This is the final article in a series of articles written by our colleague David B. Wolfe noted author and older consumer expert.
by David Be. Wolfe
The Seasons of Life: The Rosetta Stone of Consumer Behavior
I remember a story from the days when TV shows came only in black and white – I think it was a Rod Serling Twilight Zone story – about a man who sold his soul to get a copy of tomorrow’s newspaper today. Predictably, the outcome was not a happy one for him.
How much would companies be willing to pay for a description of the mind of the market, say a dozen and a half years or so into the future?
In Serving the Ageless Market, which I finished writing nearly 19 years ago, I predicted a number of changes in the mind of the market that have come to pass. A sampling:
Elevated interest in products as “gateways to experiences” (which has produced what Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore dubbed “The Experience Economy” in their book by that name.
Lower tolerance for hyperbole with stronger demand for “reality” marketing (as witnessed by the recent Dove campaign based on “Real Beauty).
Increased interest in spirituality (as witnessed by the emergence and growth of megachurches and the wide scale infusion of spiritual themes in popular music.
A cultural shift toward the “right” brain (as witnessed in a number of books including Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind).
More interest in buying “cheap” for lifestyle maintenance simultaneously with more interest in buying “pricy” for lifestyle enrichment (as witnessed by media stories about the rich and famous buying at both Target and Neiman-Marcus).
A boom in activist philanthropy in which benefactors wouldn’t simply write checks and set up foundations to give money to worthy causes, but would roll up their sleeves and get directly involves in causes (as Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Milken and many other philanthropists are now doing).
A resurgence of 1960s and ‘70s values with broad, positive consequences for society.
A severe recession in housing markets that would last about 10 years (We are now at the beginning of that recession the ultimate major cause of which is not the subprime lending fiasco, but shrinkage in housing demand caused by falling population count in the 35 to 45 age cohort along with the tendency of older people to stay in their traditional home).
A shift of in perceptions of the purposes of capitalistic enterprises whereby companies would strive to operate for the benefit of society as well as for the benefit of shareholders.
To varying degrees all of those predictions, along with a number of others I made in Serving the Ageless Market, have come true. How was I able to see as far out as 20 years into the future?
The answer begins with a notable occurrence in 1989 that went unnoted by media, business school academics and virtually every company in the land: for the first time in U.S. history, the majority of adults were age 40 and older. This meant that the youth and young adults no longer made up the “cultural majority.” The values of people in the second half of life would increasingly influence the zeitgeist – the spirit of culture – as their numbers became more dominant. They now outnumber adults under 40 by an astonishing 137 million to 86 million.
If you have followed this series, you know why the shift of the cultural center of the adult population into the Fall of life made it virtually inevitable that my predictions would be realized. Truly, the seasons of life are a Rosetta Stone that can give us significant clues about the mind of the market, years into the future. By studying demographic projections years into the future, I could clearly see the nature of the worldviews, values, aspirations and general behavior of the New Customer Majority years into the future. I knew this would dramatically reshape the zeitgeist, and in the process dramatically change the calculus of supply and demand. That has come to pass.
As I wrote the final chapter of Serving the Ageless Market in which I made a number of predictions, I was sure that the book would be a big-time best seller because I had drawn a picture of the future a number of years hence. I was to be disappointed, though the book did better than the average business book; it never came close to making the best seller lists.