In a world where even the ring of a phone is individualized, it makes sense that the megatrends movement sparked by a best seller 25 years ago has now been sliced and diced into microtrends.
One man behind this shift to the niche is pollster Mark Penn, CEO of the PR firm Burson Marsteller and a chief adviser for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. You have him to thank for the term "soccer moms," a group he identified as pivotal swing voters while working for Bill Clinton in 1996.
In his decidedly macro-size book, Microtrends, Penn and co-author E. Kinney Zalesne have waded through polls, studies and surveys to ferret out 75 new pockets of humanity — from Extreme Commuters to Sun-Haters to Shy Millionaires. It's subsets like these, comprised of as little as 1% of the population, that are shaping the future of society, Penn hypothesizes.
Take tattoos. As of 2006, Penn writes, more than 30 million Americans have them. And it's not just for sailors anymore: A Harris Survey found the best-represented income group among tattooed Americans (22%) are people making over $75,000 a year — or as Penn dubs them, the Upscale Tattooed.
That's all very interesting, but the strength of the book lies in Penn's analysis of the implications and opportunities of each microtrend. With clientele like that, he wonders, where are the upscale tattoo parlors? Why no national tattoo chain? Where is the McDonald's of tattoos, he asks, a standardized brand, safety assurances and national advertising?
Inevitably, he adds, the rise in body art will force changes in workplace policies, as well. Ford, Wells Fargo, and Yahoo already allow body art, but it's still a no-no at other organizations such as Starbucks and many police departments.
The Upscale Tattooed fall under Penn's "Looks and Fashion" section, alongside Surgery Lovers and Powerful Petites.
Other categories run the gamut of life, from politics to religion and from work to leisure. Among some of the more eyebrow-raising microtrends:
•Aspiring snipers. Late last year, 600 Californians ages 16 to 22 were polled by cellphone and asked the open-ended question, "What do you think you will most likely be doing in 10 years?" Six responded they would most likely be snipers. Yes, that's 1% of responses, enough qualify as a microtrend.
•Working Retired. Today, there are 5 million people 65 or older in the U.S. labor force, almost twice as many as about 30 years ago. And Penn writes that a 2005 survey indicates that more than 3 in 4 boomers have no intention of a traditional retirement, preferring to keep mentally and physically active and to stay connected with people. Financial necessity drives some to stay on the job, as well.
Penn writes that the working retired mean huge things for America, ranging from younger workers waiting longer for their turn at the top to a glut of golf clubs. And if enough people keep working well past 65, Social Security may not collapse after all.
•Exploding Ex-Cons. Tough-on-crime initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s caused prison populations to skyrocket. In 2006, around 650,000 people were released or paroled from prison or jail. Penn describes the typical re-entrant as a low-income male with little education who went into jail with a drug problem and didn't get treatment for it. A quarter of re-entrants will head for homeless shelters, and many are mentally ill, he writes. Within three years, two-thirds will be arrested again, and almost half will be back behind bars, despite federal spending of $60 billion a year on the corrections system.
•Commuter Couples. At a time when many people in America telecommute so they can spend more time with their families, more than 3.5 million people are doing the opposite — spouses living apart to be physically near a job and using technology to connect them to family.
With so many slices of life profiled, chances are good you or someone in your circle is already microtrendy. Know any Internet Marrieds, Home-Schoolers, Old New Dads or Bourgeois Bankrupt? Probably so. How about Caffeine Crazies, who get buzzed on Red Bull or Monster?
Despite the vast amount of ground Penn covers, Microtrend readers won't be lost in a sea of statistics. Though the book is a trivia-lover's dream — the average American sleeps less than 7 hours per night, children under 14 are banned from tanning in indoor salons in New Jersey, and 80% of dog owners buy presents for their pets on birthdays or holidays — Penn adroitly manages to convey the relevance of such minutiae to the world at large.
What's also striking is the contradictory nature of Penn's microtrends and, therefore, the country as a whole. As he writes, while people are eating more healthy foods than ever, obesity levels and caffeine consumption are at all-time highs. Although conventional wisdom says attention spans are shrinking, there are also "Long Attention Span" people — possibly evidenced by the demand for the best-selling Harry Potter tomes.
These incongruities and the explosion of personalization and choices is a bonus for coffee drinkers, Penn writes, but a nightmare for trend-spotters. He acknowledges the microtrends he included are among thousands of new trends, with fresher ones cropping up every day.
Which is why the entrepreneurs, businesses and politicians who can spot these elusive subsets in an increasingly fragmented society are the ones who will profit by creating start-ups, exploiting new markets and running successful campaigns.