire enabled the exchange of goods between the East and the West. The British Empire created the springboard for the Industrial Revolution. Of course, empires are built on blood and fire. Most of the 20th century was dominated by the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the USSR in 1991 led to a single superpower and unparalleled economic integration. The U.S. became the world’s police officer, ushering in a new era of globalization. Multinational corporations could access talent, resources and consumers across borders. Today, 69 of the 100 richest entities on the planet are corporations. Apple, the world’s most valuable brand buys components from suppliers in 43 countries across 6 continents to produce the iPhone.
In 2010, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economic power. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are witnessing the emergence of a new bipolar system. A fragmented world governed by opposing factions and competing spheres of influence. The BRICS economies are expected to contribute over 50% of global GDP by 2030. Unrestrained globalization seems like an outlier as we head back into a more disjointed world. Early signs include the U.S. demanding allies not to sell semiconductors to Chinese companies.
Multinational corporations have thrived during an era of free trade. But companies can no longer afford to ignore geopolitics. Brands need to have greater visibility on risks when allocating future investments. A tightrope between maintaining declining home markets and entering unpredictable growth markets. When entering new markets, consumers demand value propositions that reflect local needs.
Climate inaction is the biggest threat facing our species. We still have a chance to avert climate disaster if we can end our addiction to fossil fuels. The world is on track for 2.5°C of warming by 2100. Climate scientists have reached an unequivocal consensus on human-caused warming. According to the IPCC, the costs associated with rising sea levels and large-scale disruptions will be $54 to $69 trillion by 2100. Yet the economic damage is eclipsed by the social ramifications. More than 3.3 billion people—half of the world’s population—are highly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in these regions. The window to act is rapidly closing.
For decades, climate change was a distant news story happening elsewhere. Far removed from our everyday reality. But now the climate crisis is directly affecting the mental and physical health of most people globally. There are more people displaced because of climate change than war. Even if we manage to mitigate the most harmful effects of climate change, we will still need to help communities adapt to global warming.
The climate adaptation market is estimated to be worth $2 trillion per year by 2026 but only 1.6% of all adaptation funding comes from the private sector. Climate adaptation is an opportunity to ensure sustainable business growth within planetary boundaries. Building a climate-resilient economy requires investment in the most affected communities, low-cost innovation projects and shifting from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy. Companies that don’t future-proof their supply chains will be unable to meet demand. The most critical action is to internalize externalities like carbon emissions, environmental damage and societal exclusion.
The concept of age is as ancient as human history. Much of human existence has been a battle for preservation driven by the biological desire to reproduce. At the beginning of the 19th century, no country in the world had a life expectancy longer than 40 years. But rapid improvements in healthcare, living conditions and nutrition have boosted the average life expectancy. Currently, the number of people aged 60 years and older outnumber children younger than 5 years. An ageing population can cause labour shortages and pressures on social welfare. This was once a problem for the richest countries, but 80% of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries by 2050. China is predicted to lose nearly 50% of its population by 2100.
Midlife has lost meaning since people are living longer. Millennials can’t afford a home, marriage or children. Women are having fewer children because they have more choices. Carl Jung once said, “The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.” The very notion of life stages is being challenged and reshaped. There is no longer a neatly defined middle and end. We need education programs for 40-plus years-olds to discover meaning for the second part of their lives. On the other side of the spectrum, Gen-Z lack digital skills and feel unprepared for the future of work.
Brands should move away from outdated perceptions of 50-plus consumers. Embrace the elasticity of midlife and provide Gen-Z with the tools and networks to thrive. From a marketing perspective, we can no longer rely on life stages for marketing communications. We have entered a post-demographic world.
The abundance of information creates a poverty of attention. Finite time makes attention the most valuable commodity in the world. Some of the world’s biggest companies like Google, Meta and TikTok trade in attention, not products or services. The entire business model is predicated on algorithms feeding us what we like so that we spend more time on the platform. The surplus attention is then sold to advertisers. Social media is no longer a social experience, we have migrated into personal entertainment bubbles. There’s no shared space for public discourse and healthy disagreement. The outcome is deep divisions within democratic societies. And no room for collective memory because unlike traditional media we are not all experiencing the same thing at the same time.
The digital age has enabled the creation of modern tribes, united by shared interests, rather than age or location. Modern tribes live inside echo chambers on TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, Twitch and Discord. From a marketing perspective, brands are struggling to reach audiences because they are no longer at Yankee Stadium but at numerous house parties. The world has shrunk into fandoms with shared values. Advertisers could once reach everyone via linear TV programmes. But now brands need to think, plan and connect smarter. The old brand-building playbook is delivering diminishing returns. Mass media alone won’t cut it. Especially when competing against a new generation of brands offering community, belonging and hyper-relevant content.
Unless your company delivers a utility then you should invest in community engagement. The first step is to move away from traditional demographic segments and define the most important communities for your brand. Buying attention alone isn’t a sustainable solution. We need to understand the context and reach people when they are most receptive. Not everyone is your customer. Brands need better briefs and audience clarity to maximize return on investment.
The industrial revolution created an army of production workers. Most would head into the local factory, build stuff and then go home. Output was reliant on workers performing physical tasks in a fixed geographical location. Then improvements in technology and labour productivity led to the service economy. There are more than 100 million knowledge workers in the U.S. alone. The global pandemic sparked a collective awakening in how we approach work. We realized, unlike manual work, knowledge workers don’t need to occupy the same space to complete tasks.
Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. In the future, access to opportunities becomes more about ability and less about geography. Decentralized organizations will assemble networks of collaborators to tackle specific business challenges. The approach is likely to produce better results with less waste. Creative talent will be available on-demand like Uber, Airbnb or Spotify. The aim is not to keep employees for a permanent engagement but to rent their brains and expertise. It means brands can tap into the best talent without entering multiyear contracts with the holding companies. Flexible, distributed and modular organizations will attract the next generation of talent.
Last year, I wrote about how employee activism will become one of the defining features of the workplace in the next decade. Employee activism can be defined as when employees speak up against their company on issues that impact workers, customers, the environment or society at large. A recent survey of 4,000 workers across the U.S. and the U.K. by Paul Polman shows that more than 44% of Millennials and Gen-Z have resigned from a position because the values of the company did not align with their own values.
Unlike previous generations, Gen-Z is pushing back on the traditional 9-5 culture and looking to establish multiple income streams. The motivation is to challenge capitalism and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Climbing the corporate ladder is no longer aspirational. The Employee Barometer report identifies three ways that companies can start to engage the future workforce. First, companies need to show greater ambition and take steps to be less bad. Second, business leaders need to do a better job of communicating the action being taken. Finally, empower your employees to help you on the journey.
Young people want to be active participants in creating positive change. Companies’ commitment to social justice will not only attract consumers but employees too. Leaders unable to transform their business will lose out on the best and brightest talent—including partners and suppliers—which will directly impact business results.
Artificial Intelligence is transforming the world. The division between reality and imagery has collapsed. We now live in hyperreality, a world where simulations of reality seem more real than reality itself. Jean Baudrillard defined Hyperreality as, “the generation by models of a real without origin.” Fast forward to 2023, society is struggling to make the distinction between AI-generated media and truth. But more importantly, the distinction wouldn’t matter because people derive equal meaning and value from the simulated world. Recent examples include Pope Francis in a puffer jacket, Donald Trump being arrested and Drake singing Heart on My Sleeve. Each piece of content is circulated millions of times without any critical questions being asked. A reflection of our surreal conditions and the eroding trust in mainstream media.
Companies are already using tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney and others for commercial purposes. Despite exponential growth, we’re still talking about generative AI. Using Large Language Models (LLM) and image AI models to produce texts, images and videos. Humans are still required to prompt the machines. But what happens when machines no longer need human intervention? This is known as General Artificial Intelligence: where machines can understand and contribute to the world. Non-human intelligence will compete with human intelligence for supremacy. Humans might no longer have a monopoly on cultural ideas and movements. This could lead to the end of human civilization as we know it.
Technology is moving faster than our ability to understand its implications. We need to create space for critical thinking. The decisions made today will affect the future of every living person (and machine) on our planet.