What we’re watching: Trends closing out 2023

A significant part of our work in content and creative strategy involves trendspotting. Identifying and analyzing under-the-radar or emerging topics and themes helps keep our clients’ content timely, fresh, and useful, advancing critical business conversations. We typically kick off every year with a perspective on what’s ahead and continue to look for and assess the events, ideas, and technologies likely to take hold throughout the year.

Some of our work is about defining what has staying power (think “resilience” in its many forms), what might fizzle out (ahem, gas stoves), what could change, and what to do about it all. A nuanced perspective, well-defined angles, and, often, the unexpected conversations are what make good trendspotting and trend-related content great, distinctive, and useful—helping rise above the content cacophony in our inboxes, news apps, and social media accounts.

So, as we continue into the last few months of 2023, here are some of the underexplored trends we’re watching.

Unsustainable childcare costs and the DEIB angle

Childcare is getting more expensive—which matters not only to companies thinking about their own flexible working models or those that advise on benefits and workforce strategy but also to all companies looking to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) within their organizations and in their content. Recent data on rising childcare costs shows that across types of childcare (babysitters, nannies, childcare centers), expenses have outpaced inflation. In a survey, 51 percent of parents reported that they’ll spend more than 20 percent of their income on childcare.

Talk of high childcare costs isn’t necessarily new; in fact, Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal in late 2021 included measures to address those costs. But while many companies publish on workforce strategy and resilience, few are addressing the challenge in a meaningful way. Is there a breaking point on how rising costs push high-quality talent to rethink how and where they work? If the solution involves more-flexible working models or expanded benefits, those companies that get out ahead of the challenge can position themselves more competitively for experienced working parents. There’s also a critically underexplored DEIB angle, which more companies should be paying attention to given the frustration surrounding slow or nonexistent DEIB progress in the corporate world. Unsustainable childcare costs can push people out of the workforce or certain industries or roles; not addressing the issue means unequal opportunities for advancement if working parents who can afford care are the only ones able to achieve career mobility. Companies seeking to move the needle and build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce can and should pay attention.

ESG and green messaging shifts

Most people are familiar with the concept of greenwashing—companies’ false or overexaggerated claims of environmentally-friendly practices or products. In the corporate world, the range of greenwashing activity spans questionable messaging or communications to more deceitful practices. But also on the rise is greenhushing—when companies purposely downplay their sustainability practices or investments—typically over concerns about public perception and the politicization of climate action, fear of being accused of greenwashing, or other issues. At the same time, the messaging and communications around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations is becoming more fraught, particularly in the United States. Some companies are choosing not to address it at all in corporate communications, including earnings calls, in which data show that ESG mentions have dropped considerably quarter after quarter.

But we expect the drift away from sustainability commitments and ESG to reverse. Amid 2023’s extreme heat across the globe and devastating natural disasters, there are urgent economic and moral imperatives for companies and governments to act and communicate in meaningful and transparent ways. And with the US Securities and Exchange Commission potentially finalizing its climate disclosure rule later this year and the European Union putting the European Sustainability Reporting Standards into effect in January 2024, new forces could spur more definitive and assertive communication on what companies are doing and what it means for their stakeholders. As global leaders head to Dubai for COP28, eyes and ears will be on the first global stocktake, the energy transition, and other critical measures. A longer-term messaging and communications strategy, with a stake in the ground on specific actions and impact, will serve companies better than responding to uncertain sentiment or disillusionment with sustainability and ESG initiatives.

Rethinking the US city: Back to basics

Whether it’s how to revive downtowns postpandemic or bringing people back to the office, a lot of ink has been spilled on the future of cities. Smart, connected cities—and more sustainable ones—have also been in the headlines for a long time, despite slow movement and projects that fall short of promises. But a relatively basic concept could hold promise for making cities and suburbs more sustainable and improving quality of life—building for proximity.

In a recent study, Brookings Institution analysts noted that in the United States, “only 37% of residents in the 110 largest metro areas live within 3 miles—equal to a 15-minute bike ride—of five activity centers,” which are essentially defined as areas where people work, eat, play, and access retail and other amenities. The analysts found that living near activity centers, whether people live in urban or suburban areas, could reduce an individual’s transportation-related carbon footprint by roughly 32 percent and save drivers as much as $920 to $1,200 in annual transportation expenses. There are societal benefits, too, such as giving more people across income levels greater access to jobs, retail, and leisure; reducing environmental strain; and curbing emissions. It’s simple, and the promise is there, but it does involve challenging the status quo.

As business and government leaders continue to write about the future of cities, the workforce, DEIB, and beyond, there’s a starting point for change.

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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