The Small Forces Behind
Tomorrow's Big Changes
By Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne
Twelve; 425pp; $25.99
The Good A breezy, entertaining consideration of niche groups within America.
The Bad Some of Penn's analysis is familiar, while other bits are questionable.
The Bottom Line A former Clinton pollster's delightful look at current social trends.
Mark J. Penn still revels in the moment 11 years ago when he identified what became known as Soccer Moms. He was working with President Bill Clinton as a pollster at the time and looking for voters who had not yet made up their minds. Busy suburban working mothers may not have been a huge group in terms of raw numbers, but they were affluent and influential—at least in the political arena. Now Penn, currently worldwide CEO of public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller (WPP) and chief adviser to the Presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), has gone in search of other intriguing niche groups. The result is the delightful and fast-paced Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes.
Critics might say the book appeals primarily to a niche group of readers suffering from attention deficit disorder. There are 15 short chapters, each of which is divided into a few subchapters, with 75 groups profiled in total. That gives Microtrends a breezy feel and spares Penn the burden of having to know too much about any particular subject. But the book rarely degenerates into superficiality, in part because Penn adopts a clear point of view in each chapter, backs it up with compelling statistics, and inserts his personal experience where relevant.
Penn's central premise is that the Internet, changing lifestyles, and other factors now sliver the world into hundreds, if not thousands, of groups. That much we already know. But instead of being frustrated by such fragmentation—as many trend-spotters and marketers no doubt are—Penn makes it his mission to document emerging groups and assess what their impact might be.
He starts with the perennially crowd-pleasing topic of love, sex, and relationships. Here he explains why so many women now stay single (too few straight men, among other things—a problem compounded among African Americans by the high incarceration rates of black men) and how this group is becoming a potent force in everything from home ownership to investing. He also looks at the rise of so-called Cougars, or women who date younger men. Penn attributes this trend less to the advent of Botox than to "the natural instinct" to trade one's success for sexually attractive partners. He also documents the crumbling stigma attached to office romance.
Some of Penn's ideas are rather familiar. I, for one, have read a lot about people choosing to work past retirement, extreme commuters, and the growing number of stay-at-home workers. What's more, Penn occasionally stretches a bit, as when he suggests the rise of Pro-Semites. His essential thesis: "Today in America, Jew-loving is a bit of a craze." As evidenced by the appetite for Seinfeld reruns and Madonna's love of Kabbalah? Maybe, but the numbers of non-Jews on the Jewish dating site JDate (LOV) may say more about the state of online matchmaking than about a sudden attraction to one group.
Such offbeat analysis, though, makes the book fun. Take the chapter on Southpaws Unbound. As one whose tendency toward left-handedness was discouraged at Catholic school in the 1970s, I was fascinated to see the documented rise in people who identify as left-handed, not to mention research that suggests kids born to women over 40 are 128% more likely to be lefties than those born to women in their 20s. Old New Dads (Penn is one), Pet Parents (who treat pets as substitute children), and Black Teen Idols (young African American superachievers) offer similar food for thought.
Not all the groups are worthy of celebration. In "A Disproportionate Burden," for example, Penn chronicles the rise in morbid obesity—and the high mortality rates—among black women. There's also a large enough subset of people who undergo multiple facelifts or makeovers to warrant a chapter on Surgery Lovers. And a section on Educated Terrorists won't give comfort to readers, either.
With a Presidential race in full heat, any good Democratic pollster/author has to consider the state of politics. Penn keeps that section brief. In the most illuminating part, he looks at the substance-style divide between the classes in judging candidates. Mainstream, middle-class voters, he says, home in on issues such as health care, education, and the Iraq war. The more privileged—secure in their home ownership, health insurance, and access to private schools—are more interested in the superficial aspects of candidates' personalities. Some observers might dwell on the lack of awareness among the elite crowd. But Penn focuses on the majority, noting that most "voters are not fools." That's what you might expect a Democratic consultant to say, but his sleuth-like love of seeing the people behind the numbers makes you believe him.
By Diane Brady