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Amazement and Anxiety: The 21st Century Condition

It’s a privilege and an eye-opener to spend time talking to people from many walks of life, all around the globe. Last year alone, our team ran projects in six continents and over thirty countries, exploring a huge range of subjects. And as we build our insights around the specific questions central to each project, we also form a wider sense as to how global culture and mindsets are evolving.

One of the most striking things I’ve noticed in the past few years is an increasing sense of contradiction in many of the most notable and influential events in global culture…those big, salient, impactful elements that capture our attention and affect how we relate to the world around us at a personal level. There is a double-edged nature to 21st century life, a polarisation of big, important forces that we’re all aware of, and the sheer velocity of this polarisation also seems to be increasing. We see it in so many ways and at so many levels.

On one hand, we’re amazed at the positive impact new technology has had on how we live, from its ability to entertain us in any moment, to its ability to connect us to people in incredible new ways, to its ability to free up our creativity, self-expression and entrepreneurial spirit. We’re inspired by how easy it has become to explore the wider world as travel and tourism have become so much more affordable and flexible for many people around the world. We can feel excited by innovation in renewable energy, electrification of transport and even watching Space X land re-usable booster rockets in reverse on barges in the Atlantic. And we’re motivated by the progress being made in socially positive developments in everything from healthcare, to living standards, to diversity and women’s’ rights.
But on the other hand, we’re all aware, to a greater or lesser degree, of the risks to our aspirations for a fun and fulfilling 21st Century life. The present and growing impact of the Environmental and Climate Emergency with its increasingly extreme weather events, disastrous consequences for eco-systems and the beginnings of an impact on migration patterns and food security. The breakdown in our confidence in a stable political world order, as we see long standing alliances under threat, states engaging in successful manipulation of western democracies, and an unsettling rise in nationalist, populist leaders like Trump, Bolsanaro and Orban to name but three. The increasing vulnerability we feel as more of our life is run by technology that we may not feel completely in control of and more and more of our information is channelled in online echo chambers where post-truth bias can over-take real world balance.

The effect of this heady mix of amazement and anxiety is to create a low, but perhaps increasing, level of dis-ease and discomfort. At one level, most people are happily drawn to enjoying the new, amazing, exciting and fulfilling aspects of 21st Century life…and of course at an individual level the vast majority of people remain personally optimistic.

But at a deeper, background level, there is an increasing worry that everything is not right in the world, that there are dangers, risks and uncertainties beyond our control. Things that could trip everything up at any time. At a wider community level, many countries show signs of collective pessimism and concern.

I guess the real point to note here is that it isn’t just the presence of the risks, dangers and threats that are creating this sense of dis-ease and discomfort in people. It’s the fact that they are all simultaneously present alongside the many things that can amaze us in life…that show that our 21st Century culture is racing ahead at brilliant, yet break-neck speed.

It can come down to this: how does it feel to watch a news bulletin where one minute a billionaire is testing his interplanetary star-ship and the next we’re watching the Amazon burning to the ground; how does it feel to love expressing ourselves in social media, whilst at the same time worrying about its impact on our democracy; how does it feel to enjoy jumping on a plane to see the world, whilst knowing that by doing so, we’re contributing to its potential demise?

I could go on. Everyone is living with these contradictions day by day, whilst they become bigger and increasingly pronounced.

It’s making a lot of people feel giddy…excited one moment and a little nauseous the next. As though 21st Century life is a roller-coaster ride where the dangers are real. As though we are going faster and faster in a sports car, whilst knowing it’s gradually falling to bits around us. The Covid-19 crisis is just the latest and arguably most intense example of this polarised and scary cultural context.

This is going to create a new landscape and a new need for brands. To understand the fear whilst delivering the inspiration. To provide stability, honesty and continuity whilst opening up bold new solutions and ideas. To thrill, entertain, celebrate and excite, whilst creating that sense that you’ve got their backs, that you’re a responsible adult and that ultimately, things might just be ok.

I’d love to know what you think and what your plans are. Feel free to drop me a line on