I often find that my theological/ecclesiological thinking is spurred by astute observers of the secular – and particularly business – culture. In a bit the same vein as The Starfish and the Spider comes Mark J. Penn’s (with E. Kinney Zalesne) compelling but easy read – Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. Penn’s thesis is deceptively simple. Small changes in patterns of behavior in our culture can achieve outsize influence, and those who identify them correctly can benefit.
Americans as people and the US as a nation have changed. We’re not the great melting pot anymore, but a sliced and diced conglomeration of micro communities and special interest groups. Think Mexican-American evangelical Protestants. Or Christian home schoolers. Penn is the one who first identified “soccer moms” as a crucial constituency in Clinton’s 96 reelection campaign, and is now intrigued by the lack of concensus in Republican party politics. His observation is that by using data, one can identify and isolate a particular group or trend, analyze it, and convert the resulting knowledge into investable action.
Penn asserts that one percent of the public – or a mere three million people – is enough to launch a new movement. He calls these “societal atoms – small trends that reflect changing habits and choices.” These operate just under the radar, and “are the seeds of unexpected change.” He provides 75 examples of such cells of activity, including groups as diverse as those with “uptown tattoos,” millionaires who live below their means, do-it-yourself doctors, sex-ratio singles, the new Luddites, and teen knitters. Find and identify a group, meet its needs, and reap the rewards.
Conversely, Penn warns that ignoring microtrends invariably results in bad decision-making. It’s a risky thing these days to process macro-level information from one’s own particular point of view, and rely on gut-feel. Conventional wisdom conclusions are frequently flat out wrong, and erroneous judgment has its own consequences. To avoid this, Penn challenges his readers to be intentional in recognizing their presuppositions, and to be willing to seek out and engage pertinent data.
Although Penn’s book is largely a postmodern, anti-meta narrative analysis of American life, his microtrends do reveal some common themes. Individualism and self-expression are on the ascendancy, and social cohesion is in decline. A small group of dedicated, intensely passionate people can spark a movement. And, contradictory trends are bound to emerge at once because there is almost always more than one way to approach things.