Trendspotting for 2012 and the Graying of the World

Originally posted on CNBC.

As I wrapped up our annual trends research for 2012, I couldn’t help but notice a gray area. Sure, gray is the color of neutrality and winter skies, but it’s also the metaphoric hue for everything from life in a cloud (think mobility, portability and transience) to the graying of our society, on a global scale. And with work and life blurring at a dizzying pace, gray is the color of life in said blur and in the cloud, as new technology has us storing our whole (digital) lives in the world above. That’s why gray matters for 2012, and tracking on the new graydar has never been more important.

But on the flip side, our graydar found that Africa is running a bit counter to the trend, as the booming continent is having a real youth moment: Two-thirds of the people there are aged 25 or under. But Africa is still going gray in its own way; the rise of its middle class is contributing to a healthy consumer culture (with middle as metaphor for all things gray). As Africa is enjoying a youthquake, the rest of the world has truly gone gray, so look for this young and hopeful part of the world to carry its older counterparts. Recent census data for Japan, for example, shows that those “65 or older numbered about 29,246,000, accounting for 23.0 percent of the total population, up from 20.2 percent in the previous census” and “those below 15 accounted for 13.2 percent of the population, down 0.6 percentage point.” And the older set there is doing what they can to live longer lives; there has been a huge drop in smokers, for instance.

The Japanese have always led the way with electronics and cars, and those industries are innovating for the aged: LG is adding big buttons on phones to assist aging eyes, and Toyota is making seats that swivel to help tired bones get out of cars with greater ease. But it’s not just practical stuff getting the gray treatment; the proliferation of keep-’em-young products just keeps growing. L’Oréal, for instance, is hyping a new nutricosmetic pill for both men and women that will prevent gray hair. And speaking of men in today’s post-metrosexual world, the gray market should get a healthy boost from the testosterone set; L’Oréal showed a 50 percent rise between 2008 and 2010 in the number of male salon-goers who get their hair dyed.

In the U.S., the oft-talked-about baby boomers should and will be on every brand’s graydar because they’re a potent piece of the marketing pie these days: They’re out in force online, they’re keeping themselves young with everything from plastic surgery to personal trainers, and although they might skew more peace-and-love than preoccupied, this huge segment of our population will enjoy some serious courting from almost every category. Oh, and lest you think gray connotes gloom, think again. Guess who the most joyful people in Singapore are? Boomers. According to a new survey by marketing communications agency Gray Singapore, the happiest people in that country are between 45 and 59 years old, while people aged 18 to 29 were the least happy.

This new neutral color palette is taking hold in many parts of life today, in fact. Sites such as Apartment Therapy are touting the wonder of gray walls in the home, and The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece called “The Case Against Color,” in which pale décor is said to “reveal your true self,” with top interior designer Celerie Kemble waxing poetic about the joys of a neutral home. And when ex-supermodel Kristen McMenamy posed with her gray locks on fashion covers worldwide (not to mention Lady Gaga’s Vanity Fair cover complete with long gray hair), a gray moment was fully formed.

With so much anger and a world of extremes (weather, joblessness, tea partiers, occupiers, Kardashiansanity), is it any wonder that we crave new neutrality, a palette and mood that does not feel either black or white (the extremes) but middle of the road? As I watch politicians fighting—during the debt debacle, did you feel, as I did, like a child of a contentious divorce?—I think, Stop fighting and make the world a better place already, whether elephant or donkey. Which brings me to another reason why gray is trending so high of late: It’s the color of collaboration. Gray is where black and white meet. Yes, it’s the color of uncertainty (we’ve got that in spades), but it’s also the dulling down of polarization.

Take the way business is being conducted. With social media connecting all of us in ways we never knew possible and with the voice of the people being heard from Arab Spring to Occupy America, it’s clear that collaboration, not competition, is going to take us where we need to go: moving forward, innovating and healing some of the stress fractures on our culture. The era of overzealous, type-A moneymaking seems very out of step with today’s world, and it’s clear many people are fed up with what now feel like outdated business models. Have we gone from “all about me” to “all about us”?

Events heard round the world like those mentioned above are signs that times are indeed changing, and business is sure to follow. As much time as we spend solo in front of our computers and smartphones, we’re still always connected, because we’re innately social creatures. But with transparency the new normal and consumers demanding responsibility from the brands they consume, collaborating needs to go beyond co-workers and family members to consumers as well. Taking things to the cloud is another clear indicator that collaboration culture is what’s next, now, with intranets popping up at businesses worldwide to support communications between departments and employees from Madison Avenue to Main Street.

So blur and transparency give way to graydar, where we track value on a new scale—not one of who’s better and who’s got more, but who’s willing to play nice, not rock the boat when it doesn’t need any more rocking, and hopefully solve problems through our collective need for real change. Maybe we’ll learn from those elders of ours, who are getting grayer by the second and who might still remember a time when things were not so incredibly in flux. Put that on your graydar and track it. Because this year, gray matters.

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