Neoteny. Exploring the “Youthification” of Our Society

Neoteny. Exploring the “Youthification” of Our Society (Photo: Michael Blitch)

Last week Gary Vaynerchuk, author of Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook and The Thank You Economy posted an insightful article to LinkedIn about a dramatic shift that our society is experiencing right now that can be observed readily in pop culture and consumer marketing.

In Youthification. It’s a Word Now, Vaynerchuk refers to the shift as “youthification” and points out that the buying habits of middle aged women are being influenced by their daughters way more so than in the 1980s or 90s. Along with Vaynerchuk and myself, these parents are part of the generation told by VH-1 that we could stay cool and avoid becoming like our parents. The most common way we’ve seemingly accomplished this has been to mimic our children instead of our parents when it comes to pop culture. While Vaynerchuk’s focus is on women, the shift is observable in all adults.

We are going through the youthification of our society. Think about it. If you look at the behavior of a 40 year-old woman today, it very closely resembles the actions of a 27 year-old women only 20 years ago.

Neoteny is an established zoological term for the physiological shift that Vaynerchuk is observing in the habits of consumers. Neoteny is the retention of juvenile features in an adult animal. I first came across the term neoteny in the 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier. Lanier, born in 1960, is an early pioneer of virtual reality as well as a musician, composer, and writer. In the final section of what is a mostly pessimistic observation of digital technology’s influence on society, Lanier optimistically looks to neoteny as an evolutionary strategy for our society.

Neoteny is an evolutionary strategy exhibited to varying degrees in different species, in which the characteristics of early development are drawn out and sustained into an individual organism‟s chronological age.

For instance, humans exhibit neoteny more than horses. A newborn horse can stand on its own and already possesses many of the other skills of an adult horse. A human baby, by contrast, is more like a fetal horse. It is born without even the most basic abilities of an adult human, such as being able to move about.

He continues on to explain a theory that neoteny in humans is not fixed and is continually rising as our species evolves. This idea can be easily identified and connected to literacy rates in a society. The more literate a group is the longer their children are allowed to remain in a more protected environment.

Illiterate children went to work in the fields as often as they were able, while those who learned to read spent time in an artificial, protected space called the classroom, an extended womb.

Along with this expansion of the length of childhood Lanier also describes a slowing of generational change. He describes the last 20 years as “the first ever era of musical stasis” because there is no distinctive musical sound and everything is retro. As a composer and seemingly general pessimist his tone is one of displeasure with this fact of pop culture – like a generation has lost it’s opportunity for a unique identity. From a consumer marketing standpoint this merging of generations through neoteny is exactly why Vaynerchuk can reach one generation indirectly by marketing to their children.

Both Vaynerchuk and Lanier make keen observations and both are rightly aware of a significant shift taking place in society. The depth of that shift however reaches far beyond popular culture and consumer marketing.

Like Lanier I look to music as a strong indicator of this extending of generations. It is why millennials are fans of “retro” music as varied as Serge Gainsbourg, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica. It is also why 17 year old Lorde and 21 year old Miley Cyrus have captured the attention (both fans and haters) of Gen X. While helicopter parenting has been largely framed in a negative light, the boomer and millennial generation have a parent/child relationship bond like no other previous generations – a bond that will only grow stronger as they both mature and grow wiser with age. Gen X – typically defined as stuck between boomers and millennials, actually benefits from being able to experience life with a foot in both generational pools.

The above three generations defining our culture right now are finding common ground and working together to redefine the expectations we have of capitalism, education, government, and just about every other institution developed to serve the the societal needs of the industrial revolution. We are living through the dramatic shift from an age based on technology multiplying our physical abilities to an age that multiples our mental abilities.

This is the first part of a series that will explore how private enterprises are reshaping capitalism, disrupting educational and philanthropic institutions, and changing government while contributing to shifts in human society that will be as profound as those caused by the the rise of agriculture (physical), alphabetic literacy (mental), and the printing press (physical).



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