FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Babies as Status Symbols, Lifestyle Accessories

Thanks to high-profile celebrity pregnancies and births, babies are hot these days. To support affluent new and expectant parents who are taking cues from these celebrities as well as their peers, an entire industry has grown up, providing products and services to Gen X families that their parents would barely recognize.

One of the biggest trends identified by the consumer research firm Zandl Group is that of co-parenting, with dads taking a far more proactive role in child rearing. Paternity leave, "daddy bags" and discussion forums for dads are growing in popularity, according to Zandl. Twenty-five years ago, the thought of Dad raising the kids while Mom worked was downright hilarious (and lampooned in movies like Mr. Mom)... largely because it seemed so implausible. Not anymore.

Another sea change is the idea of pregnancy and parenting as a fashion statement. Designer baby accessories, stylish maternity wear and punk-inspired infant clothing are all must-have items. As these kids grow older, they may be more likely to be involved in alternative schooling arrangements, ranging from specialized private schools to home schooling to "unschooling."

A generation ago, much of this would have seemed in poor taste at best, downright offensive at worst. But those who observe trends have seen this coming for a long time, witnessing the convergence of other trends such as fertility technology that allows older (and presumably more affluent) women to bear children, the Gen X and Gen Y redefining of adulthood, smaller families that allow for more individual attention, the growing influence of celebrity on our culture, changing gender roles, general prosperity and luxury as an expectation, and continuous redefining of status symbols (sorry, gas-guzzling cars aren't cool anymore). Of course, these trends won't affect everybody at first, as a single mom on welfare isn't going to be buying Coach diaper bags. But this demographic represents the pacesetters of culture, and through the trickle-down effect, similar fashions soon will be at a Wal-Mart or Target near you (if they aren't there already).

To the greater interest of futurists is how these children will emerge as they grow older. Comedian Stephen Colbert made waves recently at a commencement speech he gave calling the graduates of Knox College in Illinois part of "the most coddled generation in history." "I belong to the last generation that did not have to be in a car seat. You had to be in car seats. I did not have to wear a helmet when I rode my bike. You do. You have to wear helmets when you go swimming, right? In case you bump your head against the side of the pool. Oh, by the way, I should have said, my speech today may contain some peanut products."

While trying to be funny, Colbert made a salient point. Growing up in the 1970s, my parents were considered highly over-protective... but they would be considered unacceptably permissive by today's standards. In the summers I went out all day and rode my bike all over the place -- something that few parents would permit today (and with good reason, some might add). But if Gen Y is "the most coddled generation in history," will their children be even more so? And what kind of adults will that produce?