Seeing the Big Picture - How the Age of Individualization is Changing Everything
Maybe it’s because I grew up among market research and trend tracking, but I’m always seeking out patterns and trends - not only in people’s conscious behaviors but also how that behavior is framed by social structures and influences we usually aren’t actively aware of. I did freelance trend tracking (mostly global CPG innovation) through college and my twenties as a way to pay for travel, but honestly it’s become an impulse I just can’t resist. I get a huge thrill when I feel the dots connecting between trends to form megatrends…. And every once in a while things come into focus to reveal trends on a scale so sweeping that “mega” can’t begin to capture it. But how do we articulate an actionable response to something so massively unwieldy?
It’s not news that there’s a megatrend towards personalization and customization, which holds fascinating possibilities and, on the surface, is straightforward. If you take a step back, however, you can see it is part of a broader shift in scale away from the “masses” towards the ever more niche, impacting not only consumer goods and services but also family structure, work life, education, health, and even currency. The very structure of our lives is being deeply impacted by this trend that is really quite unusual, but it’s happening in ways that we don’t easily see or think about because the scale is so large and we’ve come to accept many parts as natural. Except we still feel the toll, even if we can’t pinpoint the causes.
I have some unique insight into this trend towards individualization because I spent years studying such shifts from the perspective of globalization and the weird and wonderful intersections between international politics, nation branding, and popular media for my International Studies M.A.
On the Surface, We Think of Personalization as Empowering
Our constantly tech-engaged lifestyles produce mountains of data which enable companies to ever more precisely target the specific needs and preferences of their audience. Typically, this is framed as empowering consumers through choice, whether by ordering from a range of options (Starbucks), offering services on demand (Netflix) or even allowing consumers to abdicate choice to a curated selection based on personal preferences (Spotify).
The race towards hyper-personalization seemingly has no limits. Some companies have even begun to employ biological data for the ultimate personalization, like vitamins based on blood samples or tracking body rhythms to send functional snacks when they are needed most. Related megatrends of values-based consumption and lifestyle branding also show that consumers are looking for brands that align with their self-image rather than simply performing well. Personalization not only improves that alignment, it can invite consumers to participate in the production process, thereby forming deeper emotional connections to the product, retail experience, and brand.
Many Other Aspects of Life Are Also Becoming More Individual in Focus
But this emphasis on the individual encompasses so much more than consumer goods and services. Many of the changes have been subtly taking place over decades so that they now feel natural, though they are anything but. Sure, we are enjoying the freedom of having things exactly how we want them, but at the same time we are left with increasingly burdensome personal responsibilities.
Granted, different nations and societies have different views on what the government should be responsible for and what should fall to the individual. And it’s no secret that the U.S. lands to one extreme end of that spectrum in favor of personal liberties and self-reliance. However, individualism has not only intensified in America in recent decades, it has even pervaded some of the most collectivist cultures in the world, like Japan, South Korea, and China.
1). Home & Family
We shifted away from multi-generational homes towards nuclear families, with children generally moving out upon reaching adulthood rather than marriage. Although economic pressure has seen grown children living with parents a bit longer, a trend of putting off marriage has also led to more young singles living alone. Architecture and urban design have also contributed to individualization as post-war home designs emphasized privacy to cultivate autonomy and individuality. Subdivisions also distanced and insulated homes from cities’ public centers and amenities.
Isolation of the aging is another area of critical change. Particularly as Boomers age, higher rates of divorce and childless marriages mean that the single aging population will increase sharply. So, preparation for old age is becoming more of a personal responsibility, rather than relying on offspring or support from social programs.
Long-term planning for good health is also increasingly seen as a personal responsibility. Shifting towards a more holistic view of health that emphasizes preventative health care through diet and exercise, it is now largely the responsibility of individuals to proactively research and invest (both time and money) in healthy living options. Trends are deeply influenced by progressive health consumers, who frame health as a lifestyle of intensely personalized exploration through consumption. The dark parallel to this is certain medical conditions like type two diabetes or depression are now subtly framed as personal failure to manage one’s physical or mental condition.
3). Education & Career
Changes in employment patterns also raise stakes for individuals to cultivate a portfolio of unique skill sets to survive in competitive educational and professional environments. With higher employee turnover, companies invest less in employee training, raising the bar for prospective applicants on even entry level positions. As more young people went earned college degrees, the level of student debt soared while underemployment became more severe. Young workers must individually finance these increased expectations on not only education, but often stand-out experiences like study abroad, volunteer work or unpaid internships. Even extremely high-achieving individuals can struggle to identify the most effective combination. After the “casualization” of the labor force in the 1980s, many young people pursue side hustles to support themselves.
4). Finances & Security
Of course, behind many of these individualizing shifts is the internet, a powerful tool for both unity and division. One of the more extreme examples, cryptocurrency’s decentralized nature claims to empower individuals by eradicating the need for financial institutions and government control. On the other hand, very few people seem to question that cybersecurity is typically left as a personal responsibility, contracted through for-profit private companies. Security online remains largely dependent on personal knowledge and how much one is willing to pay.
Not only is this a massive trend, it’s much more unusual than we realize
What makes this all the more profoundly weird and remarkable is that human history is typically framed as a long, linear progression towards conglomeration, not fragmentation. The story goes: we grew from nomads to cities supported by agriculture, which then merged into kingdoms and empires through the eternal competition for resources, until technological breakthroughs in transportation and media enabled languages, cultures, and ideas to consolidate and spread, uniting us across boundaries. Although these were frankly violent processes, the point is that we tend to think of human existence as continually moving towards some greater destiny of peace and prosperity through unity, while periods of fragmentation like the Dark Ages of Europe are seen as aberrations.
Societies have typically been wired to condition individuals to identify with and behave as members of a group, be it a religion, an ethnicity, or a nation. Through education and media we participate in shared narratives (like the American Dream) that structure the way we view the world and help keep groups together. Of course, that doesn’t mean these groups or narratives are always good (they’ve often been horrifying in retrospect). I’m just saying this is pretty new territory. We’re not investing in the mechanisms that drive consensus the way we used to, so expect individuality to continue growing on steroids.
To grossly oversimplify Thomas Lemke (a sociologist and social theorist best known for his work on biopolitics), government and society moved from disciplining and pressuring people to be ‘normal,’ to cultivating and optimizing differences. Doing so can leverage a lot of assets, but it takes a toll on the collective identities that are so crucial to the modern nation-state as we know it. We see this playing out as increasing partisanship in democracy on a large scale, but also in the growing consumer preference for niche brands that align with personal identity and values.
How Did We Get Here?
It’s hard to pin down exactly where this shift began, but I argue things really took off in the 1980s and 90s. As the world slowly recovered from the traumas of World War II, rhetoric of a mass middle class faded and made way for more social stratification, increased segmentation of the consumer market and a new emphasis on lifestyle and attitude. Improvements in media technology and lower prices transformed music and television into a more individual pastime while a new focus on niche demographics like children, teens, and single working women that led to the development of content based around lifestyle. Think of the TV channels that emerged at that time: MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, even TV Land for older, nostalgic viewers.
The internet, smart phones, and social media just pushed it into hyper drive. Now consumers have an overwhelming amount of information and choices at their fingertips, all the time. We are bombarded with thousands of advertisements each day and marketing increasingly uses data gathered on our online habits to more personally tailored ads. On top of which, technology has made it easier to develop and publish self-brands.
Individualist cultures, like the U.S., are defined by a conception of self that is rooted in understanding and developing the truest, most ideal version of who we are and confirming it through social interactions. Social media enables this to take place with a previously impossible intensity and frequency. Now we can seek affirmation without relying on relationships with the people around us, making the process of individual identity building more isolated.
Empowering or Crippling Pressure? It's Both.
It can be totally overwhelming to have so many decisions demanding your input. The Paradox of Choice demonstrates that having more options actually makes it harder to make a decision, whether it’s jam or health insurance on the table.
Furthermore, having so much of our media content, marketing, and consumption catering to our current preferences and habits exacerbates narrow, siloed perceptions of the world. With algorithms pushing more similar content to the top of each of our newsfeeds makes it that much harder to escape our echo chambers.
And, of course, statistics show us how deeply isolating social media and new technologies are for many of us. Products and platforms are designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible, while even the services that we enjoy are convenient partly because they remove most elements of human contact. Despite knowing better, I deeply love being able to order take-out food online or skip the line at the bank.
We’re already seeing some pushback. Millennials are notably less interested in ownership, be it homes, cars, or even clothing and household items, looking instead for ways to reduce financial burdens by sharing resources. Increasing urbanization also reflects a stronger desire for access to shared amenities, public transportation in particular.
Innovation Needs to Look at the Bigger Picture
It’s important to remember that personalization and individualization comes at a cost for producers and consumers even though many of us are excited about it. How brands pursue innovation from here on out can have a major impact. There is a need for innovation that helps manage these complex personal responsibilities and coordinate resources across diverse needs. Many brands are finding success through focusing on the experiential aspects of retail and the power to use their platforms to engage consumers, connecting with them and connecting them to each other.
Novelty and convenience will always attract attention, but the speed of progress today means that we often have little grasp of innovations’ broader implications. A case in point is the mad dash right now to develop better artificial intelligence and bots that will handle interaction with customers, despite being well aware of social isolation as a challenge to our wellbeing both individually and as a society. In fact, AI boasts that it can also solve problems of social isolation by acting as mental health counselor or companion and aide to the elderly.
Ultimately, the trend towards individualization is massive on a scale far beyond the scope of even the largest corporation or most empowered person. Yet in a world where brands play an increasingly important social role it is good to be aware of and keep in mind how the trends that move us are in turn moved by larger forces. If market research is about identifying pain points and innovating around them, then this is an opportunity to more thoughtfully consider what personal customization does for and to your consumers.