It feels like more and more, our culture is being defined by anxiety. The messages are all around us: dramatic news headlines, election-year rhetoric, volatility in financial markets, Internet shaming - even some advertising makes us anxious. Increasingly, innovation and disruption are portrayed in such a way that innovation looks scary, daunting and anxiety-inducing. Anxiety has become so deeply rooted in our culture, it's having a real impact on the way that we see and interact with the world.
At a recent event, Peter Hancock, CEO of insurance giant AIG, talked about the fear culture in which we live, and how that fear can inhibit growth by making us overly risk-averse. Within a culture driven by fear and anxiety, businesses are less willing to invest, innovate or change. The impact on individuals is even more profound, restricting our willingness to do the things we want, to follow our dreams and even to express ourselves. Whether it's the hundreds of thousands who stopped flying after the 9/11 terror attacks, those who stopped participating in company ESOPs after the financial crisis, or even people who carefully redact their social posts for fear of criticism. These kinds of fear-driven behaviors have a real and significant impact on the economy and on people's lives.
According to data from J. Walter Thompson's latest Anxiety Index (which we've been tracking since 2003), 75% of Americans are anxious. These days, they are most anxious about politics, their financial situation and security. Big issues. But the reality is that our everyday habits cause anxiety too. Internet shaming, and the intense criticism those who post face for their opinions or faux pas, have an impact on behavior. Companies, executives and individuals are increasingly reluctant to share their perspectives, out of fear of being criticized or creating controversy. This inhibits diverse thinking, which in turn, inhibits ideas.
There is also the impact of the information age, starting with the fear of missing out (FOMO), which drives us to incessantly check our mobile devices to monitor our social channels for the story, event or trending meme, so we're never that person who isn't in the loop. Ironically, our access to information is also causing a different kind of stress. Back in 1989, Richard Saul Wurman published Information Anxiety, a book that identified a growing sense of uneasiness that people have with the massive amount of data they access every day (and we all know how much more data we interact with since 1989!). That unease, just like the amount of information and our ability to access it, is growing every day.
As marketers, we can help alleviate some of this anxiety. We can educate, we can inform, and we can make the decision-making process easier. We can better understand our consumer's pain points, and engage with them on new levels. And we can even offer utility and technology to make people's lives easier and better.
We can also celebrate acts of courage that overcome fear to accomplish great things. Maybe then we'll be less driven by fear and more apt to challenge ourselves, take risks and share our ideas.
Our work and our industry can play an important role in changing the culture of fear to one of empowerment, courage and hope. Increasingly, we have been showing the next generation that not all women are bikini models selling beer and hamburgers; that they can be amazing athletes, not just cheerleaders; and that women have ambition too. Every day we make decisions about perpetuating our culture of fear through our work and behavior, and every day we decide if we are going to accept or reject that fear. Let's make tomorrow a little more courageous.