What Does the Social Recession Mean for the Next Age of Experiences?
Some two years on from the global pandemic-related lockdowns, while the headlines may fixate on economic downturns and worldwide political unrest, the effects of isolation still cast a long shadow over us. There's a global "social recession" on the rise, and it's the younger members of society who are feeling it most acutely.
And is it any wonder? While we all experienced the misery of lockdowns, the loss is undoubtedly more devastating for a group so used to living in each other's pockets, at a stage of life where burgeoning social status and creds matter so much. Add to this the sprawling nature of everyday tech—scan your own shopping functions, delivery bags outside your door, an increasingly wordless society, or the metaverse muscling in on real life—and it's no surprise our social connections are fragmenting.
Loneliness and isolation are becoming more prevalent across Western societies, with young people among the worst affected. Even pre-pandemic, rising loneliness among teenagers was a problem as a recent study based on data gathered by the OECD from 15- and 16-year-old school pupils highlights. In a sample of 1million teenagers, school loneliness increased between 2012 and 2018 in 36 out of 37 countries. Nearly twice as many teenagers felt high levels of loneliness in 2018 compared to 2012. The researchers found that school loneliness was higher when more students had access to smartphones and used the internet more hours per weekday. If the internet makes young people feel lonely, it's no wonder the pandemic made them lonelier still.
Indeed, as The Financial Times put it recently: "Young people are suffering a social recession," and this chimes with the findings of Amplify's Young Blood survey, which questioned 2,029 young British men aged 16-24 about what it means to be a man in 2022. Some 81 percent said they had experienced mental health problems in the 12 months prior to the survey. Loneliness and lack of money were the top two causes of these problems, each mentioned by 42 percent of respondents, with social media coming in third. Bullying, exclusion and trolling are all facets of the social media age. Smartphones and social media promised to bring people together, encourage participation and boost our sense of community. Instead, these technologies may be driving people further apart, increasing the widespread sense of social alienation and creating greater isolation. Coupled with pandemic social restrictions that forced groups to entrench in even smaller circles, the diminishing number of friends has fueled a social downturn. Living life through a social media filter, there is no JOMO—only FOMO.
Brands should think hard about how they can play a key role in constructing more positive narratives and helping today's young people become happier and less isolated. Youth audiences increasingly expect brands to act with purpose and not shy away from wider, societal issues—such as loneliness—and explore the ways in which they can play a positive role. There are a number of opportunities for brands to address the needs of modern youth audiences, from providing experience or opportunities that tackle the problem head on to re-evaluating the way they recognize and represent young people in their marketing.
Fight isolation with inclusivity
Designing experiences which help address isolation—whether live, digital or hybrid—is vital for brands today. Whatever the medium, brands should question how they can make their experiences truly inclusive, eschewing exclusive or competitive activities and instead focusing on how they can facilitate interaction and collaboration based on the shared interests of their audiences. Nothing beats people coming together for communal activities with a shared passion or purpose—something festivals have always done well, with notable activations including Pavegen's energy generating dance floor at Bestival, which took the energy from steps of the revelers and used it to recharge more than 1,000 mobile phones across the event, through to Old Mout Cider's Kiwi Camp at Isle of Wight Festival in partnership with WWF, which featured upcycling challenges. By enabling young people to form communities based around their passions and engage with one another, brands can support, empower and connect their consumers.
Upskill and assist
As this audience looks to navigate the challenges of post-pandemic life, they are eager to learn new skills that will help them do so. In particular, this generation increasingly craves financial savviness, as evidenced in the Young Blood research which found money to be at the root of many young people's struggles with mental health. There's a clear opportunity for brands to play a role in upskilling this audience, providing experiences, opportunities and resources that equip them with new knowledge and tools. As young audiences increasingly look for a value exchange above and beyond the products or services brands offer, turning your marketing and experiences into something that is genuinely useful can help your brand stand out for increasingly selective consumers.
For an audience that largely feels unseen in advertising, a powerful way in which brands can support young people is in the choice of the people they partner with. Across culture, talent whom this demographic look up to, whether it's Shawn Mendes, Little Simz or Paddy Pimblett, are increasingly using their platforms to speak out publicly about the need to prioritize mental health. The brands that champion and collaborate with progressive role models who are open about their own mental health battles are seen as the ones giving platform to these important issues.
Provide safe spaces
Finally—creating welcoming spaces to connect and speak honestly about their feelings is essential as young people build their social circles. Brands should consider how to create spaces that help them feel more connected and encourage young audiences to share and seek help when they need it. When Gymshark opened a barber shop offering free trims and mental health chats, they tapped into a genuine audience need and insight that allowed them both a moment of brand building and crucially, to position themselves as an understanding and supportive brand serving its audience with an essential space for important conversations.