In business, we obsess on what lies ahead. If we can just figure out what's going to happen, we can prepare to be in the right place with the right product at the right time.
We pay small fortunes to researchers, the oracles of modern times, to survey consumers with questions designed to predict the future.
But the future is beset with the unknowable. In 1997, CD retailers could ask all the questions they wanted about the behavior of the music-buying public, but since they couldn't see the iPod coming, it would ultimately have been more satisfying to have spent their research money on a giant industry farewell party.
The research firm DYG recently rented a room at the Yale Club in Manhattan, gathered their clients, including automakers, insurance companies and media conglomerates, and presented the results of their annual consumer scan. But before revealing their data, they set the stage by reviewing just exactly what had happened to America in the past 10 years.
It was not a pretty picture. We ended 1999 with a $230 billion surplus but closed out 2009 with a $1.17 trillion deficit. About 69% of people surveyed in 2000 said they were satisfied with the state of the country; 10 years later, that number had fallen to 27%. When asked specifically about the state of the economy, the gap was even wider: 74% and 13%, respectively.
I have no idea where they found the 13% who are satisfied.
Ten years ago, 17.8 million cars were sold. In 2009, the number had dropped to 10.6 million. Unemployment rose from 3.8% to 9.9%. The consumer confidence index dropped from 144.7 to 57.9.
DYG President Madelyn Hochstein reviewed events that had occurred during "the terrible aughts": the bursting of the dot-com bubble, 9/11, Enron and its brethren, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, recession and Deepwater Horizon.
And, Hochstein noted, there is no counterbalancing list of good news.
Given all that, you would think Americans would be a depressed lot. But what DYG's most recent survey discovered was that we've adjusted quite well.
We lost our money, so we decided there were more important things than money. If our lives were no longer filled to the brim with activities, we became appreciative of the quiet life. If we couldn't shop till we dropped, we rediscovered the joys of a nonmaterial life filled with family and friends.
The number of people who say they are satisfied with their life is now 69% -- three points higher than the year before the recession hit.
Hochstein summed it up thus: People want a richer life rather than a life of riches.
All of this strikes me as very good news for the travel industry. We have been trending toward experiential and multigenerational travel steadily through the decade and are in position to fulfill the desires of those seeking a richer life.
There is no knowing the future with certainty, but by putting the past together with the present, a comforting picture of the future emerges.
Is this trend toward a richer life sustainable? Of course not. But what will sustain is that, regardless of the unknowable changes ahead, we'll adapt.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.
This column appeared in the June 14 issue of Travel Weekly.