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."

• Woodstock Generation. Born 1946 to 1964 and defined by the civil rights movement. Baby Boomers ushered in a "drastically new set of values regarding gender equality, sexual orientation, premarital sex and the environment."

• Nike Generation. Born 1965 to 1978 and defined as "living for the moment." Its members, aka Generation Xers, are the least loyal to major institutions such as universities, government and church, and "inherited few values from the generation that preceded them." The group gets it name because it's "the near-perfect embodiment of one of the great commercial slogans of the era": Nike's "Just Do It!"

• First Globals. Born 1979 to 1990 and defined as both highly materialistic and self-absorbed, but "caring, tolerant and possessed of a wisdom well beyond their years." First Globals, or Generation Y, have traveled and lived outside America at higher rates than other generations. They are more willing to alter their political stance on a particular issue. They believe American foreign policy should take into account the opinions and goals of other countries.

Shaping the future

It is the First Globals, Zogby writes, who are shaping a future America that is more tolerant of people's differences. The group is more inclined to embrace "the Zen of more minimal lifestyles and consumption patterns" and punish politicians and advertisers that aren't authentic and peddle "Hype, hokum and hooey."

Zogby may be on to something, but his views are optimistic to a fault. It is hard to buy the idea that First Globals, a twentysomethings demographic group, are as wise as he claims.

Russ Juskalian is a freelance writer based in New York