The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jul 312012
 

This happens often.  After I write about generational drivers or changes in the social mood, readers will contact me and ask: OK, so much for the drivers and the theory, Neil—what do you think will actually happen?

So let me try to pre-empt those readers.  In my last post, I talked about how and why different generations lean toward or against the 2012 presidential candidates.  In this post, I’ll talk about the connection between generations and some of the more conventional ways pundits currently handicap the election.  I won’t exactly say who I think will win, but I will discuss some of the indicators I am following closely.

Futures Markets.  Everyone knows that Republicans believe in futures markets (and in weird options and derivatives based thereon, like CDFs) more than anyone else.  So here’s the bad news they have to swallow: Futures markets are now predicting Obama to beat Romney by roughly 16 percentage points.  (This is not the predicted voter margin in the election; it is the probability margin by which of most investors think Obama will sneak by in at least a razor-thin victory.)  That’s 57-40 percent on Intrade or 58-42 on Iowa Futures.  Obama has been leading in these markets since last fall.  Bless those markets.  Because of the “law of one price” (look this one up under “arbitrage”), all of these futures market prices have to match, worldwide.  Even brainy liberals (see Infotopia by Cass Sunstein, ) give very high praise to futures markets.

I agree that futures markets have a great track record and need to be taken seriously.  Why do they lean more pro-Obama than the weekly polls?  Maybe they sense that the sentiment for Romney is merely the way Americans vent their anger (always at the incumbent when talking to pollsters) before settling down and voting for the incumbent after all.  Or maybe they sense that the strong preference of the rising generation for a cool and pragmatic Gen Xer as POTUS really does represent where the nation is heading—and that most voters will wake to that fact come November 6.  Young Pompey once declared (to aging Sulla) that “more people worship the rising than the setting sun.”  Maybe the markets agree.

Then again, markets no less than polls can be greatly mistaken this far away from the election.  At the very least, I think that buying a Romney contract on Intrade at $4.00 and waiting to sell it once it hits $4.50 is an extremely safe trade—since sooner or later Romney is bound to have a surge carrying him at least this far.  Even John McCain in 2008 surged in early September to 0.47 in the futures markets.  It is also possible that the markets could gradually drift to a sizable Romney advantage between now and mid-October, and that after Romney wins everyone will congratulate the markets for being so prescient.

The Economy.  According to the Pew Research Center, Romney leads Obama in his handling of one big issue, the economy, no matter how you phrase the question.  And the economy—for example, the creation of jobs and the revival of wage growth—is now far more important to voters than any other issue (environment, gay marriage, immigration, foreign policy, what have you) by a very large margin.  This is a big advantage for Romney.  The unemployment rate is now 8.2 percent; looking at current indicators, it may not decline at all between now and November.  No President since FDR has won an election with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent.  (That was the rate in November of 1984, when Reagan won re-election; and unlike Obama, Reagan brought the rate down from the date of his first election.)  See The New York TimesFiveThirtyEight column for a detailed update on the link between the economy and election outcomes.

The economy is as good an argument for Romney as the futures markets are for Obama.  Still, it has potential weaknesses.  Voters have yet to buy into Romney’s economic program—or even to understand it—in any big way.  Is Romney going to cut deficits faster than Obama?  Who knows?  However he runs deficits, Romney says he wants to do it more through tax cuts than spending increases.  Is John Q. Public OK with this?  Also, keep in mind the “no President since FDR” proviso.  If the public comes to equate George W. Bush with Hoover—and Obama with FDR—well then all bets are off.  FDR won as an incumbent in 1936 with an unemployment rate of 16.9% and in 1940 with a rate of 14.6%.

I agree that if the economy worsens in the next couple of months, or if we simply learn more about how bad the economy now is (at least one eminent forecasting group thinks we’re already in a recession, it just hasn’t been called yet), the news will certainly give a further boost to Romney.  But the link between each generation’s pocketbook and vote is seldom simple or direct.  The Silent Generation has done the best economically in recent years and will never bear much of the burden of large deficits, yet the Silent are the most anti-Obama.  For the Millennials, it’s the other way around.  Liberals often complain that red-zone Americans would switch parties if they only understood their own economic self-interest.  Conservatives say the same today about Americans under age 30.  The problem is, most people don’t respond to piecemeal economic incentives.  They either do, or do not, buy into a whole vision.

Likeability.  How much do you like the candidate?  How much would you like to have a beer with him?  These are the sorts of warm-and-fuzzy questions that many political analysts believe turn the tide in an election.  In most of the critical elections I can remember, GOP candidates have had the likeability advantage: Reagan over Carter; Bush Sr. over Dukakis; Bush Jr. over Kerry.  But this election, it’s tipping the other way: The Democratic candidate in 2012 is currently much more likeable than the GOP candidate.  It hardly matters what you ask—which candidate is more “friendly,” “connecting,” “honest,” “good,” “trying,” or “engaged,”—Obama comes out ahead, typically by double digits.  Likeability could be a huge plus in an era of great anxiety when many voters will want to go with their “gut.  It certainly worked for FDR.

Speaking of whom, there actually was a time when the least likeable candidate was, routinely, the Republican.  And that was the 1930s and 1940s.  Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon were less likable than FDR, and Tom Dewey was less likeable than just about anyone, including FDR and Harry Truman.  So Democrats, yes, can be likeable.  Are we reverting to the last Fourth Turning in party likeability?  Or is there a simpler explanation?  Perhaps Mitt Romney, whom nearly everyone who knows him would call him very “likeable,” has simply not yet had the chance to get his charm on in prime time.  We’ll see.

Intangibles & Wildcards.  I give most of the intangibles at this point to Romney.  He is the challenger, and it is an old maxim (though some disagree) that challengers do better late in the campaign.  A much larger share of his supporters say they are “enthusiastic” about this election—no doubt reflecting the higher relative energy of older voters this time around.  He also remains relatively unknown, which means that millions of Americans will be taking a close look at him for the first time in the ten weeks between the GOP convention and the election.  Since much of what is known about Romney thus far is negative (thanks to the attacks from his primary opponents and to the Obama campaign’s efforts to “predefine” him), it is likely that his strengths—for example, his intelligence, wit, and dedication to his family and the community—will get plenty of play.  Romney may surprise voters during the debates by coming across smarter and warmer than most voters are expecting.

Another possible plus for Romney is the “reverse coattails effect.”  Since the GOP are odds-on favorites to retain a majority in the House and gain a majority in the Senate, Romney could be pulled along by state and local candidates.  That assumes of course that most voters prefer to vote a straight ticket and have a single-party government.  It’s often said that Americans are happy with divided government, but according to one recent study a large (and possibly rising) majority say no, they really do want one party in charge.

Any intangibles for Obama?  Confidence, maybe.  Though Obama supporters are less enthusiastic, they are more likely to say they want to cast a positive vote for their candidate (as opposed to voting against the other guy) and are a lot more confident than Romney supporters that their candidate will win.  Obama must hope that confidence doesn’t morph into complacency and that his supporters are still ready to sprint.  Many pundits also say that Obama has an advantage in the electoral college by leading in the bigger states.  That could make a difference, but only if the popular vote is extremely close.

As for wildcards—meaning sudden big surprises—these usually break for the incumbent Commander in Chief, unless voters associate them with mistakes made by the incumbent.  An attack on Iran (by Israel and/or the United States, though the most likely date now mentioned in the media is October, after the election), would likely break favorably for Obama.  Seismic financial news (like a crash triggered by an impending breakup of the Euro) may not break as well, since it may persuade many voters that the world needs better global economic leadership.

Obama and Romney.  Let me conclude with a few thoughts on the two candidates themselves—and how they are, or are not, representative of their generation.

As readers of our books and this blog know, I consider Obama (born, 1961) to be a first-cohort member of Generation X (born 1961-81).  The Gen-X dates we’ve explained and defended at length elsewhere (too many books to hyperlink!).  But what about Obama?  Does he fit the basic Xer picture?  I’ve always thought so: Son of a new-age mom; child of a broken family; growing up disoriented amid incessant travel, change, and social experimentation; coming of age agoraphobic, feeling (as he puts it) “like an outsider”; and ultimately constructing his own persona (like Gatsby), a quality I see in many successful Xers.  What’s more, Obama knows he’s not a Boomer: In his books (Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope), he repeatedly mentions how he feels he came along “after” the Boomers and wants to put an end to much that Boomers have done wrong (culture wars, ideological polarization, and so on).  Back in 2008, Obama often referred to this as a contrast between an earlier “Moses” generation and his own “Joshua” generation.

Obviously, opinions differ about who Obama “really” is.  I think he is at heart a canny survivor, a masterful tactician, a pragmatist who doesn’t let emotions cloud his judgment.  He knows when to play rope-a-dope (always let the GOP make the first budget move, then counter), or when to rouse his base by inveighing against Wall Street tycoons (even while hiring them to staff his Treasury), or when to ignore his own base and make a shrewd cost-benefit call (War on Terror by Predators, anyone?).  On the Boomer cusp, Obama is certainly capable of crusading oratory—which adds to his versatility.  Many of the most memorable crisis-era leaders in American history have been, like Obama, Nomad-Prophet hybrids: FDR, Abraham Lincoln, Sam Adams.  Yet clearly Obama would need a very different and far more effective second term—and another opportunity handed to him by history—to enter these ranks.

As for Mitt Romney (born 1947), no one doubts he is a Boomer.  He’s led a committed religious life; he’s always won accolades as a driven achiever; he’s made tons of money as a blue-chip yuppie; he believes in Values and Culture and Principles; and he tends to see America’s future in heavily moralistic terms (for example, in his recent book, No Apology: Believe in America, he juxtaposes his father’s “Greatest Generation” against his own “Worst Generation”—a dark figure of speech that Obama would never use).  Will his religion be a problem?  There is lots more talk about Mormonism as a Christian heresy among older than among younger Americans, that’s for certain.  Many Millennials are impressed by the strong community ethic of Romney’s LDS Church.

One mystery about Romney, though, is the impression he gives to many of his fellow Boomers that he never shared their passionate coming-of-age experience, never broke from Mom and Dad, and never drank from the same deep well of authenticity and inner fire.  We used to call this the “Dan Quayle problem.”  Boomers have never been drawn to someone who seems to paint by the numbers.  In the GOP primaries, when running against Gingrich and Santorum, Romney consistently did worse among Boomers than among other generations.

Yet in the general election, this weakness may rebound to his advantage.  In the GOP primary, Mitt Romney consistently did better with young voters than any of the other candidates (with the occasional exception of Ron Paul).  Millennials may actually like Romney’s cool and precise 7-point memo responses.  (Romney, far more than McCain, will be able to debate Obama this fall on his own Ivy-League level.)  Silent voters, similarly, may also prefer the buttoned-down Romney over the totally unplugged Boomer radical.

Yet at some point, for all of his advantages on paper, Romney will have to show some flame, some focus, and some real killer instinct.  He will have to get ahead, stay ahead, and systematically thwart his opponent’s comebacks.  In a national election, Romney has not yet demonstrated he has that endurance and resolve.  Obama has.

Jul 312012
 

Pundits have long been predicting that the presidential election will be much closer and much meaner in 2012 than it was in 2008. Closer it now is.According to the RCP Poll Average, the race is now a virtual tie: Incumbent Obama now leads by a mere 1.8 percent over Romney, whereas challenger Obama led McCain by 7.6 percent exactly four years ago. It will certainly revolve around a very different array of issues—much less argument about the war on terror and GOP performance, and a lot more about the stagnating economy and Democratic performance.

In one respect, however, the next election will be a replay of the last: There will be a historically large divide in the preferences of younger voters (under 30) versus older voters (65+). In 2008, this divide (21 percentage points) was wider than in any election since the advent of age-bracketed voting data in the 1960s. The second-biggest divide (16 percentage points) was back in 1972, when nearly half of all young voters voted for McGovern while older voters went overwhelmingly for Nixon.

I’ve been tracking generational leanings in the polls pretty carefully.  The Pew Research Center has issued several reports (most notably, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election) exploring this divide, and Time followed up with its own cover story (“The New Generation Gap”).  More recently, Mike and Morley, Forbes, The New York Times, and many others have also weighed in.

Bottom line: Every generation is today a bit more favorable toward Obama than they were in 2010 and a good deal less favorable than in 2008.  The partisan gap between the Democrat-leaning young and the Republican-leaning old, however, remains as strong as ever—at around 20 percent.

Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats.  This fall, the media focus may shift.  The big story could be how and why today’s angry, aging Silent Generation put the Republicans over the top.  The relevant parallel here is 1972, when Nixon was able to split the young Boomer vote with McGovern—and then crush McGovern with all voters over age 30.  (Nixon’s popular margin in 1972, 23.2 percent of the electorate, is the fourth largest in U.S. history.)  Romney, of course, cannot hope for Nixon’s margin.  But the basic logic still stands.  Romney doesn’t have to win the youth vote; he just has to contain youth losses enough so that his huge advantage among older voters puts him ahead.

The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, each with a different collective life story shaped by its own location in history.  Let’s take a look at how each of these stories is likely to determine the outcome.  (Throughout, I will borrow shamelessly from Pew’s wonderful cohort-tracking research and graphics.)

Because this piece turned out to be pretty long, I’m going to break it into two posts.  This post will look at the generations themselves.  The next will look beyond generations to the election outcome.

At the very elder edge of the electorate is the G.I. GENERATION, born between 1901-24. (Sample leaders: John Kennedy, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr.) With its youngest members now age 87 and older, the G.I.s today comprise just 2 percent of likely voters.  Except during the late 1960s and 1970s, this “greatest generation” has always heavily favored the Democrats, having come of age as huge supporters of the “big government” presidency of FDR.  Indeed, in every election from 1994 to 2004, the peers of Jimmy Stewart were more likely than younger Americans to vote Democratic. [See the “Roosevelt” chart on this page from the Pew study.] Even in 2008, according to Gallup, Obama ran almost even with McCain among these overwhelmingly white 80+ voters—better than he did with any other age bracket over 40. Apparently, generation trumps age when it comes to racial bias. Prediction for G.I.s in 2012: slight edge (3 percent) to the Democrats.

Now let’s turn to the “young old.” Dominating the ranks of retirees is the SILENT GENERATION (born 1925-42, today age 69 to 86), comprising 13 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Robert & Ted Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, John McCain.) Coming of age during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies, when Americans generally were voting Republican, the young, conformist Silent leaned more Republican than the rest. While the Silent produced nearly all of the most famous civil-rights leaders and “good government” reformers of the post-war era, they have never favored a strong executive (no Silent has ever been elected President) and have tended to return to their GOP roots as they have grown older.  In seven of the last nine elections, they have voted more heavily than other Americans for Republicans. [See the “Truman” and “Eisenhower” charts on this page.]

Since 2008, the Silent’s pro-GOP tendency has widened considerably, along with their unhappiness with the direction of the country. Polls show the Silent are upset not just because they are “angry” at government (they are twice as likely as Millennials to say this), but also because they are “uncomfortable” with positions they associate with younger Obama Democrats on issues such as immigration, marriage, homosexuality, religion, and the Internet. The Silent are the least-immigrant generation (per capita) in American history, and they grew up at a time when the rules of life were clear and simple. Today they are disoriented by the bewildering diversity of today’s younger generations, and they can’t figure out what the new rules are.

Most Silent recognize that are doing well economically compared to younger Americans. But they worry that America is losing its sense of exceptional “greatness” and gaining an addiction to endless public debt—faults they attribute more to Democrats than to Republicans. Many fear the nation is headed back toward the Hard Times they witnessed in their childhood. According to recent Gallup surveys, the Silent favor Romney by 14 percentage points. Prediction for the Silent in 2012: large margin (15 percent) to the Republicans.

Occupying midlife and already surging past age 65 is the BOOM GENERATION (born 1943-60, today age 51 to 68), today comprising 31 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Bill & Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Condoleeza Rice.) Boomers came of age during the social and cultural upheavals that rocked America during the late ‘60s and ‘70s—giving them a fixation on vision and values that defines them even to this day as a generation of individualists and culture warriors (left versus right, “blue” versus “red”). As they grow older, Boomers increasingly call themselves “conservative,” but not necessarily Republican.

First-wave Boomers (today in their 60s) have more years of education than younger Boomers, have done better economically, vote more reliably, gravitate to humanist or mainstream churches, and vote more for Democrats. Last-wave Boomers (today in their 50s) experienced a rapid fall in SAT scores and college attendance, lag far behind first-wavers economically, vote less often, veer toward atheism or “born-again” evangelicalism, and vote more for Republicans. In recent elections, first-wave Boomers have tilted to the Democrats; their younger brothers and sisters have favored the GOP. [See the “Kennedy/Johnson,” “Nixon,” and “Ford/Carter” charts on this page.] In recent months, Gallup shows Boomers favoring Romney by about 5 percentage points. Prediction for the Boomers in 2012: medium edge (5 percent) to the Republicans, with red-leaning last-wavers slightly overpowering blue-leaning first-wavers.

Today’s emerging leaders and the parents of most school-age kids belong to GENERATION X (born 1961-81, today age 30 to 50). Gen Xers now comprise 35 percent of likely voters, a slightly larger share than Boomers.  Gen X’s share should be much larger, but their tendency to vote less often than older generations dilutes the impact of their raw numbers. (Sample leaders: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal.) The left-alone children of the Consciousness Revolution who later came of age during an era that stressed free agency, personal ownership, and survivalism, Gen Xers have mixed feelings about the two parties. Xers like the social and cultural liberalism of Democrats (whatever “works for me” is perfect), but they also like the economic conservatism of the GOP (hey, don’t even think about picking my pocket!).

Like Boomers, they show a strong political trend from oldest to youngest, but it’s in the opposite direction.  First-wave Xers, born in the early 1960s, first voted during the early Reagan years and have thereafter leaned heavily to the GOP. (Just over 70 percent of today’s state governors and members of Congress born from 1961 to 1965 are Republican—the biggest partisan tilt of any five-year cohort group.) Late-wave Xers came of age with Clinton and now lean more toward the Democratic Party. [See the “Reagan/Bush” and “Clinton” charts on this page.] According to recent Gallup polls, Generation X favors Obama by 1 percentage point. Prediction for Gen Xers in 2012: dead even, with GOP-leaning first-wavers exactly neutralizing Democratic-leaning last-wavers.

Finally comes the youngest generation of voters, the adult members of the MILLENNIAL GENERATION (born 1982-93, today age 18 to 29), comprising 18 percent of likely voters. (As yet, they have no national political leaders.) Twenty years ago, they were the special and fussed-over “Friends of Barney.” Today, they’re telling older Americans to share their toys and put a smile on their face. For Millennials, the team comes first: They are more likely than older voters to favor strong communities, urge consensus solutions, trust “big government,” and shrug at paranoia over privacy. With their trademark confidence, Millennials embrace many of the social trends (related to race, ethnicity, religion, homosexuality, and the Internet) that older voters find threatening. Millennials are the least likely to believe such trends undermine patriotism or family cohesion. They are the most likely to be optimistic about America’s long-term future.

This outlook puts Millennials decisively in the Democratic camp, with roughly two-thirds of them (66 to 32 percent) voting for Obama over McCain in 2008 and (according to Gallup) a smaller yet still impressive margin of three-fifths of them favoring Obama over Romney today. [See the “Bush/Obama” chart on this page.] The big question is whether the waning enthusiasm Millennials now show in re-electing Obama—combined with the extra fervor Silent and Boomers show in defeating him—will allow the GOP to prevail.  Nonwhite Millennials are as overwhelmingly pro-Obama in 2012 as they were in 2008 (roughly a 60 percentage point margin).  Yet Democrats should worry about the recent Pew finding that, among white Millennials, the 10 percentage point margin for Obama in 2008 has been fading away and nearly disappearing over the past year.  If young whites split anywhere close to 50-50 in 2012 (remember, non-Latino whites still comprise 60 percent of this generation), then it hardly matters what young minorities do: The GOP will possess an almost insuperable advantage. Prediction for Millennials in 2012: very large margin (20 percent) to the Democrats, led by a 4-to-1 advantage among young minorities.

It’s always great to have the young on your side. After all, youth represent the future. In the decades to come, if the Millennials stay their political course, they would confer a huge advantage to the Democratic Party. But in the next election, they are still outnumbered by two larger generations of voters (Gen X and Boom), and they may well be outworked by a more energized generation of seniors (the Silent). The young can sometimes lose elections, and lose them badly. It happened in 1972, when the Boomer youth who voted for McGovern were overwhelmed by all the midlife and senior voters (the G.I. and Lost Generations) who favored Nixon.

Two years later, of course, Nixon resigned. The age gap closed almost entirely by the next election and pretty much stayed closed all the way until 2008. As if to close the circle, many of the Millennials who now favor Obama are children of the same young “peacenik” Democrats who once voted for McGovern. That’s what makes elections so fascinating—their power to surprise and to reveal, both who are today and who we will become tomorrow.

If you do all the arithmetic with the voter shares and margin predictions cited above, you will find that my overall prediction is for a dead-even tie between Obama and Romney.  Meaning: The 2012 winner is going to have to put together a generational scorecard that is, in some combination, better than the figures I have revealed.

How likely is it that Obama or Romney will put together that scorecard?  I look at that in the next post.

Jul 222012
 

Comedy Central and KFC are collaborating on a new web series called, “Growing Up and Getting Out.”  See here to read the Comedy Central press release.  And here to see the KFC promotion page.  The first episode came out a couple of days ago (see below).

KFC is rolling out yet another chicken product (“Original Recipe Bites”) and is trying to pitch this one to young adults without a lot of income—which is to say, Millennials who are moving back in with their parents.  Their schtick is a contest website which not only shows the CC web series but also invites Millennials to send in their own “going back to your parents” stories.  Viewers will vote on the entries, and CC producers will choose the winners.  The winning entries will be given $1,000 per month for a year, presumably enough money for these winners to move out of their parents’ homes.

 

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

 

What’s my reaction?  Well, I thought the first web episode is pretty funny—thanks almost entirely to the wonderful performance of David Koechner (born 1962: Anchorman, Talladega Nights).  “Get a leather jacket… pop that collar!”

Other aspects of this story are rather depressing.  In their press release, CC says their “free rent” contest is looking for “five quintessential members of the ‘Basement Generation.’”  Basement Generation?  Really?  Meanwhile, KFC’s slogan for the whole deal (“Growing Up and Getting Out”) misses the mark by implying that these Millennials aren’t grown up just because they’re living at home and that they want to “get out” as though they feel they’re in jail.  In fact, survey data show that a growing share of Millennials continue to live at home even after they get a job (to save money) and that few regard “getting out” as their number one priority.  Many older people actually complain about just the opposite—that these Millennial kids are turning down paying jobs while waiting for the “perfect” job precisely because they don’t mind living with mom and dad.

What’s worse, “growing up” in the KFC ads is likened to the “growing up” of chicken nuggets into the bigger “Original Recipe Bites.”  This is really schlocky.

Incidentally, I at first assumed that the opening statistic on the web episode (“85 percent of college grads are moving back home”) was just an exaggeration thrown in for laughs.  Then I learned that this figure had appeared in Time, CNN, the New York Post and elsewhere.  Well, the source of this number has since been debunked, which has discomfited the GOP group American Crossroads and others which have been trying to run with it.

The real numbers of course are bad enough.  According to Pew, 53 percent of youth age 18-24 say they are living with (or have temporarily lived with) their parents; and for youth age 25-29, the figure is 41 percent.  Pew also says that, under age 30, living at home is not correlated with educational attainment.  So I think we’re safe in saying that somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of Millennial college grads in last few years have at some point come back to live with their parents.  NPR, perhaps in an effort to spin the story the other way, interviewed a Pew researcher and left the impression that the real number is under 30 percent.  That figure is too low.

Final note.  Many restaurant chains, including Subway and Chipotle, are now collaborating with networks to produce on-line entertainment.  Chipotle’s video, featuring Willie Nelson covering a song by Coldplay, is definitely upmarket—if not very highbrow and politically correct.  It has won several awards.  A far cry from KFC, as is the brand.  I’ll close with it here:

Jul 202012
 

Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?” asks Joel Kotkin in Newsweek.  A professor of urban studies and an astute observer of social trends, Kotkin answers his own question in the affirmative.

He describes a gauntlet of economic challenges facing today’s under-30 Americans that are, I think, pretty well known to readers of this blog.  Some of the adverse trends he cites are mostly of recent (post-2008) origin: High unemployment, falling real median personal and household income, falling median household net worth, a sharply rising share who are living with their parents, a falling share who own their own homes, and (symptomatically) a sharp decline in birthrates by younger moms.

Yet other trends prejudicial to youth, most of which he mentions, have been underway for much longer: a declining national saving rate; rising fiscal deficits; college tuitions rising faster than family incomes; a widening spread between the relative wealth and income of older versus young households; and the steady rise in the share of public spending that goes to the entitled old (pensions, health care)—versus a declining share that goes to future-oriented investment (infrastructure, research, education).

Sounds depressing, I know.  But the reason I emphasize how long many of these trends have been at work is to cast a bit of doubt on whether Millennials are really as screwed as all that.  Keep in mind that back in the early 1980s, many economists and policymakers commented on the “declining fortunes” of late-wave Boomers who came of age during the energy crises and stagflation.  At the time, experts thought that demographic size was the problem: Numbers-driven competition among young workers was depressing Boomer incomes.

Then came the early 1990s, when economists discovered that Gen-Xers–often, at that time, called “Busters”–were even more screwed than Boomers.  (Since there were relatively few of these Busters, the demographic explanation was quietly dropped.)  From the very beginning, a “reality bites” fatalism about diminished economic possibilities emerged as a cornerstone this generation’s very self-image.  Over the next twenty years, as first-wave Gen-Xers moved into their 30s and then their 40s, evidence of “living-standard decline” in their age brackets (despite two-income households and working around the clock) has steadily mounted.

So is there still a good case for calling Millennials yet more “screwed” than these two older generations?  I suppose one could argue that Millennials are uniquely penalized because the adverse trends cited above—savings decline, young-old divide, fiscal bias, etc.—are more advanced and pronounced today than when Xers or Boomers were young.  One could also point to the extreme severity of the recent recession’s impact on youth—for example, the highest unemployment rate over the most months for young adults than during any downturn since the Great Depression.  We know from abundant economic research, starting with Glen Elder’s great book (Children of the Great Depression) that extended unemployment early in life has an impact on future income that lasts long into a person’s career.

On the other hand, of course, one would have to note the even harsher impact of the Great Recession on Gen-Xers and late-wave Boomers (households today age 30 to 60), as I pointed out in my earlier blog post.  And who hurts most during a great famine—the guy who thinks he might someday have a home and kids, or they guy who actually has a home and kids?

One would also have to weigh in the balance certain collective advantages Millennials have enjoyed early in life that their elders did not.  These include arriving as newborns in an era when mothers were more likely to say their newborn was “wanted” and growing up in an era when parents and families (if not always government) spent more time with them, more money on them, spurred them to achieve, and protected them more from harm.  Today, as a result, Millennials have become a generation of youth who commit less crime, cooperate more with each other, take fewer personal risks, and get along much better with their parents.  They are also on track to have the highest educational attainment ever (following college completion rates that actually backtracked for late-wave Boomers and early-wave Gen-Xers).

What’s more, most Millennials already know that history favors them.  Interesting factoid: When asked if being a young person is harder today than it was when your parents were kids, a growing majority of young people since the late 1990s say no, it’s actually easier being a kid today—after decades of polls (in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s) that leaned the other way, with Boomers and Xers bemoaning, year after year, how much harder being a kid is for them.

Kotkin asserts that this generation still believes in a very conventional definition of life success—most aspiring to a stable career and to owning a home in the suburbs.  I agree.  The data I’ve seen point in the same direction.  My favorite recent survey on this topic is the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream, which shows that Millennials are significantly more likely than Xers or Boomers to say that a college degree, acquiring wealth, owning a home, and (yes!) even marriage is “essential” to realizing the American Dream.  Most Millennials have a fairly concrete idea of what they want in life, together with benchmarks for getting there, and thus far most surveys (admittedly, not the depressing Rutgers survey cited by Kotkin) indicate that they remain confident that they will someday get there.

But to me, the most persuasive argument for not regarding Millennials as America’s most “screwed” generation is simply this: They are still young.  Even if the economy continues to deteriorate, a steady recovery that gets underway by the early 2020s will still save the future for most of them.  At roughly age 20 to 40, in this case, most Millennials will still be able to launch successful careers in an expanding economy.  Moreover, they will be able to buy homes at record-low prices and buy stock portfolios at record-low P/E ratios.  Which means, by the time they fully occupy midlife in the late 2040s (at roughly age 45 to 65), they may be doing far better at that time, relative to other generations, than people that age are doing today.

So who really is the most screwed generation?  When it comes to aggregate economic security and upward mobility, I think the most screwed generation already know who they are: Generation X.  Consider the scenario described above.  More chaos followed by a steady recovery starting a decade from now would come too late for most Xers—who by then (their first-wavers hitting their early 60s and thinking about retirement) may be looking at senior benefits programs whose generosity has just been cut way back in the name of fiscal austerity and renewed economic growth.  Any Xer protest is likely to be weak and ineffectual.  Most Boomers will be grandfathered, and most of the public’s attention will be focused on saving America’s future for the Millennials.

As Bill and I forecast twenty years ago back in 13th-Gen (I’ve changed the “13ers” here to “Gen-Xers”):

Reaching midlife, the Gen-Xers’ economic fears will be confirmed: They will become the only generation born this century (the first since the Gilded) to suffer a one-generation backstep in living standards.  Compared to their own parents at the same age, the Xers’ poverty rate will be higher, their rate of homeownership lower, their pension and healthcare benefits skimpier.  They will not match the Boomers’ inflation-adjusted levels of disposable income or wealth, at the same age.  Gen-Xers will also experience a much wider distribution of income and wealth than today’s older generations, with startling proportions either falling into destitution or shooting from rags to riches…  Finding their youthful dreams broken on the shoals of market-place reality, Xers will internalize their disappointment.  Around the year 2020, accumulated “hard knocks” will give midlife Xers much of the same gritty determination about life that they gave the midlife Lost during the Great Depression or the Gilded during Reconstruction.

Twenty years later, I think this prediction still stands.  As I read back over it, the only adjustment I would make is to say “early-wave Boomers” where we wrote “Boomers.”  But now let me move on to something else about Xers—the fact that the economy will recover, in part, precisely because Generation X chooses not to insist on its rightful public entitlement in old age.  We wrote about that in 13th-Gen, as well:

Nor will Gen-Xers ever effectively organize or vote in their own self-interest.  Instead, they will take pride in what they don’t receive, in their lifelong talent for getting by on their own, and in their ability to divert government resources to help the young.  Policy experts who today worry about the cost of Social Security and Medicare past the year 2025 seldom reflect on the political self-image of those who will then be entering their late sixties.  Entitled “senior citizens”?  Hardly.  Like Lost Generation elders in 1964–who voted more for Goldwater than any younger generation even after he promised to slash their retirement benefits—old Xers will feel less deserving of public attention than richer and smarter young people who lack their fatalism about life.

Even back in 1993 we had the concepts of generational archetypes firmly in mind.  As readers of The Fourth Turning know, Gen-Xers belong to same (Nomad) archetype as the Lost Generation.  The location in history of both generations, which manifests so many obvious parallels early in life, will continue (I think) to track each other moving forward.  Who is getting hurt worst in the current age of stagnation and deleveraging?  Late-wave Boomers (born after 1950) to some extent, mostly by have their home and retirement assets values hit hard; Generation X most of all; and early-wave Millennials to some extent, mostly by delayed career starts.  Who got hit worst in the Great Depression?  Late-wave Missionaries (born after 1870) to some extent, mainly by losing their savings in failed banks in the early 1930s; the Lost Generation most of all; and early-wave G.I.s to some extent, mostly by having their careers put on hold until VE- and VJ-Day.  Same archetypes, same patterns.

Koktin points out that today’s hard times are pushing most Millennials in the developed world politically toward the left—that is, toward a greater commitment to national collective action by government.  We’ve witnessed this trend in every election globally since 2008—including of course the massive 2-to-1 margin by U.S. Millennials for Obama in 2008.  (In the fall of 2012, U.S. Millennials will almost certainly give another large margin for Obama, but it will be smaller than in 2008 and whether it will be enough to win the election is uncertain; this is an issue I will handle in a future post.)

These political trends also have interesting parallels in the last saeculum.  The Lost Generation, as we document in Generations and The Fourth Turning, leaned Republican and libertarian all its life.  The Lost hated President Wilson for the fiasco of World War I; voted heavily for Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (though it turned against Hoover with the Bonus Army); comprised the most visible and colorful opponents of FDR; and voted GOP after WWII all the way to Goldwater.  The party valence turned sharply the other way, however, for cohorts born after 1900—those who missed WWI, who belonged (like John Steinbeck) to entirely different artistic circles than the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and who were disposed to mobilize around a new trust in community after the Crash of ‘29.

Although no one collected age-graded polling back in the 1930s, some historians estimate that a very large majority—perhaps 85 percent—of voters under age 35 voted for FDR and the Democratic Party in 1936.  It is widely agreed that this is the first election in which a clear majority of young African-Americans voted for the Democratic Party rather than the party of Abraham Lincoln.  Consulting our own American Leadership Database, we are able to confirm that 28 out of 32 (88 percent) of G.I. senators, representatives, and governors sent to Congress in 1936 were Democrats.  By 1940, 75 percent of incoming G.I.s were still Democrats.

Read the numbers, Republicans, and weep.  That is, unless your new Mormon, whiz-kid, C-suite candidate is able to project a stronger, more hands-on image of strong national leadership than Barack Obama—which may not be setting the bar too high.  Anything is possible.

One last point.  To most Millennials, the whole whiney victimization card (look at me, I’m screwed!) seems like such a stale trope of Boomers and Gen-Xers, that they instinctively recoil from it.  And right on cue, a bona fide Millennial offers a cocky and defiant reply to Kotkin in the Washington Post (“Generation Unscrewed”)—though in a sardonic (“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”) tone that may leave all generations mystified.

Jul 052012
 

I’ve run a few posts recently on older generations running down Millennials, so I thought—before moving on—that I ought to add this clip.  It’s from the new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin (first-wave Xer, born 1961, creator of “West Wing”) and starring Jeff Daniels (Boomer, born 1955) as the cynical yet philosophical news anchor.  In this clip, Millennials are portrayed as callow, shallow, and out of their depth.  The starring Boomer, on the other hand, comes across as deep, passionate, heartfelt—and the flagrant insults he flings at his Millennial audience (e.g., “if you ever wandered into a voting booth”) would be rude only if he weren’t speaking truth to power, which in the Boomer mind justifies any manner of offensive behavior.

I’d be curious about what you all think:

 

 

One complaint about Sorkin as a screen writer is that he loves to create set-piece dialogue situations which sets up his favorite character to rhetorically vanquish an opponent, sometimes lending his shows a preachy tone.  That certainly happens here.  I’ve never in my life heard a Millennial ask a Boomer a question like, “Could you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”  That’s like pitching underhand to Ty Cobb.  As one might expect, it triggers this Boomer to unload a truckload of venom.  (His initial reluctance, I guess, makes his explosion seem more authentic.)  Did you feel you were on the side of the preacher?  Or did you feel preached at in this scene?

And what about the substance of his remarks?  Are they on target?  Here’s a Boomer who no doubt recollects America’s First Turning greatness in the 1950s with the rising G.I. Generation at the helm–when we were “number one” in everything because the rest of the world was staggering among the rubble of WWII.  But, as I recall, it was the explicit intention of the leaders of that era to raise the rest of the world up to our level of productivity, affluence, and education precisely because we thought this would make the world a safer and better place.  Among other things, we thought it would foster liberal and democratic values worldwide.  That’s why we funded the Marshall Plan and created the UN, IMF, World Bank, Bretton Woods, etc.  In terms of geopolitical power, we remain the global hegemon.  But in other respects, we are merely one of many.  Would this result have really disappointed the leaders of the American High?  Does it bother Millennials today?

One last point.  Jeff Daniels (as anchorman Will McAvoy) does not talk so much about what his own generation has done that embodies a “greater” America (though he does talk about how we once did things for “moral reasons”).  Rather, he talks mostly about what he recalls of greatness from the elders of his youth.  Here, he epitomizes the Prophet Archetype, which seldom moralizes by invoking its own deeds—but rather by invoking memories of the Heroes it recalls from childhood.  There’s a wonderful book by George Forgie (Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and his Age) about how Lincoln’s Transcendental Generation–an extreme example of the Prophet Archetype–was forever talking guiltily about their parents’ nation-founding greatness.  They kept wringing their hands about it even as they led American into the Civil War.

Or, if you want to go back to the Ur-Model of all Prophet Archetypes, look at passages by the wise old Nestor in Homer’s Illiad.  He complains that all the Achaean warriors arrayed against Troy are mere “boys” compared to the right stuff he recalls from his own youth—the age of Jason and the Argonauts.  When I first read this passage from Nestor, it made me think of all those fake re-enactments—like Mike Tyson versus Joe Louis in his prime.  I’m suddenly thinking, did some ancient young Dorian wonder, after hearing the Nestor stanzas, about who would have won—Jason or Achilles–if they had been put in the same ring?

Jul 032012
 

I just got back from eight days in Italy, on a trip that featured a wonderful stay in Tuscany hosted by my friend John Mauldin, the world-famous market analyst. While there, I got to enjoy leisurely discussions of economics and history with a handful of eminent financial experts and political notables whom John manages to entice to his villa (among them, David Tice, Rob Arnott, and Newt Gingrich.) I brought along my daughter Giorgia, whose astounding fluency in Italian saved us all on more than one occasion. We saw several Euro 2012 soccer matches in village squares with large outdoor TV screens. Italy’s victory against Germany brought screams of joy. Italy’s crushing defeat against Spain brought groans and tears. Italian flags were hanging everywhere—soccer being perhaps the sole exception to the age-old rule that Italians would rather quarrel with each other than come together as a nation.

It has been some 35 years since I was last in Italy. This is obviously a much more educated and affluent country than the one I recall. The main “autoroutes,” for example, are vastly superior to those I drove on in the 1970s—with wonderful bridges and tunnels and high-speeded entrances and exits. Intercity trains are very fast and efficient. Poverty is much less visible. Yet there are signs of recent economic stress. Driving across the Apennines, from Siena to Ravenna, we saw construction projects halted before completion and large stretches of highway closed due to lack of maintenance.

The mix of traffic on Italian autoroutes is peculiar: It’s all either trucks or high-end cars like BMWs and Volvos. Because gas is heavily taxed and because the trains are so fast and inexpensive, the middle class doesn’t use the autoroutes. The resulting speed differential between the slowest truck and fastest Beemer is dangerously large, leading to deadly accidents when two vehicles collide. We witnessed the aftermath of one deadly accident only moments after it occurred.

As everyone knows, Italy has a large public debt and, even worse, a poorly performing economy that has not managed much growth over the past decade—putting it, along with Spain and Portugal, as one of the sick “Club Med” economies that worry Euro Zone leaders and traders. PM Mario Monti is trying to whip Italy back into shape by some well-time fiscal austerity measures. Against that backdrop, let me relate an astounding scene we witnessed while touring Florence. All of a sudden, just a block or two from the Duomo, we hear a roar of automobiles and then witness a parade of about 90 Ferraris come into town. After cruising in circles around the narrow streets for a half hour, they all then parked row by row in the middle of the Piazza della Signora, right next to the Medicis’ Palazzio Vecchio and the copy of Michelangelo’s David. All the drivers, dressed in beautiful Italian racing uniforms, then just hung out for a while in the local cafes.

Now think about this for a moment: Each of these Ferraris (depending on the model) cost about $175,000 to $390,000, so that the total value of that parked machinery was somewhere in the range of $20 to $30 million. Wow. Does this look like a nation that has no wealth? Or rather like nation whose elite still has lots of fancy toys to play with while its public sector cannot make ends meet. Most of Italy’s fiscal woes are due to an unsustainable growth in total government spending (now over 50 percent of GDP, including an amazing 15 percent of GDP just in public pensions). Yet some of these woes are also due to undertaxing—or at least Italy’s chronic failure to enforce tax laws, especially on capital and business income. (For the heavily taxed middle class, which pays through VATs and payroll taxes, compliance is not a problem.) PM Monti has started a campaign to stigmatize tax evasion. He has also authorized dragnets that stop drivers in fancy cars (like Ferraris) and check their records to find out if they are hiding income. Many of the southern European economies suffer from chronic underpayment of taxes. (Some of you may recall the recent scandal in Greece over its tax on swimming pools, which almost no one pays—even after a satellite image confirmed tens of thousands of pools within the Athens area alone!)

Is it quixotic ever to expect the Italian elite to pay their fair share? In a culture which historically winks (both on the right and the left) at the dandy or anarchist who cleverly manages to defy authority? We will see. Super Mario is trying his best to reconstruct this cultural heritage. Some Italians vigorously support him. Some despise him as the technocratic errand-boy sent by Angela Merkel to make Italy sober up, dry out, and do Germany’s bidding. (Good thing we beat them in soccer!) Still others support Beppe Grillo, now number one in some polls, the comedian-turned-politician who denounces all current parties in favor of something he calls “hyper democracy,” a regime of total accountability and disgust at corruption. Grillo’s Five-Star Movement has some striking parallels in Germany’s Pirate Party. Both, interestingly, are disproportionately popular among young Gen-X voters. In future posts, I hope to say more about this multi-national movement.

One thing is certain: The image of Ferrari drivers being required to stop at Italian roadblocks and answering awkward questions about their income is an apt image of the 4T coming to Europe. In the United States, we do not have the same problem with tax compliance (at least not to the same degree). But if we did, where would we place our roadblocks? Maybe on drivers of Land Rovers. Or on amazon purchasers or Bugaboo baby strollers. I’m just guessing here.

One last note. In the Tuscan countryside, one notices virtually no new construction. Occasionally, yes, one sees an old building being retro-fitted with new interiors and amenities. But taking new pristine woods or fields and cutting trees or bulldozing roads to build a new home? Nope. It just doesn’t happen. The reason: Iron-clad regulations against any new development. Now on the one hand, you can marvel at this regulatory regime as a guarantee of a verdant and pristine countryside for generations to come. Or you can reflect on how easy these regs are to implement in a low-fertility society whose working-age population (age 15 to 64) has just begun to enter negative growth, according to the UN official projections. This declining population trend is expected to accelerate in the decades to come. Unless Italy’s fertility rises again, Italy will lose roughly two-thirds of its current population by the year 2100. As western Europe discovered during late antiquity (from the fourth to eighth century), it’s easy to leave nature alone when your numbers are shrinking.