Asia

Shale Gas, China, Cupcakes and Tattoos – a Random Walk through the Garden of Global Trends

So, here’s a tricky one for you: what’s the similarity between shale gas, China, cupcakes and tattoos?

I work in the oil and gas industry, and my job is focussed on what is known as “unconventional gas” – natural gas derived from non-traditional reservoirs, like coal and shale rock. These new gas resources are widely considered to be transformative supplies of energy that are rapidly reshaping the world’s oil-based geopolitical maps. They have already forever changed the energy markets in the United States and Australia.

I regularly receive various online newsletters and research notes geared towards those in the industry. I was reading one such publication a few weeks ago, and noticed that it identified shale gas as an “emerging global energy trend to watch”.

The first thing to be said is that I wouldn’t be rushing out to bet your life savings on this “hot tip”. Insofar as shale gas is concerned, it has been an emerging trend for only, say, the last ten years or so. The genius analyst who made this astute observation has either been living under a rock for the last decade, or else is more used to writing for the fashion pages.

More usefully, however, this research note did alert me to the fact that out there in the big wide world, there are whole armies of consultants whose sole purpose in life is to pontificate on what the “next big thing” might be. Apparently, they get paid many millions of dollars to do so.

One of the leading firms in this field is a Dutch outfit called Trend Watching. Each year they publish a list of emerging trends to watch out for. Their most recent list included the following highlights:

  • Flawsome: for 2012’s consumers, brands that behave more humanly, including showing their flaws, will be awesome”.
  • Screen culture: in 2012, ‘life’ will take place via ever more pervasive, personal, immersive and interactive screens”.
  • Dealer-chic: For consumers, securing the best deals is fast becoming a way of life, if not a source of pride and status”.

I confess that these all struck me as kind of self-evident observations rather than revelations as to what our collective future might look like. Although it did occur to me that in the trend-spotting industry, being able to come up with really snappy labels is obviously far more important than actually being able to spot a trend itself.

So, what did the good folk at Trend Watching rate as being their top global trend to watch out for in 2012? Something they called The Red Carpet, which they describe as this: “businesses around the world will shower Chinese customers and visitors with even more tailored services and perks, and in general, lavish attention and respect”.

Are you fucking kidding me? Someone actually got paid good money to come up with this so-called “insight”? Anyone who has spent more than thirty minutes in Asia over the last decade could have told you the same thing, for free.

All of which led me to thinking that maybe, because I travel so often, I am perhaps in the slightly privileged position of being able to see global trends first as they take on, and then as they take off. I get exposed to new fads in real-time and then I get to follow them as they spread quickly around the world, like a virus on speed.

Consider, if you will the Ugg. For those not in the know, this is an Australian boot made from sheepskin and lined with wool. A decade ago, Uggs were a strictly Aussie affair, worn indoors with pyjamas on cold winter’s mornings. No-one in their right mind would have been caught dead wearing a pair of Uggs in polite company. Roll forward ten years, and I have seen teenagers proudly parading their multi-coloured Ugg footwear in places as diverse as New York, Istanbul and Shanghai, winter and summer, rain and shine. I have even seen Uggs make guest appearances in Urumqi (far-West China), and in Almaty (Kazakhstan). I wonder how much Trend Watching would have paid me back in 2000 for: “Ugg-ly: watch out for hideous Australian sheepskin boots as they conquer the global fashion scene”.

Then there is the global obsession with sushi. Now, I know that for many of you sushi is so entrenched in the modern world and considered so “normal” that it hardly bears even remarking on, much less being called a trend. But think back, and you may recall that sushi has actually not been common for all that long. It has been less than twenty years – a comparatively short time really – since sushi went from being weird shit only eaten in Japan to global food staple.

As an example of how ubiquitous sushi has become, about a year ago I was in Tel Aviv, and suffering from jet-lag. At four in the morning I found myself wide awake and really hungry, so I consulted the hotel’s room service menu for a late night feed. I discovered that in the wee hours of the night, my Israeli in-room dining alternatives were fairly limited. Option A, falafel and humus (which I really didn’t want to eat just then – at 4am, it seemed like that would be the equivalent of swallowing a small bucket of wet cement). Or Option B, that well-known, centuries-old middle-eastern snack food of raw fish on rice. Moreover, the selection of sushi on offer at 4am that morning was even kosher.

Is it just me who finds this to be nuts? Is it not just a little bit strange that of all the cuisines available in this world it is sushi – raw fish – that we have chosen above all others to elevate in status to the most common lunch-time take-out after the humble sandwich. From London to Los Angeles to Paris to Sydney to Tel Aviv, we just can’t get enough of the stuff.

Anyway, this new-found awareness of trendology means that I have lately been keeping an eye out for hot global trends while I travel. And over the last little while, I have been to quite a few places: Australia, Singapore, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, Israel, and several spots in the United Kingdom. So, I feel I speak with some authority when I offer up two global trends that, at least so far as I can tell, are the hottest of the hot – cupcakes, and tattoos.

Let’s start with cupcakes. Just this morning, in central London while walking from one meeting to another, I interrupted my journey to buy a peanut-butter and jelly cupcake, from a store that sells nothing but cupcakes. Repeat: absolutely nothing but freshly baked cupcakes, arranged in row after row of the most exquisite, delicious-looking flour-and-icing creations imaginable. And, this wasn’t a store tucked away in some anonymous back alley. This particular cupcake heaven occupies prime street frontage on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in one of the ritziest areas of London. Plus, there was a queue, and I had to wait a good ten minutes before I was able to claim my PBJ cupcake morning snack. Which, it turns out, cost the equivalent of $6.20, or, given that it took me exactly three bites to devour it, came to $2.06 per mouthful. I have had fresh rock oysters for less. Clearly, the cupcake trade must be good.

The cupcake trade is so good, in fact, that the Yellow Pages now lists more than eighty stores across London that sell nothing but cupcakes. I am actually not sure what is the more extraordinary fact in all this – that there are so many specialist cupcake bakeries in the one city, or that cupcakes have their own category in the Yellow Pages. What is it that cupcakes have that, say, croissants or scones or lemon meringue pies don’t?

The thing is this: in Singapore, right around the corner from my apartment, there is a cupcake store. There is another one in the mall up the road; and another in the mall just down the road. Cupcake bakeries have sprouted all over Singapore. There are also cupcake stores all over Hong Kong and Beijing and Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. Not to mention the specialist cupcake stores I have come across in Zurich, in Paris, in Warsaw, in Newcastle, and even in Istanbul.

In London earlier in the year I saw cupcakes decorated in blue and white for the Jubilee weekend, and then a few weeks ago, they had conveniently been swapped to pink cupcakes with the Olympic rings. In New York, one enterprising fellow now offers cupcake walking tours of the city. And in Israel, always at the cutting edge, physical cupcake stores have to compete not just with each other but with multiple online cupcakeries as well.

In short, wherever I go, it seems like the whole planet is caught in the grip of a massive outbreak of cupcake-itis.

The origin of this disease can actually be traced quite specifically, to a 2002 episode of Sex and the City, which featured Carrie and her pals having When Harry Met Sally type orgasms over pink-frosted cupcakes from a New York bakery. Prior to then, cupcakes were nothing special – just one of a range of bakery items, and a convenient way for bakers to use up leftover cake batter. Since Sex and the City, cupcakes are a global phenomenon. As for the bakery in question (Magnolia, on Bleeker Street), even today, more than ten years later, people still queue up to buy cupcakes there, sometimes for hours….

You know something has become a serious trend when serious people start talking seriously about it. In the case of cupcakes, various “academic” works have come out of the woodwork, attempting to put a solid intellectual framework around the lofty and oh so important subject of cupcakes. Case in point: an in-depth feature in the London Telegraph from May, with the rather sombre headline: “Why Cupcakes are the New Cocaine”. What follows is a long article in which the author describes cupcakes as being in the same category as “prescription drugs, internet porn, and computer games…” The article argues in some detail that cupcakes are popular because they are sugary and sweet, given that Homo sapiens in general terms like to eat sugary and sweet things. First class journalism, that.

Raising the bullshit analysis stakes one level higher, I came across this gem from an anthropologist at the University of Alabama, who has actually gone so far as to formally study and write on the subject of cupcakes, including this: “The cupcake-as-symbol-of-childhood is powerful: It’s wrapped in the cultural definition of what it means to be a good mother”. Take heed and start baking, all of you crap mothers out there who don’t habitually stuff your little ones full of cupcakes.

And the ultimate evidence that cupcakes are now a fully fledged global trend to be reckoned with: they have become a legally protected foodstuff. In Texas several years back, apparently there was a suggestion to ban cupcakes from schools. Which struck me as not an entirely stupid idea – as previously mentioned, cupcakes are sugary and sweet and thus they are probably not the best of school snacks in a nation battling with horrifying levels of child obesity.

But it seems that the right to bear cupcakes was evidently more important than anyone previously thought. So important that a special law – known as the “Safe Cupcake Amendment” – was passed, to legally enshrine a parent’s right to send cupcakes to school in their kids’ lunch boxes. Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

Moving on, my second contender for global trends to keep an eye on is tattoos.

When I was growing up, Popeye the Sailorman had tattoos. Japanese yakuza gangsters had tattoos. Bikers and tough guys and punks and criminals, and perhaps the occasional soldier, had tattoos. But good boys and good girls did not have tattoos. And given the association with the Holocaust (the Nazis branded many concentration camp inmates with tattooed numbers on their forearms) good Jewish boys and girls most definitely did not have tattoos.

Move forward a few decades, and my, how things have changed. Tattoos of everything from black-and white tribal designs to colourful butterflies and dolphins decorate shoulder-blades, hips, lower-backs, arms, legs, butts and breasts, from Melbourne to Manhattan and all places in between. Ink is everywhere. It is almost impossible to ride the London metro in the morning and not see a tattoo suggestively peeking out at you from the exposed ankle or neck or shoulder of a demurely dressed and otherwise perfectly respectable looking office girl.

Over the last decade tattoos have become completely main-stream, on a global basis. I have seen them equally on men and women, rich and poor, on teenagers and young adults and the middle-aged, and sometimes even on really old folk (although in this last case, it always looks just wrong). At a dinner in Israel a few years ago our hostess, an elegant, Chanel-clad middle-aged mother of two, bent over to pick up a dish from a low table, revealing her entire lower back was covered with elaborate swirling tattoos.  She told us that she had only recently got them done. Indeed, I have never seen more tattoos on display in the one place as I did a few weeks ago on a beach in Tel-Aviv. So much for good Jewish boys and girls don’t get tattoos….

Some statistics to verify the trend: in 1936, Life Magazine estimated that 2% of Americans had tattoos. A similar estimate in 2008 was that 14% of Americans now have one or more tattoos, and this is much higher in the prime ink age bracket of 25 – 40 years old, where some estimates are that as many as 40% of people have tattoos. Where I come from, it is equally prevalent – allegedly 25% of Australians under the age of 30 now sport tattoos. Which concerns me a bit – I have four kids, and so if this statistic is right, one of them isn’t telling me something.

Perhaps it is one of my two young daughters. A few months ago in a large brand-name toy-shop, I came across Tattoo Barbie. I read that the inked version of the Barbie doll – role model for young girls everywhere – was a runaway best seller.

And, full confirmation, if such was needed, of how tattoos have become an undisputed global trend was provided when I read the following news item from late last year: “Seeking to broaden its appeal to China’s better-educated and perhaps more hip youth, the People’s Liberation Army has dropped a long-time bar to enlisting in the service: now, recruits can sport tattoos on their faces and necks”. According to the news coverage that accompanied this monumental relaxation of Chinese military standards, the new rules were introduced because the Chinese Army was having trouble recruiting sufficient numbers of educated urban youth, so prevalent have tattoos become amongst this population group.

Shale gas, the Red Carpet, cupcakes, tattoos. Where am I going with all this? I am not sure really, other than to say that I had no idea I had become so trendy. I work in shale gas, I know about China, and I eat lots of cupcakes. So all that remains is to get a tattoo – at least three of my kids will be impressed.

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