Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education released its trends report for what is going to be hot in higher education in the next decade. Being an academic myself, I read the report closely, and noticed some very disruptive trends. I usually do not pay close attention to apocalyptic talk, but there are some major changes about to happen to my profession. Some of my colleagues are quite concerned with the forecasts: students moving to online mega-universities, the overhauling of scholarly publishing models, the scramble for more private funding and less public money for public institutions.
Most fields of work and occupations have trends reports. Many fields even have publications dedicated solely to trends. Just take a look at Trends Magazine that claims to “accurately forecast the fads as well as the paradigm shifts” in business. Then there are general cultural trends—as if we did not have enough to keep up with already. LinkedIn published its “50 Big Ideas for 2019” that includes some scary predictions like the economy’s inevitable slowdown with attendant layoffs, but some bright sides like Occupy Silicon Valley.
The history of trends reporting and following really begins with fashion, but its specific origins are a little harder to pin down because there is a huge gap between keeping up with the fashions of European royal courts to the post-WWII magazine advertisements that pushed the styles their clients wanted to become trends. Somewhere between those two, modern trend spotting and reporting began. In the interim, we have changed the meaning of the word “trend” from something that is quickly passing and fashionable for the moment (trendy), to something that is essential to a field and for which the reporting of is an entire industry. While trend following began with fashion, it is almost exclusively associated with digital technology now. The question on everyone’s mind is how the latest advance in AI will affect their job, their market; their customers’ behaviour.
Trends can be frightening for those who have spent their careers in fields that are rapidly changing. Academia does not change rapidly, but we are seeing the changes that hit other fields a decade ago begin to overtake it. Trends can not only be frightening—they can also be overwhelming.
This is the emotion I feel as I try to keep up with trends reports in academia but also in the fields I write about. Is this sense of being overwhelmed simply a fear of ‘the new’? Is it just the overwhelming task of keeping up with them? Or is it based on a lack of knowledge of how to implement trends? It may be all of these in addition to being uncomfortable with constant upheaval. Upheaval and disruption, though, are what we sign on to when we choose to engage in any field in 2019.
The idea of trends reporting gets to the very heart of culture’s relationship with the market. What comes first, the market or culture? Were capri pants something that the market noticed and created a trend out of or were they something pushed on consumers? Alternatively (and I know I am getting into dicey territory here with my queer friends), is Beyoncé’s music really that good, or are we just too afraid to admit we don’t like it because the market favours it? Trends are simply a market prediction of where culture is or is currently headed. But what drives them? Who decides? There are several examples to look to of trends being manipulated thus challenging the idea that any trend comes from the bottom up. There are nefarious examples of this too. Facebook’s manipulation of trends is the stuff of legend now.
Trends can be terrifying, certainly, to those who can’t keep up with constantly changing markets in their field. It is difficult enough to do one’s job well and push for promotions. Think of the frustration of someone faced with the prospect of their job being phased out because of the future prediction of some consultant. Alternatively, think of the frustration someone feels because they do not know the current language to use for a specific group—language has trends as well that can be overwhelming to some.
Forecasting is not fate, though, and the market has never been free—as much as some would like to claim it to be. Teacher’s strikes across the U.S. in the past two years represent people saying “no” to a market prediction that says paying teachers less is better for state budgets. Just because a thing is a trend does not mean we should desire it. However, learning to work with and around trends is a process. When I first started encountering trends reporting for higher education it felt like someone else outside of academia was determining my future. I learned, though, that I was looking at trends in my field as an outsider, but I am not. No one is.
Keeping up with trends can be empowering if we do three things. First, realise that trends will always give way to other trends. NPR noted that when a thing becomes a trend, it is usually about to become passé. I really hope microbreweries succumb to this. Oh, and Amy Schumer too. Next, take some blocked-out time to actually review trends in your field. Set some Google Alerts about the topics you want to keep up-to-date with. Finally, think of yourself as an insider and not a pawn to some consultant seeking to downsize and “prioritise” our jobs. We are allowed to say “no” to the market.