The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 282012
 

OK, by now nearly all of you have seen Marvel’s The Avengers, the megahit movie that has already broken a whole slew of box office records.  Any thoughts?

People have been asking me if there’s any connection between this movie’s popularity and the Millennial Generation’s “hero” archetype.  My answer: Of course there is.  The connection is overwhelming.  This is now the sixth installment of the Marvel line (along with Thor, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, etc.), which have been appearing alongside so many other superhero movies of recent vintage–Spiderman, Batman, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have all become practically their own franchises–that I think it’s fair to say that over this last decade we have been living through a “golden age” of cinematic hero infatuation.  With the movies’ target audience around 15 to 25, it’s also fair to say that Millennial viewers have been at the epicenter of this fascination.  Go back to the previous decade, the 1990s, and you’ll notice something else: That was the “golden age” of Disney cartoons, which typically targeted heroic, carefully plotted, good-versus-evil adventure stories to 5- to 15-year-olds. (For those of you unfamiliar with my method, I call this “following the generational diagonal”: Going simultaneously back in time and down the age ladder to track the same cohorts.)

By pointing out that Millennials have been uniquely targeted by these heroic genres, I don’t mean to imply that other generations don’t watch and enjoy them.  Of course they do.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a Boomer parent who didn’t love Lion King, or an Xer parent who didn’t love Monsters, Inc.  But that’s how golden ages in the pop culture work: The genre is so enjoyable, and the social moment is so right, that people of all ages want to join in.

Which brings me to another observation.  Although The Avengers targets Millennial viewers, it is not really about Millennials–or about any other single generation.  It is rather a movie about all generations, all of America, as we move into a Fourth Turning.  In a Third Turning, society is riven with divisions, people are distrustful, everyone is arguing and protecting their own interests.  An enemy (like Loki) hardly needs to conquer such a society—he can often just goad it into devouring itself.  Only when teamwork and civic trust is reborn in the dire heat of a Fourth Turning can a society again become capable of saving itself.  In that moment, the self becomes fused to the community and everybody becomes a hero.  This is the basic plotline of The Avengers.  It also a good shorthand description of the choices facing America today.

 

 

And if the movie is mainly about any one generation, that would be Generation X—because, in fact, the biggest challenge these survivalist and free-agent superheroes face is their own egos.  Speaking most eloquently for all Gen-Xers is Tony Stark (wonderfully played as ever by Robert Downey, Jr.)—who boasts about never following leaders, breaking all the rules, taking nothing very seriously, and always evading sacrifice.  And playing the foil for all these rogues is Captain America, clearly no Xer, who represents the untainted “hero archetype” transplanted either forward or backward through time.  Captain America is plain spoken, does his duty, keeps his mind on the task at hand, and craves cooperation.  The best exchanges are between Captain and Stark.  “Is everything a joke to you?” Captain asks him at one point.  Or when Captain says, “We have orders, we should follow them,” Stark answers, “Following’s not really my style.”  Or, after Stark brags about being a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Captain says tersely, “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you.”  Pow!  Zap!

The storyline surrounding Captain America sounds almost like it was written with turnings explicitly in mind.  Captain America, of course, has been asleep in the ice “for seventy years” since his heroism in World War II, the last 4T.  And now he’s reawakened for the new 4T.  Everything he takes for granted about how people will have to sacrifice for each other—while sounding odd to the “Xers” around him—is all vindicated by the end of the movie, as though he had the prescience to know what the times would require.  In one fascinating exchange, Captain asks Agent Coulson (who, unlike the others, idolizes Captain) about his own uniform: “The uniform?  Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?”  And Coulson answers: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”

You may think I’m a bit far-fetched in suggesting that the personality clash between Stark and Captain is a clash between Xers and G.I.s, and therefore by extension, between Xers and Millennials.  Maybe.  I wish we could do a survey.  Stark is not an unattractive character.  No one in the movie has more wit and swag and flair.  But I asked my own informal circle of Millennial males which character they thought their generation identifies with more.  Without hesitation, they all said Captain America—almost as though there would be something vaguely indecent about casting their lot for the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

May 262012
 

It is well known that organized Christianity in Europe faces a crisis of abandonment and disinterest. This is even true in the predominantly Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe, which are still popularly regarded as traditionally devout.

In terms of daily cultural habits, yes, plenty devotion still survives: belief in miracles is widespread, genuflection is spontaneous, and a glimpse of the procession of Virgin Mary can still freeze traffic.  Yet in terms of church attendance, the decline is astonishing.  In today’s Spain, only 20 percent of the population goes to church weekly (versus 40-50 percent in the United States).  Roughly half never go to church.  And rest are “holiday” Catholics, going only on Easter and Christmas.

What happened?  Very simply, a large share of Spanish Boomers (born roughly in the same years as in America, perhaps a few years later) simply stopped going to church when they married and formed families in the 1970s and 1980s.  To some extent, American Boomers did the same thing–but then they came back to churches later on, and most Xers and Millennials followed them.  In Spain and Portugal and Italy, Boomers didn’t come back, and younger generations never followed them back.   (Similarly, a cynic might point out, the ’60s and ’70s-era declining birth rate eventually rebounded in the United States, but has just kept trending downward in southern Europe.)

This generational shift has produced a very conspicuous age gradiant: Namely, those who do attend church today tend to be old.  Italians who attend an ordinary mass in the United States are shocked by the sight of so young families with small kids; they simply don’t see that in Naples, Rome, or Milan.  Even more dramatic is the aging of the clergy.  As of 2009, according to one report, the average age of priests in Spain has risen to 63; in some regions, it has risen to 72.  Ireland has responded to its own priest shortage by bringing in legions of zealous Nigerian clergy. Spain, thus far, is simply spreading what is has a lot thinner.  In roughly half of Spain’s 23,286 parishes, there is no permanent priest in residence.  In some rural areas, a single priest ministers to ten or more parishes.  Seminaries, especially during the huge economic boom of the mid-2000s, saw almost no new young people knocking on their door.  As of 2009, Barcelona (an urban area of well over four million) had only 30 seminarians.  Total.

Now comes the crash after the boom.  Now we see one quarter of all working-age Spaniards–and one half of Spaniards under age 25–unemployed.  Vast numbers of Spanish youth have been hanging around public urban areas for months, where they are known as the indignados (the outraged) and carry signs saying Juventud Sin Futuro (youth without a future).  With Euro-credit drying up, with new businesses and real estate in free fall, with economic deleveraging in high gear, with secular dreams dying… could this be a good moment for the Church to recoup its losses?

In 2011, seminary recruitment actually rose by 4 percent–the first rise in decades.  Will it continue?

Before answering that question, let me digress briefly.  Anyone who has followed my writing knows that organized religion typically experiences great challenges entering the “crisis turnings,” 2Ts and 4Ts.

Entering a 2T, the problem is that churches have come to represent the “salvation by works” establishment–in an era when society as a whole (and especially the young Prophet archetype) yearns for values and meaning  and “salvation by faith.”  (This collision has defined all of the great awakenings in American history.)  Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Prophet archetype.

Entering a 4T, the problem is very different, but no less severe: Society as a whole (and especially the young Hero archetype) is looking for practical, material, collective solutions to Establishment breakdown–at a time when the leadership of organized religion is most apt to emphasize the most moralistic, individualistic, and exclusive aspects of its doctrines.    Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Hero archetype.  Very likely, this is going to be a movement that champions the Social Gospel, an emphasis on serving God by doing good deeds in the service of the great mass of His people.

This is the light in which I would like you to reflect upon the following video, produced by an association of Spanish bishops together with an ad agency.  The video has recently gone epidemically viral in Spain.  Note the shrewd focus on youth, service, community, and hope.  (Almost nothing about salvation, conversion, truth, or morality.)  I will show the bi-lingual youtube version here.  My sincere thanks to  Deon N. (Xer living in La Habra, California) for point this out to me.

Will this new appeal by the Spanish Catholic Church succeed?  I have no idea.

But I do know a lesson of history.  It often happens that one ideology and institutional framework, after triumphing over its rivals and delivering great success, suddenly and epically fails.  And when that happens, societies sometimes switch their allegience back to the ideology or belief system that was devalued.  I’m not judging here, just observing.  Look at what happened in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism, a system of thinking which suppressed or marginalized any expression of religious faith.  Result?  Today, several (though certainly not all) of these countries now show rates of (Catholic) church attendance that are much higher than in any western European country–most notably Poland, but also Rumania, Slovakia, and Croatia.

The odds are still long against the Spanish Church making a comeback.  But they’ve been around for nearly twenty centuries.  And they’re are giving it their best shot.

May 222012
 

On the Fourth Turning Forum, there is an interesting discussion going on about exactly when the last 2T ended and when the 3T began.  Some readers wonder if the years of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the Chicago 7 could really belong to the same era as the first term of President Ronald Reagan.  It’s a good question.

My short answer is that the one big theme that ties both ends of this (or any) awakening era together is a society-wide determination to defy convention, shed constraints, and throw off every manner of social obligation.  Early in the last 2T, this impulse erupted most strongly against cultural standards and social authority (giving rise to the “counter-culture,” minority “power,” and epic demonstrations and riots).  Late in the last 2T, it rose up most strongly against fiscal burdens and economic burdens (giving rise to “tax revolts” and “deregulation”).  The people involved in these movements were not the same, but they certainly overlapped and each group ultimately drew sympathy from across the aisle.  Meaning: Even Republicans went along with the looser manners and mores that sprung up in the mid-60s, and even Democrats recoiled the horrors of dysfunctional statism during the stagflation of the late ’70s.

A nice way to track this directional shift (from the culture to the economy) in the rebellion against authority is to look at the UCLA Freshman survey from 1967 to 1980: Boomer freshmen born in the late ’40s were 3-to-1 more likely to say the most important goal in life is “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” rather than “be financially well off”; by the time to you get to last-wave Boomer and first-wave Xer freshmen (yes, Jonesers), the split is 2-to-1 the other way.  Yet by 1983 and 1984, everyone started to climb onto the same page.  Republican Ronald Reagan brought the Beach Boys to the White House (amazing to recall how controversial this was!), showing that the uptight GOP was coming to terms with Good Vibrations.  And hippies were turning into yuppies (with “babies on board”), while a fair number of New Deal veterans were voting for lower taxes, showing that statist Democrats were coming to terms with Free Agency.  In Reagan’s first term, the battle was still raging.  By the beginning of his second, the battle was over.  And so a new turning was born.

For a long answer, take a close look at The Fourth Turning, pages 199 through 207.  I think Bill and I did a pretty good job defending 1984 as a pivotal year.

In 1984 Steve Jobs’ Apple came out with a lousy computer but a brilliant ad.  The iconic slogan: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  The ad instantly appealed to everyone (hippies and yuppies) and showed just how much everyone agreed that the Establishment was dead—and how much everyone was comfortable with that.

 

May 212012
 

“What is it like to be a young person (10 to 18 years old) now?”  That was the question asked on Quora recently.  The questioner then went on: “When I was a teenager during the ‘60s and ‘70s life seemed much simpler.  No TV where I grew up, no internet, not even PCs.  Our only mass entertainment was radio and the drive-in cinema.  The only drug problems were few and far between–the ‘bad’ kids smoked cigarettes or (really naughty ones) weed. The 21st century seems hard and complicated and I feel real sympathy for youngsters who have to survive it.”

The answers offered by over a dozen kids are well worth reading—and reflect most of the salient youth trends of the Millennial era.

Major theme one: the growing structure and regimentation of everyday life by parents, schools, and communities, with ever-fewer opportunities to be alone, act on a whim, or feel free of deadlines.

Major theme two: the ubiquitous and 24/7 presence of the peer group, always monitoring, commenting on, and judging your behavior—thanks to Facebook, smartphones, and other IT wonders.  The same Millennials who testify to digital IT’s profound impact on their lives also explain how its potential to liberate individuals from the group is often overpowered by its tendency to chain individuals to the group.

Major theme three: the mounting and competitive pressure to get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good career in an era of high youth unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor.  Many observed that all the things they had to do to acquire credentials were preventing them from gaining much understanding of how life really works.

Meanwhile, here are a few things we do not hear from these Millennials.  We don’t hear much whining.  In my youth era, kids often charged that growing up today was much worse than when their parents were growing up.  None of these Millennials say this.  (In fact, surveys show that most Millennials in K-12 today say that they have it easier than their parents.)  Also, we hear from them very little existential fear about how political, economic, environmental, or technological developments may overwhelm their future.  (There was a fair amount of such dread in my day—and again surveys confirm that this reflects a genuine shift in youth opinion over the past quarter century.)  By and large, these Millennials deliver answers that are positive, observant, and mature—as though they are used to discussing their lives and their futures with adults (probably with their parents).

OK, now let me offer—from these lengthy answers—a few representative fragments that I found most revealing.

Boy,  18:

According to my teachers, around 10 years ago my school had a ‘smoke pit’ built for the overwhelming majority of kids who had to light a cigarette between classes. Now there’s maybe 6-12 students out of the 2200 who smoke, and they have to do it out of the campus…

There’s piles of homework. Piles and piles and piles. The tests will challenge your psychological endurance.

Somewhere in our timetables, exercise and creativity is squeezed in. It’s mandatory. There’s regulations on what counts as exercise. Regulations on volunteering. Regulations on creativity. Self-exploratory activities so essential to passion are hard to find.

The problem is that we don’t learn anything. I can’t cook and I’m 18. Lock me in a kitchen and I will not survive without my Jamie  Oliver app. I can’t fix the sink. I can’t fix ripped clothing. We have a planning course, but it’s hardly useful. School prepares us for society, it doesn’t prepare us for reality…

Biking after school and spending a Friday night at the cinema doesn’t exist anymore. We have homework. We have Facebook. We simply don’t have the time to do those things. ..

It has become impossible to stay disconnected (a few try, but they come crawling back), and consequently it has become impossible to stay private. I think the idea of privacy will become obsolete in the future (and that just shows you some changing perspectives).

Boy, 14:

Growing up, I played in the streets. Jump rope, tag, hide and seek, wood chips, and the like. It got your lungs gasping, your legs aching, and your mind longing to be active, because it was enjoyable…  I still have a clear memory of when kids used to play outside instead of in.  What happened?  We as a whole youth took an interest in the digital world.

First, it was the warning of sexual predators.

Second, it was the oncoming of middle school with the perpetually growing mass of homework given to us. I remember reading an answer on Quora by a gentleman about how kids in his day used to run and play outside, instead of doing the occasional homework assignment. Occasional is not the word for today’s assignments…

Third, it was the coming of the Internet.

Anonymous, 17:

At around 13, there was Facebook and the pressure for everyone to have friends. People who had a hollow social life were mocked and labeled as ‘weird’ or ‘a loner.’ There is much less privacy, what with party photos and dating status publicized to your so-called friends. Everyone is aware of everyone and can keep track of people who you might not have particularly close social contact with via the magic of lurking…

There is then the pressure of succeeding and the constant fear for the future–something that may or may not be a timeless phenomenon. This has been amplified by the shortage of jobs and the seemingly more competitive university entrances, with more people entering and graduating from university. Most of us were raised with the idea that you go to school, university, get a job and then start a family, but the fact that it no longer seems viable creates an area of uncertainty and conflict between inbred belief, past expectations and reality.

Boy, 14:

Social changes: In this day and age, technology has taken over our lives, and in my opinion, wrecked the beauty of childhood. I miss the days when my friends and I would “explore” the forests in our neighborhoods, play tag until our aching feet could no longer sustain us, and lay in the grass and just watch the world go by. Now it seems as if everything is on a schedule, a strict path that cannot be broken. Every other day at lunch I watch as a group of girls communicates across the table via instagram and text, to lazy [sic] to pull up their make-up laden faces and talk to one another.

Boy, 17:

I attend a public high school in an affluent suburb of New York City and it is an extremely competitive academic environment where absolutely zero value is placed upon learning the material.  All that matters is that you get the grade. Many kids have out of school interests, but these interests often get abandoned in favor of focusing on school work…

School administrators bring up going to a good college as early as the 6th grade.

Unlike many of the surrounding schools my school is fairly diverse. We have people from all across socioeconomic spectrum and about 1/3 of the student body is Latino. This has created two distinct cultures within the school. There are the lower class students who have no plans on going to college and then there is everybody else. Friendships can exist between these two groups, but they are rare…

I don’t think internet changed anything, I think smart phones and Facebook did. Having a cell phone used to be about making plans with friends to do things in person. I remember how kids used to call each other and talk for hours on end, now kids only call each other if it’s an emergency…

Several months ago I was coming back from a field trip to Manhattan. We were taking the train back and there were no open seats so we all had to stand and every single student there took out their phone and spent the remainder of the train ride using it. My teacher remarked that when this would happen to his students 20 years ago they would all stand around talk

Anonymous, 17:

The main concern of 99.99 percent of my peers is getting into college. From what I’ve been told by adults, the process is much more difficult today than it was two or three decades ago. Not only are we expected to have good grades, but we also have to have several extra-curricular activities we excel in or are passionate about. This doesn’t seem like much, but the result is kids like a friends of mine who has a 4.8 GPA, got a 2390 on his SAT, has won numerous national violin competitions, is ranked top ten in the nation in mock trial, and has also raised four million dollars for a charity. The pressure is absolutely astounding.

There’s much more I could write about, but I have to study for the AP biology exam that I am taking Monday!

Boy, 16:

Today, there is too much of an emphasis on getting good grades and scoring well on tests, taking as many AP classes as possible, etc…

PS–nowadays, the kids who smoke cigarettes are considered worse than kids who smoke weed.

May 202012
 

Wonderful generational clip from the NBC show, “Community.”  Every role is nicely done: The Millennials kids, who know how to suck up to Boomers by flattering their mythic role in American cultural history; the Boomer (Chevy Chase), who enjoys being sucked up to; and the Xer (Joel McHale) who is disgusted by the whole thing.  The medley itself is pretty good, going from Be-Bop in the late ‘40s to New Wave in the ‘80s.

My thanks to Matt Duran, astute Millennial culture maven, for contributing this one:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3Ue_Dj2GXk

 

“That Baby Boomer Santa” raises an interesting question: How much does the popular post-war music of Christmas actually revolve around Boomers?  You may have seen this funny chart, from the xkcd webcomic site, which was passed around last December.  Provocative tag line: “Every year, American Culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ Childhoods.”

 

 

This chart is accurate, so far as it goes.  The vast majority of the pop Christmas “songs” we hear on the radio did indeed become hits during the years when Boomers were being born and growing up as little children.  And nearly all of them were written and first recorded and sung (in their “classic” versions) by G.I. composers, band leaders, and vocalists (e.g., Bing Crosby, Bop Hope, Nat King Cole, Gene Autrey, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, writer Robert May, et al.).  We sometimes forget that one or two them (“I’ll be Home for Christmas”) exude the haunting melancholy of a nation that had sent 12 million men abroad to fight a brutal war.  OK, a few late-wave Lost were involved (like Irving Berlin); and a few Silent and even Boomers, especially on the “rock” songs (“Jingle Bell Rock” by Silent Bobby Helms in 1957 and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by 14-year-old Boomer Brenda Lee in 1958).

But my main point is that–though Boomers participated in this “White Christmas” explosion as child listeners—the inspiration for these songs was totally G.I.  They were celebrations of hearth and home.  They expressed the poignant longing for domestic tranquility by a history-tossed generation that just wanted (in the words of a returning soldier in Best Years of Our Lives) “A good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.”  Yes, other generations participated in this mood while it lasted.  So maybe it’s fair to say that these songs were really more an expression of the (First Turning) era more than any one generation.

Boomers, truth to say, participated less in the spirit of this mood than any of the older generations they recall in their childhood—Lost, G.I., or Silent.  And by the time they came of age in the Second Turning, they began to move the culture in a direction that frontally attacked the treacly domesticity and bourgeois conventionality of those sweet violins and those basso profundo (G.I.) male voices.  And that took us straight to Jimmy Hendrix and Neil Young—and all the other artists who are gently lampooned by the “Glee” Millennials in the “Community” clip.  The only genuine “turning” outlier in the above list of twenty most popular Christmas songs is Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”  Not only was this song written and sung by a Boomer, it was surely a Second Turning song—intended to celebrate America’s emerging multicultural reality rather than our passing “melting-pot” aspirations.  This, at last, was the voice of that new generation, not the old.

One last note.  Throughout history, First Turnings have almost always been the eras in which society’s celebration of the conventional and the domestic reaches its paradigmatic apogee.  When did Christmas first become a widely celebrated family holiday in the United States, with all of its Victorian and Dickensian trappings—the fat Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, the huge family gatherings, the commercialization of gift giving, etc.?  During roughly the two decades from the late 1850s to the late 1870s.  That is to say, during a (short) Fourth Turning, the Civil War, and then during the subsequent First-Turning era of Reconstruction and Victorian nation building.  This is when Dickens’ Christmas Carol became hugely popular, Prince Albert’s Christmas trees (a favorite with the queen) started appearing throughout America, piano sheet music of carols sold briskly, states at last made Christmas a public holiday (even in New England, where Puritans had earlier always denounced Christmas celebrations), and the whole commercial angle (cards, gifts, photos, meals) got underway.

The young children of that era: The Missionary Generation, like Boomers a moralizing generation that would later became famous both for destroying an older cultural paradigm (the Victorian) and for giving birth to new one (the Modern).

May 192012
 

There seem to be many recent efforts to define and name the next (post-Millennial) Generation.  I’ll deal with the naming question in another post.  Let’s just look at the question of defining when these post-Millennials are born.  Many marketers and psychologists are claiming that this new generation is already in its mid-teens, which means that its oldest members were born in the mid-1990s, which means that the Millennial Generation, if its first members were born in the early 1980s, is only around 13 or 14 years long.

But isn’t a generation supposed to be roughly twenty years long?  Perhaps, but none of these experts really say much about the expected length of a generation—or even care much about it.

Magid Associates, which recently released a report calling these post-Millennial “Plurals,” defines them as all Americans born in 1997 and after (terminal birth date unknown), Millennials as born from 1977 to 1996 (a 20-year generation), and Generation X as born 1965 to 1976 (an 11-year generation).  So Millennials include the 1977 birth year?  So Kanye West is a Millennial?  Very interesting.  Magid, apparently in order to avoid shortening the Millennial Generation, instead shortens Generation X to only 11 years.  This is a solution?  Do they simply think that no one cares about Gen-Xers anymore?  And even beyond the question of generational length, one wonders: What is the justification for these dividing lines?  What is it about the age location in history of these birth cohorts (1976-77 or 1999-97) that makes them generational boundary lines?  We are offered no explanation.  Magid’s report includes not one word justifying its choice of birth-year dates.

A new USA Today piece on the post-Millennials, which attempts to identify some of their key traits, again quotes experts saying their oldest members are now in high school.  Yet unlike the Magrid report, these experts don’t mind lopping off the last half of Millennials without adjusting the first Millennial birth date.  In other words, they don’t mind shortening the Millennial Generation.  And for this, they do have a justification: namely, that history is moving faster, technology is accelerating, and (hey) just so much more is happening now than ever before.  And if more is happening, then generational boundaries (which I guess they regard as arbitrary mile posts of historical change) naturally fly by us ever faster—like roadside telephone poles as you punch the gas pedal of your new 900-hp Mustang.

The gist of this argument is implied by the following passage in the USA Today story (I am quoted here, but not to any effect):

 

Whether middle- and high-schoolers are really a separate generation, as Rosen suggests, or “late-wave Millennials” isn’t clear; Howe believes the latter.

“I think you’re going to find a lot of disagreement about this,” Rosen says. “I don’t think you can define a generation when you’re in the middle of it. The best you can do is try to characterize the similarities and differences and the overlap.”

He suggests, however, that new generations arise based on their use of new technologies; he says identifiable new generational groups are emerging more frequently than in the past.

The Baby Boom generation, for example, most often thought of as those born from 1946 through 1964, lasted almost 20 years. But Generation X, born from about 1965 through 1980, was five years shorter. And the Millennials (also known as Gen Y) appear to be about 10 years, he suggests.

 

Well, I certainly agree with Larry Rosen (a psychologist and prolific writer about kids and technology) about one thing: You are going to find a lot of disagreement.

Let me start with the common assumption that history and technology are changing so much faster today than in the past.  I totally disagree—or at least I would insist on asking, which aspect of history and technology are you talking about?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the life experiences of the peers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, born 1890.  When he was a child, kings and queens still ruled Europe, you needed to know Morse Code to communicate faster than a horse could run, and (in fact) horses were the only mode of ordinary street transport, even in the largest cities (the removal of manure being a huge municipal challenge); children routinely died from bacterial infections; and Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of that age, declared that “aeronautical travel” was impossible.  Now let’s fast-forward to Eisenhower at age 69, in 1959, during his second presidential term.  He was inside in a Boeing 707 (the first “Air Force One”) dictating memos on the deployment of hydrogen bombs, sugar-cube vaccines for polio, and plans to put a “man on the moon” (a plan later spelled out by Jack Kennedy and executed on time by LBJ), while flying at 35,000 feet over a nation whose vast, affluent, home-owning, car-driving, union card-holding middle class would have been utterly inconceivable in the presidency of William McKinley (or during the twilight years of Queen Victoria).  Oh, and did I forget to mention that he lived through two world wars and the establishment of two totalitarian states (USSR and PRC), all responsible for the slaughter, deportation, and migration of countless tens of millions—and the rise of a family of liberal and democratic “developed economies” responsible for the affluence of hundreds of millions.

Yeah, he lived through just a bit of history.

Meanwhile, I get up every morning and drive basically the same silly internal-combustion car that people drove fifty years ago–through the same suburbs on the same interstates to the same buildings powered by the same nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams that Eisenhower’s peers saw fit to build.  As for space travel, whoa!—that seems further in the future today than when Eisenhower was Pres.  And I complain about how history is accelerating?  Oh, sure, my peers got to see the Berlin Wall get torn down.  But his generation got to witness the seismic global events that built them up.  I’m not denying that the changes in digital IT over the last three decades have been breathtaking.  They have been.  I’m astounded every time I punch an app on my smart phone.  But I have often observed that people tend to fixate on whatever aspect of their social environment is changing the fastest, and ignore those aspects which are in fact surprisingly stationary.

In the Fourth Turning, we point out that the western world (especially since the Reformation) has adopted a uniquely linear view of history in which practically every generation believes it just happens to be experiencing the apocalyptic inflection point in world history, in which humanity is about to be completely transformed either morally or technologically.  And to buttress such conviction, we try so very hard to persuade ourselves, contrary to fact, that our grandparents and our earlier ancestors have lived through a history in which very little happened.  Let us please rid ourselves of this modernist hubris.

That is point one.  Now for point two: another disagreement.  The “speed” of history—regardless of whether you think it is accelerating or decelerating–is not what determines the length of generations.  Rather, what determines their length is the biologically and socially defined length of a phase of life—in particular the length of childhood, the number of years that elapse between birth and coming of age as an adult.  This is true because a very different social role is associated with each phase of life—so that when the social mood suddenly changes everyone will be shaped differently depending up their age.  The climax of World War II, for example, affected Americans who were still regarded as children (through age 19 on D-Day), very differently than those who were regarded as young adults.  The former (whose role was to keep quiet and stay safe) became the Silent Generation, the latter (whose role was to organize, rise up, and meet the enemy) became the G.I. Generation.  And those would have no memory at all of World War II would become the Boomer Generation.  These boundary lines are not arbitrary, and the transition from one generation to another is not continuous.

Although there’s more to the story of defining these three generations than just World War II, the concept of generations being forged by the intersection of history and phase of life is fundamental to the writing of so many of the great generations thinkers, from Emile Littre and John Stuart Mill to Orega y Gassett and Karl Mannheim.  See a bit more here.  I just wish that the marketers and social scientists who today opine about generational length (those few who even bother) demonstrated a bit more familiarity with the rich history of brilliant thinkers writing about generations over the past couple of centuries.

That is point two.  Now for point three: yes, still another disagreement—and this one is directed specifically at those who believe that “iGeneration kids” are digital natives, differently wired neuronally to be multitaskers , parallel thinkers, etc.  They miss the point.  Technology does not shape generations.  And those who believe it does tend to have a superficial understanding of what a generation is—as though a generation were shapeless and formless before a new device (like a smart phone or an ipad) miraculously imprints something on them.  It is far more accurate to say the reverse, that generations shape technology.  A generation, impelled in its youth by parents and by the prevailing social mood to acquire corrective attitudes and behaviors (toward family, risk, civic life, money, gender roles, rebellion, authority, whatever) will then come of age inventing new technologies to suit these new attitudes and behaviors.

Were Boomers “shaped” by the mainframe “Organization Man” computers they grew up with?  Hell no—only to the extent they invented (with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) “personal computers” that would liberate the individual from mainframes.  (Steve Jobs: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”)  And were Millennials “shaped” by the late-90’s end-of-history dream that the internet would cater to the ever-more privatistic desires of individual.  Again no—only to the extent this pushed them to popularize or invent the IMing and texting and smart phones and social network sites that would reconnect their peers back into one vast fish-bowl community.  (Mark Zuckerberg: “the social graph is our future.”)

No one thinks of his or her own generation as mindlessly or mechanistically “shaped” by the technology they inherited.  They think of their own generation as having a mind and spirit of its own.  So why do they think it will be any different for today’s kids?  These experts would employ their energy much more fruitfully if they were to look closely at the family, community, and economic environment surrounding these kids and to try to draw parallels from past generations of kids that experienced a similar shift in the prevailing social mood.  How did they turn out?  What can we learn here?

Here’s where I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the closest parallel for this new generation of kids is the Silent Generation.  Like today’s Homelanders (that’s our tentative reader-chosen name for post-Millennials), the Silent were a generation of children who were born just too late to recall a boom (the Roaring Twenties) and instead recalled nothing but hard times; who were very protectively raised by hands-on, pragmatic parents (then, Lost; today, Xers); and who learned early in life to fit in seamlessly (conform) to the peer mainstream.  I’ll defend this view in a future post.

That is point three.  And now for point four, which is my cynical take, having been an veteran observer of “generational” discoveries for well over twenty years.  Authors and marketers always want to be the first to proclaim the emergence of a “new” generation.  And to be the first, it always helps to cut short the current youth generation and say—wow!—I just noticed something brand new!  I can hardly recall how many times this happened with Millennials.  I recall the first mention of the term BABY BOOMLET or ECHO BOOM GENERATION applied to kids born in the early mid-1970s, and then GENERATION Y (invented by Ad Age in 1993, and originally applied to kids born from 1974 to 1980), and then terms like DIGITAL GENERATION, NET GEN, GENERATION 2000, GENERATION NEXT, GENERATION 2000, Y2KIDS, and GENERATION WHY.  Without exception, each of these new labels required, breathlessly, the hurrying in of a new cut-off point.

It’s been a wild ride.  And after it’s all over, we have mostly settled on dates for Gen-Xers and Millennials that define each of them as born over a period of roughly twenty years—just like most other American generations stretching back over centuries.  Yes, some generations manifest steep attitudinal or behavioral trends from first-wave to last-wave.  This was certainly true for Boomers.  And it seems to be true as well for Millennials.  But history cautions us against mistaking these first wave-last wave differences for entirely new generational dividing lines.  History sometimes acts on us.  History can speed us up or slow us down.  But we cannot do the same and act on history—we cannot speed history up or slow it down.

As ever, generations will arrive in their own sweet time.

May 142012
 

I thought you all might enjoy this.  It’s the full text of a commencement address I gave last Saturday at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  It was a glorious spring day, and I got to sit on the dais next to UMW President Rick Hurley watching up close as student after student (roughly 1,100 of them) came forward with smiles and beaming faces to accept their diplomas.  Sometimes just being next to happy young people is does wonders for your mood and morale.  Anyway, here it is:

 

It’s a beautiful day here in Virginia, and I want to thank the University of Mary Washington for inviting me here.

At a commencement address, speakers often go on too long.  This I won’t do.  I may not succeed as well as Salvador Dali, who famously delivered the world’s shortest speech, only four seconds long.  He announced at the podium: “I will be so brief I have already finished.”  And then sat down.

Commencement speakers also like to intone about “today’s youth generation.”  And this is fine.  Except that they then go on to talk at length about their own experiences in their own youth—and tell you: Because this worked for me in my generation, it will work for you in yours.  Which should alert you that these speakers have no idea what a generation is.

Let me clarify.  A generation is a group of people who share a basic outlook on life shaped by their common age location in history, their common “generational setting.”  The renowned sociologist Karl Mannheim called this “eine Generationslagerung,” which I promise you is both the longest word—and the only German word–that you will hear from me today.

“Youth,” on the other hand, is just an age bracket.  It’s like an empty hotel room that different generations move into—with their own baggage—and then soon leave.  Sometimes that room swells with sweet music, sometimes it throbs with death metal, sometimes it’s utterly silent.  But it’s never the same.

Bottom line: All of you Boomer and Generation X parents are essentially unlike your children—and were not the same even when you were kids.  And you Millennial Generation graduates are essentially unlike your parents—and will not become like them as you grow older.

So how, exactly, are you different?  Well, start with the obvious—pop culture: Believe it or not, parents, your kids have never known that America, Chicago, and Kansas are the names of rock bands, not just places.  Or what about technology?  Ever notice the blank stares when you tell them roll up the window, or turn the channel, or dial a number.  Or what about current events?  For as long as Millennials can remember, NATO has been looking for a mission, China has been peacefully rising, Brazil has been building shopping malls, and Boomers Bill O’Reilly and David Letterman have been hating on each other in the plain view of millions.

Now these markers are interesting.  But if there’s one big I idea I want you to take away from my remarks, it’s that generational differences go much deeper.

Consider.

You Millennials grew up in an era of rising parental protection—never having known a time without bicycle helmets, electric plug covers, Amber Alerts, and 15 different ways to be buckled into your minivan seat.  We, the parents, grew up in an era of declining parental protection: Our moms and dads told us, we don’t care where you go so long as you’re home for dinner—and as for seatbelts, we were told if there’s an accident to just put up our hands like this.  As kids, we never saw a “Baby on Board” sticker.  “Baby Overboard” would have been more appropriate.

You Millennials were raised to be special—very special—and trust your counselors, support groups, and smart drugs to keep you feeling pretty good about the world, like a Sims character having just the right digital balance.  We, the parents, knew we weren’t very special, didn’t trust anyone to advise us, and thought staying away from counselors was a sign of resilience.  When you came to college, there were long orientations and immersions–and many of your parents clutched teddy bears and wept.  When we came to college, we jumped out of the car and tried to grab our suitcases before our parents sped off.

You Millennials were raised to be teamplayers—which you are, with community service, group projects in the classroom, and clubs for everything.  And, above all, with digital technology that connects you all to each other on Facebook, and smart phones that you go to bed with.  We, the parents, were a lot more into competition, rebellion, and defying the mainstream.  We did not “friend” each other.  Our generation invented the “personal” computer.  Personal, as in—mine and not yours, and certainly not part of the corporate mainframe our own parents bequeathed to us.  Growing up, our biggest fear was that Big Brother might someday install cameras in our rooms.  Our biggest joy was hearing Steve Jobs announce that “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  And now our biggest surprise is to see our own kids connect with each other by installing their own cameras in their own rooms!

As a generation, you Millennials have a surprisingly conventional outlook on life.  Surveys show that as you grow older you wish to become good citizens, good neighbors, well-rounded people who start families.  Violent youth crime, teen pregnancy, and teen smoking have recently experienced dramatic declines.  And for that we congratulate you.

Most startling of all, the values gap separating youth from their parents has virtually disappeared.  You watch the same movies as your parents, buy the same brand-name clothing, talk over personal problems with them—and, yes, feel just fine about moving back in with them.  When I travel around the country, I often ask people today in their 40s or 50s how many songs on their iPod overlap with what’s on their kids’ iPods.  Typical answer: 30 or 40 percent.  Let me tell you: Back in my days on campus (later known as “the days of rage”), we did not have iPods, but if we had, the overlap would have been absolutely zero.  Everything about our youth culture was intentionally hostile and disrespectful of our parents.  That was the whole idea.

Now people sometimes ask me: What does it mean that one generation is different from another—that Millennials, for example, are different from the Boomers or Gen-Xers who raised them?  Does it mean that some generations are better than others?

And I say no: There is no such thing as a good or bad generation.  Every generation is what it has to be—given the environment it encounters when it enters the world.  And history shows that whatever collective personality that generation brings with it is usually what society needs at the time.  As such, youth generations tend to correct for excesses of the midlife generation in power; and they tend to refill the social role being vacated by the elder generation who is disappearing.

To avoid speaking in code, let me rephrase this as follows: The Millennial Generation is correcting for the excesses of Boomers and Gen-Xers who today run America.  I need not remind you what those excesses are: Leadership gridlock, refusal to compromise, rampant individualism, the tearing down of traditions, scorched-earth culture wars, and a pathological distrust of all institutions.

The Millennial Generation is also reprising many of the hallmarks of the original G.I. Generation, the “greatest generation,” who are now passing away.  Like the Millennials, the G.I.s grew up as protected children and quickly turned into optimistic, consensus-minded team-players who saved our nation—in the dark days of the 1930s and ‘40s—from turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents.  Yet again that happens.

So all of you parents out there: Be proud of this new generation.  They aren’t like you, but they are what America now needs.  They don’t complain about the storm clouds looming over their fiscal, economic, and geopolitical future; they try to stay positive.  They don’t want to bring the system down; they’re doing what they can to make it work again.  They worry about you a lot.  And they want to come together and build something big and lasting, something that will win your praise.  Beneath their tolerant, optimistic, networking, and risk-averse exterior lie attitudes and habits that may prove vital for our country’s healing and for our country’s future.

No one knows what challenges this Millennial Generation may eventually be asked to bear.  Hardly anyone expects them to become America’s next “greatest generation.”  But someday you can say you heard it from me: That is their destiny, to rescue this country from the mess to which we, the older generations, have contributed… perhaps a bit more than we ever intended—and in so doing to become a great generation indeed.

Thank you.

May 012012
 

Last Tuesday, on April 25, President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show (igniting an explosion of cheers from the audience).  Both Obama and Fallon then proceeded to “slow jam the news.”  The video (below) is funny and well worth watching.  Any number of Millennial buttons were pushed:

  • the super-niceness of Jimmy Fallon;
  • the no-anger mellow news delivery;
  • the comedic delivery of serious news, an art pioneered of course by Stewart and Colbert;
  •  the substantive focus on student loans (natch, Millennials are special and deserve to be the center of the policy agenda);
  • the recasting of big government as committed to the young, rather than to the old;
  • the additional plus that supporting colleges means making Millennials super smart (that is, even smarter than they already know they are); and finally
  • the hip and amusing ethnic-role reversal, with Obama playing the white authority figure and Fallon playing the African-American voice over.

 

 

I could make a detour here and discuss the pros and cons of our federal student loan policy.  So let me opine briefly.  I believe Obama is correct in spending federal money to keep student-loan interest rates low.  The federal government spent vast sums subsidizing the college expenses of the G.I., Silent, Boom, and (perhaps not so much) X Generation.  So why not Millennials?

I spent practically nothing getting a BA from the University of California; and I wouldn’t have had to pay much to go to a private school.  The reason?  Older generations back in the 1960s and ‘70s paid my way, collectively—the Silent and G.I.s by paying taxes to build and fund colleges, and the Lost, by not asking for much in senior benefits and thereby opening fiscal room.  Why must families now mortgage their homes—or students mortgage their futures—to go to a good college?  Very simply, because Xers and Boomers don’t want to pay more taxes and the Silent and G.I. retirees have become very used to senior benefits and services that consume much of the tax revenue we have.  (At the federal level, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone now consume roughly two-thirds of all federal revenue.)

Do Mitt Romney and the GOP deserve to be cut any slack here?  Maybe a bit.  First, the GOP currently agrees with “the Barackness Monster” on the need to keep student loan interest rates from rising.  Second, the GOP is correct in pointing out that all federal spending at the margin today is financed by federal debt—so that one way or another Millennials are eventually going to have to pay it all back anyway, if not as student borrowers than later on as taxpayers.

Finally, one big reason why tuitions are rising so fast is that regionally accredited colleges been so slow to add capacity in the face a huge new Millennial demand for quality higher ed.  And who keeps putting obstacles in the way of entrepreneurs who would like to conduct a radical hi-tech overhaul of higher-ed so that vastly more students could be eligible for a quality, low-cost education?  I won’t cast aspersions here.  Just give hints.  Hint one: It’s not the GOP.  Hint two: Most pricy higher-ed institutions who fleece their incoming lambs at the sticker price of $30-$60K per year do not want more competition from the likes of the University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, or even the youtube Kahn Academy.  Hint three: Most of the trustees and faculty at these institutions donate money to the Democratic Party.

But here I am, veering into the huge digression that I promised I would avoid.

What I really wanted to do was to use the classy Jimmy Fallon show to comment on a new pop-culture trend that really is at today’s cutting edge.  We call it “the new niceness.”  It’s hardly bleeding edge, and it’s being largely pushed by Millennials.  I’d like to share here a Social Intelligence essay by the same name that we ran back in October 19 of 2011.

 

Brash, pushy, former Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel has just hired a “niceness coach.” The reason, report the tabloids, is that her latest pilot is not going over well with audiences. “She came off as too aggressive,” a source told the New York Post, which went on to reveal that “producers have brought in a Henry Higgins-style mentor” to turn this icon of in-your-face, circa-2008 reality TV “into a lady.”

Pardon our snarkiness, but she should have seen this niceness thing coming. The top-rated show among young adults? The ever so tolerant and good-natured Modern Family. The hottest late-night show host? The ever-smiling, relentlessly upbeat Jimmy Fallon. Then there’s Parks and Recreation, whose characters started out “all ironic and hip and sour,” in the words of its co-creator, Michael Schur, but who are now doing super nice things like giving away all their money to each other.

It’s the same thing with the commercials. “Extreme Advertising” is now so old it’s long since passed into Internet parody. Meanwhile, a new parade of corporate messages, epitomized by Liberty Mutual’s “helping hands” campaign, earnestly extolls random acts of kindness without a shred of irony.

Then there’s sports. “Is Women’s Tennis Too Nice?” The Wall Street Journal asked recently, citing top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, whose nickname is “Sunshine.” And whatever happened to Internet flaming? “Wide swaths of the Web have become bastions of support and earnest civility,” notes The New York Observer. Last week’s big buzz in social media: a viral campaign to help Indian leukemia patient Amit Gupta find money and a donor for a bone marrow transplant. (There, we did our part.)

Sure, nastiness still rules on cable news networks, but notice the age of those talking heads and of their small audiences (overwhelmingly over 50).  There are many possible explanations for the rise of niceness, but one surely is generational. From its earliest years, the Millennial generation has had a reputation for consensus and cooperation, and now that its oldest members are stepping into the adult world, the niceness meme keeps spreading.

As Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais have observed: “Millennials have been taught since their parents first sat them down to watch Barney that the best way to approach problems is to find a solution that works for everyone in the group—since everyone is just as good and important as everyone else.”

When the first Millennials reached junior high school, youth-oriented programming dealing with gritty, “real-life” situations, like bullying, peer pressure, and meanness (e.g. Growing PainsDougHey Arnold!), began giving way to idealized fantasy situations (e.g. Suite LifePair of Kings). As young adults, large majorities of Millennials turned away from wedge-issue meanness in politics.  Instead, they resonated with Obama’s post-partisan pledge to “create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Since then, of course, the generation has experienced tremendous economic adversity—enough, surely, to inspire some not-so-nice thoughts. Yet the historical track record suggests a paradox: As the times become nastier, the youth mood often becomes friendlier.  As during the Great Depression and World War II, the trend in youth culture remains away from irony, cynicism, and divisiveness and toward no-longer-corny communitarian values.

Even the recent demonstrations on Wall Street and elsewhere have so far been marked by a very Millennial insistence on group decision making and broad consensus building. It’s a worldview that sees 99 percent of Americans as having a monolithic common interest in opposing a tiny, antisocial minority. For Boomers in their youth, the enemy was “anybody over 30.” For Millennials, it’s the selfish 1 percent who won’t share their toys.