Do people change?

Age, life stages, and identities are all shifting radically in line with changes in longevity.

An interview on the consumers of the future from the McCann Talks 3 publication.

Author: Katarina Pribićević, Strategic Planning Director, McCann Beograd

Interlocutor: Rodney Collins, Regional Director, EMEA Truth Central

There are quite a few ‘truths universally acknowledged’ in the world. They concern all manner of topics; once you put your mind to it, they can be really infuriating; and yet they are almost never questioned. One of these is my personal (un)holy grail: the statement that people do not really change.

I frequently find myself thinking about how much I’ve changed since my university days, or since I became a mother, or since I passed my 35th year. With the selective memories we inevitably develop, it is easy to look back; the hardest thing is to imagine the future.

The exact same thing occurs when we think of consumers… It seems that it has never been more difficult to predict the forces that will shape their behaviour or change their attitudes in the future. Who will they be? What will they be like? How will we (try to) understand them?

Eager to start the conversation about future consumers, I invited a curious mind to join me… He is a social scientist, an anthropologist with expertise in psychoanalytic, semiotic, and cultural analysis. He is also the Regional Director of EMEA Truth Central and a leading member of a team dedicated to uncovering human truths that help pioneering brands make their mark in the world. He is my dear colleague, Rodney Collins.

I want to start with something that intrigues me personally… McCann Truth Central just launched a new study, ‘Truth About Age’, dealing, among other things, with expectations and fears about life and aging. Would you say that the fact that life expectancy is prolonged influences perceptions of the future?

Absolutely. Although it’s important to keep in mind for whom. For instance, one truism about death and ageing is that, with few exceptions, we all die at an age that we believe is too young. We also see that the younger respondents in our global research have a shifting understanding of life stages. We learned last year that globally on average children live at home until the age of 32! That is far older than recent generations, especially in markets across Europe. The impact of this extension of ‘youth’ into one’s 30s is only beginning to be felt: housing markets must shift, the employment market must adapt.

So, at one end of the spectrum is an extension of youth and the advent of ‘adulting’, while at the other end life expectancy is increasing, and we see the advent of ‘senior moments’ or ‘senioring’. Age, life stages, and identities are all shifting radically in line with changes in longevity.

For me, one of the most intriguing insights related to aging is the difference between Serbia and the world. For example, unlike global youth, who are burdened with prejudices about aging, our youth does not even think about it (with the older population the perception is the reverse). This must be defined by this specific moment in time for different societies (and even cultures). In your opinion, could basic human needs change in the future, or just the means of fulfilling them? Does the context of culture or society have an influence, or could it have?

Basic human needs are unlikely to change – the need for security, purpose, connection, love, discovery, and achievement are all fundamental and universal to our human experience. The means of fulfilling these needs is in constant flux from person to person, from culture to culture.

For example, on a global scale the ways in which we fulfil our need for connection has undergone radical revision and modification in recent years – and especially since the advent of personal digital technologies. And yet, everywhere people are aware of the erosion of the quality of our connections, the intrusion of negative experiences, while simultaneously recognizing the amazing power and inspiration of being connected to people all over the world. The balance between deep connections and wide connections is a challenge and a question that everyone faces. If you’ve been watching programs like Black Mirror you can see how this balance can be tipped into a terrible state.

But, ultimately, the need for connection remains the driver.

As you already mentioned, the human need to connect with others – again the means might differ from culture to culture…I have to agree. Yet, somehow we have a tendency to generalize the impact of digitalization & technology. Do you think that digital media (in its widest sense) & social networks will help us better understand our consumers in the future or will it just confuse us?

As a social scientist and researcher, I believe that all data is useful for better understanding – whether that data is generated online or offline. But data is only as helpful as the questions that are asked of it. Many social scientists – as well as data analysts – are convinced of the value of the right question driving interpretation of the data. But no matter the extent to which we collect data, we have yet to master or overcome the issue of embedded and often unconscious biases, whether those biases are optimistic, conformational, or an ostrich effect. This is our real challenge: how to identify and understand the biases that frame our interpretations and how we form our questions.

We’ve already touched on several burning subjects related to the moment we live in which are relevant to the advertising context. But what do you see as the subject of social conversation in 2030?

If the past is any guide, we will continue to talk about who did what, when, and why. But with any luck we will increasingly tell and listen closely to stories about the world around us – and not just our fellow humans. In 2030 we’re going to be addressing huge issues as a species and on our planet: while so much of our personal life is getting better – from access to healthcare, education, and the products of creative industries – we are on the verge of unprecedented change to the biosphere. I recently read an article that predicted that water wars are on the horizon. Remember what I said about bias? Water wars have already started, and are one of the engines of the war in Syria. But I’m also incredibly hopeful that the innovative spirit that has truly characterized the last 100 years will change our course and drive us to a better, more equitable tomorrow.

The future shift to subjects related to humans as a species seems quite realistic. On that note, whether we travel to distant planets or are dedicated to understanding ourselves, uncover the secrets of the universe and/or still live pay check to pay check – whatever happens in the centuries to come, I think that one thing is certain: for our business, ‘the consumer of the future’ must become ‘the human of the future’.