Two things drew me to TrendWatching.com’s September 2015 Global Trend Briefing, “Post-Demographic Imperatives.” First, I enjoyed their “10 Trends for 2015” and looked forward to this opportunity to look deeper at one of the trends that piqued my interest. Second, given my previous work in diversity and equity of access, I was interested in the label “post-demographic” and how it might apply to libraries.
The tagline to this report may seem alarming – “Demographics are dead. Adapt your strategy or perish.” But they are quick to share some of the reasons behind their warning. Much of what is reported about demographic groups (especially recent write-ups of millennials and other broad categories) generalizes needs and interests and sometimes mislabels basic human drivers (authenticity) as some unique hallmark of a particular segment.
The real thesis of this report, then, beyond the tagline, is:
“People – of all ages and in all markets – are constructing their own identities more freely than ever. As a result, consumption patterns are no longer defined by ‘traditional’ demographic segments such as age, gender, location, income, family status and more.”
On first reading, it could seem like we have our work cut out for us. This new understanding of difference and identity will challenge us to broaden and create new services to meet people where they truly are. But part of the assumption here is that people aren’t constructing identity behind closed doors. Many communities are leveraging social media as a place to gather, discover, and develop their shared identities and engage larger communities. So there may be more dimensions of diversity to be discovered, but our connected world makes these communities closer to reach if we actively work to connect with them.
TrendWatching.com offers four strategies to innovate within this post-demographic trend. I’ve tried to share some thoughts around each of them.
- Embrace and celebrate new racial, social, cultural, and sexual norms.
Yes, this might be tough. Many of us are already stretched to serve the patrons who are already coming through our doors and those that we have built relationships with over the years. And, given the political polarization that has taken hold of many of our communities, this may not be the easiest path. But maintaining an openness to difference and a willingness to learn more is critically important to ensuring our future. The new norms will shape whatever comes next. And communities will remember those who were there – or at least open to them – in their early development.
- Be prepared to re-examine or even overturn your brand heritage.
We don’t let history go very easily – preservation is kind of in our wheelhouse. But this really is an invitation to have new communities help us re-envision our roles. As people and communities redefine and embrace new elements of their identities, they will also re-frame their connection to the world. We can be part of that discovery and work with them to construct a future that respects and responds to their needs.
- Look to foreign or disparate demographics for inspiration.
This is one that’s been on my mind lately. I read this and think about the innovation and good that might come from bringing different types of people together – to engage in dialogue, in projects or programs, or in activities that help construct new futures. It also might be a call to shift our thinking from how can we affect communities to how can communities affect us. How can we learn from and with communities?
- Focus on ever smaller niches of interest rather than circumstance.
Some of the most promising innovations and opportunities come from organizations that are early to identify a specific group they want to work with and then actively recruit their partnership. This proactive work strengthens organizations, integrates the library in the community, and focuses attention on new and interesting work.
I’ll insert a small commercial break for the American Library Association’s Libraries Transform Communities (LTC) initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in partnership with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. LTC’s “turning outward” approach emphasizes changing the orientation of institutions and individuals from internal (institutional) to external (community-facing) and encourages taking steps to better understand communities; changing processes and thinking to make conversations more community-focused; being proactive to community issues; and putting community aspirations first. While not specifically built to address this post-demographic trend, many of LTC's free tools would be helpful in better understanding and responding to the new demographic identities of changing communities. Okay, end of commercial.
TrendWatching also identifies three strands that are helping to shape this post-demographic trend.
New technologies - and the data that they produce and utilize - will create more personalized user experiences. We’ve looked at Data Everywhere in our trend collection with an eye toward how data will drive personalization but also create potential privacy issues, something that could be of concern for traditionally marginalized groups.
Urbanization is also highlighted as a trend that will provide more people with social freedom, economic means, and access to a diversity of product and service providers. These byproducts of urbanization might make it easier for individuals to distinguish themselves from broad generalizations based on traditional demographic characteristics. We looked at Urbanization as an important demographic trend bringing more people into cities, but also challenging communities to create equitable access to services and opportunities.
The last trend shaping this post-demographic shift is a continuing injustice – there are repressed groups who are ignored or purposefully sidelined by institutions and brands. TrendWatching’s advice for innovation is to recognize them and empower them to be themselves. They hold that people will celebrate the brands that empower them. Libraries and librarians empower people. We know that and our users know that. In a world where people are constructing more defined identities, might this be an invitation to find new ways to innovate in line with those new identities? Are there ways that we can customize some of our efforts so that they become hyper-relevant to hyper-specialized communities? First generation college freshmen. Women in STEM. Single parent job-seekers. Student-loan straddled millennials. If we move from the big demographic buckets to more specialized and niche demographics, will our empowerment of people (and their appreciation for us) change? These might be the best times for us to innovate with more niche communities and demonstrate that libraries really are here for all people.
Reading this report was a clear reminder that demographic changes are incredibly important to understanding our future. And as traditional demographic categories give way to more refined demographic identities the shifting identities of our communities will become even more important. All of that said, there is still incredible value in understanding the broad characteristics of communities, states, and our nation. But innovation will likely happen on a more personal scale – working directly with and understanding the multi-layered characteristics of individuals.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, TrendWacthing.com’s free reports are a nice way to engage staff and colleagues in conversations about trends. This downloadable report is a 40-page pdf filled with illustrations, easy to read demographics and quotes, and an engaging layout. It’s an easy read over a lunch break. And their authors' perspectives will likely get people talking and thinking in a new way.