Betting on the Uncertain

If you think hard, you might be able to remember the good old days of, say, this past summer — back when some economists still had an argument for using terms like “slowdown” or “softness” in place of the dreaded “r” word. How quickly things change. The bleak news of September has plunged us not only into recession, but into one of its most dismal and enduring byproducts: consumer uncertainty.

The coming year promises few remedies for that, and we’ll see more evidence of how they choose to cope — but, as with so many other things, bad news is what you make of it. People will be increasingly inclined to savor simple pleasures.

The reality or the risk of money running short will prove to be real incentives for consumers to find new ways of enjoying what they have, rather than blindly buying and spending. For businesses, the guiding principle will be the pleasure/price ratio: Which products and services in a given portfolio offer the greatest scope for real pleasure at an affordable price? Can the pleasure be upped without raising the cost?

Facing a forced “break,” many people will re-examine their career paths. A growing number of older workers will postpone retirement, extending their careers into their golden years. But from this adversity will flow opportunity. Lower-paying, but more, stable sectors — government, secondary education, and the like — will benefit from access to a new talent pool, as will smaller financial firms and burgeoning industries like alternative energy. For investors willing to take a chance, getting in on smart entrepreneurial ventures could pay out big once the economy stabilizes. After all, some of the best business ideas (and career decisions) are born in desperate times.

Innovation, for example, is likely to come from the alternative-energy sector. While the recent drop in oil prices has ceded its place in the headlines to broader economic turmoil, energy as an issue is not going away. For security, economic and environmental reasons, clean energy needs to be a long-term goal, and there’s growing consensus on that.

Economy and the environment are also two driving forces behind one of the more ironic trends of late: Small is the new big. Everything is shrinking, from stores, cars and mobile technology to packaged goods and supply chains. With businesses driven to achieve efficiencies from the top and the bottom (in terms of energy, expenses, both or otherwise), the “small” movement will increasingly benefit — and be driven by — the environmental movement. Slowly, smaller will come to signify better. Nowhere is this more evident than the auto sector, where an emphasis on greater fuel efficiency and reduced environmental impact means that smaller cars are slowly starting to rule the road in North America.

Mobile phones are already small, and the latest offerings qualify as miniscule — but only in the literal sense. The mobile device is evolving into the “everything hub”: the nexus of digital activity. It’s also a contributor to a culture increasingly characterized by multitasking and distraction. While content creators long lamented this fact, the smarter ones have learned to harness it by crafting immersive experiences made up of multiple layers of media. Rather than “add-ons” intended to be consumed in a linear fashion, these components will form entertainment ecosystems, much like the concurrent game-playing, social-networking, music-listening extravaganzas that game developers are creating. In television, expect more experimentation with “social viewing.” MTV, for example, offers an online game that allows viewers to trade suitably snarky comments as The Hills airs.

Unlike Lauren, Spencer and Heidi, however, people are thinking less about “me” these days and more about what “we” can do-collectively-to address the challenges of modern society. After two decades’ worth of 24/7, in-your-face, “famous for being famous” celebrity culture and reality TV, the focus is returning to the collective-driven notions of community and working for the greater good. Cynicism is taking a backseat to pragmatic idealism and the rise of collective consciousness.

Businesses that can tap into this shift will connect and form allegiances that go deeper than the superficial and transactional. With ongoing revelations of corporate and political greed and misdeeds, skeptical consumers are demanding reliability, accountability and authenticity. Given that “authentic” has become such a misused and overused label, brands will need to work even harder to show they’re the authentic one.

There’s arguably one brand above all that will need to work harder than any to prove its authenticity in the year ahead. All eyes will be on Brand Obama to see if he can live up to his standing as an authentic agent of change. One thing you can be sure of: Just as he did during his campaign, the 44th president will be tapping into the collective consciousness to ensure that he can. Strike that. I mean, “Yes, we can.”

Ann M. Mack is the director of trendspotting for JWT.