It was a week of revelations from the Census Bureau, making headlines around the country:
*15 million drivers go to work by 6 a.m.
*18.9 million are considered “house poor.”
*20-somethings say “I don’t” to marriage, staying single longer.
*Three out of four workers drive to their jobs by themselves.
*One in five people over age 5 spoke a language other than English at home last year, with Spanish being the most common.
It all began with John Naisbitt’s bestselling Megatrends in 1982. Ever since, we’ve been a trend-happy culture, hoping to catch the next wave from Gallup or Barna, and then surf to financial gain, church growth, or just insider knowledge.
The cottage industry that is trend-watching, whether based on “scientific” polling or just anecdotal evidence, is too-often filled with misleading or just useless information (as was noted by one editorialist on the 25th anniversary of USA Today, do we really need to know how many tuna salad sandwiches are eaten each day in America?).
But every now and then, something truly worth noting comes along. Sometimes it’s a clear and compelling analysis of the implications of the obvious, such as Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. Sometimes it’s the pulling together of a number of existing studies with an original and enlightening conclusion, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.
Sometimes, it’s an entirely different approach to cultural analysis altogether.
In their new book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. Mark J. Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne argue against the conventional wisdom that we are a melting pot. Instead, “we are a collection of communities with many individual tastes and lifestyles.” As a result, recognizing these emerging sub-groups can be more important than the sweeping megatrends we long to find.
You may recall Penn as the man who identified “Soccer Moms” as a key constituency for Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. That was only a hint of Penn’s ability to detect relatively small patterns of behavior – what he calls “microtrends” – that wield enormous influence on everything from business to politics to our personal lives. His contention on the importance of these smaller movements is that one percent of the public (or three million people) is all it takes to launch a social movement.
In their book, Penn and Zalesne identify more than 70 microtrends in such areas as religion, technology, entertainment, education, leisure, politics, work, health, and family life that are changing the way we live. For example:
*People are retiring but continuing to work.
*Women are driving technology.
*Geeks are becoming the most sociable people around.
*Dads are older than ever and spending more time with their kids than in the past.
In the section on religion, we find:
*Women are becoming stained-glass ceiling breakers, with more women now in divinity school than men.
*”Jew-loving” is becoming a craze.
*We are becoming color-blind in terms of marriage, with 83% of Americans saying they approve of interracial marriages.
*Mexico sends the largest number of Protestant immigrants to the United States, revealing that a remarkably important subgroup of traditionally Catholic Latinos are actually Protestant.
*The average Muslim in America is young, family-oriented, well educated, prosperous, and politically active – and growing.
Other microtrends include Commuter Couples, Internet Marrieds, Stay-at-Home Workers, 30-Winkers, Late-Breaking Gays, Impressionable Elites, Christian Zionists, Vegan Children, Caffeine Crazies, Native Language Speakers, Unisexuals, Shy Millionaires, Bourgeois and Bankrupt, Uptown Tattooed, New Luddites, XXX Men, America’s Home-Schooled, Mini-Churched, and Educated Terrorists.
Whichever microtrend(s) you find of most interest, the point is compelling: “you can’t understand the world anymore only in terms of ‘megatrends,’ or universal experience. In today’s splintered society, if you want to operate successfully, you have to understand the intense identity groups that are growing and moving, fast and furious, in crisscrossing directions.”
As the New York Times notes, Microtrends “is the perfect bible for a game of not-so-trivial pursuits concerning the hidden sociological truths of modern times.”
So think you know “soccer moms”? Think again. Most of them have already sent their children off to college, and are now pursuing personally fulfilling leisure activities. Speaking of which, archery is now the fourth-fastest growing sport behind skateboarding, kayaking and rafting, and snowboarding.
So say hello to “archery moms.”
James Emery White
On Census Bureau revelations, see “A changing USA,” USA Today, Wednesday, September 12, 2007, p. 1A, with additional articles on p. 1B and 6D. See also “How we Live, by the Numbers,” The New York Times, Sunday, September 16, 2007 (The Week in Review).
John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Changing Our Lives (New York: Warner Books, 1982)..
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000).
Mark J. Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne. Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes (New York: Twelve, 2007).
Harry Hurt III, “Why There’s Strength in Small Numbers,” The New York Times, Sunday, September 16, 2007.