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.

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:  I think the numbers speak for themselves.  To read our Op-Ed on the GAP Index that appeared in a recent NYT, see

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 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,, 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.

May 132010

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

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

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

May 072010

I have a lot of respect for Ronald Lee.  He’s a big-name demographer/economist.  But I just can’t fathom how he can arrive at his conclusions because the differences in the magnitude of spending are so large.  This year, all levels of government spent around $150 billion on higher ed—but around $1.2 trillion on transfers to the elderly.  Keep in mind too that all generations are taxed to support higher ed, and that higher ed has current benefits (discoveries, R&D) benefitting all generations, whereas the majority of the transfers to elderly go strictly from younger people’s payrolls and pay exclusively for the personal consumption of the elderly.  If he includes all levels of education, the quantitative comparison is less lopsided, of course, but then I find it harder to interpret his comment about the earliest generations who “did not receive public eduction.”  And I’d like to know how he deals with the interesting question of how to calculate the enormous implicit subsidy K-12 education received in the early decades when talented women had few other places to work, and thus could be hired by schools at very low salaries.  Up until the 1970s, you could say, adult women were collectively “taxed” for the collective benefit of children.

Apr 302010

This interesting—and implicitly generational—piece by Henry Allen discusses the changing assumptions about America’s role in the world.  This view that Allen describes, of America as history’s existential good guy, is very linked to the psyche of his Silent (born 1925-1942).  It is simply so hard for this generation ever to believe that there are vast numbers of people in the world who really don’t like us or would even enjoy seeing us suffer, and not for anything particular we have done but (to use the phrase that became popular after 911) simply for who we are.  It’s fascinating, in retrospect, that the Silent interpreted the warmth with which a war-devastated world regarded Goliath America just after WWII as genuine affection, as opposed to transient gratitude triggered by necessity.  Gratitude is a very difficult emotion for any society, or even for any individual, to sustain over time.  Especially, when the gift we have received cannot be paid back.  Often, we end up resenting the emotional burden.  Case and point: France’s fraught attitude toward America since our nation-saving intervention in two world wars.

In any event, Generation X (born 1961-1981) seems entirely unmoved by the emotional tensions and turmoil that Allen describes.  I would suggest he is describing something that pretty much affects his generation alone.

Back in the 1990s, Allen interviewed me at length about a feature story he was doing (it was later published in the WP) on how people of different ages react to that old Warner Brothers cartoon about Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.  In a talk he was giving at a local college, he discovered by accident that all of the (Xer) students sympathized with the coyote, not the roadrunner.  He was flabbergasted, because for as long as he could remember, he and his peers had always rooted for the roadrunner.  He wrote a moving account—Allen is a wonderful writer—about why these differences arose.  And he gave a fairly good rendition of some of the basic generational drivers that may be behind the shift.

Could these two differences be related?  When you look at America’s role in the world, what view do you take—that of the Roadrunner (beautiful, swift, above the fray, never has to think about eating—and never worried about losing), or that of the coyote (ugly but clever, determined, just another dog who’s got to get a meal—and always too-aware of the probability of failure).

Apr 292010

Interesting presentation about research on obesity by age. Nice animated charts on the growing  obesity share, at every age, by each birth cohort since the Silent (born 1925-1942)

Given the known correlation between obesity and a very wide variety of chronic and acute diseases, from diabetes to heart attack to cancer, this trend may do nearly as much to shorten longevity for today’s younger generations as medical innovation (at gargantuan cost) works to lengthen it.

Apr 142010

With super-Boomer (and now Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman advocating slapping a 25% tariff on Chinese imports and with Obama’s new “National Export Initiative” targeting a doubling of U.S. exports in five year come hell or high water, one senses a seismic shift in the geopolitical firmament. It’s not just the prospect of protectionism and trade wars I’m talking about. Yes, this is a huge danger—and could force the global economy back to the ER in a heartbeat. But there’s something bigger here: The disintegration of the Bretton Woods consensus, built by the G.I. (born 1901-1924), that formed the basis for global trade and power for 66 years, 1945 to 2011–that is, for three turnings.

The Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents created a global system (Bretton Woods, fixed exchange rates, IMFWorld BankNATO, and regular rounds of tariff reductions were all part of it) in which America’s national purpose was global prosperity, not just our own prosperity. We set up all these global rules and then we promised not to game them. Even more, we promised not to care very much if other nations, who really were just focused on their own prosperity, tried to game them. (At one time or another, this included nearly every OECD country, esp Japan.) America was “above all that.” Throughout the postwar era, every single U.S. Commerce Secretary used to complain that while the German or Italian governments made swinging huge export deals for their own companies a national priority, we always subordinated the interests of our workers and companies to broader global political goals. Again, we were America. We were above such parochial concerns. We needed to keep the rest of the liberal democratic world healthy and prosperous in our “long twilight struggle” against Communism. Somewhat surprisingly, this Bretton Woods consensus outlived the fall of the Soviet Union by 21 years, 1990 to 2011—that is, one turning—though there have been growing strains. One might attribute this to generational inertia. Enough Silent (born 1925-1942) were still in power, the Boomers were still finding their voice, and the Generation X (born 1961-1981) were still on the sidelines.

Now that may all be changing. The Silent, who are the last generation to recall, from their childhood, *why* we created Bretton Woods, is passing from power. The Boomers will not rest until they see the last edifices of their parents’ institutions reborn in their own image. And now the Xer influence is rising. To many Xers, the idea that America is “above all that” is a joke. Every since they were kids in the OPEC-stagflation ‘70s, they’ve been hearing that America is in crisis, has reached its last days, and is sliding into no-growth irrelevance and decadence (of which their generation btw is a prime example). For Xers, the hubris and complacency of the G.I. worldview has been replaced by survivalism and revanchism. Yes, we got the message: America’s empire is over. America is just one more desperate player in a dog-eat-dog world. So why not go after our share? I hurt. I need a job. I do not want my life to sacrificed on some insane alter of global stability and progress.

The G.I.s believed in Bretton Woods because it was *their* system. They built it and trusted it. For decades thereafter, younger generations deferred to their institutional confidence. I think that may now be coming to an end. From this perspective, how America emerges from the decline of Bretton Woods will depend hugely on the rising Millennial (born 1982-200?). What new global system will they erect? Will it work? Will it be built in time?

These idle generational reflections were prompted by the following essay (from Stratfor) on the outlook for the Chinese economy. According to Zeihan, the single biggest consequence of the dismantling of Bretton Woods will be the meltdown of the Chinese economy. No more “Chimerica” (to use Niall Furgeson’s phrase). And that meltdown, in turn, will have huge global repercussions.

Feb 262010

Interesting article in The Atlantic about the effect of joblessness on generational attitudes (courtesy of Pete Markiewicz

In tone, this is a very Fourth Turning (Crisis)  kind of piece. I especially like his figure of the “L-shaped” recession. Yet he really doesn’t present any coherent analytical point of view. He simply puts a negative spin on every observation or study he can cite, making everything consistently downbeat.

In fact, many of the cited studies on the effects of unemployment are now known to have false correlation problems. When a young man has drinking and other personal problems and also sporadic employment behavior, we cannot assume the latter caused the former. It may be the other way around. As for the negative impact of high unemployment on cohorts who come of age in those years, well, Millennial (born 1982-200?) are trying to avoid that negative impact by *not* just taking the first lousy job that becomes available. But the author gives Millennials no credit for that, but bashes them for the softness and risk-aversion etc.

This brings us to what he says about generations and Twenge, which is pretty much all garbage. He says that “Gen Y” got jobs in the high-tech boom of the late 1990s and that that’s why they’re optimistic and rule abiding (as opposed to “real” Generation X (born 1961-1981) who got jobs in the early 1990s)? What? Where does he get his dates?

I’ve been on several radio shows where the host asks me about the impact of recession on youth generations. They often cite the famous Glen Elder book. My response, which seems to make sense to most people, is that how a generation responds to a recession depends upon the underlying peer personality of the youth generation in question, which in turn depends on how they were raised. For the young Silent (born 1925-1942) in the 1930s depression, economic hardship accentuated their other-directedness, their trust in big institutions, and their long time horizons. For the young Xers in the early ’80s, it accentuated the opposite traits. There is no mechanical one-to-one link between an economic shock and the youth response.

It’s the author’s failure to acknowledge generational and era (“turning”) differences that explains how he comes to the conclusion that the emerging ’10s will resemble the ’70s. He has no inkling of seasonality. E.g., youth crime rose strongly throughout the ’70s. But today youth crime is still falling. Incredibly, cities like NYC and DC had fewer murders in 2009 than any year going all the way back to the early 1960s. No mention of this in this article!