February 12th, 2024

Design 4Retail

Design in the age of polarisation.

In this article, we discuss:

  • What societal drivers are.
  • Why the younger are getting richer, and the older are having their moment.
  • The polarising impact today’s economy is having on consumers.

[Image Credit: Maison Margiela]

man on one wheel

Societal Drivers

Societal drivers relate to social structures and behaviours that shape people’s preferences. This could be social, political, or environmental and naturally, as new trends and challenges emerge, the way we behave will begin to change to suit our environment. Often these drivers will result in behaviours that look to both ends of that spectrum which brands will then leverage to produce products or services that tap into these shifting mindsets.

different generations of women

Generational Shift

As Millennial and Gen-Z anticipate inheritance within the next few decades, there will be a great transfer of wealth from The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Gen X to the Millennials and Gen Zs. Over the next 20 years, US Gen Z and Millennials are due to be passed down an astonishing £42 trillion (Modern Affluence Summit). With that transfer of wealth will come a generational shift in values, therefore brands will need to align themselves with the environmental, social, and ethical concerns of the younger generations. Being a brand that practices sustainability and supports marginalised communities will not be a selling point, it will be necessitous.

As cancel culture becomes engrained, and consumer expectations of authenticity grow, brands will no longer succeed via virtue signalling; they will need to prove they are genuine and aligned in their value beliefs. This is not done by telling, but by doing. They will no longer be able to hide behind marketing and tag lines; brands require accreditations and tangible proof of virtue in order to live up to the values of Gen Z and millennials.

[Image Credit: Neal’s Yard]

Lady Gaga with others


Forget flashy logos and empty promises. Gen Z and millennials wield their wallets with a powerful social conscience. Their values fuel every purchase decision, demanding real action, not performative gestures. Virtue signalling is out. Sustainability champions Nespresso’s bold statement on their recycling bags – “If you’re not going to recycle this, please don’t buy our capsules.” – exemplifying this shift.

Inclusivity is another battleground. Celebrity brands like Haus Labs and Savage x Fenty, helmed by pop-culture icons Lady Gaga and Rihanna respectively, prioritise diversity across race, body type, gender, and ability. Their success hinges on authenticity as “cancel culture” lurks, ready to expose hypocrisy. These brands are their founders’ legacies are built on genuine values not tokenism.

The message is clear: brands, align with Gen Z and Millennial values or be left behind. This isn’t a trend; it’s a cultural shift. Ditch the greenwashing; embrace authenticity, transparency, and inclusivity. The future belongs to those who truly stand for something, beyond the bottom line.

[Image Credit: Haus Labs]

Lady posing in home


In opposition to the rise of the younger generations, the ageing generation is shouting “don’t forget about us!”. Gen X and Millennials are starting to age, and in doing so, they are making sure they are not forgotten about. Although many brands are choosing to focus on marketing towards younger generations, they must not forget about their older customers. Brands such as Neal’s Yard have reached out to older women recently with their ‘The Age Well Revolution’ campaign, promoting their Age-Defying range.

Boomers and Gen-X are celebrating their age, allowing themselves to look older rather than covering up the effects of ageing. Stars such as Pamela Anderson, renowned for heavy make-up, have surprised fans by showing off her no make-up looks to advocate for her new skin care brand, Sonsie Skin.

Alongside this, older generations have been breaking the mould of what is expected of people of their age. Rather than choosing to slow down, many people are living their lives as they prefer and not conforming to the societal norms of their age. Grece Ghanem is a 56-year-old social media star, known for her love of fashion and rejecting the expectations of the way she should dress.

[Image Credit: Grece Ghanem]

model getting photos taken by paparazzi

Wealth Divide

The disparity in wealth distribution, commonly referred to as the ‘wealth gap,’ has emerged as a pressing global challenge. It is evident that there is a stark imbalance in the ownership of assets, including property, investments, and savings. Globally, the top 1% hold over 50% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 50% possess a mere 2.6%. This imbalance is further amplified by the accelerating rate at which the wealthiest accumulate wealth, outpacing the middle class and leaving the poorer strata stagnant. The consequences of this disparity extend far beyond economic metrics, impacting access to education, healthcare, housing, and social mobility on a fundamental level.

Several factors contribute to this growing chasm. Ineffective tax systems that favour the affluent while burdening the middle class and poor exacerbate the imbalance. Globalisation, while fostering economic growth, has disproportionately benefited the wealthy, with corporations and the elite capitalising on low-wage labour and favourable trade deals. Automation, while promoting technological advancement, displaces low-skilled workers, further widening the economic divide. Additionally, wealth inheritance perpetuates privilege, creating a vicious cycle where economic advantages disproportionately flow to future generations of the well-off.

Woman in pool overlooking ocean


The pandemic’s enforced isolation and disruption of daily routines instilled a profound sense of lost time. This translates into a heightened appreciation for life’s brevity and an urgent desire to seize the day. Simultaneously, societal instability has triggered a fear of unforeseen disruptions, leading to a “live for today” mentality as individuals seek to maximise enjoyment before potential obstacles arise. These recent challenges have contested pre-existing societal norms, causing ‘YOLO hedonists’ to re-evaluate priorities and place greater emphasis on experiential wealth over material possessions and career status.

The consequences of these motivational forces are readily apparent in consumer behaviours. The travel industry has witnessed a pronounced surge in post-pandemic ‘revenge travel’, with travellers actively seeking out exotic destinations, immersive cultural experiences, and luxury getaways. This extends beyond tourism, as the demand for unique and enriching experiences across various domains has soared. From adrenaline-pumping adventure activities to gourmet culinary journeys and opulent spa retreats, experience-seekers are actively curating unforgettable moments to fill their lives.

Influencer culture plays a critical role, with meticulously crafted feeds showcasing travel adventures, extravagant dining experiences, and glamorous lifestyles, further fuelling the desire to replicate these experiences. However, this pursuit of immediate gratification can come at a cost. Consumers may be more willing to take on financial risks, potentially accumulating debt or jeopardising long-term financial stability through unrestrained spending.


The pandemic’s economic anxieties have etched a sense of caution and resilience onto the psyches of the thoughtful ‘rebuilders’. This is only exacerbated by ongoing cost of living pressures that affect all consumers, with food prices rising 27% in the last two years alone. These cautious thinkers have taken to humourising their reality, with phrases such as ‘cozzy livs’ providing a friendly façade to adverse economic conditions.

In wider society, ‘loud budgeting’ is also being reflected on social media; the hashtag #nospendchallenge having amassed over 180 million views on Gen-Z favourite, TikTok. This is perhaps reflective of almost half of 16-24 year olds being in severely unsecure paid work compared to just 17% of 25-65 year olds (source: The Work Foundation’s Insecure Work Index 2022.) This generation also see self-enforced frugality as a form of wellness, a way to realign and ground themselves, free from economic distraction.

Unfortunately for those on lower incomes, no amount of scrimping and saving has been enough to offset the spiking inflation rate. Strikingly, in March 2022, frugal figurehead Martin Lewis said that he was “out of tools” to help the people struggling the most with the cost-of-living crisis. “It’s not something money management can fix, it’s not something that for those on the lowest incomes telling them to cut their belts will work. We need political intervention,”.

Key Takeaways

  • Societal drivers relate to social structures and behaviours that shape people’s preferences.
  • Brands must prove their intentions and values to our most conscious consumers yet, or risk getting left behind.
  • Despite the prominent financial gap among consumers, there is still space for brands to accommodate both ends of the spectrum, meaning brands needn’t suffer from economic pressures, but instead alter their approach.

How can your brand leverage design dualities?

Throughout February and March, we will discuss how these drivers have caused the emergence of several cultural trends, and how they impact 2D and 3D design. For each of these trends, there will be an antithesis or opposite, which we call design dualities. To read all design dualities, sign up to our newsletter so you don’t miss the release of our latest report!

At Design4Retail, shifting behaviours in society inspire our creative vision, ensuring our designs are not only visually impactful but are backed by current industry insights and strategy.

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