Microtrends, Not Politics, Lead the Nation

If you want to understand where America is heading, a good place to start is with Mark Penn’s new book, Microtrends Squared. Penn came to fame in the 1990s as a pollster in the Clinton White House, later served as Chief Strategy Officer for Microsoft, and is now Chairman of the Harris Poll.

One of the most valuable parts of the book is its implicit recognition of the reality that the culture leads and politicians lag behind. Of the 50 microtrends identified by Penn, only 7 deal with politics. That ratio seems about right. The other 43 highlight trends involving Love and Relationships, Health and Diet, Technology Lifestyle, and Work/Business.

Penn sees these microtrends as “dots on a global impressionist painting that comes to life when you step back and look at it holistically.” He correctly believes they have already “started to upend society.”

As if to emphasize the societal impact, the very first chapter jumps right into a data driven analysis of “Second Fiddle Husbands.” A steadily growing number of working wives earn as much or more than their husbands. Penn doesn’t get distracted arguing whether this is good or bad. As an analyst, he simply notes that this is a new reality with significant cultural implications.

He takes the same approach to identify 49 other microtrends including Independent Marrieds, Wellness Freaks, The New Addicts, Nerds with Money, Happy Pessimists, and Self-Data Lovers. These microtrends may seem small in and of themselves, but they are upending the culture we live in and reshaping the future of the nation.

These microtrends are the ways that society is working out the details of what I have called The Great Turnaround. From colonial times up until the 1970s, everything in America tended to get bigger, more centralized, and more homogenized. Then, the invention of the microprocessor along with the birth of Apple and Microsoft sent American society heading in the opposite direction. Over the past four decades, our nation has steadily become more decentralized and personalized.

Unfortunately, while our society has decentralized, our political system and government have continued on the path to increased centralization. The disconnect between a decentralizing society and a centralizing political system is unsustainable. A one-size-fits-all-government cannot survive in the iPad era. Something has to give.

That tension has weighed on Penn’s assessment of 21st century America. In a 2007 prequel to this book, he saw “boundless opportunities.” He confessed to an “over-the-top” optimism about the promise of the digital era.  Now, the veteran analyst sees a world filled with unintended consequences and a need for society to tame the power that has been unleashed. “Modern life is at a crossroads.” Microtrends “are simultaneously pulling society in different directions, often diametrically opposed.”

I remain more optimistic than Penn (though I believe the toxic political environment is likely to get worse before it gets better). And, I don’t agree with all the recommendations he makes in the closing chapter. But I strongly commend his commitment to raising the alarm about the unfolding cultural changes and challenges facing our nation. Understanding the realities presented in Microtrends Squared is an important first step towards moving our nation forward.

Posted in Scott's Columns

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