A Conversation with Mark Penn
Q: What inspired you to write Microtrends?
A: To help people understand what the world looks like when you look at the numbers. For 30 years, I've been a pollster -- looking at trends for political, corporate, and social sector clients all over the world. And I've learned that in almost all cases, the key to success is finding the small, under-the-radar groups who are doing or thinking things that run counter to conventional wisdom. It is those groups that can tip an election, make or break a business, or trigger a social movement. They make a huge difference, and yet many conventional commentators on society either don't see them or deny them outright.
Q: What is a microtrend, exactly?
A: It's a small but growing group of people, who share an intense choice or preference, that is often counterintuitive and has sometimes been missed or undercounted by the companies, marketers, policymakers, and others. Typically, a microtrend can be as small as 3 million people, or about 1 percent of the American population, and even if that group never grows, it can still have enormous impact on society.
Q: And why should I care about microtrends ?
A: Because they are the new driving force behind our society and our future. Our society is blessed with unprecedented choices and people are expressing those choices in ways that create new markets, new affinity groups, and new movements. And if you are relying on conventional wisdom to find them, you will be left behind because CW is a lagging indicator not a leading one.
Are you aware of the growing role of protestant Hispanics, how elites are becoming so much more impressionable, or how Internet marriages are breaking down conventional class barriers? People are always looking to catch a wave; in this book we reveal that there are literally thousands of new, smaller waves to catch if you look for them.
Q: So you depend on numbers to counter conventional wisdom?
A: We adopted the magnifying glass as our icon because it symbolizes the search for a meaningful microtrend, And recent events are demonstrating the importance of some of the trends we are finding by looking at the numbers - we identified "educated terrorists" as a critical threat months before the conspiracy of doctors was uncovered in the UK; we are in a surprise credit crunch - one of the threats is created by the 5 million new middle class buyers of second homes and they will be a key force in determining the impact and politics of what happens.
Q: But how do numbers tell the story? Isn't a microtrend, by definition, a small identity group?
A: Yes. But to identify these groups, I've looked at numbers in extensive polling and statistical data. Numbers help you land on something incontrovertibly true. Then what's key is that you can find the story behind the numbers. That's what's important, because that tells us the changing ways that people are living their lives. So for example in sex-ratio singles we demonstrate that the straight sex ratio today complicates the lives many heterosexual women because the numbers show that there are simply more straight women than men in today's world. It's just a fact based on the numbers.
Q: What are your favorite microtrends?
A: I love a lot of them. One real favorite, I guess, is Working Retired. While conventional wisdom tells us that America's aging population is about to retire in record numbers, the truth is that manyAmericans are choosing to remain in the workplace longer than ever. This has implications not just for our retiring generation but for younger workers expecting promotions, politicians grappling with Social Security reform, and the health care industry.
I really like Impressionable Elites, too. I find it just stunning that Average Joe voters know and care more about the issues than the "elites," with all their education and success. But the elites can afford to view the issues from a greater distance because of how well they have been doing.
Q: How about the most surprising microtrends?
A: I'm fascinated by Permissive Parents - parents now believe that that they are the strict ones and that everyone else is soft when it comes to discipline. Of course, that's not possible - they are part of a trend in which people have redefined what it means to be a strict parent and the kinds of punishments that are permissible.
Q: Doesn't the development of all these tiny, swirling microtrends signify a depressing fragmentation of society?
A: I think we are seeing an explosion of tolerance for differences which is an important pre-condition for the growth of microtrends. People have to feel comfortable expressing themselves and so society is opening up in many new ways. Instead of along old dividing lines like race and religion and neighborhood, they can do it along the lines of taste and preference. Microtrends represent the triumph of personal choice, and with the rise of choice comes not only greater personal satisfaction, but also greater freedom for individual and minority rights.
Q: So small is the new big?
A: Yes, it's the small forces that are really shaping the big changes we see today and tomorrow.
Q: And what about Hillary? Does she like the book? Is she going to win?
A: She is pretty busy these days - and she has a real understanding of America and the changes we are undergoing both big and small. She is doing great out there - the more people see of her, the more they like her.
For more information about Mark, please visit MarkPenn.com