Socrates No Longer Wears a White Beard
"Lightness is typical of the age that rises, wisdom of the age that wanes," said Cicero over two thousand years ago.
In our imagery, the 'Sage archetype' has always been depicted as an old and experienced man, made wise by the passing of life and carrying the signs of his experience. Isn’t it true that even God, the supreme sage, has always been represented as an old man with long silver hair and beard in biblical iconography?
We can’t run away from archetypes. Carl Jung and anthropologists taught us that archetypes are something permanent and universal, with common traits that don’t change over time or over different cultures and generations.
Nevertheless, something is changing for the archetype of The Sage. For the first time in modern history, the world is looking to the young as the wise ones. In reverse, people are looking at the older and mature as 'fools' who fail in their attempt to understand the contemporary reality that surrounds us.
This phenomenon began in the early 2000s with the advent of the so-called 'start-up generation'. The rise of the New Economy and internet-based services and platforms have given to a whole generation of young people in their twenties - such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker or the triad Hurley-Karim-Chen, founders of YouTube – the possibility to get rich and obtain professional, entrepreneurial success even before turning thirty.
The first two decades of 2000 have told us thousands of stories about actors, politicians, athletes and entrepreneurs’ stories that between their twenties and thirties managed to have an enormous success in their professional and personal lives.
In the last five years, the business, music and sports worlds are finding important reference points from the gifted children such as Milly Bobby Brown - 'Eleven' in Stranger Things - Justin Bieber or Naomi Osaka and Cori Gauff (not yet sixteen), baby tennis champions. Another member of this large group is Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who became the protagonist of an anti-Trump and American football teams’ owner’s stance, consequently burying his NFL career.
These young people aren’t simply millennials with brilliant talent in whatever they do. They are also often engaged in volunteering and fighting for collective causes. They all have reasonable, deep insights on current issues, politics, human rights and a lot more. The world, therefore, listens to them carefully and is truly inspired by them.
Even 'old politicians' have miserably failed to act in their traditional role as they aren’t considered wise anymore.
'Ancient' political establishments have been 'scrapped' by very young leaders such as Emmanuel Macron in France, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Tulsi Gabbard in the USA or Matteo Renzi in Italy. All of them were in their twenties or thirties at the time of their ascent.
If we ask the world who the 'universal face of wisdom' will look like, we will receive a photo of Greta Thunberg in response: the 16-year-old girl who succeeded in making the major powers of the world feel little, the ones who refuse to accept the occurring climate change.
These considerations have been tested using 'BAV', the research tool owned by VMLY&R that monitors brand health and image. At the same time, it can associate the perceived brand personality traits to one or more Jung-derived archetypes.
In the US, the tool monitors a large group of public personalities and will verify the association between some of the people mentioned in this article and their dominant archetype. We were overly surprised that today US people’s imagery is populated by a long list of young wise men and women.
This recent evolution in the concept of collective wisdom must be reflected on brand communication as well as in the language a brand could use to present itself as authoritative, experienced, reliable and reassuring.
Nowadays, it is not necessary for a brand to speak with a staid voice behind a thick white beard to be recognised wise.
Luigi Accordino is head of strategy at VMLY&R Italy