AVENUE, January 1990,
pp. 60-65, 68-70
By BROOKE KROEGER
Double-digit inflation; 52 hostages in Iran; OPEC’s stranglehold on oil. Back in 1979, the crystal-ball gazers, mired in Jimmy Carter’s “malaise,” predicted that the eighties would be glum.
They warned of recession. They bet that oil would sell for an exorbitant thirty dollars a barrel. They foresaw a decline in consumer spending. And though “stagflation” was to grip the country for a couple of years as the decade got under way, no one today would say that was what the eighties were about.
A handful of seers, however, actually proved prescient. The late analyst Edson Gould said that the Dow Jones index would rise to 2,500 or 3,000 by mid-decade. And Changing Times picked up on America’s most powerful human force, its 76 million babyboomers, correctly predicting that they would grow into a working, spending colossus. “Incomes will overtake inflation,” the magazine said. “Business will flourish. Unemployment will fall. Living standards will rise”
But in late 1979, few divined the reign of Ron and Nancy or how it would affect American lifestyles and values. Who imagined that it would become acceptable to flaunt one’s wealth, that junk bonds and LBOs would become part of many Americans’ vocabularies? AIDS had not yet been identified. Heroine —not crack — was destroying the ghettos. The homeless were still called bag people. And back then, no one, not even a farfetched character in a film, would dare espouse the idea that greed was good.
Ten years later, the futurists still have no direct satellite transmission to the one Reliable Reckoner — but the urge to try to make a business of predicting the mood of the marketplace in the next ten years is stronger than the fear of getting it wrong. See the many seers, armed with their divining rods — survey analyses, focus groups, tealeaves, and intuition. Most of them say that the nineties will bring a desperate need for balance and a desire to get work and family life in sync; a passion for the future of the planet and the education of our children; a younger acting elderly population; a commitment to social concerns, boredom with buying for its own sake; an interest in collecting experiences rather than possessions, a spiritual striving, a time of embracing the globe.
They think the age of greed is giving way to something well, less self-centered.
THE NIMBY DYNAMIC
You’d expect Marshall Herskowitz, a co-creator of the television series thirtysomething, to have a piercing take on the nineties. He and his partner, Ed Zwick, both in their late thirties, certainly got the eighties right, at least for their thirtsomething peers. They have an astounding number of babyboomers wondering whether their bedrooms have been wired to feed the idea machine back at the show’s offices (heavy on the glass brick) on the DBS-MTM lot in Studio-City California.
Marshall Herskowitz, however, insists that he and his partner did not set out to produce a show with sociological resonance. “The program is very specific to the people in it and the people we know in our own lives,” says Mr. Herskowitz, who has been married for eight years and has two young children. “I believe that when you are very specific you have the possibility of becoming universal.”
And while the thirtysomething writers and producers are turning real life angst into story lines about divorce, child-rearing, homosexuality, and the death of one’s parents, they are also voluntarily collecting the discarded scripts and wastepaper they generate and tossing them into special containers in the office and on the sound stages. The waste gets carted to a recycling plant weekly. Polyurethane cups, that ecological taboo are banned.
“None of these actions are noble or great,” says Mr. Herskowitz, who happens to serve on the board of Tree People, a nonprofit anti-deforestation group. “But they’re a right step. It’s a beginning of taking personal responsibility for the larger circumstances of society.”
That the environment is one of the places the cast and staff of thirtysomething have decided to symbolize their caring is no surprise. Saving the planet has become the obvious and logical extension of the fury over medical refuse washing up on the beaches, toxic waste dumps in the neighborhood, and the little black particles that fall with the rain in East Hampton and turn the white wicker gray. Awareness of the mounting ecological menace is now taken very personally, and NIMBY — Not in My Backyard — is the new rallying cry.
MR. Herskowitz believes that concerned mothers will be in the vanguard of this new activism because mothers as a group have become intensely conscious of the dangers to infants. They now routinely give up alcohol and smoking when pregnant and plan their babies’ diets so that foods are introduced at exactly the right moment. “It’s become an obsession,” he says.
“But what’s happening is that these mothers are realizing that the milk their babies drink and the apple juice and food and water are all contaminated and there’s dioxin in the diapers,” he continues. “These mothers cannot forsake the ferocious responsibility they feel for their children because the danger comes from a distant or gneralized source.”
Nevertheless, according to a year-old report by Thomas Mandel of SRI International, though environmental activism is likely to increase, along with relatively painless personal responses such as recycling and garbage separation, Americans generally will prefer a technological “fix” over profoundly changing the way they live. They may join the Sierra Club and its clones in ever-increasing numbers and insist on paper bags at supermarket checkout counters. They may shop for biodegradable products, then reject them when they find out they may be worse for the environment than regular plastics (In fact, many environmental groups are now calling for a boycott of all plastic products labeled “degradable”; they argue that degradable plastics don’t decompose in traditional landfills and would rather see consumers recycle regular plastics.) But are Americans willing to make sacrifices that cost time?
The problem is obvious: Along with the increasing concern about the environment in the nineties comes the still pressing need for convenience. Data from Louis Harris and Associates shows that the median number of hours available for leisure shrank 37 percent between 1973 and 1987. People are just too busy to give up what makes easier.
Sounds like the nineties person needs a new kind of takeout — nutritionally sound and ecologically packaged — or a very reliable cook.
Major ecological offenders are finally feeling the need to make amends. A firm called American Enviro Products started producing biodegradable diapers last July. Sales have doubled every month since, according to the Placentia, California company. McDonald’s Corporation, never known to lack market sensitivity, has started testing a plan for recycling the polystyrene it uses for salad trays and the “clam shells” that keep Big Macs warm. In selected outlets along the East and West coasts, customers separate the paper from the polystyrene, which is then sent to recycling plants. According to McDonald’s spokesman, Armando Ojeda, since polystyrene cant’ be recycled into polystyrene, recyclers convert it into resin that is used by Rubbermaid and other companies to manufacture plastics.
“The response has been positive,” says Mr. Ojeda. “When they hear about it, people ask when their areas will be included in the tests.” But there is no demand from consumers to stop the use of polystyrene altogether. “Customers want their food hot and sanitary,” Mr. Ojeda says. “If the packaging is recyclable, so much the better.” Convenience wins again. What customers do demand is faster service, says the McDonald’s spokesman. “They’ve gotten used to thirty-second service,” he says, “and think fifteen seconds would be that much better”
RICH AND RESPONSIBLE
The man who increased the world’s appetite for accelerated TV images is Robert Pittman, thirty-six, the self-described “mathemagician” who hovers on television’s more controversial edge. HE helped bring to the last decade such timely vehicles as MTV (which he created) and Nickelodeon (the cable network geared toward children, which he r 1984.)
The nineties, says Bob Pittman, will be about family. “Baby boomers have babies and the babies grow up to be kids. IT is family values that matter now. There’s an enormous emphasis on education, which you’re already beginning to see. I’ve got a six-year-old and I say, ‘Holy smoke, what happened to the schools.”
Concern about the environment will certainly figure, he agrees, but as a function of caring about family, much in the way that Mr. Herskovitz described. “There is going to be less emphasis on getting ahead and working like hell. When you’ve got a six-year-old, money doesn’t seem so important. I can walk down the street and the garbage doesn’t bother me. But when I’m with my son, I say, ‘Wait. This is his world.’ We’re concerned about what kind of world we’re leaving to our kids.”
He goes even further. “I don’t think people would dare say they want to be rich and famous in the 1990s,” he says. “I think it’s passing.” Easy to say for rich and famous Robert Pittman of Connecticut, New York City, and winter vacations in Aspen.
On this point, Peter Goldmark, head of the Rockefeller Foundation, would certainly disagree. “I see more of the glitzy star-centered life that has dominated Manhattan,” MR. Goldmark says. “I see it continuing and intensifying. When you have grea5 wealth and insularity and everyone with portaphones, and you have a popular press and culture that celebrates the individual as a celebrity and not as a thinker or a doer, you have individualism and not teamwork and you can’t solve any problems.”
WALLS COME TUMBLING DOWN
The nature of Mr. Goldmark’s work puts him painfully in touch with problems worldwide, from the threat to the biosphere to the thaw in relations between East and West to the ever-growing between rich and poor.
“This generation of Americans is really in danger of getting out of touch with the rest of the world,” he says. “They are looking at us with astonishment, at our lack of attention to global issues, at our material greed.” Witness, he says, President Bush’s ideological restrictions that initially prohibited him from doing more for Poland than one citizen was able to do. “Basia Johnson did more herself,” says Mr.Goldmark.
The futurists worry that the United States will be left far, far behind if Americans keep up their traditional isolation and chauvinism. “Where, nowadays, does one country end and another begin?” the voice-over asks in a short ad agency film on the nineties. Comes the answer: “Ask the air”
The ng, produced by FCB/Leber Katz Partners, offers the agency’s predictions of the currents that will make waves in the nineties. According to Laurel Cutler, the film’s co-creator and co-writer and a vice president of the firm, as the end of the century arrives, it is “bridging” that will drive the world into the new millennium.
“Bridging is movement. Flow,” says Ms. Cutler. “The machinery of alliance between two strong sides.” It’s the secret of “sustainable success.” For individuals, she says, it spells “The end of the ‘myth of me.’” For countries, it’s the end of borders.
The loosening of boundaries is evident in everything from the real and symbolic destruction of the Berlin Wall to the increase in travel. Travel to the United States has more than quadrupled since 1970, jumping nearly 18 percent between 1985 and 1986 alone. The world’s wealthy and its poor and politically oppressed still pick the United States as their favorite destination. The influence of Hispanic and Asian cultures in the U.S. will grow with the rise in the number of citizens from these backgrounds. Once-isolated areas of the world, such as China and Eastern Europe, have opened up to American businesses and tourists. And a small but growing number of Americans are forming an international business class for whom a deal — in any language, in any country — is a deal.
MR. Goldmark believes this global impact will be felt in even larger ways. This generation, he says, is the first that has learned that all of us live on one planet. “Our generation will face the issue of whether we can stop destroying the biosphere — and that’s going to require that we think and act as global citizens,” he says. “That means it’s not so much choosing whether to worry about the homeless in Grand Central or the Amazonian rain forest. IT means developing an intellectual framework that sees them both as part of one set of problems. And that’s something we have got to get to work on.”
The Rockefeller Foundation, he explains, is developing a global environment program, funded up to $50 million over five years, and he has urged the nation’s other major foundations to follow suit.
GOING PUBLIC — NINETIES-STYLE
It’s clear that nineties people will need a sense of social commitment at the core of their lives. Any chance of that happening? Yes, if the current generation of Barnard College women are any indication. Ellen Futter, the college’s president, has witnessed a change in attitudes and values on the prestigious campus over the past ten years.
The students who will be graduating in the nineties, she says, are very different from their eighties predecessors, whose focus was on success — “financial success,” she clarifies. “It’s not that young people have rejected the notion of working hard and being successful, but the arena I have heard and seen students terribly concerned with is public policy and public service.
“Our students are volunteering in droves — tutoring, working with public school kids, the homeless, the elderly. They really care. And I think the whole mod is already moving beyond the younger generation and affecting the one just ahead of it.”
A recent survey about the nineties, conducted by the market research and consulting firm Yankelovich, Clancy Shulman revealed the possibility that the nagging social conscience will explode into action. “If it happens at all,” says Barbara Caplan, a vice president of the firm, “it will start with the country’s leadership nine percent “ — the nation’s elite. They represent the most affluent, best educated, and most executive of the country’s most influential population sector. Fifty-seven percent of these trendsetters are baby-boomers, and the style they set could have a pervasive impact on everyone else.
“At this point there is in evidence to suggest that social consciousness is a possibility,” Ms. Caplan says, adding that, for now, adding that, for now, the preoccupation with enriching the quality o life is rooted in the needs of family. “The question is if that need it enrich one’s life will begin to fan out to improve society itself so that the caring is beyond one’s backyard. As yet, there is happening.”
Perhaps no hard evidence, but there are intimations. Take a program such as the New York City School Volunteer Program. The organization received twice as many calls during 1988’s fall recruitment drive than during 1987’s. The current number of instructional volunteers (each of whom spends several hours with a student) stands at 5,100.
“And the kinds of people volunteering is changing,” says executive director Susan Edgar. “It used to be only parents, then parents and senior citizens, who would volunteer to tutor. Now we’ve added employed professionals to our rolls, people looking for options that fit into their workday program or after work. E also have more high-school and college students.” She cited a 1987 study by the J.C. Penny Company showing that 50 percent of all adult Americans now are involved in some sort of volunteer effort.
THE SWINGING YOUNG OLDS
The 76 million baby boomers, who make up a third of the nation’s population, will not be the only force of influence over lifestyles in the nineties. Another influence will be those in the fifty-five to sixty-four age group, a projected force of 24 million people in this decade, SRI International predicts these “young old” people will retain their role in shaping opinions and social trends in the nineties, jut as they have for the past thirty years. They can be expected to continue in leadership positions.
Better health and more active lifestyles also mean that this new breed of older Americans will look and act younger. “Older people will generally be more active physically and psychologically throughout their lives than their predecessors have been,” the SRI report says. Many will forego retirement and continue with their jobs because staying active is in vogue, their general health has improved, and in a number of cases they simply need the money. It’s also likely that the past concept of retirement — a total absence of work — will change and come to mean some work or structured, regular volunteering coupled with more active leisure pursuits.
Some of the elderly will end up in the care of their children, who, because they themselves delayed starting families, will be involved in raising their own children and caring for their parents at the same time.
No wonder the futurists see the nineties as a time for needing spiritual relief.
QUALITY OF LIFE
In a nineteenth floor office overlooking Manhattan’s South Street Seaport sits thirty-nine-year-old Edward Yardeni, Ph.D., chief economist for Prudential Bache Securities. Forecasting for his generation is a favorite sideline. His most inspirational tool? His life. “My critics accuse me of thinking my life has macroeconomic significance,” he says. “But increasingly I’m convinced I’m average. I’m not unique.”
Dr. Yardeni is certain that values are changing as his generation finds itself more and more centered on family life. For one thing, he says, the birthrate has hit its highest level since the period after World War II.
And, says Dr. Yardeni, with so many dual-career marriages, so many babies, and so little reliable, affordable day care, employers and managers are under increasing pressure to accommodate the needs of working couples. “But now that the baby boomers who have these problems are themselves becoming the managers and employers, they are likely to be more sympathetic to these needs. Older employers haven’t ever really understood what the baby boomers are going through.”
Still, an increasing number of companies are trying. Campbell Soup Company, in Camden, New Jersey, instituted a Family Care Leave program several years ago, expanding the concept of maternity leave to reflect the times. The program enables an employee to take three months leave without pay, job security guaranteed, to care for any member of the immediate family, including older parents.
As for economic indicators of change, Dr. Yardeni says the inflation-adjusted consumer spending rate has been down significantly since 1986 from its high in the preceding three years. The personal savings rate is climbing, he says, predicting it will hit 10 percent by 1993.
“There has been a frenzied demand for mortgage credit and general credit, and that is already subsiding,” he says. “So you have a double whammy of borrowing at a slower pace and saving more. I see interest rates coming down to five percent.”
Even though the baby boomers are entering their peak-earning period, Dr. Yardeni says, they’ve changed as consumers. “There’s no compulsive need for the latest car with the latest gadget anymore. The cars aren’t big enough to accommodate a family going off on a vacation, and at some point you get tired of having your radio stolen.”
THE SOFT SELL
What will move the consumer of the nineties to spend his savings? Thomas Mandel’s SRI International report suggests a change from “high levels of material consumption toward a more balanced pursuit of quality” and a resurgence of interest in “elegance, refinement, and sophistication,” but not the pursuit of luxury for luxury’s sake.
“There is definitely some vulnerability at the high luxury end,” says Barbara Caplan of Yakelovich Clancy Shulman. She calls the new value system “neo-traditionalism” — not a return to the fifties but a blending of the best of the old and the new.
In selecting goods, she says, the lust we have seen for the most expensive and most prestigious will pass. “It’s the notion of ‘good enough’ [that will prevail, meaning that if something works and the price-value relationship is a good one and I am satisfied, then that’s enough.] FCB/Leber Katz Partners’ executive vice-president Geoffrey Frost, who created and wrote the film Bridging with Laurel Cutler, states the consumer imperative another way: “Purchases will be important and well considered, or trivial and ‘instant.’” And he foresees a rise in gambling as people aim to get rich quicker.
Ms. Caplan says the data her firm has collected also indicates there will be “much more emphasis on the experiential as opposed to the materialistic.” This has already begun to happen. Stanley P. Gold. Forty-seven, president of Disney’s Shamrock Holdings, recently forsook his new Malibu beach house to spend a week in Ecuador working on CARE projects. Outward Bound, a group geared to intense group and individual experience, regularly runs customized three-day wilderness outings for executives, a very effective fund raising tool for its charitable programs.
The experience trip hasn’t been fully exploited. Carmine Sant’Andrea, a futurist who serves as a consultant to Age Wave, Inc., anticipates a “spa of the nineties” that would serve up more than carrot juice — a place people would go for a deeper sort of detox. “We will see spas that deal with the psychological, emotional, physical, and financial future of the individual,” says Sant’Andrea, who is working on a blueprint for such a place. “People have a desperate need to be centered,” he adds. “Money doesn’t do it. They need peace, tranquility, happiness, and spiritual nurture.”
They might even go back to church. The SRI International survey confirms that church attendance is growing, though not to the all-time high levels of the 1950s. A lot of spiritual seeking is on the fringes. For all the televised hoopla, the number of self-described born-again Christians grew only 4 percent between 1981 and 1987. But the number of people expressing interest in extrasensory perception and astrology grew 12 percent in the same period.
Like astrology, futurism is not an exact science. But the field is ten years older and its practitioners more experienced than the seers of ’79. That may bode well for the accuracy of today’s forecasts. Accordingly, you may care to brand these key phrases in your memory: environmentally protective, globally connected, family oriented, socially caring, spiritually nurtured, experientially motivated, convenience seeking; quality demanding. And, oh yes, profoundly sophisticated. It’s the nineties. Ready?
For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. March 30: TBA April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.