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Wild Ride to the Turn of the Century

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that the New Year’s festivities are but a faint memory, it’s time to get serious about 1999.

Trend forecasters certainly are. It’s their job to tell us what we’ll be doing, feeling, thinking and wearing in the coming year, based on observations, polls, statistics and our behavior. So hold on to your party hat--if you can still find it. It’s going to be some ride, complete with:

* A lack of faith in everything we used to count on, from the water we drink to the politicians we elect, leading us to seek refuge in our homes and to venture out only when we have to.

* Tripping the light fantastic, as people try to forget their worries and live it up by going out.

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* Customized everything, from clothes to home furnishings. Technology will make it easier and less expensive to give the consumer exactly what he or she wants.

* Leisure time will become more precious, elevating to a status symbol. But instead of frittering time away, people will use it productively.

* Compassion and cooperation will take the place of dog-eat-dog competition. Look at Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. They get along just fine.

* The coming turn of the century will make the country completely wiggy.

If some of those predictions sound a bit conflicting, they are. Although the prognosticators surveyed agree on some trends, they diverge on others. The truth is out there--and we’ll know it soon enough.

We are becoming a distrustful nation but understandably so, says Faith Popcorn, the ubiquitous author (“Clicking” Harper Business, 1996) and trend tracker who’s founder and chairman of BrainReserve, a New York-based marketing consulting firm.

“Both political parties have freaked out and the HMOs have destroyed our pride and trust in medicine,” she says. “AIDS is a rampant disease, and you can catch airborne tuberculosis on an airplane. Even the air traffic controllers are overwhelmed. The schools have metal detectors. There’s not one thing you can look at that makes you feel everything’s OK.”

That will lead to “deep cocooning,” says Popcorn, who coined the word “cocooning” years ago to describe Americans retreating to their homes instead of going out.

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“We’re just going to hole up,” she adds, “and we’ll be able to do that more because of the Internet. Every home will have a virtual reality room. If we do go out, it will be from cocoon to cocoon. Even Barnes & Noble has become a cocoon--people go in there and fall asleep in the chairs.”

Then again. . . .

We could be kicking up our heels, says Gerald Celente, head of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. What he terms the “swing cycle” describes our need to leave the nest and go out and have fun. It’s exemplified in the current swing dance and music craze.

“People are concerned about the future; they’re disenchanted with the present, and they want to live before they die,” Celente says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m tuning out of the news, I want to have a good time.’ ”

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With other forms of entertainment--shopping, movies, concerts--the communal experience factor is not always there, Celente claims.

“That’s what the hope of swing brings back--if it’s not just a recycled image of the past,” he says. “It must be given a new life. It’s something that’s fun, a little more romantic. People like to feel some level of intimacy.”

They also like to feel special, says Marian Salzman, founding worldwide director of Young & Rubicam Inc.'s Brand Futures Group, which interprets trends in consumer behavior for the agency’s clients. That’s why customization is going to become paramount in the year ahead. We already have customized fragrances, makeup and jeans but may soon be offered more customized clothes, shoes, home furnishings--and it won’t cost a bundle.

“People no longer want the same things that everyone else has,” she says. “We want to feel it’s uniquely ours. There’s a lack of individuality in the world, and people want to leave their own mark.”

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The price of custom-created items has dropped and will continue to do so, Salzman adds, as technology becomes more refined and accessible.

“If you want an item of clothing, you’ll have 45 fabric selections, 14 collar choices, different sleeve options, and it’ll be made to your exact size,” she says. “That’s certainly not like going into Nordstrom and buying off the rack.”

That may even make designer clothes less desirable. But don’t worry, there will be other status symbols--such as free time.

That’s according to Jim Spring, president of Leisure Trends Group in Boulder, Colo., which studies how people spend their leisure time.

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“How much leisure time you have and how you spend it is the new status symbol,” he says. “It’s become more important than traditional symbols like a BMW or a swimming pool. When they have time, people are beginning to emphasize experiences, trying new things--they want to go on adventure travel vacations like going down the Amazon. We also want to do productive things, like take classes in things like cooking.”

If the coming year will see us becoming more productive time managers, it will also find us becoming more compassionate as well, Celente says.

The outpouring of emotion following the death of Princess Diana was a clear indication to Celente that compassion was alive and well.

“Here she was, a storybook tale in some ways, but the princess cared about the common people, which hasn’t been seen anywhere in the hierarchy of government,” Celente says. “It’s always that tone of, ‘Pick yourself up by your bootstraps.’ If we look behind the sitcoms and the gloss, People magazine, you find a lot of people who are very desperate for direction and compassion and a word of kindness and comfort.”

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It may even change the way businesses are run--well, some businesses.

“We’ve been looking at the concept of survival of the fittest,” Celente says. “This was the Darwinian theory that critics of his day--and this day--say was an idea that justified deplorable conditions and actions, such as industrialization and colonization. The new millennium thinkers are saying, ‘If we take too many parts out of the whole, it will die.’ We grow up believing it’s a dog-eat-dog world. But you know, dogs don’t eat dogs. Many businesses that are totally profit driven will stay that way. But we’re definitely seeing the emergence of compassionate capitalism. And young people don’t want any part of working for a business that shows no respect and dignity toward the worker or the environment.”

As 2000 nears, compassion may be what’s needed as society starts to get a little kooky.

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This won’t be the first time this has happened--at the end of the last century people went nutty, too, some predicting the end of the world. Guess we didn’t learn from that one.

“The last millennium shift, people went berserk as well,” Celente says. “People left their farms, their homes . . . they thought the world was coming to an end. All you have to do is go to the supermarket and pick up a tabloid and see another headline saying that the end is near. Is it by coincidence or human accident that this Y2K [computer] millennium problem is happening? It’s kind of like a comet hurtling toward the Earth--we know it’s going to strike at a certain moment, but how much damage is it going to do?”

No one’s quite sure yet. But, adds Celente, there is one thing for certain: “There is no question that it is going to be one wild ride into the next millennium.”


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