The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Apr 302010
 

This interesting—and implicitly generational—piece by Henry Allen discusses the changing assumptions about America’s role in the world.  This view that Allen describes, of America as history’s existential good guy, is very linked to the psyche of his Silent (born 1925-1942).  It is simply so hard for this generation ever to believe that there are vast numbers of people in the world who really don’t like us or would even enjoy seeing us suffer, and not for anything particular we have done but (to use the phrase that became popular after 911) simply for who we are.  It’s fascinating, in retrospect, that the Silent interpreted the warmth with which a war-devastated world regarded Goliath America just after WWII as genuine affection, as opposed to transient gratitude triggered by necessity.  Gratitude is a very difficult emotion for any society, or even for any individual, to sustain over time.  Especially, when the gift we have received cannot be paid back.  Often, we end up resenting the emotional burden.  Case and point: France’s fraught attitude toward America since our nation-saving intervention in two world wars.

In any event, Generation X (born 1961-1981) seems entirely unmoved by the emotional tensions and turmoil that Allen describes.  I would suggest he is describing something that pretty much affects his generation alone.

Back in the 1990s, Allen interviewed me at length about a feature story he was doing (it was later published in the WP) on how people of different ages react to that old Warner Brothers cartoon about Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.  In a talk he was giving at a local college, he discovered by accident that all of the (Xer) students sympathized with the coyote, not the roadrunner.  He was flabbergasted, because for as long as he could remember, he and his peers had always rooted for the roadrunner.  He wrote a moving account—Allen is a wonderful writer—about why these differences arose.  And he gave a fairly good rendition of some of the basic generational drivers that may be behind the shift.

Could these two differences be related?  When you look at America’s role in the world, what view do you take—that of the Roadrunner (beautiful, swift, above the fray, never has to think about eating—and never worried about losing), or that of the coyote (ugly but clever, determined, just another dog who’s got to get a meal—and always too-aware of the probability of failure).

Apr 292010
 

Interesting presentation about research on obesity by age. Nice animated charts on the growing  obesity share, at every age, by each birth cohort since the Silent (born 1925-1942)

Given the known correlation between obesity and a very wide variety of chronic and acute diseases, from diabetes to heart attack to cancer, this trend may do nearly as much to shorten longevity for today’s younger generations as medical innovation (at gargantuan cost) works to lengthen it.

Apr 232010
 

I’m always amazed at all of the interesting ways the moral rectitude of Boomer (born 1943-1960) comes back to bite them.

A couple of random examples:

  • We once wanted to protect the freedom and privacy of college-age youth (and inspired FERPA and other legislation to ensure this).  Now, guess what, we’re angry that we—as parents—have been stripped of our God-given right to see our kids’ grades and health records.
  • We once believed that society would function better if everyone were a bit less inhibited about sex—and more transparent about what they do as leaders.  Then came Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski, which nearly persuaded Boomer-dominated Congress to impeach a President for being a bit less inhibited… and a bit more transparent.

All of this brings to—enough silly preamble—my latest example: The “scandal” at Goldman Sachs.

I would wager to say that, back in the 1960s and 1970s, nothing infuriated Boomers more about how the American economy was run than the idea that powerful greasy old men, dressed in oversize pin-striped suits and hidden away in smoke-filled rooms, essentially made all the strategic decisions about where capital would flow and (therefore) what would be produced and consumed.  These anonymous titans, from their “commanding heights,” claimed they exercised prudent and responsible judgment, but their very paternalism just infuriated us more.  We wanted to blow it all up.

And guess, what?  We succeeded.  The ascendancy of Boomers as voters and leaders since the late 1970s has coincided with a radical deregulation of our economy, especially in those areas, like investment and finance, where trusted “fiduciaries” were supposed to take care of others.  In the new Boomer world, the market was the great leveler and everyone was liberated to take care of themselves.  Today, you buy and sell on ebay as you wish, you invest your 401(k) money as you wish, you purchase and liquidate hotels or firms as you wish, and you can even invent new financial instruments (this brings us to derivatives) to gamble or hedge or arbitrage against any event you wish.  Goldman Sachs, run by G.I.s back when Boomers were young, was your typical “investment bank.”  It was supposed to watch out for the rest of us and steer capital accordingly.  Now Goldman Sachs, run by Boomers, is no longer really an investment bank at all.  It’s just a hedge fund and its purpose is to make money, just like everybody else.  And let’s face it, because everything is deregulated and competitive, there’s no real money to be made in investment banking anymore any way.

And now we’re shocked that GS set up a derivative that it sold to clients on both the long and short side?  That it didn’t warn these billionaire speculators that they might lose money?  And that they, GS, might be taking the other side of that transaction?  (We’re not talking about widows and orphans here.)  This is crazy.  Boomers set up this new world.  Many Boomers have made billions off it.  And, so be it, other Boomers should be allowed to *lose* billions off it.  Yes, a deregulated hands-off financial system may make it easier for the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to get start up funding (something that wasn’t easy for them back in the “bad old days”).  But it also makes it easier to lose vast amounts of money on bad bets.

You can’t have it both ways.  Nothing infuriates Americans more than the idea that, for these very rich 50- and 60-somethings, we’ve privatized risk on the up side but socialized risk on the down side.

Boomers should stifle their shock.  It’s like being bothered by the sight of Bill Clinton caught with his fly open.  Boomers have taken America all the way here on that whole long crazy trip of theirs.  And now they have to accept the consequences.

In the longer run, Samuelson’s final question looms large: “But if Wall Street can’t control itself, someone else will.”  Prediction: Come the next First Turning (the High), some new institution (maybe a new government agency, maybe some new business cartel) will be in charge.  Which means that, come the next Second Turning (Awakening), the young [Prophets] of that era will have something to rage about.

Apr 212010
 

This article in the LA Times describes the shift in birth location in California. I don’t want to crow, but hey, you read about it first in the Fourth Turning.  Everyone knows that Generation X (born 1961-1981) is the most  immigrant generation (as a % of pop) in nearly a century.  What no one has  suggested—except yours truly—is that Gen X may *stay* the most immigrant generation for a long while.  Like the G.I. (born 1901-1924) following the [Lost], we may ultimately regard Millennial (born 1982-200?) as a generation defined by its dominant *second-generation* (that is, melting-pot) members.  Bill and I made the prediction.  We will see.

btw,  I am a native-born Californian and I simply love that state.  The most beautiful place in the world, bar none.

Apr 192010
 

Check out this article from the AARP Magazine . G.I. (born 1901-1924) in old age were known for their victories, their highways, their Army Corps of Engineers. Boomer (born 1943-1960) will known for their demonstrations, their guitar riffs, their endless Woodstock revivals.

I’m beginning to miss the old version of AARP’s Modern Maturity magazine, showing 70-year-olds in buzz cuts saluting the flag.

Quote: “The music endures because it remains timelessly fresh. As do the artists. Long live rock.”

Apr 162010
 

Interesting article in Forbes. I throw my vote in with Gerstein.  The idea that “insurance reform” should categorically force Millennial (born 1982-200?) as a group to subsidize Boomer (born 1943-1960) as a group—considering the Boomers’ much higher average incomes and household net worth—is just brain-dead policy.  How is this policy “egalitarian”?  Unless, with bit of pixie dust, we just say it’s so because Congress has enacted it.  And this is the part of the new health care legislation that does *not* add to future deficits.  Don’t get me started on those that do.

Let me add, however, that it may be a bit early to discuss exactly what this legislation will do, even if it all eventually goes into effect, for the very simple reason that practically no one yet understands it.  It is extraordinarily complex.  The bill is over 2,300 pages long, and many of the key decisions are left up to the discretion of various boards and officials.  My brother (a doctor and health economist) is a sympathetic reader, but he says he started reading several days ago and still has only just gotten into it.  My tax accountant says he just received a 200 page pdf outlining some of the *possible* tax implications.  I am waiting a bit for the mist to clear.

Thanks to Morley Winograd for pointing out the article.

Apr 142010
 

With super-Boomer (and now Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman advocating slapping a 25% tariff on Chinese imports and with Obama’s new “National Export Initiative” targeting a doubling of U.S. exports in five year come hell or high water, one senses a seismic shift in the geopolitical firmament. It’s not just the prospect of protectionism and trade wars I’m talking about. Yes, this is a huge danger—and could force the global economy back to the ER in a heartbeat. But there’s something bigger here: The disintegration of the Bretton Woods consensus, built by the G.I. (born 1901-1924), that formed the basis for global trade and power for 66 years, 1945 to 2011–that is, for three turnings.

The Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents created a global system (Bretton Woods, fixed exchange rates, IMFWorld BankNATO, and regular rounds of tariff reductions were all part of it) in which America’s national purpose was global prosperity, not just our own prosperity. We set up all these global rules and then we promised not to game them. Even more, we promised not to care very much if other nations, who really were just focused on their own prosperity, tried to game them. (At one time or another, this included nearly every OECD country, esp Japan.) America was “above all that.” Throughout the postwar era, every single U.S. Commerce Secretary used to complain that while the German or Italian governments made swinging huge export deals for their own companies a national priority, we always subordinated the interests of our workers and companies to broader global political goals. Again, we were America. We were above such parochial concerns. We needed to keep the rest of the liberal democratic world healthy and prosperous in our “long twilight struggle” against Communism. Somewhat surprisingly, this Bretton Woods consensus outlived the fall of the Soviet Union by 21 years, 1990 to 2011—that is, one turning—though there have been growing strains. One might attribute this to generational inertia. Enough Silent (born 1925-1942) were still in power, the Boomers were still finding their voice, and the Generation X (born 1961-1981) were still on the sidelines.

Now that may all be changing. The Silent, who are the last generation to recall, from their childhood, *why* we created Bretton Woods, is passing from power. The Boomers will not rest until they see the last edifices of their parents’ institutions reborn in their own image. And now the Xer influence is rising. To many Xers, the idea that America is “above all that” is a joke. Every since they were kids in the OPEC-stagflation ‘70s, they’ve been hearing that America is in crisis, has reached its last days, and is sliding into no-growth irrelevance and decadence (of which their generation btw is a prime example). For Xers, the hubris and complacency of the G.I. worldview has been replaced by survivalism and revanchism. Yes, we got the message: America’s empire is over. America is just one more desperate player in a dog-eat-dog world. So why not go after our share? I hurt. I need a job. I do not want my life to sacrificed on some insane alter of global stability and progress.

The G.I.s believed in Bretton Woods because it was *their* system. They built it and trusted it. For decades thereafter, younger generations deferred to their institutional confidence. I think that may now be coming to an end. From this perspective, how America emerges from the decline of Bretton Woods will depend hugely on the rising Millennial (born 1982-200?). What new global system will they erect? Will it work? Will it be built in time?

These idle generational reflections were prompted by the following essay (from Stratfor) on the outlook for the Chinese economy. According to Zeihan, the single biggest consequence of the dismantling of Bretton Woods will be the meltdown of the Chinese economy. No more “Chimerica” (to use Niall Furgeson’s phrase). And that meltdown, in turn, will have huge global repercussions.

Apr 022010
 

This article in the Washington Post that describes the alternative to failing schools: going online. Like early college and service academies, the most innovative programs introducing on-line education to K-12 is happening with low-achieving, “at-risk”  kids.  Apparently, the school establishment would just as soon hive these off.  But they don’t dare give up their middle- and upper-achievers.

Interesting how parents are beginning to come around, probably due to the rising presence of Generation X (born 1961-1981).  On-line advocates need to stop trying to confirm quality of instruction and begin to address the community and civic dimensions of education, which I think give rise to most of the qualms.  The author mentions this objections, but doesn’t really say how the problem is solved.

She is absolutely right, though,  about the irony of the feds giving new R&D money to post-secondary schools to develop on-line education—as if they need it: The University of Phoenix is now hitting 500,000 enrollees, more than the Big Ten combined!  But nothing for K-12, which remains an utter backwater in the application of any kind of technology beyond the occasional classroom movie.  In this, the teachers unions truly are reactionary.