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Trends for the Future
By Marian Salzman, Ira Matathia
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2006 Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia
All rights reserved.
big next: the age of anxiety
There's a Swedish proverb that says worry gives a small thing a big shadow. If that's the case, we're experiencing a real cultural eclipse. There's a pall on our collective consciousness as we negotiate the troubles of daily life with even bigger things on our minds like cataclysmic natural disasters, terrorism, disease pandemics, and war.
When we wrote Next, fear was already one of the overarching trends that we thought would change everything, a "Big Next," right in Chapter 1. We were feeling beset by scandal, not just in the arena of big business, but among "government leaders, celebrities, and just about everyone else in the media spotlight." We wrote about the consequences:
One result of having weathered scandal after scandal is that we've grown more cynical. We're wiser to the ploys of politicos, preachers and priests, teachers, and, yes, advertisers and marketers. We're bombarded with infinitely more messages than we were a dozen years ago. We're worried about our futures, our countries, our jobs, our cities and villages, our schools, violence down the street and overseas. And we're anxious about what the millennium holds.
We had good reason to be anxious about the turn of the century. A quick glance at the news reveals myriad worrisome issues: A single summary in the New York Times touches on "carnage" in Sudan, Iran's nuclear program, the rise of HIV/AIDS among minorities, church-burnings in Alabama, and Internet piracy. We're overwhelmed by things to worry about, from bird flu to terrorist strikes, and it's a real assault on our comfort zones.
It's interesting to note how many of these anxieties we would have been thinking about ten years ago. Of the lot, beyond avian flu, the closest one to being new is Internet piracy (though we did talk about the impact of online-payment fears in the nascent days of e-commerce). The new fears, the new threats are really the old ones — of course, the most profound difference is that we view everything through the prism of 9/11.
Before 9/11, there was talk of people drowning in information, too many inputs; Marian's reaction was that many people, especially the upper-middle class, were actually feeling emotionally overloaded: too many choices, too many paths not taken. Today, we have anxiety overload, and we respond by bouncing from strong and fierce — "It won't get me" — to cautious and fearful — "Can I beat the odds?"
It's not just that our fears are amplified — we're continuing to lose faith in institutions (government, corporations, media, church, even the United Nations) that once helped us navigate the world's woes. We're at the cynical tail end of just over 200 years of ideologies spawned by the enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. The notion that fairness and good sense could prevail in society all but dissipated in the twentieth century, in the wake of the ideological horrors of Nazism and fascism. Then the end of colonialism, the spread of 1960s liberalism, the end of Soviet communism, and the triumph of market-based capitalism raised some hopes.
But little can be achieved if our institutions are revealed to be inadequate and even corrupt. Skepticism and cynicism are born. International polls show that trust in these institutions is at an all-time low. It feels like nothing is sacred anymore.
Next: Our Institutions Fail Us
The attacks of September 11, 2001, assaulted all of our presumptions about the reality of terrorism and the ability of our government to protect us. "Terrorists are working to obtain biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological weapons, and the threat of an attack is very real," reads the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Web site. An official advisory system may measure the risk of a terrorist attack on a daily basis, but people are skeptical about how the much the government can really do if an attack hits. And it doesn't help matters that in the spirit of the Cold War backyard bunker, Americans are encouraged to take personal responsibility, with survival kits and emergency plans.
Ultimately, we must fend for ourselves, a notion vividly reinforced by images of stranded survivors on rooftops begging for help and the horrific conditions in the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina hit. That was followed by a 505-page report called "A Failure of Initiative" that detailed the inaction of government agencies and leaders in their response to the disaster. It's not hard to see how the government has made the American public uneasy. All one has to do to up the ante of anxiety is ponder the allegations against government leaders, from wiretapping to prisoner abuse to inept disaster preparedness. Gallup polls showed President Bush's job approval rating was at an unimpressive 42 percent (about half of what it was in the months after 9/11) by February 2006.
In many — perhaps most — countries, politicians and public officials are now assumed to be basically untrustworthy. Chronic mistrust of politicians and officials might be regarded as part of the culture in such developing countries as Nigeria, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, but it's also endemic in developed countries like Italy (not coincidentally run by that country's biggest media mogul) and Greece, which rank 40th and 47th, respectively, in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. And two of the administrations that have trumpeted their principles most loudly — the Bush and the Blair governments — appear to have misrepresented the case for war in Iraq. Trust in them has fallen accordingly.
At the same time, our trust in corporations has eroded as misdeeds by names ranging from Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom in the United States to Ahold and Parmalat in Europe, pile up. It paints an impression of big business as a world of self-serving greed and duplicity. A survey by the World Economic Forum found that trust in both large national companies and global companies recovered to pre-Enron levels in 2004, but again declined; trust in global companies specifically is now at its lowest level since tracking began five years ago.
Next: Fearing Mother Nature
The cover of the November 2005 issue of Wired raises the red flag on "Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Meltdowns: America's Next 10 disasters." Between them, the Asian tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan, and Hurricane Katrina gave the media ample material to dramatize the ramifications of natural disaster.
And while the tsunami of late 2004 killed a vast number of people — well over 100,000 — we are told that that number could be dwarfed if a major earthquake were to hit a densely populated area. Many people know they're at risk: Many Japanese live in a major earthquake zone; the big cities in California are built on the San Andreas fault, a geological time bomb. (A major quake in California "would be much worse than Katrina," says David McLean, a structural engineering expert with the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center.) Densely populated Italy is home to three active volcanoes, and Mexico City, with a population of 18 million, is just 40 miles from an active volcano.
The odds are long, but under one scenario, the Eastern seaboard of the United States could be destroyed by a tsunami set off by the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Atlantic island of La Palma. Seismologists fear its next eruption could dislodge an unstable 12-mile-long slab of rock, which would crash to the sea bed and cause a tsunami that would hit the Americas nine to 12 hours later. Cities including Boston, New York, and Miami would see 80-foot waves; South America would be equally overwhelmed.
Mother Nature has become a force we can't trust. The 700 Club's Pat Robertson and Christian radio commentator Charles Colson have gone so far as to suggest that natural disasters are payback and punishment for America's sins. (Robertson would later see divine retribution for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories in Ariel Sharon's stroke.) Colson, former special counsel to President Nixon, even suggested that God allowed Katrina to happen as a reminder to the United States of the importance of winning the "war on terror."
New Zealand has been voted the world's safest destination by readers of the U.K. travel magazine Wanderlust several times. But it too has its share of dangers: Auckland sprawls across a field of at least 50 volcanoes. And scientists say the Alpine fault has a 70 percent chance of causing a major earthquake in the next 20 years; such an event could cost the small country up to $11 billion.
Our fears of nature are now amplified by the specter of global warming. Many scientists believe global climate change has reached a pace at which surprising and sudden effects are possible. In 2005, for example, scientists discovered that the Gulf Stream, which raises the temperature in Europe by an average of 5 degrees, had already weakened by about 30 percent. There was widespread belief that the severity of Katrina was due to global warming. As Bill Clinton put it at the 2006 World Economic Forum, climate change is the only problem "that has the power to end the march of civilization as we know it."
Attempts to stabilize greenhouse-gas emissions, linked to climate change, have stalled. In December 2005, at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal, the United States refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol; neither China nor India attended, although China opens a new coal-burning power station every two weeks and will soon overtake the United States to become the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide. One recent response — motivated as much by business self-interest as concern for the planet — is the $3 billion dollar pledge to invest in renewable energy by Virgin's Sir Richard Branson at the second Clinton Global Initiative.
Climate change is just one of the dire environmental crises we're warned about. There are many, including the fact that by 2050, four more planet Earths would be required to sustain the projected population of nine billion people, according to British scientist John Guillebaud. New maps show that the Earth is rapidly running out of fertile land and that food production will soon be unable to keep up with the world's population. The UN reports that during the next 20 years, the average supply of water per person is expected to drop by a third. As early as 2000, 30 countries containing 20 percent of the world's population were short of water, and the UN warns that figure will rise to 50 countries by 2025. An environmental assessment by the World Wildlife Fund and the Worldwatch Institute in Washington found that humans are exploiting about 20 percent more renewable resources than can be replaced each year.
Next: Rising Global Health Fears
A few years ago, the phrase "the next pandemic" would have been meaningless to most. Globalization and global mobility provide outstanding opportunities for pathogenic bugs of all sorts. This was already the case when journeys overseas took weeks, not hours. The SARS outbreak in China caused a major panic before it was contained. And now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control writes in "Preparing for the Next Pandemic" that "Many scientists believe it is only a matter of time until the next influenza pandemic occurs. The severity of the next pandemic cannot be predicted, but modeling studies suggest that the impact of a pandemic on the United States could be substantial." The top candidate for pandemic is Avian Influenza A (H5N1), one of the few "bird flu" viruses that also affects humans. Around half of those who become infected from birds will die, but the big danger is that the strain could mutate into a form that's highly infectious and transferable among humans. Such a change could mark the start of a global outbreak.
And just as the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina quickly and massively turned life upside down for huge numbers of people, so would a pandemic. It would disrupt everything from air travel to tourism and the international food trade; mass transportation and public places would be shunned; and Westerners may well have to rethink social habits such as kissing, hugging, and even shaking hands.
While the dangers of an influenza pandemic are only hypothetical, the dangers of another pandemic, the global spread of obesity, are clear: increased incidence of type 2 diabetes and its associated complications, increased risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer. This phenomenon has been dubbed "globesity" by the World Health Organization. One way or another, the coming years are virtually certain to see a rise in global levels of anxiety about health.
A few years ago, we completed a study on globesity that found its way onto the cover of the Economist and page 1 of the New York Times. One of our key findings was that XXL-sized people were changing businesses, since current dimensions of everything from coffins to toilet seats in hospitals do not accommodate the truly obese.
What's Next? Hajj Scares
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca presents a perfect storm of elements that could set off an epidemic: A mass of people, many from countries that are still batting infectious diseases like polio and cholera, congregate in close quarters. In January 2006, as many as 2.5 million Muslims participated in the Hajj. Disease outbreaks have occurred before, with documented cases of cholera epidemics reported in the 19th century. Meningitis became an issue in 1987, after an international outbreak following the Hajj that year. Saudi Arabia now makes meningitis vaccinations mandatory. While the government has taken various other precautions, even equipping the airports in three cities with thermal cameras to pinpoint travelers with dangerously high fevers, the pilgrimage could well serve as an "epidemiological amplifying chamber" for the avian flu, says Ziad Memish, co-author of a study on the topic in The Lancet. If one person in the throng carries the virus, reports Seed magazine, the odds that it would mutate into a human-to-human strain "would increase by orders of magnitude."
Next: Master of My Destiny
As a response to fears and anxieties related to health concerns, corporate scandals, government ineptitude, terrorism, and all the other complexities of modern life, people are seeking more personal control. We're taking matters into our own hands, whether it's home-schooling and eating homegrown organic foods or screening potential mates online for the perfect match. Our desire to be autonomous isn't new — even in small children, the human desire for self-determination is clearly present. What's new is the extent to which personal control has become a social phenomenon. We find custom-designed dates online. Peer-based ratings systems for eBay transactions help guard against people who don't play by the rules. Local grass-roots groups intend to take matters into their own hands and become the real "first responders" in the event of a terrorist attack. We self-diagnose our ailments online, disillusioned with the medical establishment. We swoon for celebrities like Angelina Jolie who go head to head with world leaders in the name of social justice.
Next: Consumers Take Charge
Since the 1980s, the thrust of free-market economics has been to facilitate more individual control, get people to accept more responsibility for their lives, and give them more power to do so. The result has been that in every walk of life, consumers now expect to call the shots. Their demands increase every year, encouraged by technological breakthroughs and a stated "customer is king" attitude.
Consumers now have the means for greater autonomy. After the introduction of ATMs, having to coordinate with banking hours and stand in line for a teller was replaced by the freedom to get ahold of cash whenever and wherever one needs it. The TV remote control brought freedom from unwanted shows and commercials, the ability to seek out pleasurable content quickly and easily. WiFi gives us freedom from wires and lets us access the Internet at will. Interactive technology is all about giving the user control: The Internet, TiVo, PVRs, and self-service touch screens have all gotten consumers used to being in charge of their experiences. And the Internet lets the most proactive consumers seek detailed comparisons and reviews before making a purchase, blog about their experiences with products, then hound brands that have let them down. And now connectivity is also available via the cell phone so that location has been taken out of the equation entirely.
In today's highly competitive markets, there's huge scope for consumers to exercise control by playing brands off one another. And as consumers' expectations for fulfillment increase, the result is fidgety, volatile behavior. The process tends to be one of diminishing returns — as personal control grows, so do people's demands, expectations, and complaints. For personal-control freaks, enduring satisfaction is a rarely achieved ideal. Dissatisfaction is always waiting in the wings — so they move on to the next thing.
Excerpted from Next Now by Marian Salzman, Ira Matathia. Copyright © 2006 Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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