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Betting on the Uncertain

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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.

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