future speak

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The issue has always been culture, not numbers. Corporations, more often than not, miss the point that you have to understand values before you can create value.

AD: Will the new census serve as a wake-up call for people once the numbers create a new snapshot of today's multicultural America?

RM: People in corporate environments are going to need a new framework for understanding what the numbers mean. The problem with how corporations have responded so far to trends in multiculturalization is that they're looking at the new data through their old filters. When you look at population growth among ethnic groups through the old filters of a fixed mainstream culture, you miss what's going on with the way ethnic and mainstream cultures are evolving. The assumptions in the classic model for understanding the effects of multiculturalism draw from a static idea of mainstream culture. Imagine an unchanging shoreline, with the waves of ethnic population growth washing in. Corporations fail to understand that the island has sunk. American culture has ceased to be static, while still, most ethnic-marketing officials at companies assume a static mainstream culture.

AD: What's the most important indication that our assumptions about cultural diversity trends need reexamination?

RM: The issue has always been culture, not numbers. Corporations, more often than not, miss the point that you have to understand values before you can create value. Evidence of how dramatic a change we're going through is the fact that it's no longer necessary for immigrants, nor even first-generation Americans, to learn English to function and thrive in this society. The acculturation models, if anything, are reversing. Tacitly racist assumptions applied to diversity trends in the past were that the values of mainstream culture were superior to those of ethnic people, or even that ethnic values were a ‘corrupter’ of mainstream values. The immigrant experience historically has been ‘You leave, you're gone.' But today, with telephony and the ease of travel from place to place; with home and the reinforcement of home values just a little cell-phone call away, people don't need to be apologetic about their cultural differences and they can insist that organizations recognize them as individuals. Organizations need to look at diversity as more than just language differences. Business will have to conduct commerce in terms of what really matters to individuals.

AD: As the population composition inevitably shifts toward the day that the non-Hispanic white population becomes a minority, what will corporate marketing initiatives look like?

RM: You'll see more of a Balkanization of commercial markets, a collapse of one-size-fits-all marketing programs, a total erosion of what we know today as mass merchandising, and the emergence of boutique market offerings that meet unco-opted needs. Not that some subsegments won't represent a rather huge opportunity. Meeting the commercial needs of Mexican Americans over the next 50 years would have quite an upside, just based on the growth in the size of the market. The dynamics favor beginning to recognize the differences among various Spanish-speaking people and Asians, and starting to restructure large corporations to reflect and reinforce local values.

AD: If companies find it very difficult to sensitize themselves to cultural values and nuances, what's going to change that?

RM: Less Anglos at those companies interpreting what multiculturalism means. The forced agenda will occur as corporate environments really reflect the population shift. The fascinating trend to get a grip on will be the fusion of cultures, where the talk-of-the-town restaurant in California will be serving Asian/Latino fare with chilis, garlic, citrus, and onions in their recipes.

The mantra among chief executives these days is learn to manage uncertainty in order to thrive in the future. Futurist Ryan Mathews has serious doubts, though, about corporate America's ability to grasp uncertainty when most senior management stumbles on managing the far more mundane … what is actually happening.

Mathews, who lives in Detroit but does his futurist work for Westport, Connecticut-based FirstMatter, is skeptical about whether most companies will benefit from census data that will irrefutably illustrate the multicultural tide sweeping across the next half-century. The non-Hispanic white portion of the population in the Census 2000 snapshot of America is expected to top out at around 70 percent of United States residents. Latino, Asian, black, Native American and other ethnic populations jumped from 23 percent to 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, well on the way to the shift to the “minority majority� demographers forecast for the total population around 2050.

Mathews observes that companies' views of multiculturalism spring from hard-wired Anglo perspectives. America's multicultural future has suddenly become its present. American Demographics' associate publisher John McManus had a conversation with Mathews about the cultural shifts at hand, as well as why companies need to discard traditional population assumptions. Mathews' latest book, co-authored by Fredrick Crawford of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, is The Myth of Excellence, due in June from Crown Books.

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