The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jul 052012
 

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

I’d be curious about what you all think:

 

 

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

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

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

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

Jun 202012
 

“How not special you are.”  That seems to be a popular message older people want to deliver to the young these days.  In the last couple of years, I’ve started to notice this new tough-love refrain pop up in commencement addresses.  This year, it’s really ramping up.  Apparently, when middle-aged folk tire of apologizing to the young about how badly they have messed things up—they easily move on to remind the young how unworthy they are themselves.

See in particular the pugnacious and dismissive (if not contemptuous) address penned by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, which got lots of attention.  He starts out with this happy note: “Dear Class of 2012: Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you.”  And then he goes on:

Here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history…

To read through your CVs, dear graduates, is to be assaulted by endless Advertisements for Myself…

Your prospective employers can smell BS from miles away.  And most of you don’t even know how badly you stink.

And so on.  OK, so Stephens didn’t actually deliver this address to an actual school.  But I’m sure someone will try.

Last week, David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher at Wellesley High School (and son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) gave a lighter, wittier version of a similar message: Shape up, you’re very ordinary, and your parents’ incessant praise won’t help you now.  “You’re not special” was his repeated refrain.  The video has gone viral.  Clearly, these “speeches” have struck a chord among some of today’s Boomers and Xers, those who find young people in schools, colleges, and workplaces just too confident, too full of themselves, and too “special” for their taste.  Apparently, it’s time for older people to take youth down a few notches—for their own good.

So what exactly is going on?

At some level, I guess I’m baffled by the sudden popularity of this trope.  Here we are at a time of historically high youth unemployment during the longest and most severe economic bust since the Great Depression.  Why would anyone think Millennials need to be reminded by graybeards that history won’t give them a free pass?  Just about everyone knows, moreover, that in the decades to come Millennials are eventually going to have save more and bear higher taxes (in just about any fiscal scenario) to pay for their parents’ unfunded retirement liabilities.  And, if those programs go bust, Millennials are conveniently situating themselves in or near their parents’ households so they can help out in person.  Shouldn’t these older people want to be nicer to these kids in anticipation of what’s ahead?  Shouldn’t they be at least hoping that this rising generation is indeed special enough to handle the challenges being handed to them?

It might be different, I suppose, if these young Millennials were aggressively attacking their parents for their alleged misdeeds—like young Boomers famously and loudly assailed their own parents for raping the earth, waging colonial wars, and subjugating women and minorities.  If that were the case, today’s older generations could plead self-defense.  Yet Millennials rarely make such attacks, and certainly don’t make them at public events.  I have attended a great many commencements, convocations, and ceremonies involving high-school and college students in recent years, and in all the them Millennials thank and congratulate their parents and teachers in the warmest terms.  Never do I recall a young person saying something like, “Mom and dad, I really don’t think you are very special.”

So it’s a weird and one-sided conflict.  If Millennials wanted to attack, of course, it would be easy enough to find targets to strike–starting perhaps with their elders’ greed, short-sightedness, and blind partisanship, which have recently brought the global economy to its knees and rendered the nation’s capital ungovernable.  Yet Millennials do not strike.  They bear perhaps the heaviest burden from their elders’ malfeasance.  But they do not attack.  Perhaps because they are just too nice to get nasty.  Or because they would rather not get into a conversation with judgmental Old Aquarians who simply won’t stop arguing until they win.

Maybe, some say, this whole anti-special, tough-love line is justifiable as a natural and welcome corrective to the excesses of the “self-esteem” movement in recent years.  According to psychologist Jean Twenge, mindless cant about every person’s preciousness is turning the young into raging narcissists.  Maybe staring young people in the eye and saying, earnestly, “You are not special” will humble them, teach them a lesson, and incentivize them to try harder.

Personally, I think this is nonsense.  Sure, I understand that parents or teachers must often tell young people that they aren’t meeting a standard—and instruct them in what they must do to improve.  That’s fine.  But I don’t see any reason, ever, to tell people publicly and officially—in groups or as individuals—that they are existentially not special.  And certainly not if you are trying to motivate them to become better people.

Think about it: Why do all of the major religions (especially the monotheisms, which account for two-thirds of the world’s believers) teach that every soul, even that of the lowest sinner, is special in the eyes of God?  Is that a huge mistake?  Would these religions do a lot better by teaching that most of us are just an indistinguishable putrefying mess in the eyes of God?  Or think about great moments in history: Caesar on the eve of Pharsalus, Henry V before Agincourt, Eisenhower before D-Day.  Can we imagine King Hal rousing his motley crew by telling them that tomorrow, on Saint Crispin’s day, you will all be feeling very ordinary—because that’s really all that you are?  Or think about pedagogy.  How often have you ever heard a person say about his or her former teacher, “Yeah, he was amazing, turned my life around.  He just made me feel so unspecial.”

So how can we explain what’s going on?  I think we need to go deeper, to descend to America’s collective subconscious—and to recognize that generations sometimes give free reign to their worst instincts.

As America enters a Fourth Turning, characterized by a new mood of restraint and responsibility, older generations feel a need to exorcise their own attitudes of selfishness and habits of indulgence.  How do they do this?  Sometimes, atavistically, they do this by projecting these attitudes and habits on the young and blaming the young for them.  In the western tradition, this rhetorical response is encoded in the Jeremiad, so-called because Jeremiah (in the 7th century BCE) blamed Israel’s woes on the decadence of the chosen people in general, but especially on the corruption of the “rising generation.”  Ever since, throughout history, the Jeremiad periodically regains popularity as the need for its message arises.  In New England during the 1660s, Increase Mather responded to recurring famines by blaming the colonists, and blaming especially “the sad face of the rising generation,” whose “heathenish” and “hard-hearted” ways boded ill for their collective future.

We may indeed be hard-wired to “blame the victim” just to assure ourselves that some sort of moral order still prevails.  I know some parents who will scream at their kids for an accident they know wasn’t their fault.  No, it’s not fair, but then again the parents can (rightfully) point out that life is not always fair and their kids had better get used to it.  More optimistically, we call these “teaching moments.”

So I get why Boomers sometimes tell Millennials how unspecial they are.  It so fits their life story.  Boomers have spent a lifetime judging other generations.  Back when they graduated high school and college, their parents called them “special” and hoped for a nice conventional ceremony.  But young Boomers so often found a way to darken the mood and spoil the event.  Ditto, today—only now it’s the kids who just want to have a nice conventional ceremony.  And now it’s the parents who insist on delivering stern lectures about the selfish, complacent, and meretricious lives of a generation other than their own.  Oh, sweetie, was this supposed to be a happy moment?  Sorry!

I also get why Gen-Xers often echo the same line.  While growing up, they absorbed so many negative images of youth that many figure horrible dis-incentives are the only way kids can be motivated—from “survivor” games to “this is your brain on drugs” ads.  The very phrase “tough love” was invented in the ‘70s and ‘80s to describe the standard operating procedure for dealing with Xer kids.  My Los Angeles friend Marc Waddell has reminded me that the current anti-special message echoes the famous line spoken by Brad Pitt, in that Xer classic Fight Club: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”  Throughout history, this has been the retort of skeptics, cynics, and materialists to all of the saints, seers, and visionaries.  Generationally, it has been the trademark response of the Nomad archetype to the Prophet archetype which always just precedes it.

Some Xers may also feel jealous: No one gave a damn about me when I entered college or got my first job, they recall.  So why am I required to be so solicitous toward these Millennials—with all their onboardings, parent meetings, mentorships, feedbacks, career pathway maps, and 360 reviews?  Sooner or later, Xers learn why.  Because Millennials came along at a different time.  That makes all the difference.  And as Xers raise their own kids, they understand better what motivates that difference.

The very word “special” has itself changed its meaning from one generation to the next.  During the Boomer and Gen-X ascendancy, the word “special” was increasingly used to single out individual excellence, as in the “special” academic or sports ace who in school performs better than everyone else.  Every sarcastic speech about precious youthful specialness thus contains at least one anecdote about how absurd it is that everyone on the team can receive a medal.  Echoes Wellesley High School’s McCullough, echoing everyone else: “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

But is that always true?  Imagine society veering back to a more collective understanding of “special”—something a bit more like how King Hal addressed his “band of brothers.”  Or imagine a generation of young people who, like Millennials, are more likely to reward everyone on the team simply for participating, who go back to pull forward anyone who needs help, and who don’t mind chopping up the valedictorian or homecoming award (recall the climactic scene in Mean Girls) among a large number of people?  Yes, this is a different understanding of specialness, one that has hibernated in recent decades, but surely it too has some legitimacy.  One hates to think that the few can be special only to the extent that the many are found deficient.  Or, to put it more bluntly, that heaven is rendered meaningful and desirable only by the sufferings of those in hell.

I have found that Gen-Xers in particular find it hard to imagine how feeling special can mean anything other than a sense of individual entitlement.  As managers and supervisors, therefore, their natural impulse upon encountering special-feeling Millennials is to confront them with a tough-love, drill-sergeant message: In my eyes, you maggots are not special at all!  They admit to me that this approach, when they try it, often backfires—and at best does little good.  My advice?  Don’t fight the energy.  Channel it.  Say something like this: In my eyes, you young people really do seem special—and guess what, we expect special things from you!  Most of these Xers tell me this works better, and many admit that they had never before thought much about how to leverage positive self-esteem in a collective setting.

May 142012
 

I thought you all might enjoy this.  It’s the full text of a commencement address I gave last Saturday at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  It was a glorious spring day, and I got to sit on the dais next to UMW President Rick Hurley watching up close as student after student (roughly 1,100 of them) came forward with smiles and beaming faces to accept their diplomas.  Sometimes just being next to happy young people is does wonders for your mood and morale.  Anyway, here it is:

 

It’s a beautiful day here in Virginia, and I want to thank the University of Mary Washington for inviting me here.

At a commencement address, speakers often go on too long.  This I won’t do.  I may not succeed as well as Salvador Dali, who famously delivered the world’s shortest speech, only four seconds long.  He announced at the podium: “I will be so brief I have already finished.”  And then sat down.

Commencement speakers also like to intone about “today’s youth generation.”  And this is fine.  Except that they then go on to talk at length about their own experiences in their own youth—and tell you: Because this worked for me in my generation, it will work for you in yours.  Which should alert you that these speakers have no idea what a generation is.

Let me clarify.  A generation is a group of people who share a basic outlook on life shaped by their common age location in history, their common “generational setting.”  The renowned sociologist Karl Mannheim called this “eine Generationslagerung,” which I promise you is both the longest word—and the only German word–that you will hear from me today.

“Youth,” on the other hand, is just an age bracket.  It’s like an empty hotel room that different generations move into—with their own baggage—and then soon leave.  Sometimes that room swells with sweet music, sometimes it throbs with death metal, sometimes it’s utterly silent.  But it’s never the same.

Bottom line: All of you Boomer and Generation X parents are essentially unlike your children—and were not the same even when you were kids.  And you Millennial Generation graduates are essentially unlike your parents—and will not become like them as you grow older.

So how, exactly, are you different?  Well, start with the obvious—pop culture: Believe it or not, parents, your kids have never known that America, Chicago, and Kansas are the names of rock bands, not just places.  Or what about technology?  Ever notice the blank stares when you tell them roll up the window, or turn the channel, or dial a number.  Or what about current events?  For as long as Millennials can remember, NATO has been looking for a mission, China has been peacefully rising, Brazil has been building shopping malls, and Boomers Bill O’Reilly and David Letterman have been hating on each other in the plain view of millions.

Now these markers are interesting.  But if there’s one big I idea I want you to take away from my remarks, it’s that generational differences go much deeper.

Consider.

You Millennials grew up in an era of rising parental protection—never having known a time without bicycle helmets, electric plug covers, Amber Alerts, and 15 different ways to be buckled into your minivan seat.  We, the parents, grew up in an era of declining parental protection: Our moms and dads told us, we don’t care where you go so long as you’re home for dinner—and as for seatbelts, we were told if there’s an accident to just put up our hands like this.  As kids, we never saw a “Baby on Board” sticker.  “Baby Overboard” would have been more appropriate.

You Millennials were raised to be special—very special—and trust your counselors, support groups, and smart drugs to keep you feeling pretty good about the world, like a Sims character having just the right digital balance.  We, the parents, knew we weren’t very special, didn’t trust anyone to advise us, and thought staying away from counselors was a sign of resilience.  When you came to college, there were long orientations and immersions–and many of your parents clutched teddy bears and wept.  When we came to college, we jumped out of the car and tried to grab our suitcases before our parents sped off.

You Millennials were raised to be teamplayers—which you are, with community service, group projects in the classroom, and clubs for everything.  And, above all, with digital technology that connects you all to each other on Facebook, and smart phones that you go to bed with.  We, the parents, were a lot more into competition, rebellion, and defying the mainstream.  We did not “friend” each other.  Our generation invented the “personal” computer.  Personal, as in—mine and not yours, and certainly not part of the corporate mainframe our own parents bequeathed to us.  Growing up, our biggest fear was that Big Brother might someday install cameras in our rooms.  Our biggest joy was hearing Steve Jobs announce that “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  And now our biggest surprise is to see our own kids connect with each other by installing their own cameras in their own rooms!

As a generation, you Millennials have a surprisingly conventional outlook on life.  Surveys show that as you grow older you wish to become good citizens, good neighbors, well-rounded people who start families.  Violent youth crime, teen pregnancy, and teen smoking have recently experienced dramatic declines.  And for that we congratulate you.

Most startling of all, the values gap separating youth from their parents has virtually disappeared.  You watch the same movies as your parents, buy the same brand-name clothing, talk over personal problems with them—and, yes, feel just fine about moving back in with them.  When I travel around the country, I often ask people today in their 40s or 50s how many songs on their iPod overlap with what’s on their kids’ iPods.  Typical answer: 30 or 40 percent.  Let me tell you: Back in my days on campus (later known as “the days of rage”), we did not have iPods, but if we had, the overlap would have been absolutely zero.  Everything about our youth culture was intentionally hostile and disrespectful of our parents.  That was the whole idea.

Now people sometimes ask me: What does it mean that one generation is different from another—that Millennials, for example, are different from the Boomers or Gen-Xers who raised them?  Does it mean that some generations are better than others?

And I say no: There is no such thing as a good or bad generation.  Every generation is what it has to be—given the environment it encounters when it enters the world.  And history shows that whatever collective personality that generation brings with it is usually what society needs at the time.  As such, youth generations tend to correct for excesses of the midlife generation in power; and they tend to refill the social role being vacated by the elder generation who is disappearing.

To avoid speaking in code, let me rephrase this as follows: The Millennial Generation is correcting for the excesses of Boomers and Gen-Xers who today run America.  I need not remind you what those excesses are: Leadership gridlock, refusal to compromise, rampant individualism, the tearing down of traditions, scorched-earth culture wars, and a pathological distrust of all institutions.

The Millennial Generation is also reprising many of the hallmarks of the original G.I. Generation, the “greatest generation,” who are now passing away.  Like the Millennials, the G.I.s grew up as protected children and quickly turned into optimistic, consensus-minded team-players who saved our nation—in the dark days of the 1930s and ‘40s—from turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents.  Yet again that happens.

So all of you parents out there: Be proud of this new generation.  They aren’t like you, but they are what America now needs.  They don’t complain about the storm clouds looming over their fiscal, economic, and geopolitical future; they try to stay positive.  They don’t want to bring the system down; they’re doing what they can to make it work again.  They worry about you a lot.  And they want to come together and build something big and lasting, something that will win your praise.  Beneath their tolerant, optimistic, networking, and risk-averse exterior lie attitudes and habits that may prove vital for our country’s healing and for our country’s future.

No one knows what challenges this Millennial Generation may eventually be asked to bear.  Hardly anyone expects them to become America’s next “greatest generation.”  But someday you can say you heard it from me: That is their destiny, to rescue this country from the mess to which we, the older generations, have contributed… perhaps a bit more than we ever intended—and in so doing to become a great generation indeed.

Thank you.

May 012012
 

Last Tuesday, on April 25, President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show (igniting an explosion of cheers from the audience).  Both Obama and Fallon then proceeded to “slow jam the news.”  The video (below) is funny and well worth watching.  Any number of Millennial buttons were pushed:

  • the super-niceness of Jimmy Fallon;
  • the no-anger mellow news delivery;
  • the comedic delivery of serious news, an art pioneered of course by Stewart and Colbert;
  •  the substantive focus on student loans (natch, Millennials are special and deserve to be the center of the policy agenda);
  • the recasting of big government as committed to the young, rather than to the old;
  • the additional plus that supporting colleges means making Millennials super smart (that is, even smarter than they already know they are); and finally
  • the hip and amusing ethnic-role reversal, with Obama playing the white authority figure and Fallon playing the African-American voice over.

 

 

I could make a detour here and discuss the pros and cons of our federal student loan policy.  So let me opine briefly.  I believe Obama is correct in spending federal money to keep student-loan interest rates low.  The federal government spent vast sums subsidizing the college expenses of the G.I., Silent, Boom, and (perhaps not so much) X Generation.  So why not Millennials?

I spent practically nothing getting a BA from the University of California; and I wouldn’t have had to pay much to go to a private school.  The reason?  Older generations back in the 1960s and ‘70s paid my way, collectively—the Silent and G.I.s by paying taxes to build and fund colleges, and the Lost, by not asking for much in senior benefits and thereby opening fiscal room.  Why must families now mortgage their homes—or students mortgage their futures—to go to a good college?  Very simply, because Xers and Boomers don’t want to pay more taxes and the Silent and G.I. retirees have become very used to senior benefits and services that consume much of the tax revenue we have.  (At the federal level, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone now consume roughly two-thirds of all federal revenue.)

Do Mitt Romney and the GOP deserve to be cut any slack here?  Maybe a bit.  First, the GOP currently agrees with “the Barackness Monster” on the need to keep student loan interest rates from rising.  Second, the GOP is correct in pointing out that all federal spending at the margin today is financed by federal debt—so that one way or another Millennials are eventually going to have to pay it all back anyway, if not as student borrowers than later on as taxpayers.

Finally, one big reason why tuitions are rising so fast is that regionally accredited colleges been so slow to add capacity in the face a huge new Millennial demand for quality higher ed.  And who keeps putting obstacles in the way of entrepreneurs who would like to conduct a radical hi-tech overhaul of higher-ed so that vastly more students could be eligible for a quality, low-cost education?  I won’t cast aspersions here.  Just give hints.  Hint one: It’s not the GOP.  Hint two: Most pricy higher-ed institutions who fleece their incoming lambs at the sticker price of $30-$60K per year do not want more competition from the likes of the University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, or even the youtube Kahn Academy.  Hint three: Most of the trustees and faculty at these institutions donate money to the Democratic Party.

But here I am, veering into the huge digression that I promised I would avoid.

What I really wanted to do was to use the classy Jimmy Fallon show to comment on a new pop-culture trend that really is at today’s cutting edge.  We call it “the new niceness.”  It’s hardly bleeding edge, and it’s being largely pushed by Millennials.  I’d like to share here a Social Intelligence essay by the same name that we ran back in October 19 of 2011.

 

Brash, pushy, former Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel has just hired a “niceness coach.” The reason, report the tabloids, is that her latest pilot is not going over well with audiences. “She came off as too aggressive,” a source told the New York Post, which went on to reveal that “producers have brought in a Henry Higgins-style mentor” to turn this icon of in-your-face, circa-2008 reality TV “into a lady.”

Pardon our snarkiness, but she should have seen this niceness thing coming. The top-rated show among young adults? The ever so tolerant and good-natured Modern Family. The hottest late-night show host? The ever-smiling, relentlessly upbeat Jimmy Fallon. Then there’s Parks and Recreation, whose characters started out “all ironic and hip and sour,” in the words of its co-creator, Michael Schur, but who are now doing super nice things like giving away all their money to each other.

It’s the same thing with the commercials. “Extreme Advertising” is now so old it’s long since passed into Internet parody. Meanwhile, a new parade of corporate messages, epitomized by Liberty Mutual’s “helping hands” campaign, earnestly extolls random acts of kindness without a shred of irony.

Then there’s sports. “Is Women’s Tennis Too Nice?” The Wall Street Journal asked recently, citing top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, whose nickname is “Sunshine.” And whatever happened to Internet flaming? “Wide swaths of the Web have become bastions of support and earnest civility,” notes The New York Observer. Last week’s big buzz in social media: a viral campaign to help Indian leukemia patient Amit Gupta find money and a donor for a bone marrow transplant. (There, we did our part.)

Sure, nastiness still rules on cable news networks, but notice the age of those talking heads and of their small audiences (overwhelmingly over 50).  There are many possible explanations for the rise of niceness, but one surely is generational. From its earliest years, the Millennial generation has had a reputation for consensus and cooperation, and now that its oldest members are stepping into the adult world, the niceness meme keeps spreading.

As Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais have observed: “Millennials have been taught since their parents first sat them down to watch Barney that the best way to approach problems is to find a solution that works for everyone in the group—since everyone is just as good and important as everyone else.”

When the first Millennials reached junior high school, youth-oriented programming dealing with gritty, “real-life” situations, like bullying, peer pressure, and meanness (e.g. Growing PainsDougHey Arnold!), began giving way to idealized fantasy situations (e.g. Suite LifePair of Kings). As young adults, large majorities of Millennials turned away from wedge-issue meanness in politics.  Instead, they resonated with Obama’s post-partisan pledge to “create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Since then, of course, the generation has experienced tremendous economic adversity—enough, surely, to inspire some not-so-nice thoughts. Yet the historical track record suggests a paradox: As the times become nastier, the youth mood often becomes friendlier.  As during the Great Depression and World War II, the trend in youth culture remains away from irony, cynicism, and divisiveness and toward no-longer-corny communitarian values.

Even the recent demonstrations on Wall Street and elsewhere have so far been marked by a very Millennial insistence on group decision making and broad consensus building. It’s a worldview that sees 99 percent of Americans as having a monolithic common interest in opposing a tiny, antisocial minority. For Boomers in their youth, the enemy was “anybody over 30.” For Millennials, it’s the selfish 1 percent who won’t share their toys.

Mar 252012
 

Some generations come of age in inflationary eras, when midlife bond owners suffer but when young debtors can easily escape from the consequences of bad choices—since the real value of debt just seems to melt away under the impact of rising nominal wages. Boomers came of age in such an era. Other generations come of age in deflationary eras, when midlife bond owners are rewarded but when young debtors are relentlessly punished. Millennials are coming of age in such an era.

In this post, I’m going to publish one of our recent Social Intelligence articles, on “Why Young Adults Aren’t Buying Homes.” There’s a lot going into this mix, but pay special attention to the role debt is playing in slowing both this generation’s willingness to spend—and their ability to buy a home.

First-time home buying by young adults is way down, according to a new white paper by the New York Fed and an annual report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The Fed data show that only 9 percent of 29-to-34-year-olds got a first-time mortgage from 2009 to 2011, compared with 17 percent 10 years earlier. The Harvard study shows that the share of householders under age 35 owning their own home in 2010 was just 39.1 percent, the lowest since 1995.

This is bad news for a housing market that is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Even upper-end houses are affected, since without first-time buyers, lower-end owners will struggle to “buy up.” It is even worse news for Millennials and late-wave Gen Xers.  Homeownership rates for young adults dropped during the 1980s and reached post-war lows around 1990, but then made a gradual, if partial, recovery in the 1990s and early ‘00s thanks to declining interest rates.  Since the recession, however, homeownership rates for young adults have plunged back down to near-1990 lows despite record-low interest rates and very attractive prices for a new home. What’s going on?

The big-picture story, concludes a recent study by the Chicago Fed, is simple. First, young couples are not giving birth to children as young as they used to—and childbearing is strongly associated with home purchasing.  Yet this only partly explains the dearth of home buying because the homeownership rates of young couples with children have fallen sharply as well. The second long-term driver, argues the Chicago Fed study, is “heightened income risk”—which basically means the declining prospect of income growth among young households. That doesn’t sound good. And it isn’t.

Lately, much of this “heightened income risk” represents the greater likelihood of unemployment—which today is 14 percent for people age 25 and under versus 7 percent for people over age 25, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Also according to the BLS, less than 47 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds have had a job since 2007—the lowest rate since the BLS started keeping records in 1948. Even for young adults who do land jobs, their average wage is declining over the long term. According to recent research from the Economic Policy Institute, the average wage in 2011 for male college graduates ages 23-29 was $21.68 per hour—an 11 percent decline in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 10 years. Wages for females in the same age and education group were down 8 percent during the same time period.  (For both men and women who went straight from high school into the workforce, the real declines according to EPI were similar.)


OK, now let’s imagine a 30ish couple for whom everything has gone right: They have college degrees, they’ve never been unemployed, and their wage growth has kept up with that of older Americans.  For them, there’s yet another hurdle: debt, specifically college loans.  According to another recent New York Fed study, total student loans outstanding are at an all-time high of $870 billion dollars—more than the total for credit cards ($693 billion) or auto loans ($730 billion). For someone in his or her 30s, the average college loan balance is now $28,500, and balances over $50,000 are common. Debt at this level stifles consumer spending and can render many young people ineligible for home mortgages, no matter how low the interest rate.

Note: the estimate of $870 billion in student loans made by the New York Fed a couple of weeks ago was superceded last Thursday by a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (a federal agency).  The CFPB’s new estimate is that total outstanding student loans passed $1 trillion late last year.

Young people who can’t buy a home are renting in larger numbers.  They are also moving in with their parents in larger numbers.  Increasingly, Boomer parents intervene to help their adult children buy their first home, either by cosigning the mortgage or by lending the money to them directly. Direct lending is not only good for Millennials, but also for Boomers parents who may enjoy getting a return of 4.0 percent on their assets rather than 0.4 percent on a low-risk CD. And as much as Boomers love their Millennial kids, they may also want their own space back—finally.

For anyone following the rising trend in multi-generational households (especially young adults living with their parents), take a look at this new Pew study.  Tabulating Census data, the study notes that whereas in 1980 only 11 percent of 25–35 year-olds were living with their parents or grandparents (a postwar low point), by 2011 that figure had doubled to 22 percent.  Millennials have now moved back to the way young adults lived before 1950 and the building of suburbia.  They’ve moved back to the “Frank Capra” household.

So what do most Americans think about the economic hardships facing today’s young adults?  While older generations usually resist any claim that young “have it harder” than they did, this time may be different. A recent Pew Research Center study found that a plurality of the public (41 percent) does indeed believe young adults are having the hardest time in today’s economy, and large majorities (70 to 80 percent) agree that it’s harder for today’s youth than it was for them to find a job, save for the future, pay for college, or buy a home.

Yet if older people may be worried about the economic future of today’s youth, Millennials themselves aren’t.  The Pew study also found that despite the difficult times they face, Millennials remain very optimistic about the future.  Nearly 90 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds polled in the study said that they either make enough money to lead the kind of life they want now, or expect to earn enough money in the future. Optimism is one of the most defining characteristics of Millennials, and in these tough times, it is arguably their best asset—that and their understanding and patient Boomer parents.

Sep 102010
 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/education/02cheat.html

The answer to on-line plagiarism is for faculty to ask Millennial (born 1982-200?) to do something more creative and interesting than simply to turn in a mindless encyclopedia entry “essay” on some utterly generic topic—like the Great Depression.  Have students invent and defend their own unique point of view on a topic.  I’d be less interested in whether they copy this or that part than whether the whole thing hangs together.

Here’s what’s interesting.  If, one year out of college and working at Accenture, a Millennial is asked by a boss to prepare a quick background on (say) the black market trade in terra cotta figures in and out of mainland China, no one will mind at all if he or she lifts some parts of the memo (say, the part on the origin of terra cotta ceramic) from Wikipedia.  Indeed, the employee will probably be praised to working quickly, not wasting time, and focusing instead on the issues that are unique to the client’s problem.  We need to get higher ed to redesign the curriculum so that the skills they test are aligned better to the skills that have real valued added at the frontier of today’s professions.

Aug 082010
 

Looks like High School Musical has graduated to The Sound of (Yale) Music.

The Millennial (born 1982-200?) thematic and imagery here are totally over the top, with every generational trait (from the confidence, specialness, and teamwork to the wall-to-wall sheltering and trust in friendly authority figures) emphasized.

Pretty soon Google and Apple will be doing these Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers to enhance their employer brands.

Aug 052010
 

Very interesting essay.  I.Q. scores seem to be continually rising with each passing cohort (the “Flynn effect”).  But creativity—as measured by the Torrence score—has turned direction.  It was rising until about 1990, but then started to turn down, starting with the younger grades.  Sounds like Millennial (born 1982-200?) are the culprit, doesn’t it?

On the road, when I talk with Generation X (born 1961-1981) managers, one of their biggest disappointments with entry-level employees is their lack of professional passion and willingness to take risks and think outside the box.

Jul 092010
 

OK, this is just one most good-news story about a turn-around middle school. But it’s interesting that time and again we notice the same ingredients for success whenever you read these stories.  There’s the fanatical emphasis on structure, even regimentation.  The nonstop checking to make sure every kid is accounted for.  The detailed scripting of lesson plans, including the use of “direct instruction.”  The constant use of testing-not for final evaluation, but to assess the exact extent of learning week to week.  The nonstop feedback to the kids themselves.   Every teacher checks to make sure that every student is accounted for, that every student is busy and engaged. Proper behavior comes first, then learning.  Bars on windows are replaced by bright colors.  And-here’s the Generation X (born 1961-1981) touch I really like-the school principal is fully in charge.  No one looks to “the system.”  It’s the principal who “owns” the school, is captain of the ship.

Principal: “”Children deserve the best, every day, now,” he said. ” ‘Can’t' shouldn’t even exist in your dictionary. You have to find a way. That’s why we’re getting paid.”

May 272010
 

A very good piece about Generation X (born 1961-1981) moms are running against the tide of over-protection.  Unlike most X’er parents who want to protect their Homelander children at all costs, she instead suggest that kids should learn by being out in the world playing with peers on their own. She’s right, of course, that playing games with peers develops self regulation. But the new mode (see the  preschool “Tools of the Mind” curriculum) develops self-regulation by games with the teacher or by carefully supervised peer games in which the various roles play are all pre-chosen. That way you make sure that the games only teach the right lessons and none of the wrong ones.

The need to some kind of role-playing or game-playing to develop self-regulation is very well established.  In a famous European study, one group of 2nd graders was simply told to stand absolutely still for as long as they could.  Average time before giving up: around 2 minutes.  Another group was told to stand absolutely still because you are a sentry on duty guarding a post.  Average time: 12 minutes.  The need kids have to “imagine themselves into” a role of success or mastery at something (as a parent, doctor, patient, scientist, warrior, whatever) is so basic that one wonders why ordinary K-12 schools don’t tap into it more often.