Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes

Posted by nliakos on August 19, 2012

by Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne (Twelve, 2007)

Mark Penn is a pollster and advisor to politicians. In this book, he explains how today’s technology, which allows people to find other people outside their usual community who share their ideas and preferences, has changed the world from a world of Ford (any color you want, so long as it’s black) to a world of Starbucks (choose your own drink, size, blend, flavoring, sweetener…).  The “societal atoms” that he calls microtrends are statistically significant changes in what we do, what we eat, how we dress, how we live our lives, what we are willing to tolerate, who we vote for…. pretty much everything. And he has the numbers to prove it (exhaustively documented in 38 pages at the end of the book).

Penn shows how what amounts to a minuscule fraction of the population (say, one percent) can still represent a doubling or tripling or quadrupling of adherents to a particular group in a very short time. At the very least, continuing growth along those lines could soon mean a significant shift in the larger population.

Penn chose 75 microtrends and distributed them into 15 broad categories: (1) love, sex, and relationships; (2) work life; (3) race and religion; (4) health and wellness; (5)family life; (6) politics; (7) teens; (8) food, drink, and diet; (9) lifestyle; (10) money and class; (11) looks and fashion; (12) technology; (13) leisure and entertainment; (14) education; and (15) international.  A lot of the trends he described are things I have observed (but did not realize the extent of), such as retired people who work, teen-aged entrepreneurs, and people who have extremely long commutes.  Others came as a surprise to me, like teens who aspire to become military snipers when they grow up, Christians who want to marry Jews, and educated people who vote not on issues but on candidates’ personalities.  Like someone reading a detective novel, I found myself loathe to put the book down. Each time I finished a chapter, the next microtrend beckoned me to keep reading.

Of course, this book came out in 2007–before the housing crash and the Great Recession, and before the election of Barack Obama (although he was already campaigning), so some of the trends noted here (like middle-class second home buyers) have probably been reversed. On the other hand, it was interesting to see Penn’s predictions and to note how many have been borne out, like the individualization of advertising on the Internet made possible by the collection of personal data by companies such as Google. Everything is becoming a niche market, just as Penn predicted.

In his conclusion, Penn writes, “The simple truth is that most of the time we can’t see the true patterns of people’s lives, except through statistics.” Using statistics, Penn shows us how we can go deeper, how we can, “by focusing on the facts and the numbers, … see almost a parallel universe–generally hidden, and yet staring us right in the face.”

As I read, I tried to keep in mind how anyone can use numbers to say whatever they want to say. Penn assures us that “almost everything” in the book is based on information which is publicly available to anyone who cares to look, thanks to the Internet. Of course, we may not be able to believe everything we find there; still, Mark Penn’s book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of the future (maybe), and even so many years after its publication is well worth reading.

I thank Hiromi Sato for recommending this book to me.

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