From PRWeek December 26, 2023:
by Adrianna Bevilaqua, M Booth
Bed bugs at Paris Fashion Week. A cockroach at the Met Gala. It’s giving infestation!
This year, there was a fly in the ointment everywhere we looked, and it seemed impossible to be satisfied. Just look at the lineup of presidential candidates. The floundering state of office culture with U.S. employees unhappier than they have been since 2020. The backslide of DEI commitments. The return and demise of Twitter. Even the words of the year, “authentic” and “rizz,” dropped like the NFT market in Q1. Oh, and in September, astronauts coined the term nocstalgia to describe the yearning for dark night skies that no longer exist the way they once did as a result of light pollution.
Apparently the world can no longer experience the full power of stargazing, because, essentially, our vantage points are fading. Which sounds about right. Place these under the arc of the three existential threats we are experiencing in AI, climate change and world war, and it’s hard to imagine how we are able to see anything at all.
Scholars have assigned draconian and clever themes to these weird times as a way to frame our existence and possibly gain historical cred. The New Yorker captured this navel-gazing conversation well, pointing to phrases like “New Dark Age” and “Terrible Twenties” as potential contenders. While I would love to categorize all of this drama as a passing awkward moment in humanity, it feels, unfortunately, much more serious than that.
During Brexit, the president of the European Commission used the term “polycrisis” to discuss simultaneous disasters happening in Europe. This is a concept we can apply for our future selves and future world. We are indeed in our polycrisis era, a web of intersectional chaos at every moment that exceeds the sum of its parts. It is no wonder we are spiraling daily. Videos on our social feeds show real-time footage from an active war in the Middle East, next to a social influencer accusing news outlets of disseminating misinformation about the war, next to a Cyber Monday deal for Christmas jammies.
But amidst the chaos, somehow we are surviving. In some places, there is even a palpable energy that is contagious, a place where we are able to satisfy our deep hunger for meaning and even find enlightenment.
The Eras Tour was revenge for basic girls everywhere, proving you don’t have to be wild or edgy to be breakthrough. You can instead powerfully assert your inner life. It also birthed “Swiftonomics” and the idea that fandom could drive the economy, with a tour that was credited for the creation of 900 jobs and 320 million dollars in Los Angeles’ economy alone.
Beyonce lit the world up with her Renaissance tour, becoming the post-pandemic anthem for all of us, showing 2.7 million fans that we could heal and thrive again, while also breaking ticket sales records.
Then there was “Barbenheimer”: a film about a bombshell and a film about an actual bomb that came together in a cultural symbiosis, racking up 1 billion views on TikTok and driving 200,000 people in one weekend to a five-hour double feature. Also the best 90 seconds of the year: Ronny Chieng’s real talk on processing a future with robots. Another moment of nirvana? The union of Tony Hawk’s son to Frances Bean, Kurt Cobain’s daughter.
Cue peach fuzz: a fleshy shade that Pantone is positioning as color of the year, one that calls for empathy, which is desperately needed. The color harmonizes well with others and creates a feeling of lightness that sure has been out of reach. Eastern cultures consider the peach a sign of longevity while an astute article in Them accurately tracks the sexual symbolism of the peach in modern culture as depicted in Call Me By Your Name and of course on our emoji keyboards. Another fascinating thing about the peach? It’s a stone fruit. Soft and fleshy on the outside and hard and venomous on the inside. Its pit, if chewed, could actually be fatal due to the release of chemical amygdalin catalyzed during digestion.
This dichotomy serves as an energetic metaphor for the conundrum we are in. How do we remain soft, fleshy and human when we are smacked up against what is looming, sinister and deadly? In a stressed state, our reflex is fight or flight. As we examine what will emerge in 2024, let’s center these themes accordingly and examine the two flexes we’ll see. First, flight, the overwhelming urge to escape into a more sensory, visceral and hedonistic world, to live in our bodies. The second, to put up a fight and slay the monsters that lurk between the old and new world. We can’t do it alone. Let’s dive in.
First there was “quiet quitting,” then there was “quiet luxury” and in 2024 we will start to see a trend toward “quiet politics,” a reaction that will combat the noise we have been experiencing from politicians and social media.
Pew is reporting that 65% of Americans are exhausted by politics and only 4% feel excited by the state of affairs. Meanwhile, non-expert voices have been upticking in the space, and it’s causing mixed results. Do we want to hear Rachel Maddow’s perspective on Israel and Palestine? Yes. Do we need reshared footage with commentary from a lifestyle influencer that’s not fact-checked? That’s debatable. We have seen students, public figures and professionals across occupations lose jobs, opportunities and crush their reputations.
Regardless of the volume on the debate stage, as we drum up for the U.S. presidential election, expect to see the masses shy away from “hot takes” and embrace more “cool takes” as we calibrate for the year ahead. The war in the Middle East is upending historical alliances. Abortion is a key issue for women voters, with even 49% of female Republicans disagreeing with the overturning of Roe. Red states are attracting folks from the Northeast with lower taxes and a friendlier approach to business. But the migration is fueling the emergence of blue cities in red states and shifting dynamics in real time. David Brooks calls it a red-blue mash-up.
Living among polycrisis, and in a world where political residue is created as we live in closer proximity to those with traditionally different opinions, folks are not always broadcasting when they change lanes. Brands and companies will need to carefully consider their role in the geopolitical conversation, particularly from a society that is slyly shifting their politics. Although 64% of employees say they feel supported when their company takes a stand on political issues, 31% of Gen Z say they would quit if they don’t agree with that position. In the new year, companies will need to opt for collaboration with their stakeholders over consensus on issues. The growth of employee resource groups is a hopeful sign that organizations will be able to have the strategic dialogues they need. Across all pockets of society, the future may rest on our ability to listen carefully to what’s being said but also to what’s unspoken.
This spring, our surgeon general aptly named the global mental health crisis the ”epidemic of loneliness.” He discussed the lasting impact of COVID, remote work, social media and how global mental health has been in rapid decline. The stats are sobering. More than half of U.S. adults experience measurable loneliness. China has reported a ”friend recession” among Gen Z due to disconnection. The average youngster there reports just 2.5 friends. A recent study showed that young people ages 16 to 24 feel lonelier than any other generation. Even worse, loneliness can result in an increase in diseases, including a 29% increased risk of heart attack, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of dementia in older adults.
So where do we go from here? Next year will see a surge of folks getting together to find companionship and community while underscoring where our passions intersect. Vox reported that casual clubs are on the rise. Groups like City Girls Who Walk are “strolling deep,” attracting up to 600 hobbyists each week to walk around Central Park. We’ve seen the power of pickleball — noise complaints notwithstanding — and more joyful sports reign, including a revival of badminton, which has been projected to trend this year, according to Pinterest. Queer birding has taken off in many major cities, creating a safe space for nature and observation. ZZs, a food club by the folks at Carbone, will open a New York outpost after its Miami concept launched with a waitlist of 7,000 people. Social clubs are gaining traction again in NYC, particularly among affluent millennials. In the absence of work as a second home base, these third space clubs are rethreading the social fibers that are still frayed from the pandemic, providing organizations and brands the perfect opportunity to prioritize belonging and connect people within their larger communities and networks. Our lives depend on it.
For the past few years, we have seen reports that sex is down. We know from countless studies that Gen Z is having much less sex than its millennial and Gen X cohorts did at the same lifestage. Many pundits connect this trend to a collision of factors: from living in lockdown during their teen years to the #MeToo movement, which has created hesitation among sexual pursuits along with some much needed boundaries. Puriteens and celibacy were trending this year, a far cry from the toxic teen plots from yesteryear. I see you, Cruel Intentions.
While this is true, it’s also true that we are getting our groove back a bit, stemming from a desire to connect and feel human, but it doesn’t look the way it used to. Think Jenna Lyons’s sexy, restrained style at the Housewives reunion and creator Serena Kerigan Let’s Fucking Date platform, mostly a sex-positive place to chat about dating and getting it on, through the female gaze. Here she embraces desires and weaves a nuanced and modern conversation that takes shame out of our sex lives without completely centering sex as our entire life purpose.
Perhaps this new dialogue is also sparked due to the widening vocabulary about sexuality. Vogue discusses how the internet has allowed Gen Z to have a greater discussion about sex, even if they aren’t having it as much, giving them the words to explore the full possibilities of their sexuality. Psychology Today points out younger folks today are more open to ideas about sex like polyamory, or as they call it “ethical non-monogamy.” Movies like Poor Things about a woman’s sexual awakening when her mind and body connect are shaking off some oppression. The queer love in The Bucaneers is giving good vibes to a new generation that needs it. Add in the sex-while-menstruating scenes in both Saltburn and Fairplay and we have a hat trick of stigma-busting examples that remind us we aren’t in the Playboy mansion anymore, and that’s a good thing. Even Victoria’s Secret is getting back in the game when its sales slumped after they approached a new strategy that deviated from their brand DNA around capturing the essence of modern sexiness. It’s been a minute, but the new year will bring more signals that we have a sex positive future and an opportunity to play with desire in a more honest, intelligent and healing way.
GQ selected Kim Kardashian as the 2023 Man of the Year, sending a cultural signal that there weren’t enough worthy men. This summer, Barbie took a big swing at the patriarchy as she imagined a world where only women had main character energy, until she flipped to the other side and everything went awry. When America Ferrera’s speech went viral about being a woman, it’s not a far reach to think of an equivalent for men today. “Be strong but not threatening. Be sensitive but not a pushover. Pay the bills but don’t be patriarchal.” In the real world, men donned “I am Kenough” t-shirts, signaling that they, too, are self-conscious and in need their own affirmations to combat insecurity as they come of age.
While men may not necessarily deserve our tears, they do warrant a discussion and support as more research mounts that they are struggling. Almost 20% of men are not graduating high school. For every 100 women that graduate college, 74 men graduate with numbers in decline each year. They are dropping out of the labor force with men ages 25 to 34 experiencing increased unemployment. Thirty-six of this age group are still living at home with their parents. Among this malaise, it’s no surprise that voices like Jordan Peterson are resonating with men. His message is simple and clear: it’s harder today to be a man and you have to wake up and get your sh*t together to do it properly. His following in the manosphere is both revealing and alarming and promotes anti-feminist notions and misogyny. And it’s growing.
Scott Galloway, aka Prof G, has become one of the most productive voices in an emerging conversation about the future of men. He argues that men are desperately in need of role models, friendships and future frameworks that will provide them support to navigate their lives. In a viral op-ed on how men can find their way through the wilderness, Christina Embha comes to a salient conclusion, “The freer sex is being held to a higher standard. And that’s a good thing.”
In 2024, expect to see us all “man-ifesting,” that is, creating a cultural dialogue on how we can shape a new vision for men. While it may be searing, it’s one of the most urgent discussions we can have.
This year, New York Times columnist Jason Farago concluded that in terms of art, we are in a bit of a standstill. He argues that we are living in times where novelty and innovation are replaced by production and replication. In a world where ”the Rachel” haircut is back, Suits is trending on Netflix and Mean Girls is one of the most anticipated movies for 2024 — hello, Renne Rap! — he’s definitely not wrong. Add artificial intelligence into the mix, a technology that relies on old data to generate future ideas, and you can expect to see a world that looks more like a “ReCreatorverse” than a “Creatorverse.”
Influencers are getting in on the action, reappropriating old content and driving social media voyeurism among younger generations from the present to the past. Rom-coms are finding new fans TikTok, who are poking fun while casually embracing what’s enduring. Older generations may not always appreciate the commentary, but they are certainly feeling a sense of nostalgia and harkening back to days when things were more simple, even if occasionally cringe-worthy. A 22-year-old asked in The New York Times, “Why are Harry Hamlin’s clothes so baggy on LA Law?” If “newstalgia” is the idea that we want something familiar mixed with something fresh, then the ReCreatorverse signals that the delta between past and present is in and of itself enough of a consumable idea. As lines between nostalgia, vintage and recreation collide, it has the opportunity to create cultural cohesion and a way to talk about values and ideas worth resurrecting, and ones that are better left buried in the past.
I was inspired by Marian Salzman’s take on the “Fifth Estate” of society. The three anchors were historically the church, the nobility and everyone else. The media was introduced as the Fourth Estate in the 20th century, and she suggests the fifth is a complex web of blogs, social platforms, influentials and floating “data.” At the core of this Fifth Estate, we can find AI.
For better and worse, the promise of AI is being realized and capitalized. A future where we speak to animals and cure rare diseases is happening before our eyes, but enchantment comes at a cost. AI also magnifies the dystopia of the dark web, catalyzes misinformation and will most definitely take away jobs across industries. Our president’s aha this year dramatized the understanding lag that many leaders have around the negative influence of these technologies.
In marketing and comms, we have seen AI delight but we have also seen it go terribly wrong. Notably disturbing this year, the proliferation of AI Influencers, creating another unattainable standard of beauty, and the emergence of AI Only Fans accounts that dehumanize mostly female bodies. An actual influencer even created an AI version of themself to be rented out as a companion.
This is just the beginning. We’ve seen brands with an intention to diversify models, using AI to generate more diverse images, but then harm the populations they set out to represent by taking away jobs from models and photographers. As the macro-climate in this technology accelerates, and the conditions in our own business quickens, it is urgent to create a more inclusive group of decision makers and innovators to increase the number of lenses we use to examine these complex issues. The problems that intersect with AI, from job displacement to algorithmic bias and human exploitation, are disproportionately impacting women, children and people of color. As fear increases among the general population, there will be growing demand for “AI-inclusivity” around the creation and application of these technologies. And we will all be grateful for the resulting change.
The woman who taught us how to consciously uncouple has the next important lesson we need: “free birding.” Instead of feeling like a sad, empty vessel when our kids take flight, Gwenyth Paltrow highly recommends embracing the freedom this time brings. She is on to something, particularly as we see the kids of Gen X families moving out of their homes. The younger boomers, or bloomers, have laid the groundwork for a next chapter that is less about winding down and more about dialing up on passions and purpose. Gen Xers, by and large very close with their children, will hit their 50s and meet this stage as a mixed blessing filled with irony, hope and loss, but also the opportunity to relaunch themselves. Platforms like Grown & Flown perfectly capture the tone for how they are processing this stage. With Gen X retirement funds as low as $130,000 on average and 40% of savings accounts at a zero balance, this cohort will also need to hustle well into their later stages of life. This necessity will drive their staying power in professional realms and force them to be more resourceful and entrepreneurial as they seek out new opportunities, networks and blueprints for living — think friendship communes and soft separations, as normalized by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. They’ll also stay true to their original values as a generation, maintaining their individuality and a yearning to craft a life that looks different than those that came before them, and we are ready to see them spread their wings.
Recently, my best friend sent me a link to a beautiful hotel on Chesterman Beach in Tofino, Canada. It has a special package for storm-watching. The copy is poetry and surely not generated by AI: “Gale-force winds, giant waves and lively skies. The great energy of the winter storm shapes our coastline, making it an exhilarating season to experience the power of the elements.”
Amped-up experiences seem to be popping up everywhere, from psychedelics to bold nights at the Sphere to space travel, with more than a third of Americans saying they would sign up for an orbit around the earth. Even motorcycle sales are perky. Some experts frame the uptick in wild vacations and hyper-priced concerts as “funflation.”
Historically during shaky economic times. people purchase with more prudence. But culturally we are bucking the trend and people are spending on experiences that go beyond “sliving” and “revenge living” and enter into life-affirming. These experiences are adrenaline-pumping and perspective-giving, providing an antidote to the presence of existential threats, and I’m calling it the “awe-conomy.”
There is no doubt we want to feel alive again. A whopping 70% of people even say they want to live past 100 years old, and there is a growing industry to help them do just that. In 2024, we will see the de-aging trend accelerate as growing circles go to extremes to hack their own biology to enjoy the ride a little longer. Our pets might even meet us there with extended lifespans in the works. Whether we are creating experiences that affirm our lives or trying to outlive our own mortality, the new year will bring continued momentum for living like there is no tomorrow, because maybe there won’t be.
The best thing I read this year was from researcher and sociologist Martha Beck. She explains that “ordinary humans, in our pain and fear, are destroying the world. Awakened humans, in peace and creativity, can save it.” This powerful insight pierces the soul and gives us the most profound understanding.
Our fight or flight reflexes are not binary at all. It’s when we lose ourselves into the dangerous, beautiful world that we experience all that is worth fighting for.