Thursday night my wife Sharon and I settled into a hotel room and looked outside to see the Seattle monorail snaking along below the Space Needle. To Sharon it was the definitive “Jetsons view”.  The Future, circa 1962.  Today we’re trying to maintain our lifestyles while fearing what the future may hold, but in 1962 the reverse held: optimism for the future coexisted with fear of the present.  The world sweated through a missile crisis in Cuba, while the premiere of Godfrey Ridout’s confident orchestral work “Fall Fair” was fresh in the memories of the world’s diplomats.

In 2011 we are saving again, out of fear.  (In the boom years of the mid-00s people borrowed relentlessly to ‘trade up’, and net household savings in the US went to zero.)  Too many of us no longer embrace the future.  Now we brace for it, try to steel ourselves against it.

The banking industry each year organizes an international conference and trade show called Retail Delivery, which I attended last week.  (It’s a good event to exhibit products or software used by banks to manage their operations, furnish and promote their branches, develop online banking and other customer services platforms, etc.)  One of the exhibitors was a TV production company promoting a show encouraging kids to save, articulated with pre-packaged educational materials banks can use to reach out to schools.  Kids earn points redeemable for plastic action figures.

Consumption promoting savings.

In 1962 many schools promoted savings.  Straight.  Teachers encouraged children to buy special stamps each week, at a dime or quarter apiece, and stick them into a savings book which, when filled, could be redeemed for a US savings bond.  A $25 bond could be bought for something like $18 in stamps.  Years later the bond would mature and be redeemable for cash in its face amount.  Kids learned patience and saving for some distant future.

If such initiatives were to have a chance today, it would fall to the private sector to energize them.  During the recent boom years when saving was out of favor, ING Direct pioneered a new type of internet banking which promoted savings to a young generation.  The firm even opened retail cafe locations where savings is still pitched alongside inexpensive lunches, coffee, and pastries.  In April, 2012 I’m organizing the first marketing conference of the Canada-US Business Council Chicago, and Arkadi Kuhlmann of ING Direct will be one of our speakers, along with some leading Montreal ad men.

Fear and optimism can coexist productively now as they did in 1962.  Fear is driving much of current savings, but what more can be done to promote proactive savings for a distant and promising future?  What can be done to encourage people to get ahead of the game when their prospects improve?  And, when the time is right, what will motivate people to use those savings to acquire knowledge and real skills with the currency to earn stable wealth for future generations?  I’d really like to hear from anyone with good ideas, or just half-formed ideas in progress!  In the coming months I hope such ideas can animate discussions with people like Dana Dolan of BAI (organizer of the Retail Delivery event) and the CUSBC Chicago marketing conference next April 19.

Charles Orlowek

Chicago, October 19, 2011