Trends for 2011 still good for 2012

Now that it’s almost 2012, I think it’s about time we revisited my top 10 trends for 2011 that were written in late 2010 and posted in early January. How right have they proven to be? Judge for yourself. Personally I think the only one that’s way off is number 8.

Ten Trends for 2011

#1. Uncertainty
In 2011, nothing is certain except uncertainty. With the economic recovery still brittle in many parts of the world, people will be looking for safety, reassurance and control. They will be largely disappointed. What we can expect, with some degree of certainty, is that there will be widespread anxiety, especially in financial markets, and there will be a background expectation that something will sooner or later go wrong.

Politicians and markets will swing between irrational pessimism and exuberance and this will create policies (and prices) that tend to overshoot and then over-correct. On the domestic front, people will hold off making big-ticket purchases until there is a clearer view of what lies ahead. They may have to wait a long time.

#2. Volatility
Volatility is intimately connected to uncertainty. The root cause of this is the universal connectivity now built into everything from financial markets to media and communications. This means that risk is now networked and failure can quickly spread. Financial markets are at the epicenter of potential seismic events. In some cases the risk can be real. The threat of a debt crisis in one country can lead to a genuine crisis of confidence in another. However, the contagion can be imagined and in some cases manufactured. Information pandemics rapidly spread false or misleading information but such is the rapidity of the cycle that nobody has the time to verify the facts – or call to account those spreading the disinformation – before another real or imaged threat breaks out.

Commodity price spikes and wild fluctuations in the price of assets. Indeed, volatility means that nobody is quite sure what the underlying value of many assets now is, which only adds to the volatility.Some speculators will make huge amounts of money from such movements, although where one can safely stash such rewards is far from clear. Watch out for individuals flocking to ‘safe’ investments such as art, prime real estate, agricultural land and gold (and then look out for bubbles bursting in gold, real estate, land and so on).

#3. Rage
In the US, 20% of American men aged between 25-55 are now unemployed. In the 1960s 95% of the same group had a job. This could be reason enough to get angry but the bad news doesn’t end there. Food prices are rising, energy costs are increasing and the US faces the prospect of economic decline relative to the emerging powers, most of which have come out of the global recession relatively unscathed. Add to this the twin evils of Washington and Wall Street and you have the makings of a new age of rage in middle-America. Only 33% of Americans think that their kids will have a better quality of life than they’ve had and 57% think that the next generation will inherit a generally worse situation according to the writer Frank Luntz.

In Europe things are looking especially nasty. In the UK, for instance, indirect taxes are going up and infrastructure investment (police, health, transport, education etc) is going down. This all adds up to people paying more to get less, which in turn leads to more frustration, which, thanks to social media, can easily tip over into large groups expressing their anger physically.

An age of rage founded on the realization that current generations may not enjoy the standards of living that were experienced (expected) by their parents and grandparents. Where this rage will be channeled is anybody’s guess, but we might see outbreaks of violence against individuals and institutions that are perceived to be immune from pain. We may also see a resurgence of protectionist economic policies, anti-immigration rhetoric and populist right-wing politics.

#4. Religion rising
Imagine no religion. It appears that many people can’t. Science and technology are supposed to be making religion redundant, but it appears that the opposite is increasingly the case. When times are complex and confusing organized religion offers people hope alongside universal truth. Indeed, when life becomes a struggle economically or uncertain environmentally, religion offers an easy to understand view of why things are as they are and how things will eventually work out. In an increasingly chaotic world it’s also comforting to believe that someone, or something, is in control.

Clearly the growth of fundamentalism is one aspect of this, but religion is enjoying resurgence across the board, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of the reason for this is globalization. Religious beliefs now move around more freely. Similarly, urbanization and social media are bringing people and religious beliefs closer together.

Expect to see a resurgence in traditional practices, rituals and beliefs, including pilgrimages. Also expect to see rise in spiritualism and an interest in the afterlife (much of it linked to societal ageing). Finally, expect continued sectarian violence in some regions.

#5. Formality
Democracy and anti-elitism have led to the growth of informality in recent years. This has been accelerated by the egalitarian tendencies of the Internet – or at least by the egalitarian ethos of young Internet start-ups, many of which are run by t-shirt wearing revolutionaries. However, the global recession has created a counter-trend moving in the opposite direction. Seriousness is back in vogue and older people have started to dress smarter in a vain attempt to keep their jobs.

This formality has trickled down to younger individuals, especially those concerned with getting or keeping a professional career. To some extent this trend is cyclical, but it is also connected with an interest in tradition, craft and artisan skills. Another accelerant is popular revulsion at yobbish culture, especially in the UK.

A resurgence in good manners, formal dining and bespoke menswear. Also watch-out for resurgence in period drama, books and documentaries about the Victorians and traditional Sunday roasts.

#6. Food inflation
Food has been cheap for a long time and many people now view ingredients that were once considered luxuries as necessities. But this situation is about to change. The primary problem is population. There are simply more mouths to feed. However, the real issue is not so much demand per se but peoples’ changing consumption habits. Put simply, more people – especially people in developing markets – are changing eating habits in line with rapidly rising incomes. Hence people that used to live on subsistence diets of rice are now demanding meat. Call it calorie inflation if you like but whatever you call it the consequence is rapidly rising prices. According to Nomura, the investment bank, “the surge in commodity prices in 2003-8 was the largest, longest and most broad-based of any commodity boom since 1980.” Nomura goes on” “The prices of energy and metals surged the most but it was the agricultural market that saw the most fundamental change.”

Surging commodity prices and price spikes are one consequence, but also look out for changing eating habits. In Western markets there will be new interest in cheaper cuts of meat and in new species of fish. More people will be cooking at home to save money too. On the really nasty side, watch-out for a return of food riots. In some countries this could boil over into serious violence. In terms of opportunities, fish farming and fish ranching look like sure-fire winners.

#7 “Long land”
According to the World Bank, agricultural production must increase by 70% by the year 2050. Why? The primary reason is demographic – there will be more people in the future and they will want something to eat. The second reason is consumption habits – more people with more money means switching to meat-based diets, especially in Asia (see food inflation trend). The third reason is bio-fuels. Energy companies are interested in land not because of way lies beneath but because of what can be grown on top. The result? People taking a ‘long’ position on fertile land, especially in foreign lands, with the expectation that the value of the land and the food grown on it will increase substantially over the years ahead. For example, according to the World Bank, purchases of land in developing regions increased tenfold in 2009 to 45 million hectares. This trend is set to make the value of good land soar, especially well-watered hinterlands in Africa and Latin America. But buyers beware. Land isn’t just another commodity. Land is tied up with notions of nationalism and is semi-sacred in many regions.

Expect a global land grab by wealthy foreign investors (especially Chinese and Middle-Eastern sovereign wealth funds) to increase substantially over the coming years – but also expect protectionist backlashes over the purchase, or attempted purchase, of land by foreign investors. Also expect the issue of water access to rise to the surface on the back of this trend.

#8 Digital disenchantment
Are you sinking in a sea of scurrilous spam? How about drowning in deluge of digital dross? The internet, and Web 2.0 in particular, are wonderful things, but there are digital downsides, notably the fact that people are suffering from too much information and too much choice.The result is confusion on a grand scale. Our attention spans are dwindling (books are now seen by many younger generations as being “too long”) and we seem unable to retain important information, such as home phone numbers, ATM PIN numbers, family birthdays and security codes. As for work, all some people seem to do is answer endless mails only to be faced with more once they have dealt with the first batch.

Of course, you could use technology to solve most of these problems. Use RSS feeds or Google alerts to filter the amount of incoming information or simply switch off your email or mobile phone. But filtering seems to create even more information and switching off isn’t really an option when everyone else is still switched on and expects an instant response.

People are seeking harmony with regard to their digital/analogue balance much in the same way that they are seeking work/life balance. One way to achieve this is to set clear boundaries about when you do certain things or when you use certain technologies. This will work up to a point but at some stage you will have to be more brutal. Switch your mobile off after 7.30pm. Don’t become “friends” with people you’ve never met and unblock your digital drain from time to time by unsubscribing to or disconnecting from unread or unused information.

#9. Pyjamas
In 1970, Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote about the “Future Shock” created by rapid technological change. Fast-forward to 1991 and Faith Popcorn predicted the emergence of ‘cocooning’ – a reaction against the unpredictable and somewhat stressful nature of modern life. Scrawl forward again a few digital decades and it looks like more of the same.
So what have pyjamas (PJs, Jim-Jams, sleep suits et al) got to do with rapid technological acceleration and rampant economic uncertainty? Simple. They offer physical and emotional warmth in cold and complex times. But escapism isn’t the only reason. More people are working from home nowadays, so what some people wear to work doesn’t really matter. We are also spending more leisure time at home surfing websites rather than going out, so this is fuelling the trend also.

Rising sales of nighttime clothing, especially ‘third wardrobe’ items that can be worn in bed, around the house or front of the television or computer. BTW, if you are the type of person that likes to go shopping, or collect the children, wearing PJs there’s a word for you. It’s “No!”

Trend #10 – No Trend

My final trend for 2011 is that there is no trend. There are certain uncertainties but beyond this it’s impossible to see what lies ahead. Is the Euro finished? Will Portugal go the same way as Ireland and Greece? Is China heading for a fall? Who can say? One thing I would say is that is we appear to have entered a phase where technology is acting as an accelerant – or at least creating a confluence – for a number of existing trends.

For example, cascading failure can be a feature of highly complex systems. Some things are now so finely engineered and universally connected that there are no tolerances. If one element fails (or is attacked) whole parts of the system come crashing down. Hopefully, the view ahead will clear sometime in 2011 or 2012 but until then all one can say with any degree of certainty is the future is a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma.

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