From the rise of the ‘Polycrisis’ era to the decentralisation of social media, WGSN’s VP of Consumer Insights, Andrea Bell, spoke in front of a standing-room only audience on the Elastic Path Stage at NRF 2023 to present a snapshot of life – and business – in 2025. Analysing the forces influencing society, technology, the environment, politics, industry and creativity, she highlighted five key developments that will shape all industries, including retail, at the quarter point of the 21st century.
Society driver: The Polycrisis Era
It feels like the world is facing crisis upon crisis, with unprecedented global change altering established financial, cultural, and environmental systems in just a few years. In 2022, UK consumer confidence fell for four consecutive quarters to its lowest level on record ever, according to data from Deloitte, and China’s consumer confidence index has dropped more than 30 points in just three months (from around 120 in January 2022 to below 90 in April last year) according to the National Bureau of Statics.
In February 2022 searches for “what to do in a nuclear attack?” increased 38-fold according to Google Trends data, as Russia launched its war in Ukraine. That feeling of uncertainty, complexity and being overwhelmed is known as a ‘Polycrisis’, and unfortunately, Bell predicted, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
The Cascade Institute defines a Polycrisis as “any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects”. Increasingly, crises seem to be overlapping and impending, impossible to separate and deal with in isolation.
Bell’s recommendations for operating in the Polycrisis Era?
First, businesses should invest in friend-shoring as global relations remain tense. This means moving key functionality from back office to operations to a group of nations your business is aligned too in terms of like minded values.
Second, she recommends building a strategic black swan team citing the example of Wimbledon, which went through an extensive crisis management process following the 2003 SARS epidemic so when the Covid pandemic hit the sporting venue, it had comprehensive insurance in place which ensured it remained solvent during extended UK lockdowns.
Technology driver: Decentralised digital culture
Digital culture is evolving from mass to micro, making way for niche interests to thrive. In the years ahead, social media will morph into recommendation media, and entertainment will be key to holding users’ and consumers’ attention.
The internet is undergoing generational fragmentation as it braces for a new chapter, with younger audiences coming of age online. Dominant trends and platforms from the recent past, made popular by Millennials, are not seen as ‘cool’ by Gen Z.
According to The Atlantic’s Kate Lindsay:
“Millennials are ageing out of the Internet. I don’t mean we can’t use it anymore or that we don’t belong here… but that the internet that we built and used for the last 15 years is not the internet that we are on anymore.”
At the same time, social platforms are becoming less social: 70% of Gen Z see the TikTok as entertainment, according to research by the platform, with the algorithm determining interests and re-contextualising the mainstream for each user, building on the niche and micro-interests economy to thrive.
Increasingly, as niche becomes the new ‘norm’, 91% of 18–25-year-olds in the US say there’s no such thing as ‘mainstream’ pop culture anymore. Over the next two years, Gen Z will power a shift from mass to micro culture, driving a rise in interest-based creators, communities and platforms that urge the internet to become smaller. TikTok will empower more micro celebrities who operate in siloed, interest-based spaces, and who aim to entertain rather than weald social influence.
Environment driver: Meet your newest Board member – Nature
Overconsumption and material exploitation by some regions is leading to a scarcity of resources, food and institutional support globally. In 2025, brands will respond to this threat by granting nature with representation in the boardroom. Human-driven climate calamities will disrupt business-as-usual, affecting the global supply chain, resource availability, tax costs, consumer demand and international trade.
But what does this mean for retailing in 2025?
Companies will need to rethink traditional business models, making nature and its needs part of the core operating structure. Figuratively, the environment should have a seat at the executive table, and, in recent cases, it literally does. UK-based beauty brand, Faith in Nature, appointed a non-executive director – or ‘nature guardian’ – to act as nature’s voice during board meetings.
Politics driver: The Great Migration
The five years spanning from 2020 to 2025 may go down in history as the modern great migration. By choice or force, people are moving at increasing rates, with rising numbers of eco migration, moral migration and digital nomads altering the political and cultural landscape.
The pandemic started the initial movement, as people relocated to be safer, to be close to loved ones or because of economic concerns. In a surprising turn, there were record rates of reverse migration (people returning to their birth country) for the first time in decades. In Europe, 1.3million Romanians and around 500,000 Bulgarians returned home in 2020, and Lithuania saw more citizens coming home than leaving for the first time in several years.
However, it’s not just pandemic-related relocations that will have a political impact for years to come. Moral migration – people moving because of their values – and eco migration as well as a new working class of digital nomads will rewrite policy, challenge traditional institutions and shake up the status quo.
Creativity driver: Synthetic Creativity
Creative practices are being overhauled by AI, which is being used to transform artistry and expand imaginations. By 2025, brands and audiences will be familiar with these tactics, though ethical questions will persist.
AI tools will broaden imaginations and the scope of storytelling. These tools will make creativity more accessible to a wider range of people and will also expand what’s possible in the realm of creativity.
The lines between reality and fantasy will become more blurred than ever, and the tools that blur those lines will become more readily available, leading to an era of mass-produced, AI-enabled art, music, marketing and culture. Businesses can consider offering storytelling with synthetic talent and should brace for a variety of automatic creativity applications.