Some of the darkest times in history have been coupled with wild experimentation and the need to let it go. The economic instability, hyperinflation and political turbulence during the interwar Weimar period of Germany’s 20s for example was accompanied by hedonism and innovation. It gave rise to Bauhaus and great advances in science and technology. Now, one hundred years on there is a need to revel in the present and forget about the horrors once more. This time, it’s happening on a global scale.
According to food historian Sam Bompas this is all to be expected: “Throughout history we can see a heightened need for feasting in troubled times. Perhaps it’s because life feels short. People want to enjoy the now and forget the strictures.”
Is this why everyone in the UK and North America appears to be either micro-dosing, exploring kinky sex or letting the guard down on their alcohol consumption? The numbers are startling. In a recent survey by Hims and Hers 72% of US adults said it’s not more sex they want, it’s that they ‘want to have different sex’. A National Survey of Sexual Attitudes in the UK too found that anal sex amongst heterosexuals has doubled in recent years (from 12.5% to 28.5% in 16- to 24-year-olds). Adult content platform OnlyFans now has more than 1.5 million creators worldwide up from just 70,000 in 2019.
Likewise with heavy drinking, data over the last five years has shown that young people are doing this anymore. But recent research from Ypulse challenges this view. Only 20% of millennials in Western Europe now say they make a conscious effort to limit how much alcohol they drink. This may seem cautious but it’s actually a significant decrease from the 40% who said this in 2019. The Ypulse data also shows how those who are drinking less are substituting with cannabis, CBD and micro dosing LSD. The latter now a standard self-medication solution to low mood or depression.
In Mainland China, it’s less about sex and drugs and more about the quick thrill associated with spending money you don’t have. Chinese youths are taking out loans to cover monthly discretionary spend. According to recent Mckinsey research 53% of China’s Gen Z say “I buy what I want and need, even if it means I have to do it on credit.” They’re splashing on trainers and gadgets but most interesting is the current craze to splurge up to $150 on a ‘blind box’. This is a mystery package whose contents are entirely unknown.
In India, despite inflationary pressures there are pockets of indulgence here too.
The home in particular has become a den of decadence. Pernod Ricard has reported a 20% increase in premium spirits spend across India as people exchange the pressure of going out for fewer formalities of partying at home.
Elsewhere it’s less about extravagant spend and more about excessive emotion. After years of anxiety and frustration for residents of Hong Kong, that tension has been channelled into an emotional outpouring for local boy band, Mirror. Fans lost all willingness to hold back, unbridled in the time, money and attention they poured onto the 12-piece band. The viral Facebook group ‘My Wife is Married to Mirror’ has 300,000 members alarmed at the total loss of control.
This could be put down to a post-pandemic rebound and no doubt this is partly responsible. But we think there’s something bigger going on and it connects back to the marshmallow test. This well known experiment tracks the human propensity for delayed gratification.
The initial trial told children they could have one marshmallow now, or two if they waited 15 minutes. The kids who held back for two were found to do better in later life. Whilst the experiment itself has since been found hard to replicate. Psychologists at the University of Rochester UK decided to re-run it with unreliable adults. This time kids had an experience of an adult promising a reward and not giving it to them. Those kids were found to be much more likely than the control group to eat the marshmallow straight away.
Psychologist Andy Gibson puts this down to the fact that people in many parts of the developed world feel they aren’t making progress, quite the opposite, they’re working huge amounts and going backwards. “There is a loss of hope, a scepticism about promises of the future. People don’t feel like all of these things that they’re supposed to do will result in life getting better, so what’s the point?”
Compromise and caution today no longer guarantee wealth and happiness tomorrow so enjoying today feels like the strategically wise thing to do. And this ushers in new opportunities for brands. New product ranges that cater to this more permissive lifestyle are worth exploring, health and beauty brands are already extending into lube or CBD infused foods. How about adding a range of services to support these new audiences on their new found permissiveness? Micro-dosing coaches, ‘let it go’ retreats. Retail banks may need to step up their financial advisory service. In a world where there is less planning and more spontaneous splurging consumers will likely be in need of advice and guidance on when and how to moderate.
In terms of the new values to align with, decadence and experimentation will appeal but there is a backdrop of pessimism or nihilism to all of this. And that’s a hard order for brands to get right. Too jolly and it feels tone deaf, too serious and it brings everyone down. Could it be about inviting the audience to experience thrill and danger through low level rule breaking? Everyday moments of permissive pleasure like this take the pressure off and distract from the existential angst.
This article is produced by the Cultural Insiders, a global community of culture creators with diverse passions within Weber Shandwick.