Poll pro tells how younger generation is shaping the future

John Zogby is one of the most recognizable names in the polling industry. His company, Zogby International, is known for spectacular triumphs and failures in American political polling.

In 1996, Zogby got within 1/10 of 1% of the result in the presidential election. In 2008, his firm and others made startlingly bad predictions of a Barack Obama blowout in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which Hillary Clinton went on to win.

But Zogby does not limit his services to politics. Most of his professional time is spent interpreting surveys of public opinion on everything from consumer preferences to cultural mores. For example, a 2007 poll conducted for a communications firm found that fewer than half of 18-to-29 year-olds considered it an invasion of privacy for someone they know to post an online picture of them in a swimsuit — compared with 60% of those over 30.

It is from Zogby's vast experience polling the American public that he draws the material for The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream.

"This book … explores who we are, what's changing, and the way we'll be," he writes. With so much data to mine, it's an exciting prospect.

Zogby writes that there's a bit of truth in what people think about pollsters. They're at times like "necromancers, trying to charm trends out of a jumble of dead numbers," "glorified meteorologists" and even "ancient soothsayers" but with data to back up their assertions.

Whatever their image in the public mind, pollsters use valid methods and dig up interesting information, Zogby says.

Strengths and weaknesses

Zogby devotes the first chapter to discussing "The Art, Science, and Power of the Poll." He deserves kudos for explaining both the strengths and weaknesses of polling, which form the basis of his views on the evolving American dream.

In each chapter, Zogby follows a formula. He offers a premise — for example, many Americans finally care enough about the environment to change their buying habits — and then uses various polls to elucidate the behavior. It's an approach that is at times clarifying, because the polling numbers are in front of the reader, and at times confounding, because the numbers are excerpts from broader polls without the context of the questions asked.

The book builds toward the final chapters about the changing American dream and the influence of the 18-to-29-year-old generation that Zogby calls the First Globals. The name signifies their proclivity toward global worldviews and individualistic opinions.

Generational comparisons can be useful in explaining societal changes, but they have their limitations. What determines where one generation ends and another begins? Are members of one generation actually more similar to one another than members of other demographic groups, say, based on household income, or race or geography?

Zogby attempts to answer these questions in the context of how generations can alter the American dream. That said, he gives a generational breakdown that readers should recognize:

• Private Generation. Born 1926 to 1945 and defined as quiet in terms of making social, cultural or political noise. It's the generation "most likely to defer gratification, to oppose equal rights for gays and women, to favor shutting America's doors to new immigrants, and to vote for cutting school budgets."

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