Watts Wacker (email@example.com) , 43, resident futurist at global think tank SRI Consulting. Coauthor, "The 500-Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next" (HarperBusiness, 1997), with Jim Taylor.
Want to show off? Walk into a room and say you're a happy person. Better yet, announce that you've been happily married for 25 years. Satisfaction and domestic contentment are the status symbols of the future. The market is supersaturated with physical stuff, so instead of depending on conspicuous consumption, status will hinge on what's scarce - spiritual experiences. That's downward nobility, and it will become a fundamental organizing premise of the desires of humanity.
Companies will have to understand downward nobility to create and market products. The stealth-wealth ethic doesn't eradicate consumerism, it just recasts it as quiet, tasteful, and discreet. Downward nobility led Gulfstream to market its business jet on the value of a CEO's time rather than on luxury. Downwardly noble consumers are aficionados who overspend in categories in which they perceive themselves to be leaders and underspend in all other categories. Status marketers will have to appeal to customers as collectors rather than as consumers. Remember: self-esteem becomes the great motivator.
Futurology Decoder Key
A good futurist is a good historian. So, to envision the downwardly noble future, I frame the five eras of humanity — hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, information, and coming soon, the dream society — with societal templates. How are interactions organized in each of those eras? Tribes, families, hierarchies, networks — and now neo-tribes. What's the dominant physical structure? Tent, farm, factory, office — and theme park. Dominant person? Chief, head of household, capitalist, knowledge worker — and storyteller. Now, take status. What are the status symbols? Being old, owning land, material possession, access to information — and now spiritual experiences. Try it with any category — weapons, modes of travel, mission of life — and you'll begin to build a detailed picture of the future.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.