Social change will be the next great revolution

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The Independent Online

So technology will be the main force shaping the world economy in the early years of this century? Wrong. The main force will be social change.

This is the proposition of a report by the communications consultants Bamber Forsyth. It is an extraordinarily important issue so deserves a wider airing. Several authors worked on the report, each taking a different view, but two particularly struck me, one on ageing, the other on the way companies are giving greater emphasis to social and environmental reporting.

The ageing theme will be a familiar one to any reader of the business pages. But it is usually discussed in "hard" terms - the impact on unfunded state pension schemes, or the shortage of younger workers.

This report gives a different perspective, discussing in "soft" terms how communicators should approach ageing. The suggestion is that if you are going to talk to older people without patronising them, you have to realise they will not live for ever. The social historian, Peter Laslett, uses the idea that people live - or rather until the present "me" generation have always lived - with their "future selves". In medieval times we accepted that our lives were brief and during them we followed the traditions of our ancestors, and these would be followed by our children.

This intuitively makes sense. Most older people want to leave money to their children and grandchildren, though they gain no direct benefit from this. People plant trees, knowing they will never live to see them fully grown. For communicators this is rather a novel idea.

Advertisements are typically directed at younger people and usually emphasise what the buyer will get out of the purchase for themselves. You could almost say communicators are trained to tickle people's desire to consume, rather than their idea to live as fulfilled members of a community that includes their ancestors and will include their descendants.

Even advertisements aimed towards the old use the same selling proposition as those targeted towards the young. Look at the advertisements for cruises in the Sunday papers and you will see what I mean: it is an older version of the pitch for Club 18-30.

The best examples I have seen of a pitch that acknowledges older people want to fit in with Laslett's "future selves" comes in the alumnae magazines of US universities. Here the pitch is, "Give money to us and by educating the next generation of young Americans you will give them the same benefits you yourself enjoyed" - though the point is put in a more subtle manner. The appeal is to people's desire for continuity in society rather than their greed. Done badly, this pitch can be as toe-curling as some holiday ads for older people. But the idea that people are motivated not just by greed or material satisfaction but by a desire to live in harmony with the continuing generations of people before and after them is surely an important insight.

Why should companies care about the environment? The punishment for bad environmental practices can be enormous and the costs of being towards the front of the pack in environmental probity are not that great. So a simple cost/benefit analysis pushes companies towards being more responsible.

That seems an adequate but insufficient explanation. Being a good corporate citizen makes commercial sense, but companies have more general motives. They want to be able to recruit good staff, and good staff will not work for companies with a bad environmental record. Their employees want to feel good about their daily tasks and that is conditioned by environmental practices. Many shareholders are more comfortable holding shares in companies with a good social and environmental record.

And while some of these policies can be justified in narrow financial terms, not all can. The people who run companies want to be seen to be part of a wider community.

Communications strategies that cut across current social attitudes are doomed, although those that fit in tend to do well. But much of the pitch has been cynical, the "buy this over-priced herbal shampoo and help save the rainforests" line. A more mature approach would be more appropriate for a more mature (or a more elderly) world.

My guess is that the next big theme in communications will be adapting all strategies so they are sensitive to the shifting demographic balance of our societies and our growing awareness of social and environmental values. The two often go together: an older world will be less concerned about the next electronic gadget and more concerned about the environment our children will inherit.

Instead of strategies being directed towards the old or towards the environmentally concerned, all strategies will take into account the changing values of society. So even adverts for products bought by the young will not offend the old. And instead of companies making specific claims about environmentally correct credentials, all companies will see environmental and social issues in their general planning.

Too much to ask? Not really. Getting a social change to work for you, rather than against you, is the key to success in communications - and beyond that, in the whole business world.

How social change will shape the communication agenda in the early years of the 21st century' - Bamber Forsyth.