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.

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).

Oct 042010
 

Two interesting points made in this recent article.

First, when Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker, starting in 1971, he clearly played an middle- or even early wave G.I. (born 1901-1924)  The guy looked smoked, somewhere (we Boomer (born 1943-1960) would have guessed) around 60.  Yet O’Connor, age 46, was just barely a G.I. (last cohort, George Bush Sr’s birthyear).    Now flash forward to this new show.  Shatner, age 79 (first-wave Silent (born 1925-1942)), is actually playing the role of somebody younger, somebody age 72.  (The new show is modeled after a wildly popular twitter site, shitmydadsays.com, wherein a 29-year-old relates 140-character epigrams given to him by his father.)

So, I guess I’m just amazed.  These two shows are about the politically incorrect sayings of “old guys.”  One appears nearly 40 years after the other.  But the leading “old guy” actor of the more recent show is born only 6 years after the actor of the first.  Wow.  And Shatner actually looks younger now than O’Connor did back then.

Second, Stuever complains that Shatner’s character is much too tame compared to Archie Bunker and that the show passes up the opportunity to portray a tea-partying Boomer in his 50s today.

These are a couple of serious charges.  Yet it would totally against archetype for Shatner—the very definition of a hip, postmodern Silent elder—to voice the  gruff, hard, unenlightened, and unironic thoughts of Archie.  And why not launch a show about Boomer culture warriors—right or left?  The problem for TV drama is that this phenomenon is simply too serious and too central a part of America’s mood today to be treated in a light mood.  With All in the Family circa 1973, everyone knew (and Boomers certainly knew) that Archie was weak, that his generation’s values agenda was toast, and that Boomers were taking over the culture.  Therefore, Archie could be the butt of jokes.  No one today believes that Boomers are weak in the culture or that their values-wars are unimportant.  Americans of all ages are practically holding their breath.  A funny, mocking TV sitcom about Boomer culture wars today would be like a funny mocking movie about the Great Society or the Apollo Moon Landing or the War on Poverty back in 1970.  Simply unthinkable.  Yes, one could launch a serious, well-reasoned critique of either.  But no one would have considered it funny.  G.I.s are supposed to build, Boomers to think.  Those are the archetypes, and there is nothing to smile about.  Reverse the terms (G.I.s thinking, Boomers doing), and sure you get a ton of laughs a minute.

An interesting generational take-off on All of the Family was That 70s Show—which was also very successful and ran for even more years.  Red, the father, is (probably) a first-year Silent who fought in Korea rather than WWII.  But he is very much a G.I. in nearly all of the same ways as Archie, though not with Archie’s really nasty edge.  Red’s wife, Kitty, is also the G.I. female like Edith, except she’s smarter.  The sadistic/pathetic moments between Archie and Edith are missing, which lightens the comedic effect.  Red and Kitty’s next-door neighbors, Bob and Midge, are total Silent, with all of the outrageous midlife passages and youth-outbreak awkwardness (when they aren’t just playing the bland conformists) you would expect.  The kids of course are all late-wave Boomers.

Sep 242010
 

Glenn Beck has quickly become just about the most polarizing figure in America today.  If Obama has come to represent America’s left brain, Glenn Beck is auditioning to become its right brain.  (I mean that in both senses.)  In a Third Turning (Unraveling), this would be cause for entertainment.  In a Fourth Turning (Crisis), this development takes on a darker, more sinister hue.

The red zone widely reveres Beck—not for who he is (no one really knows that much about the guy), but simply for what he says.  The blue zone widely reviles him—not for who he is or what he says, but rather for what he reflects about what is happening in America today.  The Obama election already seems distant.  For the literati, Glenn Beck is William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”  See this cute Youtube video from NYC (“Glenn Beck Scares Me”).

He sends the prophets of the secular left into such apoplectic rage that, like Kunstler, they simply shout themselves into incoherence.  The dominant theme of Kunstler’s piece is that prayer “is what people resort to when they don’t understand what is happening to them.”  I’d love to hear Kunstler’s take on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s original 1963 speech.

Kunstler is on firmer footing when he says that Obama’s caution often stems from the fear that any precipitous policy change may trigger a catastrophe.  In 4T-land, one is tempted to walk on tiptoes.  You are on the brink.  Don’t you dare throw the shadow-bank CEOs into prison.  Or raise tax rates on the rich.  Or shove cap-and-trade down the throats of big energy.  Or close down Gitmo.  Or offend Putin.  Or vaporize Ahmadinejad’s new reactors.  The economy may implode (again).  That dreaded WMD may finally be unleashed.   And *then* what will everyone think of your presidency?

True, by behaving (in Kunstler’s unplugged words) “like a weenie,” Obama may end up encouraging the very riptides of history he is trying to evade.  On the other hand, by behaving as Kunstler would urge, we would almost certainly end up in the midst of a crisis  Though perhaps, Kunstler would argue, it would be a crisis we could survive rather than one that we could not—logic that only makes sense to an Ayatollah like Kunstler.  Maybe what really burns Kunstler up about Beck is that they both share the same turning-yearning.

I offer  here two other more even-tempered reflections on the Beck “honor” rally from the Washington Post.

The first, by Kathleen Parker, makes the interesting point that everything about Beck’s message stems from the 12-step recovery program—with a  riveting emphasis on the utter worthlessness and depravity of the speaker.  Glenn Beck, a first-wave Xer (born in 1964), does this with grandiose self loathing:

“Hi. My name is Glenn, and I’m messed up.”

“You know, we all have our inner demons. I, for one — I can’t speak for you, but I’m on the verge of moral collapse at any time. It can happen by the end of the show.”

“You can get rich making fun of me. I know. I’ve made a lot of money making fun of me.”

And some of his lines are just funny, showing that he didn’t become a radio star for nothing.  Parker quotes one of them.  Not coincidentally, it extends the addiction metaphor in a new direction:

“It is still morning in America. It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America.”

The second, by Ruth Marcus, points out that Beck’s rhetoric has found a way to unite the two sides of GOP—the libertarian (business) side with the moral (evangelical) side.  The tea party has never enjoyed such solidarity, with its “black robe regiment” (an allusion to the [Prophets] archetype during the American Revolution) blasting away from the pulpits.

And to accomplish this, only a cross-over Boomer-Xer voice seems to work.  Beck is Boomer (born 1943-1960) in his bombastic moralism, yet also Generation X (born 1961-1981) in his pessimism about human nature, his fear that everything around us is vulnerable and at risk, his historical revanchism, and his in-your-face bluntness.  His opening lines, announcing that today we talk too much about America’s “scars” and not what makes America “good” is very Xer.  Only a kid who was born the year after MLK’s speech and who grew up in the 1970s would say that.

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin remind us of the un-pretty side of the Gen-X role in history.  Let me offer a prediction we made in The Fourth Turning(1997):

“By the middle 2020s, the archetypal constellation will change, as each generation begins entering a new phase of life. If the Crisis ends badly, very old Boomers could be truly despised. Generation X might provide the demagogues, authoritarians, even the tribal warlords who try to pick up the pieces.”

If any of this comes to pass, I have no doubt that many of the Xers who fill the role described here will remind us of Beck and Palin.

The original MLK (Artist archetype) appealed to our super-ego.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, his lofty, grandiloquent words appealed to principle on the eve of an era of economic and aspirational inflation.   In front of the Lincoln Memorial, he was the right man for his time.  Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (Nomad archetype) appeal to our id.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, their blunt, sardonic words appeal to honor on the eve of an era of economic and aspirational deflation.  Are they (gulp!) the ineluctable duo for our time?

May 132010
 

As Bill and I pointed out in Generations and The Fourth Turning, every generation approaches life’s major passages with its own distinctive style.  And that certainly includes death.  In recent years, most of the media attention has focused on how the Silent (born 1925-1942) are choosing to negotiate the final passage—e.g., with warmly humanized nursing homes and hospices (like the “Eden Alternative”) and movies like “The Bucket List.”  (In his final moments, apparently, Jack Nicholson will be carefully crossing the last of 27 items off his agenda.)  The G.I. (born 1901-1924) exit style—emphasizing social largesse and institutional pomp—is already fast fading.  The Silent style is kinder, gentler, more personal, and, as always with this generation, touched by ironic humor.

Yet we Boomer (born 1943-1960) are also getting older.  And if you look carefully, you can already catch glimpses of how Boomers will do it (and are doing it) differently.  With Boomers, the nursing homes will be gone entirely, replaced by “elective communities” and NORC’s (naturally occurring retirement communities—meaning, I go nowhere; I will get some Generation X (born 1961-1981) contractor to bring services to me!).  As for all those lists, I think many Boomers will throw away the pen and the lined paper… and opt for an experience more interior, more mythical, more transcendent.  And will mind-altering drugs play a role?  For many Boomers, you bet.  They came in handy in our youth, and many of us will revisit them, like a familiar friend, at the end.

It is in this sober and reflective spirit that I offer the following AP story about a 1943-cohort woman who, worried about the grave prognosis for her cancer, enrolled in one of a burgeoning number of programs that offer psychedelic drugs to terminal patients.  In her case, the experience was very positive—as it has also been, it seems, for many others.  The story received an amazing 337 comments.  It took me back to Carlos Castaneda, “the teachings of Don Juan,” certain mushrooms, and the deserts of the southwest.  If you’re not a Boomer, you wouldn’t understand.

Apr 232010
 

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

A couple of random examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 122010
 

I just saw Avatar in 3D, and was struck by the generational themes.  Yes, the computerized graphics (a la Lord of the Rings) are spectacular, and the avatar framework (a bit like the Matrix) has a cutting-edge feel on the IT front.  Hollywood spent a zillion dollars producing this film.  It does have a big-movie and definitely big-budget feel to it.  I’m sure it will make lot of money, especially abroad.

Thematically, however, this movie is not Millennial (born 1982-200?)at all.  It’s a Boomer (born 1943-1960)  blue-zone culture war script.  The thinly veiled allegory has the U.S. military killing innocent, close-to-Gaia aliens on behalf of a “dying civilization” that has ”already killed mother earth” on our own planet.  The sound track sounds like Enya.  We (the audience) are supposed to be moved by naked aborigines who hold hands and sing kumbaya-like in communion with the great spirit—and cheer when they kill large numbers of uniformed U.S. soldiers in combat.  The movie’s biggest villain is a hands-on career noncom officer who has dedicated his life to service and speaks in the vernacular of the USMC.  The analogy to U.S. troops in Asia is pounded home mercilessly—from references to “shock and awe,” to the rare mineral the Americans are seeking to extract from this planet, to the way alien women are shown ululating in support of their male warriors.  The viewer is constantly reminded of what this film is “really” about.

In this movie, Barack Obama (to say nothing of George Bush) is cast in the role of Curtis LeMay.  Launch another predator missile, anyone?  Some Boomers applauded vigorously at the end of the movie, the last time I’ve seen that since “V for Vendetta.”

Many Millennials, especially urban bi-coastals, will love this movie.  But I doubt that most Millennials want to see something so laden with moralizing self-condemnation.  They certainly don’t want to see their own peers and nation existentially portrayed as a force of evil.  (That was a Boomer youth script.)  As for those Millennials who now serve in the Marine, Army, and Guard units doing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have talked with many of them.  They truly believe, more than young Generation X (born 1961-1981) soldiers ever did, that they are making the world a better place.  They really like the brand-new Navy recruiting slogan: “America’s Navy: A Global Force for Good.”  I guarantee you these Millennial soldiers won’t be applauding Cameron’s movie.

For what it’s worth, I took along my 10th-grade son to see the movie.  His only terse comment, upon exiting, was: “OK, that’s three hours I’ll never get back.”  On the way home, he purged himself of all the Enya by listening, loud, to his Linkin Park and Incubus.

Nov 302009
 

Great piece in the NY Times about behavioral parenting. Generation X (born 1961-1981) are really getting into this. Here’s a good line:

“It’s finite, and it’s what they crave,” Ms. Hope explained. “Children love structure, the same as animals love structure.”

2009-11-25_1259There were plenty of “authoritative” childcare guides back in the 80s that Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents gobbled up. Bill and I looked at a lot of them. They were, to be sure, very different from what Xers are reading today. The Boomer guides tended to be very attitudinal, even counter-cultural, stressing the need for a whole new way of looking at relationships, at society, at gender roles and at your own life. It was really an extension of the Lamaze Movement-very spiritual and full of the power of suggestion-that hit full on in the 1980s. Bill Cosby influenced a lot of young adult Boomers, but because he was Silent (born 1925-1942), Boomers wanted to take his value-free-let’s-discuss-everything point of view and move it in a more normative direction. A lot of Boomers really wanted to change society with the way they raised their kids. And in trying to do that, they believed all that mattered was the intensity and quality of their relationship with their child and the correctness of the values they taught them.

With Xer guides, everything has changed. Xer guides are much more prescriptive, full of do’s and don’t's, and much less attitudinal. Many of the Boomer guides looked a bit like the Whole Earth Catalogue: It showed how raising children was part of a whole world view. To Xers, hey, child rearing is just like any other technique or business-there must be a good way and a bad way to get the job done. I want to do it the good way.

Xer guides are much more scientific in the sense that the authors need to show that there’s empirical evidence favoring one way over another. Skeptical Xers don’t take advice on pure faith. Amazingly, Boomer guides rarely talked about evidence: We just “knew” e.g. that Lamaze just *must* be a vastly superior way to give birth. Just look at those Hopi designs on the book cover! (btw, I’m a big supporter of Lamaze; I just acknowledge that it was never sold to us as an evidence-based practice.)

As I’ve mentioned, Xer guides are putting a lot more stress on behavioral techniques. Dog whispering is, admittedly, an extreme example. But apt. As in so many other things, Gen-Xers know how to take their own ego out of the equation, which is what behavioral parenting requires. The whole behavioral point of view is very Xer in that it looks at the human condition as a matter of external conditioning and adaptation-a useful antidote to the endless Boomer fixation on interior motives and values.

In the end, one must say that there’s a real bottom-line pragmatism about Xer child raising that wasn’t there for Boomers. Raising children isn’t about saving the world or making a perfect child or self-actualizing the parent. It’s just a set of tangible practices that will keep your child safe, reasonably happy, well behaved, and ready to take on life’s challenges when they’re good and ready but not until then. Forget the “supermom,” striving to correct her shortcomings. Now it’s the “good enough mom,” humorously self-deprecating about her shortcomings. What else would you expect from someone who’s read The Idiot’s Guide to Parenting. Good parenting for Boomers depended on being a good person. Hence the anxiety. Now it just means knowing a bag of tricks and being there at the right time. So now you can joke about it.

Xer pragmatism means today’s parents are much less interested in trying to make their kids perfect in situations where it really doesn’t matter that much. Xer parents, for example, are notoriously careless about how their kids in public places. (OK, civic comity is not very high on their priorities in any case.) But if they don’t care how other adults see their kids, they are extremely wary about other adults approaching or interacting with their kids. That’s “hands-on” parenting.

Here’s another example. Boomer parents often didn’t think very hard about exactly *where* they raised their kids. As long as the emotional bond was high quality, the place really didn’t matter. So Boomers trekked with their small tots out to wildness outposts, or to communes, or to inner-city neighborhoods as urban homesteaders, and so on. So long as you lived your own authentic dreams, your kids would be fine. Xer parents are much less likely to think that way. To them, place really matters. Lots of Xers are moving into very pricey suburban or exurban communities whose lifestyle they loathe (god, do I really have to feed and mow all that grass!), just so their kids will be able to attend the best schools and be around other kids with like-minded parents.

According to Judith Harris, whose influential though admittedly controversial book “The Nurture Assumption” appeared in 1998, Xers may be making the smarter choice. She argues that the only important influence that parents actually have over their own kids is the genes they pass on. The environmental influence of parents is practically nil-much less important than the influence of the youth peer group that surrounds the child as it grows up. Thus, according to Harris, Xers are indeed focusing on the one variable which turns out to make a difference.

btw, the Harris book is excellent. She supports her conclusion with reams of academic evidence (she’s practically a walking library on twin and adoptee and child development studies), and in any case she writes very well. Her thesis also has very important implications for any theory of generational formation-which is why I find her work especially interesting. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Nov 232009
 

The cover of Time Magazine this week features on article on overparenting:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1940395-1,00.html

(thanks to JenX67 for the link)

The claim is that a backlash is forming, but I wonder whether that will really be the case. The author of the Time article doesn’t seem to discriminate between over-achieving parenting (typical of Boomer (born 1943-1960)) and over-protective parenting (typical of  Generation X (born 1961-1981)). Things like “slow parenting” are a good example of where Gen X is rejecting the Boomer over-achiever style:

This is a Slow Family Living class, taught by perinatal psychologist Carrie Contey and Bernadette Noll. “Our whole culture,” says Contey, 38, “is geared around ‘Is your kid making the benchmarks?’ There’s this fear of ‘Is my kid’s head the right size?’ People think there’s some mythical Good Mother out there that they aren’t living up to and that it’s hurting their child. I just want to pull the plug on that.”

There is definitely a Gen X driven backlash against the whole perfectionist Boomer “hyper-parenting” style. But the whole move back to simple, slow, home-based child rearing often leads to parenting styles that are even more hands-on and protective than they were before. Workshops on how to help kids by “letting go” and the mathematical reassessment of which risks are worth guarding against has a comical aspect. You will know when the next generation of young children are arriving (their parents will be late-wave Millennial (born 1982-200?)) when no one is any longer interested in this subject. We’ve built a whole new world that is basically safe, so now let’s just ignore them and not worry any longer. When we reach that point, young Prophets (the next incarnation of the Boomers) will be among us.