October 25, 2007


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Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, by Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne (2007, Twelve, 425 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

You’re not alone.

Let’s say you’re married but you don’t live with your spouse. Or maybe you commute three hours in each direction every day. Or maybe you’re highly educated and from a financially well-off background but you still subscribe to super-violent ideas about how to stop the Westernization of your culture.

While each of these things puts you in the minority, you aren’t the only person with a long distance marriage, car with high mileage or Osama bin Laden fan club membership. You are part of a microtrend. And, like such previous microtrends as soccer moms, these small groups can cause big change, says Mark J. Penn, a pollster (this time advising Senator Hillary Clinton) and author of Microtrends.

How big is a microtrend? In the U.S., a big microtrend, one ready to change the world, is roughly 3 million people (roughly 1 percent of the country’s population), Penn says. Because of our enormous amount of choice in all things (careers, having children, coffee drinks, sports, means of dating, religion, real estate purchases), Penn argues, we all choose different things. Some of us are women dating men 10 years our junior and some of us are raising children who never eat an animal product. Some of us are illegal immigrants who have decided to get political and some of us are, like the character in The Nannie Diaries, absolutely killing our parents by taking our expensive college degrees and becoming nannies (though, if it’s a consulation, probably making good money doing it).

The way these things shape society depend on the kind of trend, as Penn explains when he gives us each new trend. In dating, the microtrends might lead to more acceptable relationships between women older than their men or more lax policies about intra-office romances (Microtrends is actually part of a media microtrend in being one of several stories I’ve read recently about how office romances are becoming more acceptable). In child-rearing, the existence of older parents might mean more affluent children or dads who are more involved with their kids’ education. Penn weaves entertaining stories about these mini-movements and then guesstimates their meanings.

Guesstimating makes up a large part of the “and so” portion of each mini-chapter (which covers one microtrend). In a chapter about the rising number of bankruptcies, particularly among what might be considered the middle class, the “what this means” part sort of vaguely suggests the bankruptcy thing will be bad over the long term. The specifics (will it get harder to borrow money for a house? Will credit card companies become more choosy?) don’t get any deep examination. And I definitely wanted a little more. Each of the microtrends described here is interesting and suggests all sorts of possibilities for new products, businesses, ways of working or voting groups. But I’d be willing to give up some of the identification of these trends for more specific pondering about what the microtrends will mean in the future. Though, considering Penn’s status as the political trends It Guy, perhaps that “how do we use this information” part of the microtrend equation is for the paying customers. BAmy Diaz