Focus on mental health sure to cause retailers stress

The recent political focus on mental health in Australia has been generally well received by the media and public alike. In promising to allocate billions over the next 5 years, the federal government has indicated that it is getting serious about the silent epidemic that is mental illness in this country.

Yet whilst the government has been applauded for its belated attention to mental health, retailers would be well advised to get on the front foot and prepare for a consumer landscape that is vastly different to today. By highlighting the issue of mental illness, the government has unwittingly set in place a chain of events that will accentuate a paradigm shift in Australian values from Materialism to Post Materialism. A shift that will drive major changes in consumer attitudes, expectations, and behaviour across this country.

To understand the relationship between mental illness and future consumption you need to reflect on the range of responses to the government’s funding announcements.

The first reaction tends to be surprise. Namely, surprise at how prevalent the issue of mental illness is. Did you know that 20% of Australians will experience depression at some stage of their lives? Or that suicide is our biggest killer of young people, not car accidents?

Consequently, the second reaction tends to be disbelief. The issue of mental illness didn’t just arrive overnight, so why has it taken governments so long to put adequate resources behind it?

A third and deeper reaction tends to be dissonance; the feeling that something’s not quite right, that perhaps the goalposts of success need to be modified. And whilst this response may be slower to emerge, growing community dissonance stands to be the driver of significant change across our society in the future.

Why? Because increasingly Australians will ask:

What is it about our lifestyles that causes 1 in 5 Australians to experience depression?

And as more Australians reflect on this question they will draw the conclusion that something is clearly missing. Whilst the pursuit of the materialistic dream has delivered an abundance of many things, including twenty years of uninterrupted economic growth, it’s what we have foregone, what we have a scarcity of, that will drive the shift to a Post Materialistic society.

If we look at social change through the behaviour of a pendulum, oscillating between periods of abundance and scarcity, we can see that in a world of finite resources, whenever we gain something, we lose something else. And so, over time what we lose becomes scarce and increasingly valued, causing our behaviour to change once again, and driving future social change.

So what do we have an abundance of in 2011? And more importantly what is becoming scarce?

We have an abundance of material possessions… yet we have a scarcity of time.

We have an abundance of connectivity… yet we have a scarcity of silence & reflection.

We have an abundance of information… yet we have a scarcity of attention spans.

And now we know that we have an abundance of mental illness.

And with this awareness, society’s pendulum is poised to swing back from its position of materialism overdrive to a more post‐materialistic setting. And it’s this change in values that has profound consequences for retailers.

A post materialistic society will place greater value on those aspects of life that have become scarce over the past 30 years. And this is where the real impact on retailers will be felt.

No longer will there be an insatiable social drive to consume just because we can ‐ capability is not the issue here. Nor will there be a burning desire to express oneself through what one owns ‐ gone will be the mantra ‘I shop therefore I am’.

At the core of this change will be two fundamental shifts:

1. A re‐defining of what constitutes status – movement away from material possessions as a sign of success; and

2. A greater sense of personal identity that comes from within, as opposed to being expressed superficially

Both of these shifts pose a major threat to the structure and philosophies of the retail landscape as it exists today.

Among the many positive outcomes that the government’s focus on mental health will achieve, retailers need to be aware that mental illness is now on the cusp of moving from an embryonic issue to an emerging issue in the minds of the public. And this shift will hasten the rise of post materialistic values in Australia.

So, whilst the government is to be applauded for its response to the silent epidemic that is mental illness in this country, it must now prepare for what will no doubt be an unintended consequence of this focus. That is, more Australians challenging the notions that growth is good and more is better, and instead opting to consume and earn less in the future.

Check out the following article regarding lifting the veil on suicide reporting, a key to moving from ignorance to social awareness & eventually social change.

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