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The Rise of the Anxiety Economy



INFLUENCER: As anxiety becomes a major driver of trends, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence's Lucie Greene reflects on the impact it will have on culture

The Rise of the Anxiety Economy

The Consumer Electronics show (CES) Las Vegas 2019 is in many ways a window in to the soul of consumers – their desires and concerns. As the wellness industry has boomed, so too, have trackable fitness monitors and connected treadmills. Likewise, as data privacy has become an increasing concern, companies touting data protection have sprung up. There is an opportunity, and a gadget, for everything. 

This year’s event was particularly telling. After years of optimism about driverless cars there were new trends: the ominously termed ‘Disaster Tech’ – new devices and vehicles designed for natural and climate disasters. These include, rather morbidly, early detection devices to alert to potential school shootings, and amphibious robots that can traverse terrains to deliver emergency aid. In the wake of distrust about food, water, air quality, and pollution, there was a flood of face masks, air purifiers, and water purifiers promising to strip out microplastics. Likewise, there were ever more elaborate home security systems to fortify the home.

Welcome to the 'Anxiety Economy'. Increasingly, we’re seeing anxiety become a major driver of trends, as consumers seek to ward off perceived aggressors in every corner and protect themselves from new incumbents. They are seeking to optimise and protect themselves with a host of new well-being offers, whether that’s silent rooms, hotels that have lighting adapted to circadian rhythms, or ‘sexual wellness’ brands which seek to rectify the ongoing ‘sex recession,’ digital desensitisation and emotional isolation that this hyper connected age has bought.

Across the world, worry is rampant. In the quest to achieve ultimate happiness, consumers embark on exhausting, expensive self-help seminars, meditation retreats, workplace wellness programmes, and endless positive self-talk - and yet they are more anxious than ever before. A May 2018 American Psychiatric Association poll showed that the United States national anxiety score, which is rated from zero to 100, had jumped five points from the previous year, with millennials exhibiting the deepest anxiety.

In her 2016 book America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Ruth Whippman suggests that the tireless quest for self-care has made people more isolated from the very factors that contribute to happiness: social life, families and communities. Whippman reports that, according to the American Time Use Survey, Americans spend an average of just four minutes a day 'hosting or attending social events'. "Four minutes?" she writes. “Added up every year, that barely covers Christmas, Thanksgiving, and your own kids’ birthday parties.”

And all that self-care doesn’t seem to be shielding anyone from an endless list of stressors, from financial insecurity to student debt to job instability and political upheaval.

For some, the sense of impending doom brought on by the environmental crisis has triggered a syndrome referred to as “ecoanxiety” by Psychology Today and the American Psychological Association. Sufferers are “deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change". In a March 2019 online report, the BBC cites a number of experts who are seeing an uptick in this mental health phenomenon, with some citing the 2018 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which warned of the need to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 - as a trigger for a rise in fear in the face of an uncertain future.

Brexit has caused high levels of anxiety among UK residents. A Mental Health Foundation report released in March 2019 revealed that over 40% of the 1,800 adults surveyed felt “powerless, angry or worried” because of Brexit, while 12% said it had negatively affected their sleep. And it’s not just the United Kingdom - business owners and citizens in the Republic of Ireland are worried about the potential effect of a hard border on trade and livelihoods.

To combat anxieties, some consumers and businesses are taking matters into their own hands. They’re demanding sustainable, zero-waste solutions to curb environmental chaos, seeking solace in cannabis derivatives, and outfitting their homes with safety-related tech. New-wave employers are trying to embrace more ethical work practices, while tech companies are showing their more human side.

However, the anxiety economy continues to manifest itself in dark, dystopian ways that are permeating fashion, beauty, and entertainment. It may even be taking a toll on people’s sex lives. Our recently released study, 'The Anxiety Economy' explores how instability and disruption are having a profound impact on culture and emerging trends. Behaviour driven by fear, from the extreme and the paranoid to the more justified, is creating new market opportunities as consumers seek to navigate the storm. Make way for: Workplace wellbeing; Dystopic Landscapes; Fashion Frenzy; Sex Recession; Post Truth; Hyper Wellness, Digital Wellness and more.

Lucie Greene worldwide director at Wunderman Thompson Intelligence - formerly JWTIntelligence

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Wunderman Thompson London, Wed, 01 May 2019 12:31:38 GMT