Wednesday, April 16

Will The Next America Express A Culture Shift?

There are two interesting demographic anomalies being played out in the United States right now. And the reason they are interesting is that they aren't anomalies. They could be called corrections.

The first demographic transformation is that the Baby Boomer bubble will be largely played out by 2060. In its place will be a rectangle, with each age demographic being almost equally represented.

The second transformation is racial. Of the two transformations, this is the one that some people make a big deal about. "White" will become a minority by 2060, making the country a plurality.

Marketers are testing the waters of the Next America. 

There were three commercials that expressed the demographic changes taking place in America during the Super Bowl. They includes Coke, Chevy, and Cheerios. Of the three, Cheerios won with its portrayal of a blended family because the expression didn't draw attention to itself.

Conversely, Chevy flashed a brief image of a family with same-sex partners, which demonstrated acceptance more than the demographic changes ahead. Coke did something else. In attempting to celebrate the cultural diversity of the nation, it conveyed it by singing the nation anthem in seven languages.

Because of the political rhetoric that followed the advertisement, most marketers missed the lesson that tempers what Pew Research calls The Next America. The Cheerios advertisement makes the demographic nod to blended families, which is estimated to reach as much as 20 percent by 2060.

Coke was much more blatant because it expressed multiculturalism over assimilation, an ideal that doesn't always sit well with all Americans (regardless of ethnicity and political viewpoints) because it breaks down the melting pot concept of America. While most families retain some identity from their ancestral heritage, they also assimilate to some degree. It has pretty much always been this way.

History suggests demographic changes eventually even out. 

When most people consider American demographics, they tend to think of the United States as English dominant. They mostly do so because the founding fathers were English subjects.

Those demographics changed a long time ago. English hasn't been a dominant ancestry in the United States for almost a century. Dominant ancestral lines today are German (15 percent), followed by Irish (11 percent) and African (9 percent). Assimilation creates the illusion of an English country.

Sure, there is no doubt that mass German immigration (and mass Irish immigration before that) led to some cultural shifts in the country. But, by in large, mass emigrations were absorbed and people eventually self- identified with being American first. Ergo, German didn't supplant English as the official language. Other than adopting Octoberfest as a national celebration, not that much changed.

While some people will be quick to claim that mass German immigration (or any other mass immigration) doesn't resemble the same tensions we face a century later, history suggests otherwise. If anything, the alarmist anti-German sentiment was much more pronounced than any anti-anything sentiment we see today. Even President Woodrow Wilson condemned "hyphenated Americans."

The point is that the so-called demographic makeover that America is seeing today neglects that America has seen several demographic makeovers before, with most immigrant families becoming something much different within the short span of three generations or less. Everyone changes.

The ethnic and racial flames of today are too easily fanned. 

Americans tend to politicize everything these days, ethnic and racial tensions included. While some researchers, including Pew, seem to expect a showdown of sorts, it seems more likely any sweeping changes will be a whimper. The truth is that most ethnic and racial tensions are sadly superficial.

Please don't misunderstand me. I don't mean that racism doesn't exist in America. It does. All I mean is by in large, ethnic and racial lines in this country are based on self-identification and skin color.

Case in point, the last presidential election featured two candidates who come from blended families, yet many people insist as seeing Barack Obama as black and Mitt Romney as white. Why? The only explanation is skin color and self-identification.

They aren't alone either. One of the best panels provided by Pew Research's The Next America features eight celebrities who come from blended families. They include Derek Jeter, Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Bruno Mars,  Apolo Ohno, Norah Jones, Selena Gomez and Tiger Woods. Self- identification and skin color tend to be the rule there too. So we might considered getting over it.

The big challenges ahead will be as big as we think. 

If anything has changed in the last forty years or so, it is that some people have become very adept at convincing Americans to create artificial divisions, especially among ethnic and racial lines. Marketers have to resist the urge to fall for it and see how it plays out. It won't be what is imagined.

Most of the changes taking place in the United States will be largely regional and not comprehensive. And even in those areas where "white" becomes a minority it won't necessarily mean much. California, New Mexico, and Texas all have pluralities today (with non-Hispanic whites at less than 50 percent) and it's still difficult to find three states with so little in common from a socio-political perspective.

And to that point, marketers are supposed to be sensitive to cultural values and beliefs by engaging in fair and balanced communication activities that foster and encourage mutual understanding. In other words, smart marketers create messages for existing markets as opposed to predictive ones.

While some people believe that companies, political parties, churches, and police forces need to prepare for what they call sweeping demographic changes, the truth is that nobody knows what exactly those changes will be unless they build assumptions based on pre-existing stereotypes. I cannot think of a worse idea.

There is no question that the nation is changing (as it has for decades), but these changes aren't going to adhere to whatever limited schism we can think up today. On the contrary, there are an increasing number of regions in the United States that have abandoned ethnic and racial identification all together, making one of the fastest-growing segments of the population unwilling to subscribe to hyphens.

When you ask them, they say they are Americans. Nothing more. Nothing less. And it's probably refreshing to the rest of the world because most places don't see hyphens either. They see nations.
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