The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
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 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?

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).

Apr 222012
 

So why has Hunger Games broken so many box-office records in its first few weeks in theaters?  Sure, the trilogy was a huge YA reader hit before it became a movie.  But the books weren’t exactly Tolkien, nor did they have the same celebrity status as the Harry Potter series.  And even if the books did generate a lot of buzz behind the movie, that just begs another question: Why was the trilogy so popular to begin with?

I have no idea.  But I do think there are several themes in the film that strike an obvious resonance with 4T America.

Theme One is the overwhelming imagery of the 1930s.  In the film, we see images either of America’s dire want and deprivation—think of dirt-eating Appalachia before the TVA arrived—or we see images of National Socialism triumphant.  On the one hand, scenes of semi-starved District 12 are deliberately filmed as a black-and-white evocation of rural America in the middle of the Great Depression.  Think of the Time Magazine’s cover picture for October 13, 2008: A stark photo of breadlines in the early 1930s.

On the other hand, the computer-assisted scenes of the Capitol of Panem look like Berlin as it might have been redesigned by Nazi architect Albert Speer.  Fortunately, history did not allow him time to complete this task.  He did a brilliant job, however, with the Nuremberg rallies, which look like Panem’s Capitol on a smaller scale.  And what isn’t directly Nazi-inspired comes from Art Deco or Art Nouveau.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out: See this article in the Atlantic for example or this very nice blog post.  I’ve even seen a youtube video pointing to the striking similarity between the Hunger Games Mockingjay pin and Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe badge.  I’ll show a couple of examples here, the most striking of which is the CGI movie image of “Avenue of the Tributes.”  The insignia for each district look disturbingly similar to badges handed out by the U.S. National Recovery Administration (NRA).  Note btw the task assigned to District One: “Luxury.”  Hey, it’s a job and someone’s got to do it.

 

 

Why is this important?  Because the specter of National Socialism loomed large over America at the depths of the Great Depression.  As government aggregated greater authority under FDR, many suggested (both on the populist left and the authoritarian right) that perhaps government should go further.  In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist take-over of the United States, which was popular enough to be turned into a stage play in 1936.  In Lewis’ novel, it was not so much that large numbers of people really wanted a dictator.  It was just that no one any longer cared much for the liberal and democratic alternative.

Theme Two is the imagery of a vast gap or distance between the privileged and the subjected.  By most calculations, inequality by income in the United States (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) has recently reached the highest levels since the late-1920s and 1930s.

In Hunger Games, the rich are hi-tech and garish.  The poor are resilient and plain.  In the OWS era, the relevance is clear.

 

 

Theme Three is the imagery of a staged yet savage competition among the young for survival.  I think Hunger Games can be read as a metaphor for team-working and risk-averse Millennials entering a young-adult economy defined by survivalist Gen-Xers, who are accustomed to competing against each other in a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all economy without safety nets.  Gen-Xers know all about Survival Games.  They think nothing of working for businesses governed by the Jack Welch managerial philosophy–which is to fire X percent of your workers every year “pour encourager les autres.”  Life is a gigantic Las Vegas casino.  ”May the odds be ever in your favor.”  How X can you get?  If Millennials fear anything, it is this future.

How things have changed.  When Boomers were young, William Golding wrote a much-discussed novel about kids killing each other that was quickly turned in a movie.  It was called Lord of the Flies.  And why were the kids killing each other?  Because they wanted to.  Because they were accidentally separated from the adults who would otherwise have enforced order and restrained them.  Hunger Games turns the story entirely around.  In this world, it’s the adults who deliberately stage the teen-on-teen gladiatorial contests.  Hunger Games is by no means the first in this genre.  During the Gen-X youth era, we’ve seen novels and movies like The Long Walk (Stephen King) and Battle Royale (a ‘90s Japanese classic).  And how many Xer “reality shows” have followed this same basic model—with Donald Trump or Simon Cowell or some other middle-aging Boomer yelling “you’re fired” at a young person?  The number is beyond counting.

If you’ve seen the film, then you recall the scene where the competition-trained blond jocks chase down and kill an unseen screaming victim.  An image came to my mind: Karate Kid I (1984), where the Aryan Cobra Kai kids (dressed in skeleton uniforms) chase down and catch Daniel-san and would have beaten him to a pulp had not Mr. Miyagi intervened.  This enormously popular movie persuaded countless millions of young Gen-Xers to practice martial arts, buy a gun, or do just about anything to defend themselves in a friendless world.

But here’s what’s changing.  In today’s new 4T era, what felt OK or normal for young Gen-Xers seems outrageous and unacceptable for young Millennials.  For a generation of kids so fussed-over and protected—now to be sent out with bowie knives and machetes to eviscerate each other from throat to gut?  No, the line has to be drawn somewhere.  And this is what adds a whole new edge (so to speak) to the movie.

I originally had a Theme Four in mind, which is the horrifying Oprah-style interviews of young victims about to be sent to their death.  Here is a glimpse of modern American decadence that deserves fuller treatment.  In the heyday of imperial Rome, gladiators once shouted “morituri te salutamus!” to the clamoring coliseum crowds (we who are about to die salute you).  In Hunger Games, the contestants confess personal secrets like they were on Jimmy Fallon’s ever-nice late-night show.  The effect is truly chilling.

But the hour is growing late.  I’ll come back to this in another post.

Apr 102012
 

There is a story in this weekend’s New York Times about a growing movement among insurers and health-care system administrators to discourage doctors from prescribing so many opiate pain-killers to patients who don’t clearly need them.  This is indeed a big problem.  These opioids are powerful, dangerous, and extremely addictive.  Twenty or thirty years ago, they were very rarely used outside of extreme suffering, typically among patients with terminal diseases.  Now, thanks to aggressive marketing by big pharma, these pills are often dispensed like candy.  I am amazed at how often, after even the most routine procedure (like getting a cavity filled), doctors will offer to write me up a prescription for Percocet or Vicodin or whatever.

Don’t you ever just want to shout… Suck it Up, America!  And as for doctors, geez, do they really have to be told these drugs are dangerous?  Don’t they already know?

But the real reason the article caught my attention was this paragraph:

Medical professionals have long been on high alert about powerful painkillers like OxyContin because of their widespread abuse by teenagers and others for recreational purposes.

My question: Why single out teenagers?  In fact, kids in their teens and twenties are not the biggest-abusing age bracket for opioids.  Not even close.  Rather, the biggest abusers today are in midlife.  The media needs to wake up to some basic generational shifts here.  Accustomed to associating deadly drug use with youthful rebellion, journalists (even at the NYT!) are slow to recognize that drugs today are a much deadlier threat to the peers of Rush Limbaugh than to the peers of Lady Gaga.

It just so happens that we wrote a recent piece in Social Intelligence exploring this issue.  It looks at the bad breaking trend in fatal drug overdoses—and it compares and contrasts it with a good breaking trend… in motor vehicle accidents.  Here goes.

In recent years, the steady decline in traffic fatalities (now to a record low) has been a genuine good news story.  Going back at least fifty years, motor-vehicle traffic accidents had long been America’s leading cause of death by injury—so the big drop is welcome. Yet according to a new report by the CDC, this is actually a good news/bad news story. Between 1980 and 2008, at the same time that the traffic fatality rate decreased by nearly half, from 22.9 to 12.5 deaths per 100,000, the fatality rate from “poisonings” almost tripled, from 4.8 to 13.5.  This growth in “poisoning” deaths has been entirely driven by the growth in drug overdoses, which now constitutes roughly 9 out of every 10 “poisoning” fatalities.

Bottom line: As of 2008, drugs—not cars—are America’s leading cause of accidental death.

Let’s look at the good news first. The CDC summarizes the broad range of positive trends that have helped to make driving safer.  These include improvements in the safety of vehicles (air bags, auto-body “crumple zones”), improvements in roadways (better lighting and signage), increased use of seatbelts, stricter laws on child safety seats, reductions in speed, and a concerted law-enforcement effort to catch intoxicated drivers and keep them off the road. The rising use of child restraints in particular has been a great success. Researchers found that child safety seats have reduced the risk of fatal injury by 71 percent for infants (younger than 1-year-old) and by 54 percent for toddlers (ages 1-4).  Between 1975 and 2008, according to one estimate, almost 9,000 Millennial and Homelander lives were saved by child restraints.

The dramatic decline in teenage traffic deaths is also very good news.  Between 1980 and 2006, the motor vehicle death rates for teens (ages 15-19) declined from 42 to only 23 deaths per 100,000. Interestingly, the traffic death rate for teens today is down to the death rate for Americans of all ages back in 1980. One big reason for this decline is the spread of graduated drivers licensing (GDL) programs, which restrict (and often effectively delay) the teen use of cars. According to the CDC, these GDL programs are associated with reductions of 38 to 40 percent, respectively, in fatalities and injuries resulting from accidents involving 16-year-olds.  It also helps that the share of teens who consume alcohol is falling.  Today, the teen share of DUI arrests is only about half of what it was thirty years ago.

To be sure, teens and cars remain a dangerous mix: Auto accidents are still the leading cause of death among teens, and account for more than one in every three teen deaths.  Yet the trend over time has been very favorable.

This youth trend, btw, reflects not just how kids are growing more risk-averse in general—but more specifically how they no longer enjoy the association between driving and risk.  This has big implications for auto marketers.  Where Boomers and Gen-Xers once saw their first chance at the wheel of a car as an exhilarating ticket to freedom and independence, Millennials see it as something you do under the watchful eye of parents and family.  The iconic muscle car is no longer an effective youth attractor.  In fact, most Millennials actually take some pride in how carefully they drive.  It may make sense to design messages that appeal to that care and pride.

Now let’s turn to the bad news—the shocking rise in deaths by poisoning. Again, this increase in “poisoning” has been driven entirely by the misuse of drugs. (Indeed, poisoning deaths not caused by drugs have actually been declining.) And among drugs, most of the growth has been in one category: opioid analgesics. The brand names of these drugs (such as OxyContin, Percocet, Avinza, Darvon, Vicodin, and Demerol) have become familiar to many Americans, as have the names of celebrities (from Heath Ledger to Michael Jackson) whose lives they have claimed.

Back in the 1980s, opioid addictions and deaths were relatively rare. By 1999, opioids were responsible for 30 percent of all deaths where the identity of the drug could be determined.  By 2008, that share had risen to 54 percent.  By all accounts, this scourge has been enabled by the increasingly casual distribution of prescription opioids by doctors, typically for pain relief.  Medical use can then lead to addiction, and addiction to death.  The magnitude of this human tragedy vastly exceeds the 15,000 Americans actually died from an opioid overdose in 2008.  The CDC estimates that for every one prescription painkiller death, there are 10 admissions for addiction treatment, 32 emergency visits to the hospital, and 130 people who are chronically addicted.

Which generation has suffered most from opioid addition and death? Given lurid media accounts of youths who host “pharm” or “cocktail” parties (in which teens randomly mix prescription pills in a party bowl), one might suppose that it’s Millennials. Wrong. It’s Boomers. The overdose fatality rate for Americans ages 45-64 is now the highest and fastest-rising of all age brackets. Gen Xers are in second place. Millennials are last. Though overdose death rates have been rising over the last decade for the young as well as the old, the young started from a much lower level. Today’s 50-year-old is now over three times more likely to die of a drug overdose than today’s 20-year-old.

The good news/bad news story from the CDC thus reveals a generational subtext. Consider the good news on traffic fatalities. It wouldn’t have happened without a range of policies—from child safety seats to graduated licensesthat reflect America’s collective determination to protect Millennials and Homelanders, both as drivers and passengers. As for the bad news on drug overdose fatalities, here the important generational driver is Boomers (plus older Gen Xers) moving into their late 40s, 50s, and 60s. Throughout their lives, these cohorts have pushed up personal risk-taking in every age bracket they have passed through. When they were young, teens did more dangerous things with drugs than older people ever imagined. Now that they’re older, they’ve taken the danger with them.

Dec 272010
 

This article on Teen Culture from a while back completely misses the point about Boomer (born 1943-1960) moms and dads.  They didn’t “keep up with new trends” in the sense of trying to be fans of every new pop group.  Rather, they perceived (correctly, IMO) that music from all the new pop groups was a pale wannabe reflection of the pure glory of the vintage rock of their own day.  And so they condescendingly accepted it and even hummed along with it when their own kids played it.  Boomers enjoy most of their kids’ music precisely because they sense it to be derivative of their own.  Rap of course is an exception.  It is not derivative (but it is also a Generation X (born 1961-1981) phenomenon).  But this is the exception that proves the rule, since this is a genre than many Boomers have not and never will embrace.

As for Mexico, one thing I learned in my recent trip there is that “emo” is a code word for a subculture that we would call “goth,” that is, culturally to the left, whereas the punkers I am sure were standing up for traditional machismo, that is, the cultural right.  In other words, the fist fights were political.

Nov 012010
 

I have recently run into discussions where there is confusion about the date boundaries and sizes of generations. Even the word “generation” can sometimes be up for contention. On the definition of “generation,” I don’t get hot and bothered about it.  The etymological history of the word “generation” is sufficiently broad (having been applied to families, computers, eras, what have you), that people are pretty much free to call any arbitrary cohort group a “generation” if they feel like it.  Most of these definitions, however, are ad hoc.  Even the famous Census Bureau definition of Boomers (which they define as 1946-64) is ad hoc, determined entirely by an arbitrary uptick and then downtick along a broad fertility-rate swell.

Very few of these definitions pretend to adhere to general rules about how social generations arise in history—which is what Bill and I have worked hard to do.  If you would like a definition of a social generation that puts all generations on a level playing field, so to speak, and links generations in some reliable way to historical events and trends, you may like what we have to offer.  But if you don’t care for such a definition, you probably won’t bother.

Now, on how and whether America’s demographics is or is not linked to an “age of austerity.”  This is a question on which I have written a lot.

The demographic challenge facing America is not as severe as the challenge facing near all of the other developed countries (and even some of the developing countries, like China).  The reason is pretty simple: We have a higher fertility rate and we have a higher immigration rate.  Indeed, we are the *only* developed country experiencing  “replacement rate” fertility.  And we are the only developed country whose total population is projected to continue growing (albeit very slowly), and not turn negative, through to the end of the next century.  The U.S. fiscal situation is also helped by the fact that our pay-as-you-go cash pension system is smaller and less generous, relative to GDP, than those of other countries.  But this plus is more than offset by our super-expensive health-care entitlement edifice, which is much more expensive as a share of GDP than any other country’s and is growing faster as a share of GDP.  (I’m very disappointed by Obama’s missed opportunity here, btw.  Rather than fix this broken system, the administration put new fuel into it, made it larger, and then called it “reform.”  But I’m digressing.)

All that being said, it is not true that we don’t face the same adverse demographic trends that these other countries face.  We do, only to a somewhat lesser degree.  We also face it more suddenly than Europe or Japan because we experienced a larger-than-normal swing from a (relatively small) generation of new Silent (born 1925-1942) retirees to a (relatively large) generation of new Boomer retirees.  So whereas Europe and Japan have their “aging” spread out over many decades, the U.S. age wave is all compressed into the just the next two, the 2010s and the 2020s.  This aging will exert a severe multiplier on U.S. entitlement spending (again, Medicare and Medicaid especially) at the worst possible time—since we enter these decades already running vast deficits, with a weak economy, and with new strains on unrelated auxiliary benefit spending, like disability and unemployment.

If you’d like more detail on exactly how our fiscal projections compare to those of other countries, take a look at the presentation of results from our new CSIS study  for Prudential: http://gapindex.csis.org.  I think the numbers speak for themselves.  To read our Op-Ed on the GAP Index that appeared in a recent NYT, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/14/opinion/14iht-edjackson.html.

Finally, on the issue of generational size.  I think I’ve said this before on the: The “baby bust” that America experienced during the most of the Generation X (born 1961-1981) birth years resulted in a sizable dip in the number of births—but this dip is hardly visible anymore when you look today at population by age bracket.  The reason: Immigration.  Gen X is by a sizable margin the largest generation of immigrants per capita of all of today’s living generations.

Take a look at the table (for 2009) I’m inserting below.  It’s shows pretty much the same number of Americans by age bracket until you get to the early wave Boomer (born 1943-1960).  Normally, in a society with more traditional fertility, the number per age bracket would decline sharply across the entire x axis.  So the fact that the line is level until about age 50 is itself a sign of an aging society.  You can also see, anomalously, a slight rise in the late 40s and early 50s, which is a lingering sign of the “boom”—still visible, despite the rising mortality in these brackets.  But clearly it is *not* true that the Xer cohorts today are dramatically smaller than the Boomer or Millennial (born 1982-200?) cohorts.

Chart of US Population by Age group
Chart of US Population by Age group

We’ve always thought that including the 1961-64 cohorts as part of Gen X *clarifies* the generational distinction. This is the group which has no peer connection to the youth rebellion crescendo of the sixties and early seventies. This is also the group that includes so many of the iconic leaders of Gen X (including the guy who gave it its name). Plus, per my reading of the surveys, the arrival of this cohort into each new age bracket—starting with their filling of colleges and the military in the early Reagan years–has coincided with a seismic recognition that something big was changing in that age bracket. I noticed it as a teaching assistant at grad school back in 1980s… we Boomer Teaching Assistants all talked about it. And this was years before I ever thought about writing about generations.

Needless to say, both our chapter on “The 13th Generations” in “Generations” (1991) and our book “13th GEN” (1993) were hugely influenced by this “dazed and confused” leading-edge cohort group, who were then in their late 20s… about where Millennials are today. Boomers, not. Imho.

Oct 172010
 

Nice retrospective on an iconic G.I. (born 1901-1924) actress (b. 1915) who provided the stereotypical suburban mom to Boomer (born 1943-1960).  When I watched the show as a fourth-grader circa 1960, I was more “the Beav’s” age, and my older brothers and cousins were more the age of Wally and Eddie.  The older siblings were steadier, more responsible.  We were all a bit wilder, a bit more risk prone, a bit more into our own little worlds.  When June Cleaver said, “Ward, I’m very worried about the Beaver,” she had reason to be worried.  She would have been terrified if she had known how many of us would later turn out.

Oct 082010
 

When Boomer (born 1943-1960) GW Bush went to war, it was in traditional land-force “invasion” mode with trumpets blaring.  When Generation X (born 1961-1981) Obama goes to war, it is with multiple levels of stealth, subterfuge, and deniability.  Our assassin predator missions are way up.  Our anti-terror surrogates are training in a still-growing number of countries.  And now—to prevent or at least slow down Iran’s race to get nukes—we are apparently waging a full-scale commando assault just under the radar.  News stories report mysterious explosions in Iranian factories, odd fatal “accidents” befalling top Iranian scientists, faulty alloys showing up in imported equipment, and horribly destructive computer viruses eating away at computers in Tehran.  At some point, I suppose, Iran could just say, OK, we’ll declare war.  But what’s clever about Obama’s approach is that the Iranian leadership may figure that, to declare war without any overt and large-scale aggression, may make them look weak.  I wonder if it will work.

A great book will someday be written about this campaign.  I love the description in the article about how you attack Iranian computers that are deliberately left off the net.  You actually have to get someone to physically insert a thumb drive.  Reminds me of the final scene in “Independence Day.

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.