Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes by Mark Penn








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Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn’s new book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes, dices and slices America to uncover about 75 relatively unseen groups, any few of which, though they are small, could end up driving big societal changes. Devoting just a few pages to each group, Penn provides a concise summary of the group, and encourages readers to think about the impact that such a group could have. Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “Vegan Children,” pp. 177-179:


In the old days, the classic American family dinner was meat and potatoes. Mom cooked. Dad praised, and had seconds. Kids cleaned their plates or could have no dessert. Fido got the scraps.

These days, Dad might have cooked, or maybe Mom ordered out. The kids may have barely stopped IMing to come to the table. Maybe Fido's wear­ing a bib and sitting on a dining room chair. But of all the changes in the American dinner table since the 1950s, the starkest one of all may be that what's on the kids' plates is meatless.

` About 1.5 million children in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 are vegetarians, up from virtually zero fifty years ago. That's a million and a half kids who pass over all meat, chicken, and fish. Nearly 3 million more pass up just meat, and another 3 million pass up just chicken. Then there are also a smattering of pescans (fish only), and vegans, who turn away all foods derived from animals including eggs, milk, cheese, and sometimes honey. Many of them won't even wear leather.

Some of those kids are vegetarian at the encouragement of their vegetarian parents—but more and more, young people are rejecting fleshy food on their own. Especially girls. A sizable 11 percent of girls aged 13-15 say they don't eat meat. While Veggie Kids are fairly evenly distributed around the country, the Midwest slightly edges out the rest of the country at 8 percent—which has got to be disappointing to those meatpacking industry hubs of Chicago, Kansas City, and Fort Worth.

Why the veggie craze? Wasn't it spinach that got all the bad press in 2006?

Part of the reason for the rise in Vegetarian Children is the rise of veg­etarianism generally, and the growing availability of meatless alternatives, not to mention increasing social acceptance. There are now something like 11 million vegetarians in the U.S. —one-third to one-half of whom are vegans, which is up from fewer than 5 percent in the early 1990s. Even Burger King, of all places, offers a veggie patty. So these days, Veggie Kids can follow their impulses more easily than youth of prior generations.

Another factor in the rise of Vegetarian Children is the rise of parental permissiveness in general —and the premium on individuality, at every age, that permeates practically every trend in this book. A child in the 1950s who told his parents he didn't want to eat meat was probably lectured on nutrition, and conformity, and then threatened with no dinner at all. These days, he will be celebrated for his independence and probably his sensitivity to ani­mals as well. Indeed, the fact that children increasingly go vegetarian of their own accord probably has less to do with practicality, or even parental toler­ance, than it does the remarkably steady stream of information that kids today receive regarding the environment. Sure, we've had Earth Day since 1970, and every neighborhood I've ever lived in has periodic Clean Up The Park days. But my 4-year-old comes home from preschool singing "We Recycle, We Recycle" to the tune of "Frere Jacques." She is growing up with a whole new sense of what is politically correct—and kids can have some of the loud­est and most uninhibited voices around the household. I am not a smoker, but anyone who is gets an earful from their children. I better darn well not put tin cans or newspapers in the regular trash, or I will get looks. And the meat industry is not faring too well in school, either. Fishing, hunting, and chicken-farming are not some of the most favored activities in school.

In fact, if you think about it, what's really remarkable is not so much that more and more kids are becoming vegan and vegetarian—but that kids today eat as many animals as they do. Have you spent any time lately reading children's books? There is barely a human being in them, until you get to at least Tween Lit. And I'm not just talking about The Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs, although those are good places to start. From the bears, cats, and worms in Richard Scarry's books to Curious George the monkey to the pig family in Olivia, there is practically no object of kids' love that isn't an animal. And TV and movies are no better. From 2006's Wonder Pets on Nick Jr. to that year's hit movie Happy Feet (with the singing penguins), how is it, frankly, that children are ever persuaded — even by the most nutrition-conscious parents— to let animals pass their lips?

Alas, increasingly, they're not. And nutrition experts increasingly say that a vegetarian diet can be just as good for kids, if not better. So schools, camps, families, and every type of restaurant will be getting ready to provide vegetar­ian options, and the quality and variety will expand dramatically. Salads have ,,.become the fastest-growing fast foods. Don't be surprised if the next fast food events are tofu-based. And maybe some tempura broccoli, or Cajun cauli­flower. The industry has done a great deal with different forms of chicken, but they have yet to really run through what can be done with zucchini fries. As from the salads, the industry appears stuck in the meat and potatoes syndrome, believing that vegetables are something that kids will eat only under extreme duress. They are missing the trend — a lot of kids now genu­inely like vegetable-based foods.

The meat industry is so concerned about what is happening that, in 2003, it launched a counteroffensive. Targeting those teenage girls who have been driving the trend, the Natural Beef Council launched a carefully tailored pro-meat education campaign, with the basic underlying message, "Real Girls Eat Beef." If the Veggie Child trend is sustained through adulthood, the industry's future could be at risk.

It could mean a healthier America, too. Vegetarian men have been shown to have a 37 percent lower risk of heart disease than nonvegetarian men —and vegetarians of both genders are half as likely to develop dementia — even when other differences in lifestyle are controlled for.

Of course, vegetables can be dangerous, too, as we saw in the Taco Bell debacle of 2006. Since there is no "kill point" in vegetable preparation—un­like in meat preparation—producers, parents, and the Vegan Children alike have to stay vigilant, even in their healthier lifestyles. So far there has been little appetite for food irradiation, even though it is the sure way to extend shelf life and eliminate the potential for disease from veggies. But faced with billions of new portions of vegetables, the industry might turn to irradiation As the only way to serve spinach and sleep at night.

The battle for the stomachs of our children will be a hard-fought one. The ranchers and the farmers are going to hang in there. And the vegetarian toddlers may well have a counterreaction as teenagers, believing that they have been repressed from enjoying meat, and switch back in record num­bers. But more likely, this trend will continue, and more kids, especially girls, will reject the carnivore culture and combine a desire for dieting with new demands for designer veggies. Given, in addition, the move to ethanol and growing demand for corn and cellulose, don't be surprised if soybean futures turn out to be a great investment in the coming years.


Penn is the one who got a lot of attention in political circles when he called attention to the power of the group he called “Soccer Moms.” He is currently an advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Each chapter in Microtrends reads like an executive summary. Whichever niche you feel like scratching, chances are you’ll find it here.



Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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