10 Terrible People from the Future, and their implications for Real Estate

For a moment, think back in time to the 1980s, the 60s, the twenties… Take a moment, before continuing. What pictures are conjured in your mind? For most of us, previous generations are defined not by buildings or events but rather by people. And not real people, but rather archetypes or stereotypes. For me, these decades were defined respectively by yuppies, hippies and flappers, and it is hazy images of these people that my subconscious creates when asked to reflect backwards. Those who lived through these eras will know that these caricatures represented however only a small fraction of contemporary society, and yet became symbolic of an entire generation.

Nevertheless, the influence that they created both within their generation and now in retrospective pop culture was both significant and disproportionate. In most societies, a few fringe actors have tended to innovate and galvanise the masses in their mould. Centuries ago, this would have been the aristocracy or notable military leaders. Moving forward in time, captains of industry and the nouveau riche took their place. And most recently, it is entertainers, disruptors and activists that are driving influence. Their activities, their fashions, their language, their music and their opinions have shaped contemporary mores, buying and leisure patterns, career and life aspirations and even societal ethics. And, of course, all these things in turn shape our real estate.

In a world where real estate is becoming ever more responsive and adaptive to the fluctuations of fashionable society, how might the people of tomorrow have a bearing on the form and function of real estate? In this week’s Futures /Cut, I take a step into an imagined city of 2040, and consider ‘10 Terrible Personalities’ that might by that point be generation defining. I point to signs of these people already emerging in 2022 (check out the hyperlinks) and ask what they might mean for the real estate of the future.

The Cyborg – The distinction between human and machine started to blur in the 2010s. A large segment of society became essentially integrated with high-power connected computers that used to be called phones. By 2020 the majority of humans were permanently within reach of these devices 24/7, which augmented their own knowledge and brainpower with information from the internet. It was only a matter of time before physical integration became the norm. Wearables were transformed into AR enabled contact lenses, and chips were inserted under the skin, (and for those that could afford it, directly into the brain). This led to the emergence of a new super-league of digitally-enabled human overlords, who became comprehensively more able than the proletariat in most areas of life, including abnormal productivity at work. (It transpires that some ‘pre-op’ Cyborgs had in fact been secretly running successful tech companies since the early 2000s).

Characteristics – Physically integrated technology / superior productivity / increased inequality

Implications for Real Estate – Connectivity moves from desirable to essential / wealthy clusters continue to pull away, as those that can afford to do so ‘upgrade’ themselves. 

The Mirage – In the early 21st century, ‘having fun’ was replaced by ‘appearing to have fun’. Accelerated by social media and digital photography this started to determine future social and leisure patterns. From that point on, leisure events for ‘Mirages’ typically then assumed the form of taking videos and photos of miscellaneous ‘unique’ experiences with the intention of securing social media ‘clout’, whilst incidentally doing other stuff that was previously considered entertaining. In turn, these images and profiles of partially genuine happenings are used to influence others to perform similar rituals; most of which involve buying some form of branded product. Some Cyborg-Mirages are augmented with changeable facial features and identities – the modern equivalent of real-time photoshopping.

Characteristics – Search for validation / Searching out experience / Style over substance

Implications for Real Estate – Importance of Instagrammable Real Estate / Importance of events and rotational ‘experiences’ as part of centre offering / Use of influencers to market real estate products

The Wanderer – As digital communications technology became more pervasive in the delivery of work, the factors that had previously tied people to location started to weaken, and for some disappeared entirely. Following ‘the Great Offshoring’ of the 2030s many found greater value wandering from place to place in search of work and value. Working intermittently from the beach and far-flung mountain tops became normalised, with ad hoc communities forming for specific projects. Most ‘Wanderers’ are unaffiliated gig workers, with job life-expectancies falling across the board. National and corporate loyalty and belonging now seem like quaint notions and are far beneath the contemplation of these evolved beings.

Characteristics – Footloose / Capricious / Stateless

Implications for Real Estate – Global value shift / Greater demand for flexibility / Rise of beautiful places

The Avatar – Starting with gaming communities and quickly expanding into virtual worlds, the concept of the Avatar moved from the niche into the mainstream in the 2020s. In 2019 a third of people were gaming more than 7 hours per week, but that exploded as Web3 and the Metaverse took over by 2030. A much bigger percentage of more functional activities, like shopping and working now takes place in virtual environments. For some people, this is now the only way that they choose to work, shop and socialise. For these people, their digital appearance is more important than their physical one; hence spending more on digital fashion and other NFTs than on real world goods. Initially ridiculed, some Avatars now enjoy celebrity status, occupying global centre stage as entertainers and politicians – from their mum’s basement.

Characteristics – Digital beings / Digital economy / Lower physical mobility

Implications for Real Estate – Rise of digital CRE / Substitution of some real assets / Digital twins / Digital infrastructure

The Activist – The mass adoption of social media in the 2010s gave a voice to the voiceless, and social activism found new power. Once the arena of the angry, the radical and the rich, activism hit the mainstream and delivered change in several important areas such as sustainability and inequality. In a world that had become disengaged from corporate profiteering, activism now defines lifestyles. In the same way that the Millennials ditched banking in favour of tech, some Gen Zs and Alphas have now ditched traditional work entirely in favour of socially worthy activism. Leading humble, quasi-religious lives, many dedicated Activists rely on charitable funding – oh, and pay checks from the CSR departments of major corporates.

Characteristics – Anti-corporate / anti-capitalist / change agents / purpose over pounds.

Implications for Real Estate – Social pressure to adopt higher ESG standards in real estate / shifting purpose and value proposition of corporate tenants.

The Sheep – Most people in most generations are largely inconsequential in the rear-view mirror. However, conformity and acquiescence hit new highs in the late 2030s. Social manipulation by big corporates, Activists and Mirages alike means that having your own opinion in 2040 is now optional and in many cases not preferred. Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the opiate of the masses’; by the year 2000, religion was replaced with TV, and in 2040 the social opiate became endless memes of Mirages dancing to the latest branded advertising jingles. With profile picture set on permanent rotation to ‘[insert virtuous message / flag of the month]’, and with conversation topics including brand straplines, the Sheep is happy to go along with the crowd – and in fact don’t even realise they are doing so.

Characteristics – Influenceable / Socially conformist / Follower

Implications for Real Estate – The value still sits with being able to drive value for the majority / Clever marketing and positioning of real estate around lifestyles and experiences will drive value.

The Hermit – The Hermit utterly rejects modern society. Concerned about the rise of Cyborgs, loathing of the vapid Mirages, cynical of Activists and despairing of Sheep, the Hermit has decided to hit society’s eject button. Hermits were the first to go virtual-only in the early 20s pandemic, but taking a different path from Avatars and Wanderers, they are now digitally unconnected. Back to nature, and low tech, Hermits found solace in small off-grid extra-urban communities and hydroponic factories. Turning to practical careers such as mechanics and farming, their extra-urban wood-built cabins are often the subject of uninvited visits by Mirages seeking to capture ‘authentic experiences’.

Characteristics – Non-conformist / Tech-rejecting / Simple lives

Implications for Real Estate – Scope for new decentralised self-sufficient communities / Low-tech as an ‘experience’

The Ubi – Following waves of digital automation, ‘the Great Offshoring’ and the introduction of Cyborgs into the workplace, it was inevitable that some people would be left behind. Since 2030, the permanently unemployable now benefit from the Universal Basic Income; however, it isn’t all it was talked up to be. Some ‘Ubi’s’ found gainful pursuits as Activists, or artisanal Hermits. However, many lost focus and purpose. The Government’s 2025 Modular Mass Timber Homes-for-Humans Programme had run out of funding by 2030, and an increasingly large underclass of Ubi-Sheep now spend most of their days at home in high density housing drifting through the freemium levels of the Metaverse or waiting for the next episode of ‘Who Wants to Go to Talent Island (on Ice)’.

Characteristics – Forgotten underclass / socially and economically underprivileged

Implications for Real Estate – Huge demand for new affordable housing products / New Towns / Taxation changes to support disenfranchised / changes to planning policy to afford ghettoization

The Nostalgic – Similar to Hermits, Nostalgics are not a fan of how things have turned out in 2040. However, their preference is not to reject society but rather to wind back the clock. History has a habit of repeating itself (at least in the eyes of marketing strategists). In the same way that the 80s were fashionable in the 2010s and the 90s were fashionable in the 2020s, the 40-something Gen Zs in 2040 hark back to their childhood in the 2010s. Armed with Blackberrys and MP3 players, Nostalgics can be observed at dinner parties discussing how music used to be better in the good old days of One Direction and Little Mix or embarrassing their children by drinking alcohol, vaping (no longer a thing) and twerking at a family member’s ‘Evolution Ceremony’. At work, they regale their junior colleagues of the bygone halcyon days of hybrid working and how people used to live prior to the Metaverse; whilst with senior colleagues they discuss how productivity will improve if they can get their workforce back into the real world.

Characteristics – Backward focussed / marketing policies targeted at re-living youth

Implications for Real Estate – Fashionable style based on ‘retro’ 2010s / Rose tinted view of the past slows down change / Need for real estate to appeal to cross-generational needs.

The Surveyor – The humble surveyor has evolved. Now, a largely representative member of modern society, the modern surveyor includes all the above characters and more. State-school educated, the Surveyor’s Dad (and Mum) definitely didn’t work in the property industry. Socially conscious and never having owned a 4×4, the Surveyor studied data science, and has worked in many industries over their varied career.

CharacteristicsDiverse / Multi-dimensional skill set / Breadth of experience

Implications for Real Estate – Nothing to see here

OK, some of these are a little tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps also terrifyingly close to a plausible reality. Extreme personas like these are a feature of our current society, from WAGs to hipsters, from roadmen to goths and from THAT girls to Finance bro’s, our society is littered with extreme examples of humanity from which we derive our cultural reference points. The change in typology over time is subtle, and in some cases semantic, with new typologies often emerging through amplification of existing personas. Despite their differences, the direction of travel to 2040 has in my view the following commonalities:

Technology – A greater reliance on both hardware and software in how we live our lives. By 2040 some of us will make this a defining personal attribute. There will inevitably be some substitution of real estate as digital activities take hold. However, of equal importance is how real estate creates the canvas for physical or hybrid activities. Connectivity will be king, and the ability to paint on real estate using AR and utilise it with digital workflows using IoT will become central to how we live our lives.

Experience & Purpose – Place can and will play a significant role in framing our life experiences. People will become increasingly hungry for these, both as a means of social validation, and for more purposeful or hedonistic pursuits. As product factors rise in importance, real estate will become one of the ways in which we externalise our own beliefs, values and sense of self identity. This includes its design and increasingly its associated services.

Flexibility – Key success criteria for the future include the ability to change and adapt. Long term commitments (in all areas of life) are waning, in favour of ability to pivot quickly. People of the future are likely to become more, rather than less capricious. There will be greater preoccupation with the new and with the ability to change one’s mind.

Equality and Diversity – Our world is becoming increasingly divided in many directions, and the hopes of unlocking this in the future are still clouded. Real estate can play a significant role in both creating and mitigating inequalities, and business, investors and government will all come under pressure to design our property and our cities in a way that better responds to differing human needs.

So what do you think? Will you become an Activist or a Hermit? What people of the future have I missed in this assessment? Drop me a line, or comment on my social post https://www.linkedin.com/in/richardpickeringcushman/