Futurists see a bull market for nostalgia
GIVEN that the economy is cratering, the lead in the presidential polls keeps seesawing and I’m trying to restrain myself from going online every 15 minutes to check the news, I thought now would be a good time to call a futurist to see what else could be coming down the pike.
OK, I’d prefer to ask a psychic or an astrologer, but some would say they have less credibility. A futurist -- sometimes called a trend spotter -- at least predicts, for instance, how the current financial collapse is going to reverberate through the culture, changing how we think, mate, live and buy, and most back up their pronouncements with market research.
After talking to the New York-based Faith Popcorn and Marian Salzman about the current economic meltdown, I felt like I could use about five martinis and a stash of Vicodin. Popcorn is the bestselling author of “The Popcorn Report” and a bright light of the medium -- she’s famous for predicting the “nesting” renaissance of the 1980s, while Salzman has been chief marketing guru for a variety of New York ad behemoths and popularized the term “metrosexual” in the 1990s.
Both were pretty gloomy about the cultural aftershocks of the recent financial quake .
“This is the opposite of the American dream,” says Popcorn. “This is the American nightmare. I feel that people are feeling a tremendous onset of sadness. I think people are really getting into what we’re calling the ‘uber-cocoon.’ They’re going to want to hang out under their beds. They’re going to go into a national depression -- maybe a global one,” says Popcorn. She’s not talking about financial depression but old-fashioned emotional malaise. The blues. Mass anhedonia.
Salzman chimes in that young people in particular “are going to feel quite lost. For those who graduated in May and June and didn’t bother to look for a job or couldn’t find one, this is going to be a lost couple of years. There’s going to be a generation who’s going to be left out [of the economy]. You’re feeling their sadness and melancholy. Suddenly they’ve had all the good times taken away from them. Once again, it’s the boomers who have inflicted this on everybody else, and there’s going to be generational tension.”
At least the entertainment business should prosper from all this gloom. Entertainment saved our souls during the Great Depression, and given how things are going, plenty of us are going to be wanting our escapist fixes.
“They’re dying to go to the movies or have videos,” says Popcorn, who thinks that retro is going to make a roaring return. “It’s going to look like the ‘50s and ‘60s, even the ‘70s. [They] were the most delicious time on the planet. It’s so wonderful. You never have to think about anything or worry about anything.” (Note to the networks: Time for a “Father Knows Best” remake?)
“People want happy endings,” adds Salzman. “And fantasy. Lots and lots of fantasy, which will be so much better than reality. If it feels too familiar or close to home, we’re going to reject it outright.”
“Everything that you [hear] today, I guarantee you will happen,” says Popcorn modestly, though she says that it’s hard to predict the actual timing of trends.
A futurist analyzes global trends in culture, values, and infrastructure. They forecast how we’re going to live our lives in five, 10, 15 years, and generally sell their insights to major corporations who want to figure out how to cash in on shifting consumer tastes.
Popcorn’s company, BrainReserve, has a 10,000-member talent bank that watches for trends, and she keeps track of her assessments in her TrendBank. Current ideas in the TrendBank include such phenomena as “atmosfear” (fear of tainted food and water), “egonomics” (consumers craving individuality) and “pleasure revenge,” which her firm defines as consumers having a “secret bacchanal. They’re mad as hell and want to cut loose again.”
Salzman, of Porter Novelli, comes from the world of online market research and is known for her wit. She’s a pro at coming up with catchy phrases like “Chindia” (i.e., the takeover of the economic juggernaut by China and India). She recently returned from studying young women in China, where she learned that their No. 1 pastime is “having sex in the office after their boss went home . . . and online stock trading.”
The two women have been pals for eight years and often pool information and bounce ideas off each other.
Both are apocalyptic about the cultural implications of the economic meltdown. Salzman thinks that when history get rewritten, Sept. 15 -- the day Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy -- will be recast as another 9/11. “It’s a different kind of building coming down, psychological buildings. Trusted institutions are collapsing. It’s a different loss of life. It’s the loss of the imaginary life that kept the lifeblood of New York going.”
“People are hating the banks. We’re very, very angry at the government. I’ve never seen any feeling like this,” adds Popcorn.
The economic crisis will spread through the culture in different ways, they contend. Popcorn sees more people “cashing out,” looking to take their nest eggs and move to safer cities. Booze and tobacco sales will go up. “We’re falling off the edge; what difference does it make?” she asks.
There will be a “real rise in impotence,” adds Salzman. “There is always a correlation between a negative stock market and impotence.” Men will also start sporting more facial hair as a way to reclaim manhood, and there will be a rise in traditional guy activities like “talking about sports, sharing simple beers, hunting and fishing . . . the cheaper kinds of male-bonding things.” Conversely, the fad of cougars -- older women with young lovers -- is going to fade because women won’t be able to afford boy toys.
Not everything will be bad as the country is forced to give up its decades of rampant materialism. Maybe we’ll finally get to say goodbye to Paris Hilton, who will seem as anachronistic as an eight-track tape. “The nuclear family is going to emerge stronger,” says Salzman. “Friends are going to be like family. We’re going to see more communal living.” Kids and grown-ups are going to end up living with parents. “A lot of elderly people in their 70s will see their children boomerang home.”
“They’ll be car-sharing, house-sharing, grocery-sharing,” adds Popcorn.
“The post-Katrina home that FEMA rebuilt for a lot of people will become the dream scenario,” says Salzman. “It’s very, very small, but everything you need is there. There will be real acceptance of downward mobility. We’re going to simplify, reduce and reuse.”
And hopefully, at least for this town, people are going to hunker down in the dark and blitz their brains on “Desperate Housewives” and “The Dark Knight.”
I recently complained about Hollywood’s obsession with superheroes. Obviously, I was wrong. What we all need is a comely man in tights to carry us away from the Bush world and make this miasma of gloom vanish. Even if it only lasts two hours.
Bring on the superheroes!