Beyond Trends: Eight Consumer Economies of the Future

Beyond Trends: Eight Consumer Economies of the Future

Global macro forces and deep societal changes will unearth rich opportunities and pose new challenges by 2035.

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Beyond Trends: Eight Consumer Economies of the Future
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Lasting trend or fad?

For decades, this has been a crucial question for consumer-facing businesses. Executive teams have rushed to predict the longevity of each new eye-catching shift in consumer behavior. The Atkins diet. On-the-go food. Flavored lattes. Social media. These are just a few of the sudden enthusiasms that have bubbled up since the 1990s. Some were indeed just passing crazes.

But while consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) and retailers are used to rapidly analyzing emerging consumer trends as part of their short-term planning, they don’t always have the right tools to anticipate consumption patterns further in the future.

Understanding the longer-term evolution of consumption requires a much fuller picture of people beyond today’s spending patterns: how they work; where they live; how they travel; how they take care of each other (and themselves). This data can signal how people will consume, buy, or exchange in the future. Longer-term forecasts must also factor in macro forces that will reshape society and create new, unmet consumer needs. These forces include demographic shifts, economic pressures, climate change, migration flows, and geopolitical instability.

To help executive teams prepare for the future more effectively, Bain’s Consumer Lab has combined this more rounded view of individual behavior with macro-level forecasts. Our holistic analysis—showcased at the Consumer Goods Forum's 2023 Global Summit and at the 2024 SXSW Conference—has identified eight areas where new commercial opportunities and new challenges are likely to be concentrated. Below, we offer an overview of these “future consumer economies.”

  1. The rerouted economy. People will increasingly be on the move: between continents and countries, cities and neighborhoods, and on a permanent or temporary basis. Whether driven by macro forces such as climate change, economic pressures, and political instability, or by voluntary reasons such as the search for a better lifestyle or adoption of flexible work opportunities, these movements will reshape where people live and work—and where, what, how, and when they consume. Demand and footfall will materialize in new places; distribution networks and store formats will have to be redesigned; and offerings will evolve by blending cultures, traditions, and tastes. At the same time, societal polarization may require tiered offerings to address the coexistence and co-location of extreme poverty and wealth. 
  2. The redefined family economy. Family arrangements are being redefined, shifting from the traditional nuclear family to new types of family models. An array of family formations can now exist. Single-person households are the fastest-growing type of household globally. There are also single-parent families, blended and mixed families, multigenerational families, and “chosen families.” Businesses will need to cater to and support families of all types, through solutions ranging from single-serve products to alternative housing options. They’ll also need to help create new rituals to bring together families as they change shape.
  3. The 2 billion shades of gray economy. The global population aged 60 and over is forecast to double over the next 25 years to more than 2 billion. With improved health and delayed retirement, this stage will broadly divide into two segments of senior age: those who will continue to work, travel, and consume in their golden years, and those who will need more support. But this economy will not be just about developing products and services catering to the elderly. It will also be about serving needs such as finding a refreshed purpose, upskilling for new years of work, caring for both growing children and aging parents—or grappling with the uncertainties of what a delayed old age might look like.
  4. The conscious and slow economy. As extreme weather continues to affect people globally, eco-awareness and environmental anxiety will only increase. Already about 60% of people in fast-growing economies are concerned about environmental sustainability because of their firsthand experience of related problems such as extreme weather. Consequently, consumers will look at more radical ways to avoid, reduce, or extend consumption. Deepening anxiety about the environment—combined with tighter regulation and advances in technology—will fuel alternative business models and reshape consumption in a way that could disintermediate consumer products and retailers. We will see tech-enabled platforms that facilitate the return of “old school” commerce (think neighborhood sharing and exchange) fit for the modern world, localized and sustainable consumption (think communal, regenerative vegetable gardens in micro-communities), or models designed around renting, repairing, and recycling. Serving the needs of this economy will require companies to move past conventional consumption models and adopt new, nonfinancial yardsticks for success.
  5. The autonomous agent economy. Roughly one in two people in the US and Europe feel they have no free time for leisure activities. That’s a product of many pressures, including information overload, the rise of single living or dual-career couples, and the continued unequal sharing of household tasks between genders. Consequently, nearly one in two Americans say they would automate chores and mundane tasks if they could. Autonomous agents, which should gain rapid adoption, will leverage artificial intelligence to automate drudgery (such as repeat purchases) and accelerate decision making. This economy paves the way for true human and technological partnership, where technology frees up time for the activities that truly fulfill and humanize people.
  6. The originator economy. Consumers today have all the tools needed—many of them digital and powered by AI—to become their own enterprise and disrupt the traditional consumer products and retail value chains. The growth of these tools combined with the increase in remote and freelance work (and the desire to combine personal passions with how one makes a living) will redefine how people contribute to the consumption economy. They might become competitors to traditional brands and banners, or their distributors, or product and service suppliers, etc. Companies will need to adapt to this new wave of entrepreneurship and creative endeavor and create models that incorporate and support consumers as originators across their value chain.
  7. The superhuman economy. The way consumers think about health will both increase in importance and expand in definition. That thinking has already shifted to include mental health, but could also encompass spiritual, emotional, social, and even financial well-being. Deeper knowledge, greater access to monitoring and tracking tools, an increased desire to control one’s own health, and new solutions will lead people to optimize their health holistically to “die young, as late as possible.” This will fundamentally shift the way people take care of themselves and redefine traditional health systems. There will be an opportunity—perhaps even a moral obligation—for companies and governments to help democratize the pursuit of superhuman health.
  8. The emotional support economy. We live in a society that is increasingly connected by technology, yet many of us feel increasingly disconnected and isolated. Loneliness is already a global epidemic, affecting young and old. Technology and the ongoing rise of hyper-personalized content and entertainment will lead to algorithmic segregation. That, combined with lifestyle changes such as remote work and a decline in social rituals, will make it harder to build and maintain close social connections, and these factors are set to become more pronounced over the next decade. But the human need for connection will remain as strong as ever. Companies and governments will need to play a role in repairing the fabric of society by providing spaces, services, or products that create emotional support and help reconnect people.

More than just an economic opportunity

These future consumer economies will exist in concert and will overlap. For instance, what future consumer needs will exist at the intersection of the “redefined family” and “two billion shades of gray” economies as we live longer but perhaps alone in our households? Consumer-facing companies can use these future economies to fitness test their business and identify where strengths, opportunities, and challenges lie. 

Yet the promise of fresh, profitable growth isn’t the only thing we see emerging. Because consumer-facing companies are located at the nexus of so much profound change, they also have a chance to shape the world of 2035 for the better—by using their expertise and reach to deepen the positive social impact of these powerful global currents and minimize their negative effects.

The authors would like to thank Pranav Ram for his contribution to this article.

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