The Future is Already Here

Interview with James Wallman, Author of Stuffocation

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Trend forecasters’ job is to observe and interrogate the noise of the present to identify signs of that unevenly distributed future.

James Wallman, renowned trend forecaster, speaker, and author of the new book Stuffocation – a work which the Sunday Times calls “The Tipping Point meets Freakonomics”, raises the alarming statistic that we’re suffering from the clutter crisis not much different from the obesity crisis. More stuff is making less people happy. This shift from materialism to experientialism is the biggest trend of the 21st century.

How are marketers to respond if people don’t want to buy more stuff? If stuff isn’t the answer, what’s the new happiness equation? How does Stuffocation affect the way we shop, live and work? What are the implications for brands? James Wallman explains.

What is Stuffocation?
Stuffocation is that feeling you get when you look in your wardrobe and it’s bursting with clothes but you can’t find a thing to wear, when you have to fight through piles of stuff you don’t use to find the thing you need, and when someone goes to give you something and your gut reaction isn’t ‘Thank you,’ but ‘What on Earth makes you think I could possibly want or need that pointless piece of stuff’? Instead of thinking of more in positive terms, like we used to, we now think more means more hassle, more to manage, and more to think about. In our busy, cluttered lives, more is no longer better. It is worse.

Was there a lightbulb moment where you realised more stuff wasn’t making you happy anymore?
On a personal basis, it was more incremental steps. I changed course bit by bit based on what made sense for me and my life at the time. Back in the 90’s, I jumped from materialist jobs in advertising, media, sales, to being a ski guide and full-on traveller, shifting from the materialist part to the experientialist part. I gave up a sensible job to become a journalist, then a trend forecaster. I had years making £5,000 in a year and had an amazing year, and years making £5,000 in a week. I owned £1,200 flip flops. Loads of £1,200 flip flops in ‘99 were just silly.

Professionally thinking about it, I realised there’s a problem with the system, the larger environment. Lots of people lead frustrating lives scrambling for the next piece of great stuff. What’s the point of it all? Materialism doesn’t work.  However, if you chuck materialism out the window, you’re throwing out the baby with the bath water. Materialism gave us the second car, video, Xboxes, different pairs of shoes, great healthcare, it raised our standards of living. It’s not a simplistic answer. I began to think about the problem and possible solutions. Approaching it in my job as a trend forecaster, the ideas began to coalesce as clients came to me looking for what’s now and what’s next. I started writing that as a series, and did what any good researcher would do: I went looking for solutions, followed people around, observed them, studied them, ran down a lot of blind alleys, but also discovered some answers. Instead of status, people are looking for meaning and identity. From there, Stuffocation was born.

Is it true, that you must go through Stuffocation in order to de-Stuffocate?
Stuffocation is a great problem to have. It’s a problem of abundance vs. a problem of scarcity. If all you have is a tent, you wouldn’t feel Stuffocated. It’s mostly a rich world problem. Say you have a piece of carrot cake, and then you have a second piece, then a third piece, fourth piece… then you get to a point where it’s just too much. In the early 20th century, most people didn’t have enough food. Malnourishment was rampant. Then came industrial revolution, where we could provide for millions at scale and for less. Run that to the extreme and we have the obesity crisis. People used to hand down clothes for generations. Now we can buy brand new ones for £5 from Primark or Walmart. Mental tools such as ‘I must accumulate more stuff’ honed from millennia of scarcity are still very present in our minds. Using those mental tools in a time of abundance is what’s causing the emotional disconnect. It’s a path but not the inevitable path.

I read an article in the Harvard Business Review a while back, that studies have shown most people figure out their true passions/career paths in their late twenties, usually after the first unsatisfying big paycheck job right out of college. With the prevalence of experientialism and Stuffocation, do you think this process will be shortened? Graduates will end up in their rightful careers sooner?

Interesting question. Need to experiment to find out the answer to this one. When I worked at the trend consultancy, we had a core team of 12. All the young people seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do. Back in the day when I was a student, I chose to study the classics, which is very telling on how seriously I took my career prospects. Young people now have a much more post materialist mindset. Millennials tend to not buy cars. They are not bothered by old materialistic values. They don’t get their status from what they own. They get status from what they do. They are more likely to choose a job that’ll give them interesting experiences, allow them to design, or send them to conferences in Amsterdam. If you sit at a table with 15 guys, 10 guys had 4-5k watches, all of the same brand. How do you signify status? They’ll have to get status from experience: front row seats at the Wimbledon or having done a Tough Mudder course.

If the trend is to have less stuff, what are the implications for brands?
Material goods can be useful for self-expression and signifying status – the brand of shoes or shirt you wear says a lot about you. Before the surge of social media, people would signify status with the Prada bag they have on their arm, or the watch they have on their wrist, but unless you made a point of telling people, nobody knew you went skiing in Chamonix for the weekend. Now with social media, experiences are more tangible, public, and status-signifying.

If you’re a restaurant, give them an experience that they really want to tweet about. Think Duck and Waffle, the thrilling elevator ride up the Heron tower.  You’ll have the crowd buzzing from the beginning. The Standard, Grupo Habita, or Ace Hotels put their energy into curating and creating events and moments that stay with you. Recent startups also feed into this shift toward the experience economy. Girl Meets Dress is a great example of buying luxury fashion for one-time-only. Nowadays everyone is an autobiographer, instead of things, give consumers a good story to tell.

James Wallman’s new book, Stuffocation, is available from Amazon.com.

Interview with James Wallman is the first of many inspirational features of the JPC “Thought Leadership Interview” series, where we reach into our extensive network of thinkers, doers, future gazers, business leaders, book authors, innovators and experts who are first in their fields to share their insights, wisdom, and game-changing perspectives on the world we live in today.