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.

Jun 122012
 

Every three years (or so), the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances releases a report on “Changes in U.S. Family Finances.”  It’s a goldmine of information on how families are doing financially—specifically, how their assets and liabilities and net worths are changing by various demographic categories.

Yesterday, the Fed released a new report for 2010, its first since 2007.

I anticipated that the news was unlikely to be good, given the carnage done to family financial assets and home prices during the recent Great Recession.  I suspected net worth would be down overall, and down the steepest for younger families.  I had already seen preliminary Fed estimates of 2009 data.  And I had already ruminated over the depressing Census 2010 report on income and poverty.

But I have to admit, I wasn’t prepared for results as bad as these.  Here’s the bottom line:

Net worth basically means the total assets–real and financial, including home–minus the total liabilities of every U.S. “family.”  (Though the Fed uses the word “family,” it really means households; a “family” can consist of only one person.)  In 2007, the median for all families was $126,000; in 2010, it was $77,300.  That’s a fall of 39 percent.

What happened?  The value of homes and financial assets (often in 401(k) retirement plans) crashed—and though the Dow has partially recovered, the prices of homes haven’t.  The middle 60 percent of the income distribution was hit hardest, percentagewise, for just this reason: Most of the lowest 20 percent don’t own homes, and for most of the highest 20 percent homes constitute a smaller share of their net worth.  The hardest hit region was the West (median net worth down 55 percent) mostly, again, for the same reason—homes.

Another interesting angle: The share of families with credit card debt is down, while the share with college debt is up.  For the first time ever, education loans make up a larger share of a family’s average debt than car loans—which is suggestive of where Millennials and their families are, and are not, making their investments.

But what I want to draw real attention to is the differing trends by age.  Gen-Xers and late-wave Boomers between the ages of 35 and 54 (down by 54 and 40 percent) have been hit by far the hardest.  They bought late into the real-estate market, they borrowed most against the value of their homes, and they tended to buy in the newer, faster-growing,  and exurban regions where home prices crashed the most steeply after 2006.  They also (I suspect) tended to invest their assets aggressively, as most investment managers say young adults should.  Early-wave Boomers age 55-64 (down by 33 percent) have fared a bit better.  As for Millennials and late-wave Xers under age 35, their trend (down by 25 percent) doesn’t mean much since their net worth is still so small.

But now let’s look at families age 65 and over, a group dominated by the Silent Generation.  They have done much better (down by only 18 and 3 percent).  Most of the Silent traded down from their primary residence at or near the top of the housing boom.  Most sold or annuitized their financial assets at a much better moment in the history of the Dow.  Even if they didn’t, they are more likely than Boomers or Xers to be getting retirement checks from DB (defined-benefit) corporate or government plans that are unaffected by the market.  And even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t retire, they have been less likely to lose their jobs: 65+ Americans are the only age bracket whose employment-to-population ratio has risen continuously through the recent recession.

The new Fed study looks at income as well as net worth.  Its verdict is the same as that of the annual Census reports (cited earlier): The age 65-74 and 75+ age brackets are the only ones to experience rising real median incomes between 2007 and 2010.  Families in every younger age bracket experienced substantial declines.

OK, you might say: We’re only talking about the last three years.  Things go up and down.  Maybe this is just Brownian motion.

No, it’s not.  It’s all part of a much longer trend.  Let me now show the results going all the way back to the earliest Fed reports—that is, going back to 1983, and updating everything into inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars.

As you can see, the real median net worth of every age bracket under age 55 was better off back in the early Reagan years than it is today.  (Remarkably, the situation for age brackets under age 45 never improved much after 1983.)  Over age 65, things are much better today than at any time before 2004.  And in 2010, for the first time ever, the age 75+ bracket is actually the best off of any adult age bracket.  Back in the early 1960s, by most accounts, it was the worst off.

Now let me restate these results in a fashion that makes the generational point a bit clearer.  In the following table, I express the median net worth of each bracket as a percent of the median net worth of 35-to-44 year-olds in that year.  Take a look:

Here’s the take-away.  Back in the early 1980s, when the 35-to-55 age brackets were dominated by the Silent Generation, people that age were roughly on par with the household net worth of the elderly.  Interestingly, a 50-year-old family was 39 percent wealthier than a 75+ family.  The Silent, in short, were doing pretty well—as they continued to do relative to other generations as they grew older.  Today, a 50-year-old family is 54 percent poorer than a 75+ family.

Today’s headlines on the Fed report say the median net worth of all families has fallen to 1992 values.  Which is true, averaged across all families.  But it is also true that today’s young families are doing much worse than like-aged families in 1992—and that today’s senior families are doing much better.

All of this, by the way, was long-ago predicted.  Back in 1987, the eminent demographer Richard Easterlin wrote Birth and Fortune, a book in which he tried to explain why Americans born from the late-1920s to the early 1940s (the Silent Generation) had always done so well in the economy relative to the generations that came before and after them.  Easterlin noted that one of the most remarkable features of the 1950s and early 1960s was how the typical young man at 30 could earn more than the average wage for all working men—and could certainly live better than most “retired” elders of that era.  He also noted that since the late 1970s, the economic conditions facing young late-wave Boomers had become much tougher.  Easterlin called the Silent the “Fortunate” or “Lucky” Generation, and attributed their high incomes to their relatively small numbers—pointing out that they were the product of the “birth dearth” of the Great Depression.

Bill Strauss and I always thought that the explanation lay somewhat deeper than just demography and was connected to their location in history and their archetype.  The Silent were socialized early in life to get ahead by following the rules in a fresh-built system that actually rewarded rule-followers.  This they did, and it worked.  A good Silent joke (popularized by Woody Allen) is that 80 percent of life is just showing up.  I know very few Gen-Xers who think this is true—or even funny.

In case you’re interested, here’s what Bill and I wrote about the economic future of the Silent back in our first book, Generations, published in 1991:

No American generation has ever entered old age better equipped than the Silent.  Today’s sixtyish men and women stand at the wealthier edge of America’s wealthiest-ever generation, poised to take full advantage of the generous G.I.-built old-age entitlement programs.  Armies of merchandisers and seniors-only condo salesmen will pounce on these new young-oldsters as they complete a stunning two-generation rags-to-riches transformation of American elderhood.  Where the 1950s-era elder Lost watched their offspring whiz past them in economic life, the 1990s-era elder Silent will tower over the living standards of their children.  In 1960, 35-year-olds typically lived in bigger houses and drove better cars than their 65-year-old parents.  In the year 2000, the opposite will be the case.

Now let me contrast this to what we predicted back then about the future of Gen-Xers:

Sometime around the year 2010, Xers will hit a hangover mood like that of the Lost in the early 1930s and the Liberty in the late 1760s: a feeling of personal exhaustion mixed with a new public seriousness.  The members of this forty- and fiftyish generation will fan out across an unusually wide distribution of personal outcomes, reminiscent of a night at the bingo table.  A few will be wildly successful, others totally ruined, and the largest number will have lost a little ground since the days of Boomer midlife.

Going back to these 21-year-old passages is so much fun!  Let’s not stop here.  Consider the following remarks, especially what we predicted back then about the intense protectiveness of Gen-X parents.  (Anyone catch the “Are You Mom Enough?Time Magazine cover last week—pitched to a whole generation of attachment parents?)  Here they are:

Gen-Xers will make near-perfect fifty-year-olds.  On the one hand, they will be nobody’s fools.  If you really need something done, and you don’t especially mind how it’s done, these will be the guys to hire.  On the other hand, they will be nice to be around.  More experienced than their elders in the stark reality of pleasure and pain, Xers will have that Twainlike twinkle in the eye, that Trumanesque capacity to distinguish between mistakes that matter and those that don’t.  In business, they will excel at cunning, flexibility, and deft timing–a far cry from the ponderous, principles-first Boomer style.  In sports, the combination of Xer coaches and Millennial players may well produce a new golden era of teamwork and civic adulation.  In the military, Xers will blossom into the kind of generals young Millennial soldiers would follow off a cliff.  Their leading politicians may strike old Boomers as affable, sensible, quick on their feet–and more inclined to make deals than to argue about abstractions.

In the early 21st century, Gen-Xers will make their most enduring mark on the national culture.  Their now-mature keenness of observation and their capacity to step outside themselves will kick off exciting innovations in literature and filmmaking.  They may become the best on-screen generation since the Lost.  As parents of growing children, they will by now be too affectionate, too physical–too eager to prevent teenagers from suffering the same overdose of reality they will recall from their own youth.  In so doing, Xers will tip the scales toward overprotection of children–much as the Liberty did in the 1780s, the Gilded in the 1860s and the Lost in the 1930s.  Midlife parents (mothers especially) may hear themselves criticized by Millennials for “momming” a pliant new generation of Adaptives.

Enough wild digression.  Let’s get back to the main point of this posting.  Just-released Fed data confirms what we have always known about likely economic trajectory of today’s generations: Through the Third Turning and into the initial stages of the Fourth, the Silent will prosper, Boomers will cope with declining expectations, and Gen-Xers will get hammered.

Thoughout history, we have argued, inequality both by class and by age reaches its apogee entering the Crisis era.  Indeed, part of the historical purpose of the Crisis is tear down dysfunctional institutions, vacate positions of entitlement and privilege, rectify the inequality, and create a tabula rasa on which the rising generation can build something new.

Jun 012012
 

OK, prepare for a totally derivative post.  To understand it, you need to go to mentalfloss.com and take this quiz.

It all revolves around the following question: Do you know the difference between managing Millennials and raising puppies? Are you sure?  Most of the people I know who have taken this test get at least a couple of the questions wrong.

I had to laugh when I took the quiz myself.  When I talk to audiences about Millennials in the workplace–these are often audiences full of Xers and Boomers–I admit to them straight up: This is a high-maintenance generation.  They like to think of themselves as VIPs, no question.  They demand lots of structure, feedback, moral support, mentoring, and some sort of deep connection with the organization they work for.  You need to offer all of the above if you want the best of them to stick around.

It’s work–a great deal more work than the “low-swet” Xers who came along before them.  In many ways I really miss young Xers.  Their day-one attitude toward their employers was simple: You don’t ask much of us and we won’t ask much of you: Let’s just all get what needs to get done quickly and efficiently, so we can all go home.  I don’t think young Xers were ever puppies.  They seemed pretty “broken in” before they ever showed up at their first career job.

 

Yet here’s what’s really interesting: The puppiness we see in these first-wave employed Millennials is going to become a lot more exaggerated by the time we meet the Xers’ own late-wave Millennial children when they show up en masse in the workplace starting around five years from now.  Why?  Because these Xers are raising their own kids with behavioral handbooks that actually do resemble puppy-care guides.  Many Xer parents look at Cesar Milan’s “Dog Whisperers” for tips on how to be the alpha-dog in their family.  I first started writing about the new behavioralism in Xer parenting on this site a couple of years ago.  Here is an excerpt from that post:

…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.

Here is a story I hear all the time from Boomer and Silent Generation grandparents who have Xer children.  When the Xers drop off their grandkids with their grandparents–en route, perhaps, to a rare vacation alone–they typically include a list of “do’s and dont’s” and a strict schedule regarding their kids.  The grandparents express surprise, “A list?  Why do we need a list?  After all, we raised you.”  To which the Xers rejoin, “Yeah, mom/dad, that’s why we’re including the list.”

 

 

May 282012
 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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.

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 112010
 

I have argued before that “Mad Men” is a fundamentally unhistorical rendition of how most Americans felt and behaved in late First Turning (the High) America.  To summarize, my point was basically that most of the roles are played by Generation X (born 1961-1981) who meticulously “look” like circa-1960 business-world people—but who fail to reflect the authentic mood of the era as it was lived and experienced.  Instead, the actors come across as Gen-Xers dressed in 1960 clothing and trapped in 1960 social mannerisms.  Let me put aside all instance in “Mad Men” where the script is simply impossible—like characters telling each other to “get in touch with their feelings.”  Even aside from such obvious anachronisms, most scenes (to my eye and ear) are suffused with a sense of oppressive tension and cynicism.

Well, in this columnStepanie Coontz (well-known author and first-wave Boomer) begs to differ.  She says that “Mad Men” is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the period.  Yet she says so for reasons which I think pretty much support my own assessment.  She says the show accurately portrays the suffocating gender chauvinism that prevailed in America just before the sexual revolution began to set things right.  I agree that it does this.  And, I would argue, it does this so effectively because the cast is so clearly ill-at-ease in the world they inhabit.  To take contemporary Gen-Xers and thrust them back into 1960 life roles would be tantamount to physically throwing just about anyone into a jail cell.  No one looks comfortable when they are locked up.

I would argue that to portray a period in which everyone feels out of place is probably not an accurate portrayal.  Coontz, of course, may disagree.  She may say that most Americans really were, objectively, miserable in the 1950s.  Most likely what she really means to say is that most Americans, men and women, *should* have felt miserable if they had only known how they were being abused by their own social norms.  But then again most Americans didn’t really come to this understanding until after the ‘60s were over… and after Coontz had launched her writing career.

Ponder the epistemological question.  To what extent should the mood or tone of an era be judged by standards not widely held until after the era was over?  The best way to think about this question is to imagine how Hollywood, in the year 2060, will portray our own America circa 2010.  (The Washington Post Outlook section had a recent essay on exactly this question.)  What horrible injustices will we be accused of tolerating daily?  One can imagine many candidates.  To the left, what may come most easily to mind is how we all routinely ravage the environment; to the right, how we routinely terminate the lives of millions of the unborn.  (Both candidates were mentioned in the Post piece.)  I submit that no one really knows and that to subject our own present-day world to such a radical perspective, which might require each of us to confess crimes to a tribunal organized by the new regime, would not be an accurate representation of what it actually feels like today to live in our world.

Let me bring this discussion back around to generations, turnings, and cyclical versus linear time.  One thing Bill and I discovered many years ago, even before The Fourth Turning appeared, was that most people who really do not like our perspective on history have fairly strong ideological motivations.  These tend to be people whose ideology colors their perspective on history, who see history moving from absolute error toward absolute rectitude, and who (therefore) are really bothered by a view of history that is not linear.  In this view, the idea that there might be something archetypal in a bygone generation or era of history seems bizarre, even perverse.  There can be no archetype for social dysfunction and blatant injustice.  It’s like a disease.  When it’s over, you hope and expect it never returns.

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.

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?