Mark Penn on Lifestyle Microtrends: "Pet Parents" Aren't Weird Anymore, and Neither Are the Armchair Preppers

Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner is wrapping up the Rule Breaker Investing podcast's "Authors in August" theme with nonfiction bang: Mark Penn, the author of 2007's Microtrends: The Small Forces Driving the Big Disruptions Today and this year's update, Microtrends Squared. Penn's non-writing resume includes stints as the chief strategy officer at Microsoft, CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, chairman of Harris Poll, and a key campaign advisor to both President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two discuss the concept of microtrends, and dig into a number of examples that are changing how we approach everything from business and investing to public policy and our personal lives.

In this segment, they consider a pair of trends from the lifestyle section of Squared. The first is the rise of a newly identifiable demographic: single with pet. We're betting you know someone in the category, too, and if you find the way they dote -- and spend -- on their four-legged friend a bit over the top, be aware that they are very much not alone. Microtrend No. 2: The widening expansion of the "doomsday prepper" culture into a more casual realm. (No, you don't need a whole bunker in the woods anymore.)

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 16, 2018.

David Gardner: Well, from Love and Relationships and then Technology we next move to your section on Lifestyle. Once again, you've got 10 microtrends, Mark, and I'm pulling out two that jump out at me. Let's go to No. 26 in your book, and that's "single with pet."

Mark Penn: Oh, SWP is one of my favorite new trends because it's been worth billions of dollars to the pet industry. Here was the old model of getting pets. You had a seven or eight-year-old child screaming for a cute pet -- a dog or a cat.

Gardner: I was that kid.

Penn: You would probably get it and that pet lived in a community where it was lucky to get some table scraps and that shared experience was how the pet lived life. Now, in Microtrends one, what happened was pet parents. When people left the nest, then they would get these pets and really lavish them like kids.

Now what's happened is the first year of childbirth you move back five years, so a lot of people will spend 18 to 29 to 30 to 32 on their own. A lot of those people say, "You know, my house is a little empty. How about a pet?" This is a pre-child pet that they get to experiment with. Lavish love. Buy GMO-free food. And then, of course, because they're working they need dog walkers. And if you're hiring millennials, you better have a dog policy for your office. So the whole kind of culture, then, of millennial pets is seven out of 10 millennials have pets.

Now, this works pretty well. A couple of billion dollars for the pet industry. Millennials love their pets. They're lavished well. What happens is because the pet came first, children and a spouse come second and that pet is emotionally crushed. That's not the world they knew. They knew the world where they were No. 1. This is good biz for pet psychologists.

Gardner: That used to be just true of the eldest when a new, little sibling showed up and now I see what you're saying. It's kind of the pets are the new eldest.

Penn: Exactly. The son's the pet. It's a tragedy.

Gardner: Now, I also love your line in this chapter. Again, I'm talking with Mark Penn, the author of Microtrends Squared, and Mark, I loved your line, "Dog photos are the new baby photos." You're right!

Penn: Yes. Now, millennials love these pictures [...]. It's a great activity. I wouldn't have thought that it would have happened because part of being footloose and fancy free is being footloose and fancy free and once you get a pet, you can't just get in the car or get on a plane and travel down to that beach without a dog walker, a kennel, or some way of the dog traveling with you.

Gardner: Yup, and when you use that phrase "footloose and fancy free," that was not going to be the next trend that I went to. I'm going to go to a different one, but just to reference it, that's also one of your microtrends and you point out [you alluded to it earlier] that in the U.S. the median age at first marriage has increased by five years since 1970. So what used to be at most maybe five years from high school graduation to marriage, [now] kids has expanded instead to 10 years.

Penn: And I think this is one of the most powerful microtrends affecting religion, education, lifestyle, roommates, online apps. It really has had a tremendous and profound effect on our society.

Gardner: Let's next go to No. 34 and I thought this was hilarious because I didn't have a phrase. One of the things that a guy who helped coin "soccer moms" does is he kind of captures something that before there was a word or a label didn't exist in our minds. It's reification, and so you reified for me with No. 34 this phrase, "armchair preppers." My recollection of this chapter, Mark, is you're talking about people who think the world's going to end and they're preparing for it, but they're armchair. These are not professionals. This is mom and pop thinking, "We need a plan or a place."

Penn: Just think of these as kind of laid-back armchair preppers. They don't have that carefully sunk concrete bunker in Montana. What they have is a $5,000 go-bag, complete with a little gold, some fixings, some things that will get them through. Maybe a good weekend in Las Vegas. And I think, though, that a lot of people give thought to this and at least feel prepared, now, as armchair preppers. And this has opened up a four million American marketplace for all of the products that people buy that of course most likely they will never, ever use but they like having them. It gives them a psychological feeling of better well-being to know that they are an armchair prepper.

Gardner: And one thing that I picked up in this chapter is it's not so much crazy people out in [let's just randomly pick on the state. This is not fair but I love you, Montana.] So Montanans Fools, you're some of my favorite Motley Fool fans out there. But let's just go with these are not just crazy people who are living rurally. A lot of the armchair preppers -- I actually have friends of these. I didn't have a phrase for them until I read this chapter, but these are really upscale professionals, often. This is happening in New York City.

Penn: Exactly. And remember, 9/ 11 did hit New York City. People didn't know what was going to happen. We were frozen, here, in D.C. when 9/ 11 happened. I was stuck in Seattle. My wife didn't know where to go. She didn't have a go-bag. She didn't know what to do. So I think that there's genuine end of the world, but there's also these situations that can incur that would freeze society for a week or two weeks with no money, no gasoline; and I think people want to be prepared.

Gardner: And this is pretty au courant so, Mark, you and I are taping this interview on Thursday, August 16th but it's actually airing when my listeners are hearing it, but it's about a week later. So I'm referencing something that I heard about today that keyed right into your chapter. So in the chapter you mention, you're quoting a New Yorker writer, Evan Osnos, who said that many a prepper is purchasing real estate in New Zealand. I want you to talk about that in a sec, but I just saw in The Economist, today, that New Zealand has outlawed the purchase of homes [at least older homes] by foreigners because so many people, preppers, have identified New Zealand as their place.

Penn: I think that's considered the ultimate, isolated survival island. That everything else could get knocked out [disease and pollution]. There are more sheep in New Zealand than people, and so I didn't see this article that they're clamping down on that... but that is a prepper's dream. I'm not quite clear how they're going to get there, but if they could get there they figure they're going to be isolated and safe.

Gardner: In fact, just to quote The Economist before we move on to the next microtrend, here's what I read today, Mark. "New Zealand is to ban foreigners from buying houses in the country. The government is worried that the number of nonresidents purchasing holiday homes is pricing locals out of the market. New Zealand is particularly popular with Chinese investors and rich Western 'survivalists' keen for somewhere remote to escape the coming apocalypse. The law doesn't apply to many new builds."

Penn: Darn! We'll have to just find some other place better than New Zealand.

Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. David Gardner has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.