The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
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.

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  • Kathy H

    Excellent!!! Thanks for sharing here.

  • Pingback: AMERICA’S NEXT GREATEST GENERATION « The Burning Platform

  • JMorgan

    In all due respect you are missing a very important phenomenon with Millennials. I am a GenJones (1959). [BTW, I have nothing in common with boomers and quite frankly feel they took all the great jobs and left us younger siblings to fend for ourselves as they got caught up in their self absorbed obsessions with drugs and free love and then sold out their liberalism with Reagan in the 1980s ultimately leading to the Great Recession of the boomer years of Bush II -- but that's another story.] I just recently went back to college for a master’s degree (had to reinvent due to the economic crash) and ended up with 2012 classmates (albeit college but they qualify as 
    Millennials). They are what would be my children’s ages if I had had any. I have been struck by how similar they are to my culture of the 1970s and 1980s. They have rediscovered all the music I grew up with and clothing which I still have from those periods is now back in style. They also watch reruns of my favorite television shows. Interesting as well, they relate to me and I to them as equals. I first noticed this phenomenon teaching college courses in 2009 when I went out to party with my students and they were dancing to the music I danced to in the late 1970s and 1980s. I have also noticed friends I now have who were born in the mid 1980s from parents born in the late 1950s relate more as siblings than parent and child and share a common culture. I have postulated that the generations are growing closer together. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.    

  • JMorgan

    As a follow up to my last post, I really think that without addressing GenJones (mid 1950s to mid 1960s and the parents of many Millennials) which some estimate to be more than 20% of the population, your research has huge holes and sounds a bit shallow. 

  • shaunbwilson

    Fantastic speech.  I can’t help wonder what your commencement speech to the last three generations would sound like.

    You’ve done such a great job of distilling what it took you hundreds of pages across a dozen books to explain into an impactful and succinct speech with great examples to help listeners understand what you’re talking about.

    The comparison and contrast between the commencement given to this generation and what one might sound like for the Prophet, Nomad, and Artist generations could really help a person understand the positive aspects of all four archetypes as that archetype is blossoming into young adulthood.

  • Mttdrn83

    Great speech, but I slightly disagree with the notion that Boomer youths totally disregarded all the music of their parents.  Many of the Boomer rock musicians of the second turning were in fact inspired by and idolized G.I. blues musicians such as Robert Johnson (b. 1911), Muddy Waters (b. 1915), and Howlin’ Wolf (b. 1910).  Bill Ward of early metal band Black Sabbath even proclaimed in one interview his love of his parents big band music and how it influenced his drumming.

    • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

      You’re right, it’s all a question of degree.  The young artists of any generation always have close ties to older and established artists as individuals.  Even Boomers with G.I.s: Think of how Bob Dylan tried to re-invent himself around Woody Guthrie.  But how a generation of artists collectively responds to the message and “mind” of the older generation certainly does vary.  Boomers responded to G.I.s largely by attacking and repudiating their style–in favor of a totally new style of their own.  Millennials are responding to Boomers, by contrast, by celebrating, emulating, revising, and creatively modifying older Boomer genres.  Which is why so many Millennials have an encyclopedic knowledge of Boomer music, why so many Boomers don’t mind listening to Millennial songs (even the auto-tuned ones, yech!), and why heated generational argument over music has practically disappeared. 

  • pbrower2a

    Good job! I notice none of the canned “Yes, you too can reach for the moon!” platitudes. The reality is that most of  today’s college grads will be lucky to have jobs that can allow them to pay off their student loans. 

    All generations find themselves in much different worlds than those of their teachers, and what would have been good advice for Boomers or Generation X would be a disaster as an instruction.  “Don’ t try to change the world — just try to have fun without messing up your life ” would have been the best advice from about 1975 to 1995. Hedonism was a good investment in those days — but it is a poor one now.

    From 1960 to 1975 it might have been “Make the world a better place, and you will find meaning in that”… which was fine when there was much to change and changing the world was safe. From 1945 to about 1960 it was probably “Take advantage of the world that people dreamed of yet could never find” — television, expressways, electronics… but those eventually had problems attached. From 1930 to 1945 it would be “You can’t do anything but your appointed task on your own”.   Maybe that is where we are now — with a need for teamwork and the recognition that we are all our brothers’ keepers. 

  • Dragline

    Thanks.  I sent it to my son.  In a message on Facebook of course.

  • Thomas Grosso

    I was born in 1989, so I belong to the “millennial “ generation
    you are referring to, I grew up in France (work in hk since I’m 20) so I might have a
    different point of you as my US counterpart.

     

    I did like your speech but I believe you are missing out an
    important point (although given that you are born in the 50s I believe it is
    not intentional), let me quote you:

     

    No one knows what challenges
    this Millennial Generation may eventually be asked to bear.

     

    I certainly do, and we all do, the millennial Generation is
    basically being forced to correct the financial free lunch party that the three
    previous generation (60s, 70s and 80s) had.  We are actually asked to pay
    the bill.

     

    My generation was sold out before we were born, our parents,
    uncles, grandparents sometimes, lived on our back, enjoying an unprecedented
    era of (unsound) prosperity. We are left with the debt,  terrible job
    market, lower starting wage (this follow you all your life), unstable politics
    (rising nationalism around the world) and anti-growth policy (protectionism of
    all kind).

     

    We feels as good as the people who graduated in 1930s, they
    had pay for the previous generation selfishness, the price included the
    deadliest war in mankind history…

    Nial Fergusson in the ascent of money mentioned it
    took till 1974 to purge the debt excess created before the great depression. I
    believe we are heading for exactly the same things.

     

    Thank you to all our elders.

    (I have nothing against the 30s, 40s, 50s generation as they
    did built countries)

     

    I believe they are always opportunities, and I hope to be
    lucky enough to seize them. Nevertheless I cannot overlook what the previous
    generation did to us ( it’s called stealing and is punished by law) and I
    believe this should not be forgiven.

  • Isil Gencer (b.1974)

    I am glad to see you took on with your blog again.
    Such an inspiring speech for the Millenials, and thus for all of us :)