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The news that Prince Harry is to marry his long-term girlfriend, Meghan Markle, seems to have created a positive public reaction across the UK and beyond. Back in the 1930s, the idea that a member of the royal family was planning to marry an older, divorced American woman caused a constitutional crisis. This time, our politicians, commentators and celebrities are queuing up to add their warm congratulations to the couple.

Even Diana Spencer, who married Prince Charles in 1981, came from a noble family with strong connections to the royal family. In fact, the change in marriage protocol and expectation for our royal princes and princesses only really began when Prince William married his university girlfriend, Kate Middleton. These changes, however, have been rapidly accepted across UK society as completely normal.

These shifts in attitude and taste reflect deeper changes in UK society. Over the past 20-30 years, the UK has changed – a lot! Here are just a few of the changes since the 1980s:

  • The population has grown by nearly 20% – almost 10 million – for a start.
  • This demographic change has been largely driven by immigration. The foreign-born population in the UK grew from 3.4 million to 8.0 million between 1981 and 2011, and foreign-born residents now make up 12% of the UK population.
  • In London, the percentage of foreign-born residents is even higher than the rest of the country, and over half of the births in London are now to mothers who were themselves born outside the UK.
  • The population is also much older. The number of UK residents aged 90 and over has almost tripled since the early 1980s and now comprises over 1% of the total population. The share of the population aged 65 and above has grown from 15% to nearly 20% since the mid-1980s and that figure is forecast to grow to 25% by 2045.
  • Over two-thirds of the UK now own a smart-phone (over 90% for 16-24 year olds), and spend, on average, 2 hours a day on those phones (far longer than they spend on PCs or laptops). The phones are used for shopping, banking, communication and entertainment.

These changes are deep and long-lasting. They are not going away and will keep on shaping the dynamics of the UK. Yet, many companies continue to find it difficult to respond to the challenges these changes create. For example:

  • Many ‘traditional’ high street retailers still operate clunky, hard to use websites. I was talking to the MD of a niche beauty brand yesterday, for example, who told me how refreshing it was to work with Amazon after having so much trouble listing and managing their product on the Boots website!
  • Most businesses I know do not have a specific London strategy, even though London is completely unlike any other part of the UK. In many ways – language and currency apart ­– London is a foreign nation in comparison to other UK regions. The different age, ethnicity and lifestyle of Londoners mean that you should be developing a London-specific growth strategy, not simply cookie-cutting your existing UK strategy.
  • While many CEOs I meet talk about the ageing of the UK population, few have done anything meaningful about it. Even M&S, the UK retailer with the biggest affinity with the baby boomers and older shoppers, continues to struggle to find a meaningful clothing offer for its core, ageing customers.

The reaction to the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle reflect deeper demographic and societal shifts across the UK. But what steps are you taking to better understand these shifts, and what tangible impact is this understanding having on both your strategy and your day-to-day management decisions?

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.