The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jul 222012
 

Comedy Central and KFC are collaborating on a new web series called, “Growing Up and Getting Out.”  See here to read the Comedy Central press release.  And here to see the KFC promotion page.  The first episode came out a couple of days ago (see below).

KFC is rolling out yet another chicken product (“Original Recipe Bites”) and is trying to pitch this one to young adults without a lot of income—which is to say, Millennials who are moving back in with their parents.  Their schtick is a contest website which not only shows the CC web series but also invites Millennials to send in their own “going back to your parents” stories.  Viewers will vote on the entries, and CC producers will choose the winners.  The winning entries will be given $1,000 per month for a year, presumably enough money for these winners to move out of their parents’ homes.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHBTdzsByaA

 

What’s my reaction?  Well, I thought the first web episode is pretty funny—thanks almost entirely to the wonderful performance of David Koechner (born 1962: Anchorman, Talladega Nights).  “Get a leather jacket… pop that collar!”

Other aspects of this story are rather depressing.  In their press release, CC says their “free rent” contest is looking for “five quintessential members of the ‘Basement Generation.’”  Basement Generation?  Really?  Meanwhile, KFC’s slogan for the whole deal (“Growing Up and Getting Out”) misses the mark by implying that these Millennials aren’t grown up just because they’re living at home and that they want to “get out” as though they feel they’re in jail.  In fact, survey data show that a growing share of Millennials continue to live at home even after they get a job (to save money) and that few regard “getting out” as their number one priority.  Many older people actually complain about just the opposite—that these Millennial kids are turning down paying jobs while waiting for the “perfect” job precisely because they don’t mind living with mom and dad.

What’s worse, “growing up” in the KFC ads is likened to the “growing up” of chicken nuggets into the bigger “Original Recipe Bites.”  This is really schlocky.

Incidentally, I at first assumed that the opening statistic on the web episode (“85 percent of college grads are moving back home”) was just an exaggeration thrown in for laughs.  Then I learned that this figure had appeared in Time, CNN, the New York Post and elsewhere.  Well, the source of this number has since been debunked, which has discomfited the GOP group American Crossroads and others which have been trying to run with it.

The real numbers of course are bad enough.  According to Pew, 53 percent of youth age 18-24 say they are living with (or have temporarily lived with) their parents; and for youth age 25-29, the figure is 41 percent.  Pew also says that, under age 30, living at home is not correlated with educational attainment.  So I think we’re safe in saying that somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of Millennial college grads in last few years have at some point come back to live with their parents.  NPR, perhaps in an effort to spin the story the other way, interviewed a Pew researcher and left the impression that the real number is under 30 percent.  That figure is too low.

Final note.  Many restaurant chains, including Subway and Chipotle, are now collaborating with networks to produce on-line entertainment.  Chipotle’s video, featuring Willie Nelson covering a song by Coldplay, is definitely upmarket—if not very highbrow and politically correct.  It has won several awards.  A far cry from KFC, as is the brand.  I’ll close with it here:

Jul 202012
 

Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?” asks Joel Kotkin in Newsweek.  A professor of urban studies and an astute observer of social trends, Kotkin answers his own question in the affirmative.

He describes a gauntlet of economic challenges facing today’s under-30 Americans that are, I think, pretty well known to readers of this blog.  Some of the adverse trends he cites are mostly of recent (post-2008) origin: High unemployment, falling real median personal and household income, falling median household net worth, a sharply rising share who are living with their parents, a falling share who own their own homes, and (symptomatically) a sharp decline in birthrates by younger moms.

Yet other trends prejudicial to youth, most of which he mentions, have been underway for much longer: a declining national saving rate; rising fiscal deficits; college tuitions rising faster than family incomes; a widening spread between the relative wealth and income of older versus young households; and the steady rise in the share of public spending that goes to the entitled old (pensions, health care)—versus a declining share that goes to future-oriented investment (infrastructure, research, education).

Sounds depressing, I know.  But the reason I emphasize how long many of these trends have been at work is to cast a bit of doubt on whether Millennials are really as screwed as all that.  Keep in mind that back in the early 1980s, many economists and policymakers commented on the “declining fortunes” of late-wave Boomers who came of age during the energy crises and stagflation.  At the time, experts thought that demographic size was the problem: Numbers-driven competition among young workers was depressing Boomer incomes.

Then came the early 1990s, when economists discovered that Gen-Xers–often, at that time, called “Busters”–were even more screwed than Boomers.  (Since there were relatively few of these Busters, the demographic explanation was quietly dropped.)  From the very beginning, a “reality bites” fatalism about diminished economic possibilities emerged as a cornerstone this generation’s very self-image.  Over the next twenty years, as first-wave Gen-Xers moved into their 30s and then their 40s, evidence of “living-standard decline” in their age brackets (despite two-income households and working around the clock) has steadily mounted.

So is there still a good case for calling Millennials yet more “screwed” than these two older generations?  I suppose one could argue that Millennials are uniquely penalized because the adverse trends cited above—savings decline, young-old divide, fiscal bias, etc.—are more advanced and pronounced today than when Xers or Boomers were young.  One could also point to the extreme severity of the recent recession’s impact on youth—for example, the highest unemployment rate over the most months for young adults than during any downturn since the Great Depression.  We know from abundant economic research, starting with Glen Elder’s great book (Children of the Great Depression) that extended unemployment early in life has an impact on future income that lasts long into a person’s career.

On the other hand, of course, one would have to note the even harsher impact of the Great Recession on Gen-Xers and late-wave Boomers (households today age 30 to 60), as I pointed out in my earlier blog post.  And who hurts most during a great famine—the guy who thinks he might someday have a home and kids, or they guy who actually has a home and kids?

One would also have to weigh in the balance certain collective advantages Millennials have enjoyed early in life that their elders did not.  These include arriving as newborns in an era when mothers were more likely to say their newborn was “wanted” and growing up in an era when parents and families (if not always government) spent more time with them, more money on them, spurred them to achieve, and protected them more from harm.  Today, as a result, Millennials have become a generation of youth who commit less crime, cooperate more with each other, take fewer personal risks, and get along much better with their parents.  They are also on track to have the highest educational attainment ever (following college completion rates that actually backtracked for late-wave Boomers and early-wave Gen-Xers).

What’s more, most Millennials already know that history favors them.  Interesting factoid: When asked if being a young person is harder today than it was when your parents were kids, a growing majority of young people since the late 1990s say no, it’s actually easier being a kid today—after decades of polls (in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s) that leaned the other way, with Boomers and Xers bemoaning, year after year, how much harder being a kid is for them.

Kotkin asserts that this generation still believes in a very conventional definition of life success—most aspiring to a stable career and to owning a home in the suburbs.  I agree.  The data I’ve seen point in the same direction.  My favorite recent survey on this topic is the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream, which shows that Millennials are significantly more likely than Xers or Boomers to say that a college degree, acquiring wealth, owning a home, and (yes!) even marriage is “essential” to realizing the American Dream.  Most Millennials have a fairly concrete idea of what they want in life, together with benchmarks for getting there, and thus far most surveys (admittedly, not the depressing Rutgers survey cited by Kotkin) indicate that they remain confident that they will someday get there.

But to me, the most persuasive argument for not regarding Millennials as America’s most “screwed” generation is simply this: They are still young.  Even if the economy continues to deteriorate, a steady recovery that gets underway by the early 2020s will still save the future for most of them.  At roughly age 20 to 40, in this case, most Millennials will still be able to launch successful careers in an expanding economy.  Moreover, they will be able to buy homes at record-low prices and buy stock portfolios at record-low P/E ratios.  Which means, by the time they fully occupy midlife in the late 2040s (at roughly age 45 to 65), they may be doing far better at that time, relative to other generations, than people that age are doing today.

So who really is the most screwed generation?  When it comes to aggregate economic security and upward mobility, I think the most screwed generation already know who they are: Generation X.  Consider the scenario described above.  More chaos followed by a steady recovery starting a decade from now would come too late for most Xers—who by then (their first-wavers hitting their early 60s and thinking about retirement) may be looking at senior benefits programs whose generosity has just been cut way back in the name of fiscal austerity and renewed economic growth.  Any Xer protest is likely to be weak and ineffectual.  Most Boomers will be grandfathered, and most of the public’s attention will be focused on saving America’s future for the Millennials.

As Bill and I forecast twenty years ago back in 13th-Gen (I’ve changed the “13ers” here to “Gen-Xers”):

Reaching midlife, the Gen-Xers’ economic fears will be confirmed: They will become the only generation born this century (the first since the Gilded) to suffer a one-generation backstep in living standards.  Compared to their own parents at the same age, the Xers’ poverty rate will be higher, their rate of homeownership lower, their pension and healthcare benefits skimpier.  They will not match the Boomers’ inflation-adjusted levels of disposable income or wealth, at the same age.  Gen-Xers will also experience a much wider distribution of income and wealth than today’s older generations, with startling proportions either falling into destitution or shooting from rags to riches…  Finding their youthful dreams broken on the shoals of market-place reality, Xers will internalize their disappointment.  Around the year 2020, accumulated “hard knocks” will give midlife Xers much of the same gritty determination about life that they gave the midlife Lost during the Great Depression or the Gilded during Reconstruction.

Twenty years later, I think this prediction still stands.  As I read back over it, the only adjustment I would make is to say “early-wave Boomers” where we wrote “Boomers.”  But now let me move on to something else about Xers—the fact that the economy will recover, in part, precisely because Generation X chooses not to insist on its rightful public entitlement in old age.  We wrote about that in 13th-Gen, as well:

Nor will Gen-Xers ever effectively organize or vote in their own self-interest.  Instead, they will take pride in what they don’t receive, in their lifelong talent for getting by on their own, and in their ability to divert government resources to help the young.  Policy experts who today worry about the cost of Social Security and Medicare past the year 2025 seldom reflect on the political self-image of those who will then be entering their late sixties.  Entitled “senior citizens”?  Hardly.  Like Lost Generation elders in 1964–who voted more for Goldwater than any younger generation even after he promised to slash their retirement benefits—old Xers will feel less deserving of public attention than richer and smarter young people who lack their fatalism about life.

Even back in 1993 we had the concepts of generational archetypes firmly in mind.  As readers of The Fourth Turning know, Gen-Xers belong to same (Nomad) archetype as the Lost Generation.  The location in history of both generations, which manifests so many obvious parallels early in life, will continue (I think) to track each other moving forward.  Who is getting hurt worst in the current age of stagnation and deleveraging?  Late-wave Boomers (born after 1950) to some extent, mostly by have their home and retirement assets values hit hard; Generation X most of all; and early-wave Millennials to some extent, mostly by delayed career starts.  Who got hit worst in the Great Depression?  Late-wave Missionaries (born after 1870) to some extent, mainly by losing their savings in failed banks in the early 1930s; the Lost Generation most of all; and early-wave G.I.s to some extent, mostly by having their careers put on hold until VE- and VJ-Day.  Same archetypes, same patterns.

Koktin points out that today’s hard times are pushing most Millennials in the developed world politically toward the left—that is, toward a greater commitment to national collective action by government.  We’ve witnessed this trend in every election globally since 2008—including of course the massive 2-to-1 margin by U.S. Millennials for Obama in 2008.  (In the fall of 2012, U.S. Millennials will almost certainly give another large margin for Obama, but it will be smaller than in 2008 and whether it will be enough to win the election is uncertain; this is an issue I will handle in a future post.)

These political trends also have interesting parallels in the last saeculum.  The Lost Generation, as we document in Generations and The Fourth Turning, leaned Republican and libertarian all its life.  The Lost hated President Wilson for the fiasco of World War I; voted heavily for Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (though it turned against Hoover with the Bonus Army); comprised the most visible and colorful opponents of FDR; and voted GOP after WWII all the way to Goldwater.  The party valence turned sharply the other way, however, for cohorts born after 1900—those who missed WWI, who belonged (like John Steinbeck) to entirely different artistic circles than the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and who were disposed to mobilize around a new trust in community after the Crash of ‘29.

Although no one collected age-graded polling back in the 1930s, some historians estimate that a very large majority—perhaps 85 percent—of voters under age 35 voted for FDR and the Democratic Party in 1936.  It is widely agreed that this is the first election in which a clear majority of young African-Americans voted for the Democratic Party rather than the party of Abraham Lincoln.  Consulting our own American Leadership Database, we are able to confirm that 28 out of 32 (88 percent) of G.I. senators, representatives, and governors sent to Congress in 1936 were Democrats.  By 1940, 75 percent of incoming G.I.s were still Democrats.

Read the numbers, Republicans, and weep.  That is, unless your new Mormon, whiz-kid, C-suite candidate is able to project a stronger, more hands-on image of strong national leadership than Barack Obama—which may not be setting the bar too high.  Anything is possible.

One last point.  To most Millennials, the whole whiney victimization card (look at me, I’m screwed!) seems like such a stale trope of Boomers and Gen-Xers, that they instinctively recoil from it.  And right on cue, a bona fide Millennial offers a cocky and defiant reply to Kotkin in the Washington Post (“Generation Unscrewed”)—though in a sardonic (“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”) tone that may leave all generations mystified.

Jul 032012
 

I just got back from eight days in Italy, on a trip that featured a wonderful stay in Tuscany hosted by my friend John Mauldin, the world-famous market analyst. While there, I got to enjoy leisurely discussions of economics and history with a handful of eminent financial experts and political notables whom John manages to entice to his villa (among them, David Tice, Rob Arnott, and Newt Gingrich.) I brought along my daughter Giorgia, whose astounding fluency in Italian saved us all on more than one occasion. We saw several Euro 2012 soccer matches in village squares with large outdoor TV screens. Italy’s victory against Germany brought screams of joy. Italy’s crushing defeat against Spain brought groans and tears. Italian flags were hanging everywhere—soccer being perhaps the sole exception to the age-old rule that Italians would rather quarrel with each other than come together as a nation.

It has been some 35 years since I was last in Italy. This is obviously a much more educated and affluent country than the one I recall. The main “autoroutes,” for example, are vastly superior to those I drove on in the 1970s—with wonderful bridges and tunnels and high-speeded entrances and exits. Intercity trains are very fast and efficient. Poverty is much less visible. Yet there are signs of recent economic stress. Driving across the Apennines, from Siena to Ravenna, we saw construction projects halted before completion and large stretches of highway closed due to lack of maintenance.

The mix of traffic on Italian autoroutes is peculiar: It’s all either trucks or high-end cars like BMWs and Volvos. Because gas is heavily taxed and because the trains are so fast and inexpensive, the middle class doesn’t use the autoroutes. The resulting speed differential between the slowest truck and fastest Beemer is dangerously large, leading to deadly accidents when two vehicles collide. We witnessed the aftermath of one deadly accident only moments after it occurred.

As everyone knows, Italy has a large public debt and, even worse, a poorly performing economy that has not managed much growth over the past decade—putting it, along with Spain and Portugal, as one of the sick “Club Med” economies that worry Euro Zone leaders and traders. PM Mario Monti is trying to whip Italy back into shape by some well-time fiscal austerity measures. Against that backdrop, let me relate an astounding scene we witnessed while touring Florence. All of a sudden, just a block or two from the Duomo, we hear a roar of automobiles and then witness a parade of about 90 Ferraris come into town. After cruising in circles around the narrow streets for a half hour, they all then parked row by row in the middle of the Piazza della Signora, right next to the Medicis’ Palazzio Vecchio and the copy of Michelangelo’s David. All the drivers, dressed in beautiful Italian racing uniforms, then just hung out for a while in the local cafes.

Now think about this for a moment: Each of these Ferraris (depending on the model) cost about $175,000 to $390,000, so that the total value of that parked machinery was somewhere in the range of $20 to $30 million. Wow. Does this look like a nation that has no wealth? Or rather like nation whose elite still has lots of fancy toys to play with while its public sector cannot make ends meet. Most of Italy’s fiscal woes are due to an unsustainable growth in total government spending (now over 50 percent of GDP, including an amazing 15 percent of GDP just in public pensions). Yet some of these woes are also due to undertaxing—or at least Italy’s chronic failure to enforce tax laws, especially on capital and business income. (For the heavily taxed middle class, which pays through VATs and payroll taxes, compliance is not a problem.) PM Monti has started a campaign to stigmatize tax evasion. He has also authorized dragnets that stop drivers in fancy cars (like Ferraris) and check their records to find out if they are hiding income. Many of the southern European economies suffer from chronic underpayment of taxes. (Some of you may recall the recent scandal in Greece over its tax on swimming pools, which almost no one pays—even after a satellite image confirmed tens of thousands of pools within the Athens area alone!)

Is it quixotic ever to expect the Italian elite to pay their fair share? In a culture which historically winks (both on the right and the left) at the dandy or anarchist who cleverly manages to defy authority? We will see. Super Mario is trying his best to reconstruct this cultural heritage. Some Italians vigorously support him. Some despise him as the technocratic errand-boy sent by Angela Merkel to make Italy sober up, dry out, and do Germany’s bidding. (Good thing we beat them in soccer!) Still others support Beppe Grillo, now number one in some polls, the comedian-turned-politician who denounces all current parties in favor of something he calls “hyper democracy,” a regime of total accountability and disgust at corruption. Grillo’s Five-Star Movement has some striking parallels in Germany’s Pirate Party. Both, interestingly, are disproportionately popular among young Gen-X voters. In future posts, I hope to say more about this multi-national movement.

One thing is certain: The image of Ferrari drivers being required to stop at Italian roadblocks and answering awkward questions about their income is an apt image of the 4T coming to Europe. In the United States, we do not have the same problem with tax compliance (at least not to the same degree). But if we did, where would we place our roadblocks? Maybe on drivers of Land Rovers. Or on amazon purchasers or Bugaboo baby strollers. I’m just guessing here.

One last note. In the Tuscan countryside, one notices virtually no new construction. Occasionally, yes, one sees an old building being retro-fitted with new interiors and amenities. But taking new pristine woods or fields and cutting trees or bulldozing roads to build a new home? Nope. It just doesn’t happen. The reason: Iron-clad regulations against any new development. Now on the one hand, you can marvel at this regulatory regime as a guarantee of a verdant and pristine countryside for generations to come. Or you can reflect on how easy these regs are to implement in a low-fertility society whose working-age population (age 15 to 64) has just begun to enter negative growth, according to the UN official projections. This declining population trend is expected to accelerate in the decades to come. Unless Italy’s fertility rises again, Italy will lose roughly two-thirds of its current population by the year 2100. As western Europe discovered during late antiquity (from the fourth to eighth century), it’s easy to leave nature alone when your numbers are shrinking.

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
 

People often ask me about generations in non-U.S. societies. As someone who travels and speaks often outside America—and who does plenty of international research for clients—I have thought a lot about this question. I believe I offered a short answer to this question in an earlier post (on Spain). I have spent most of my time trying to figure out Europe and East Asia, whose generational line-up roughly matches out own, and the Muslim world, whose line-up is very different in certain important ways.

What about Central and South America?  Ten years ago, I was very unsure.  But after travelling in these areas and speaking to many residents there, I am growing more convinced that here too the generational line-up is similar in certain respects to our own.

Last summer, I flew down to Sao Paulo to speak to business leaders and the media in Brazil about emerging generational differences in one of the hottest of the BRIC economies.  Before going, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But once there, I was hugely struck by how similar the questions asked of me were to questions asked here in the United States.  (Admittedly, they were talking mostly about Brazil’s emerging middle class families, who are stampeding to all the new malls they are building.)  Everyone who interviewed me told about how protected, special, group-oriented the new generation of youth is.  The people asking  the questions, in their 30s and 40s, all felt they had a much rougher childhood.  As for those in their 60s now in power (I’m thinking of the peers of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff), many came of age with showy, left-wing, Che Guevera radicalism just like Boomers in the US.  (Though I know this radicalism resulted in a great deal more violence and death in Brazil and throughout much of Latin America.)  I saw one photo of Dilma Rousseff in the newspapers showing her as a 20-year-old with a bullet bandolier across her chest.  Made me think of Patty Hearst.

Anyway, with this introduction, let me introduce a Brazilian correspondent of mine who will deliver her own testimony on generational differences there.  She lives in Porto Alegre, RS, in the south of Brazil.

I’m 32 years old–so I remember, as a child/teen, the time we had a big inflation, till it changes with “Plano Real” (1994).  Also, I’m talking from a middle class perspective, with all the limits and subjectivity that it implies in my perceptions.

What do I see in Brazilians of different ages today? Well, personally, as a last wave Gen-Xer, I do not feel that my childhood has been so unprotected as the childhood of my friends a little older, in their 40s; I believe that, at least in my family, the concept of childhood already was more for “Three men and a baby” than for “Rosemary’s Baby”; but also was not as protected as the children who were born after, especially those in their 20s today.

I believe that we knew how to have fun.  The Millennials seem better behaved and more conventional, in general. Indeed, only in the last year was smoking prohibited in nightclubs here in my city, which was surprising for me, and it is a clear sign of protective behavior towards young people. Also I see a tendency to protect more children; on the other hand, I see a certain movement back to a childhood a little more relaxed, back to nature, and a search of a less stressing style of parenting.

Yes, there is a lot in common, but there are some things that are widely different, and maybe it gives to a certain “national flavor” that is unique. For example, the Puritan influence is very strong in the history of the USA.  Here, we don’t have this influence, so our Idealist type will be a little different. And, of course, historical facts affected us in different ways. The effects of the  World War II had more impact over the G.I.s in the USA, empowering them, than over the same generation in Brazil–or, at least, produced a diverse impact, considering the political context and our participation on the war.  In fact, the Civic type is the most difficult to identify, to me.  Oscar Niemeyer and Juscelino Kubitschek are good examples of G.I.s, maybe?

What bothers me is that we don’t have a good study on generations here in Brazil.  Every time the newspapers and magazines say something about Generation Y, it’s something very superficial, with no real basis, talking about the internet and the work force (only), and saying that this generation doesn’t like hierarchy and wants to go to the top quickly.

This is a very nice letter.  I was especially struck by her mention of Niemeyer (the great modernist architect-designer of Brasilia) and Kubitschek (the president who built Brasilia).  Brasilia, that vast utopian tabula-rasa New-World Constantinople built smack in the middle of the jungle back in 1960 as Brazil’s new capital.  Can’t get much more “G.I.” than that!  Niemeyer, in fact, was a huge modernist sensation even in the U.S. during 1950s, where he taught at Harvard and joined with Corbusier in designing the UN headquarters in New York City. His main problem in the U.S. was his communist party membership, which kept getting him deported.

Here is the stunning Niemeyer-designed Roman Catholic cathedral in Brasilia.  (Communist architect for a Catholic Church? I guess in Brazil it doesn’t matter!)

I’m going to report regularly in this blog on generational differences in other countries, using as much as possible reports from residents.

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.”

May 262012
 

It is well known that organized Christianity in Europe faces a crisis of abandonment and disinterest. This is even true in the predominantly Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe, which are still popularly regarded as traditionally devout.

In terms of daily cultural habits, yes, plenty devotion still survives: belief in miracles is widespread, genuflection is spontaneous, and a glimpse of the procession of Virgin Mary can still freeze traffic.  Yet in terms of church attendance, the decline is astonishing.  In today’s Spain, only 20 percent of the population goes to church weekly (versus 40-50 percent in the United States).  Roughly half never go to church.  And rest are “holiday” Catholics, going only on Easter and Christmas.

What happened?  Very simply, a large share of Spanish Boomers (born roughly in the same years as in America, perhaps a few years later) simply stopped going to church when they married and formed families in the 1970s and 1980s.  To some extent, American Boomers did the same thing–but then they came back to churches later on, and most Xers and Millennials followed them.  In Spain and Portugal and Italy, Boomers didn’t come back, and younger generations never followed them back.   (Similarly, a cynic might point out, the ’60s and ’70s-era declining birth rate eventually rebounded in the United States, but has just kept trending downward in southern Europe.)

This generational shift has produced a very conspicuous age gradiant: Namely, those who do attend church today tend to be old.  Italians who attend an ordinary mass in the United States are shocked by the sight of so young families with small kids; they simply don’t see that in Naples, Rome, or Milan.  Even more dramatic is the aging of the clergy.  As of 2009, according to one report, the average age of priests in Spain has risen to 63; in some regions, it has risen to 72.  Ireland has responded to its own priest shortage by bringing in legions of zealous Nigerian clergy. Spain, thus far, is simply spreading what is has a lot thinner.  In roughly half of Spain’s 23,286 parishes, there is no permanent priest in residence.  In some rural areas, a single priest ministers to ten or more parishes.  Seminaries, especially during the huge economic boom of the mid-2000s, saw almost no new young people knocking on their door.  As of 2009, Barcelona (an urban area of well over four million) had only 30 seminarians.  Total.

Now comes the crash after the boom.  Now we see one quarter of all working-age Spaniards–and one half of Spaniards under age 25–unemployed.  Vast numbers of Spanish youth have been hanging around public urban areas for months, where they are known as the indignados (the outraged) and carry signs saying Juventud Sin Futuro (youth without a future).  With Euro-credit drying up, with new businesses and real estate in free fall, with economic deleveraging in high gear, with secular dreams dying… could this be a good moment for the Church to recoup its losses?

In 2011, seminary recruitment actually rose by 4 percent–the first rise in decades.  Will it continue?

Before answering that question, let me digress briefly.  Anyone who has followed my writing knows that organized religion typically experiences great challenges entering the “crisis turnings,” 2Ts and 4Ts.

Entering a 2T, the problem is that churches have come to represent the “salvation by works” establishment–in an era when society as a whole (and especially the young Prophet archetype) yearns for values and meaning  and “salvation by faith.”  (This collision has defined all of the great awakenings in American history.)  Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Prophet archetype.

Entering a 4T, the problem is very different, but no less severe: Society as a whole (and especially the young Hero archetype) is looking for practical, material, collective solutions to Establishment breakdown–at a time when the leadership of organized religion is most apt to emphasize the most moralistic, individualistic, and exclusive aspects of its doctrines.    Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Hero archetype.  Very likely, this is going to be a movement that champions the Social Gospel, an emphasis on serving God by doing good deeds in the service of the great mass of His people.

This is the light in which I would like you to reflect upon the following video, produced by an association of Spanish bishops together with an ad agency.  The video has recently gone epidemically viral in Spain.  Note the shrewd focus on youth, service, community, and hope.  (Almost nothing about salvation, conversion, truth, or morality.)  I will show the bi-lingual youtube version here.  My sincere thanks to  Deon N. (Xer living in La Habra, California) for point this out to me.

Will this new appeal by the Spanish Catholic Church succeed?  I have no idea.

But I do know a lesson of history.  It often happens that one ideology and institutional framework, after triumphing over its rivals and delivering great success, suddenly and epically fails.  And when that happens, societies sometimes switch their allegience back to the ideology or belief system that was devalued.  I’m not judging here, just observing.  Look at what happened in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism, a system of thinking which suppressed or marginalized any expression of religious faith.  Result?  Today, several (though certainly not all) of these countries now show rates of (Catholic) church attendance that are much higher than in any western European country–most notably Poland, but also Rumania, Slovakia, and Croatia.

The odds are still long against the Spanish Church making a comeback.  But they’ve been around for nearly twenty centuries.  And they’re are giving it their best shot.

May 212012
 

“What is it like to be a young person (10 to 18 years old) now?”  That was the question asked on Quora recently.  The questioner then went on: “When I was a teenager during the ‘60s and ‘70s life seemed much simpler.  No TV where I grew up, no internet, not even PCs.  Our only mass entertainment was radio and the drive-in cinema.  The only drug problems were few and far between–the ‘bad’ kids smoked cigarettes or (really naughty ones) weed. The 21st century seems hard and complicated and I feel real sympathy for youngsters who have to survive it.”

The answers offered by over a dozen kids are well worth reading—and reflect most of the salient youth trends of the Millennial era.

Major theme one: the growing structure and regimentation of everyday life by parents, schools, and communities, with ever-fewer opportunities to be alone, act on a whim, or feel free of deadlines.

Major theme two: the ubiquitous and 24/7 presence of the peer group, always monitoring, commenting on, and judging your behavior—thanks to Facebook, smartphones, and other IT wonders.  The same Millennials who testify to digital IT’s profound impact on their lives also explain how its potential to liberate individuals from the group is often overpowered by its tendency to chain individuals to the group.

Major theme three: the mounting and competitive pressure to get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good career in an era of high youth unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor.  Many observed that all the things they had to do to acquire credentials were preventing them from gaining much understanding of how life really works.

Meanwhile, here are a few things we do not hear from these Millennials.  We don’t hear much whining.  In my youth era, kids often charged that growing up today was much worse than when their parents were growing up.  None of these Millennials say this.  (In fact, surveys show that most Millennials in K-12 today say that they have it easier than their parents.)  Also, we hear from them very little existential fear about how political, economic, environmental, or technological developments may overwhelm their future.  (There was a fair amount of such dread in my day—and again surveys confirm that this reflects a genuine shift in youth opinion over the past quarter century.)  By and large, these Millennials deliver answers that are positive, observant, and mature—as though they are used to discussing their lives and their futures with adults (probably with their parents).

OK, now let me offer—from these lengthy answers—a few representative fragments that I found most revealing.

Boy,  18:

According to my teachers, around 10 years ago my school had a ‘smoke pit’ built for the overwhelming majority of kids who had to light a cigarette between classes. Now there’s maybe 6-12 students out of the 2200 who smoke, and they have to do it out of the campus…

There’s piles of homework. Piles and piles and piles. The tests will challenge your psychological endurance.

Somewhere in our timetables, exercise and creativity is squeezed in. It’s mandatory. There’s regulations on what counts as exercise. Regulations on volunteering. Regulations on creativity. Self-exploratory activities so essential to passion are hard to find.

The problem is that we don’t learn anything. I can’t cook and I’m 18. Lock me in a kitchen and I will not survive without my Jamie  Oliver app. I can’t fix the sink. I can’t fix ripped clothing. We have a planning course, but it’s hardly useful. School prepares us for society, it doesn’t prepare us for reality…

Biking after school and spending a Friday night at the cinema doesn’t exist anymore. We have homework. We have Facebook. We simply don’t have the time to do those things. ..

It has become impossible to stay disconnected (a few try, but they come crawling back), and consequently it has become impossible to stay private. I think the idea of privacy will become obsolete in the future (and that just shows you some changing perspectives).

Boy, 14:

Growing up, I played in the streets. Jump rope, tag, hide and seek, wood chips, and the like. It got your lungs gasping, your legs aching, and your mind longing to be active, because it was enjoyable…  I still have a clear memory of when kids used to play outside instead of in.  What happened?  We as a whole youth took an interest in the digital world.

First, it was the warning of sexual predators.

Second, it was the oncoming of middle school with the perpetually growing mass of homework given to us. I remember reading an answer on Quora by a gentleman about how kids in his day used to run and play outside, instead of doing the occasional homework assignment. Occasional is not the word for today’s assignments…

Third, it was the coming of the Internet.

Anonymous, 17:

At around 13, there was Facebook and the pressure for everyone to have friends. People who had a hollow social life were mocked and labeled as ‘weird’ or ‘a loner.’ There is much less privacy, what with party photos and dating status publicized to your so-called friends. Everyone is aware of everyone and can keep track of people who you might not have particularly close social contact with via the magic of lurking…

There is then the pressure of succeeding and the constant fear for the future–something that may or may not be a timeless phenomenon. This has been amplified by the shortage of jobs and the seemingly more competitive university entrances, with more people entering and graduating from university. Most of us were raised with the idea that you go to school, university, get a job and then start a family, but the fact that it no longer seems viable creates an area of uncertainty and conflict between inbred belief, past expectations and reality.

Boy, 14:

Social changes: In this day and age, technology has taken over our lives, and in my opinion, wrecked the beauty of childhood. I miss the days when my friends and I would “explore” the forests in our neighborhoods, play tag until our aching feet could no longer sustain us, and lay in the grass and just watch the world go by. Now it seems as if everything is on a schedule, a strict path that cannot be broken. Every other day at lunch I watch as a group of girls communicates across the table via instagram and text, to lazy [sic] to pull up their make-up laden faces and talk to one another.

Boy, 17:

I attend a public high school in an affluent suburb of New York City and it is an extremely competitive academic environment where absolutely zero value is placed upon learning the material.  All that matters is that you get the grade. Many kids have out of school interests, but these interests often get abandoned in favor of focusing on school work…

School administrators bring up going to a good college as early as the 6th grade.

Unlike many of the surrounding schools my school is fairly diverse. We have people from all across socioeconomic spectrum and about 1/3 of the student body is Latino. This has created two distinct cultures within the school. There are the lower class students who have no plans on going to college and then there is everybody else. Friendships can exist between these two groups, but they are rare…

I don’t think internet changed anything, I think smart phones and Facebook did. Having a cell phone used to be about making plans with friends to do things in person. I remember how kids used to call each other and talk for hours on end, now kids only call each other if it’s an emergency…

Several months ago I was coming back from a field trip to Manhattan. We were taking the train back and there were no open seats so we all had to stand and every single student there took out their phone and spent the remainder of the train ride using it. My teacher remarked that when this would happen to his students 20 years ago they would all stand around talk

Anonymous, 17:

The main concern of 99.99 percent of my peers is getting into college. From what I’ve been told by adults, the process is much more difficult today than it was two or three decades ago. Not only are we expected to have good grades, but we also have to have several extra-curricular activities we excel in or are passionate about. This doesn’t seem like much, but the result is kids like a friends of mine who has a 4.8 GPA, got a 2390 on his SAT, has won numerous national violin competitions, is ranked top ten in the nation in mock trial, and has also raised four million dollars for a charity. The pressure is absolutely astounding.

There’s much more I could write about, but I have to study for the AP biology exam that I am taking Monday!

Boy, 16:

Today, there is too much of an emphasis on getting good grades and scoring well on tests, taking as many AP classes as possible, etc…

PS–nowadays, the kids who smoke cigarettes are considered worse than kids who smoke weed.

May 192012
 

There seem to be many recent efforts to define and name the next (post-Millennial) Generation.  I’ll deal with the naming question in another post.  Let’s just look at the question of defining when these post-Millennials are born.  Many marketers and psychologists are claiming that this new generation is already in its mid-teens, which means that its oldest members were born in the mid-1990s, which means that the Millennial Generation, if its first members were born in the early 1980s, is only around 13 or 14 years long.

But isn’t a generation supposed to be roughly twenty years long?  Perhaps, but none of these experts really say much about the expected length of a generation—or even care much about it.

Magid Associates, which recently released a report calling these post-Millennial “Plurals,” defines them as all Americans born in 1997 and after (terminal birth date unknown), Millennials as born from 1977 to 1996 (a 20-year generation), and Generation X as born 1965 to 1976 (an 11-year generation).  So Millennials include the 1977 birth year?  So Kanye West is a Millennial?  Very interesting.  Magid, apparently in order to avoid shortening the Millennial Generation, instead shortens Generation X to only 11 years.  This is a solution?  Do they simply think that no one cares about Gen-Xers anymore?  And even beyond the question of generational length, one wonders: What is the justification for these dividing lines?  What is it about the age location in history of these birth cohorts (1976-77 or 1999-97) that makes them generational boundary lines?  We are offered no explanation.  Magid’s report includes not one word justifying its choice of birth-year dates.

A new USA Today piece on the post-Millennials, which attempts to identify some of their key traits, again quotes experts saying their oldest members are now in high school.  Yet unlike the Magrid report, these experts don’t mind lopping off the last half of Millennials without adjusting the first Millennial birth date.  In other words, they don’t mind shortening the Millennial Generation.  And for this, they do have a justification: namely, that history is moving faster, technology is accelerating, and (hey) just so much more is happening now than ever before.  And if more is happening, then generational boundaries (which I guess they regard as arbitrary mile posts of historical change) naturally fly by us ever faster—like roadside telephone poles as you punch the gas pedal of your new 900-hp Mustang.

The gist of this argument is implied by the following passage in the USA Today story (I am quoted here, but not to any effect):

 

Whether middle- and high-schoolers are really a separate generation, as Rosen suggests, or “late-wave Millennials” isn’t clear; Howe believes the latter.

“I think you’re going to find a lot of disagreement about this,” Rosen says. “I don’t think you can define a generation when you’re in the middle of it. The best you can do is try to characterize the similarities and differences and the overlap.”

He suggests, however, that new generations arise based on their use of new technologies; he says identifiable new generational groups are emerging more frequently than in the past.

The Baby Boom generation, for example, most often thought of as those born from 1946 through 1964, lasted almost 20 years. But Generation X, born from about 1965 through 1980, was five years shorter. And the Millennials (also known as Gen Y) appear to be about 10 years, he suggests.

 

Well, I certainly agree with Larry Rosen (a psychologist and prolific writer about kids and technology) about one thing: You are going to find a lot of disagreement.

Let me start with the common assumption that history and technology are changing so much faster today than in the past.  I totally disagree—or at least I would insist on asking, which aspect of history and technology are you talking about?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the life experiences of the peers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, born 1890.  When he was a child, kings and queens still ruled Europe, you needed to know Morse Code to communicate faster than a horse could run, and (in fact) horses were the only mode of ordinary street transport, even in the largest cities (the removal of manure being a huge municipal challenge); children routinely died from bacterial infections; and Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of that age, declared that “aeronautical travel” was impossible.  Now let’s fast-forward to Eisenhower at age 69, in 1959, during his second presidential term.  He was inside in a Boeing 707 (the first “Air Force One”) dictating memos on the deployment of hydrogen bombs, sugar-cube vaccines for polio, and plans to put a “man on the moon” (a plan later spelled out by Jack Kennedy and executed on time by LBJ), while flying at 35,000 feet over a nation whose vast, affluent, home-owning, car-driving, union card-holding middle class would have been utterly inconceivable in the presidency of William McKinley (or during the twilight years of Queen Victoria).  Oh, and did I forget to mention that he lived through two world wars and the establishment of two totalitarian states (USSR and PRC), all responsible for the slaughter, deportation, and migration of countless tens of millions—and the rise of a family of liberal and democratic “developed economies” responsible for the affluence of hundreds of millions.

Yeah, he lived through just a bit of history.

Meanwhile, I get up every morning and drive basically the same silly internal-combustion car that people drove fifty years ago–through the same suburbs on the same interstates to the same buildings powered by the same nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams that Eisenhower’s peers saw fit to build.  As for space travel, whoa!—that seems further in the future today than when Eisenhower was Pres.  And I complain about how history is accelerating?  Oh, sure, my peers got to see the Berlin Wall get torn down.  But his generation got to witness the seismic global events that built them up.  I’m not denying that the changes in digital IT over the last three decades have been breathtaking.  They have been.  I’m astounded every time I punch an app on my smart phone.  But I have often observed that people tend to fixate on whatever aspect of their social environment is changing the fastest, and ignore those aspects which are in fact surprisingly stationary.

In the Fourth Turning, we point out that the western world (especially since the Reformation) has adopted a uniquely linear view of history in which practically every generation believes it just happens to be experiencing the apocalyptic inflection point in world history, in which humanity is about to be completely transformed either morally or technologically.  And to buttress such conviction, we try so very hard to persuade ourselves, contrary to fact, that our grandparents and our earlier ancestors have lived through a history in which very little happened.  Let us please rid ourselves of this modernist hubris.

That is point one.  Now for point two: another disagreement.  The “speed” of history—regardless of whether you think it is accelerating or decelerating–is not what determines the length of generations.  Rather, what determines their length is the biologically and socially defined length of a phase of life—in particular the length of childhood, the number of years that elapse between birth and coming of age as an adult.  This is true because a very different social role is associated with each phase of life—so that when the social mood suddenly changes everyone will be shaped differently depending up their age.  The climax of World War II, for example, affected Americans who were still regarded as children (through age 19 on D-Day), very differently than those who were regarded as young adults.  The former (whose role was to keep quiet and stay safe) became the Silent Generation, the latter (whose role was to organize, rise up, and meet the enemy) became the G.I. Generation.  And those would have no memory at all of World War II would become the Boomer Generation.  These boundary lines are not arbitrary, and the transition from one generation to another is not continuous.

Although there’s more to the story of defining these three generations than just World War II, the concept of generations being forged by the intersection of history and phase of life is fundamental to the writing of so many of the great generations thinkers, from Emile Littre and John Stuart Mill to Orega y Gassett and Karl Mannheim.  See a bit more here.  I just wish that the marketers and social scientists who today opine about generational length (those few who even bother) demonstrated a bit more familiarity with the rich history of brilliant thinkers writing about generations over the past couple of centuries.

That is point two.  Now for point three: yes, still another disagreement—and this one is directed specifically at those who believe that “iGeneration kids” are digital natives, differently wired neuronally to be multitaskers , parallel thinkers, etc.  They miss the point.  Technology does not shape generations.  And those who believe it does tend to have a superficial understanding of what a generation is—as though a generation were shapeless and formless before a new device (like a smart phone or an ipad) miraculously imprints something on them.  It is far more accurate to say the reverse, that generations shape technology.  A generation, impelled in its youth by parents and by the prevailing social mood to acquire corrective attitudes and behaviors (toward family, risk, civic life, money, gender roles, rebellion, authority, whatever) will then come of age inventing new technologies to suit these new attitudes and behaviors.

Were Boomers “shaped” by the mainframe “Organization Man” computers they grew up with?  Hell no—only to the extent they invented (with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) “personal computers” that would liberate the individual from mainframes.  (Steve Jobs: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”)  And were Millennials “shaped” by the late-90’s end-of-history dream that the internet would cater to the ever-more privatistic desires of individual.  Again no—only to the extent this pushed them to popularize or invent the IMing and texting and smart phones and social network sites that would reconnect their peers back into one vast fish-bowl community.  (Mark Zuckerberg: “the social graph is our future.”)

No one thinks of his or her own generation as mindlessly or mechanistically “shaped” by the technology they inherited.  They think of their own generation as having a mind and spirit of its own.  So why do they think it will be any different for today’s kids?  These experts would employ their energy much more fruitfully if they were to look closely at the family, community, and economic environment surrounding these kids and to try to draw parallels from past generations of kids that experienced a similar shift in the prevailing social mood.  How did they turn out?  What can we learn here?

Here’s where I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the closest parallel for this new generation of kids is the Silent Generation.  Like today’s Homelanders (that’s our tentative reader-chosen name for post-Millennials), the Silent were a generation of children who were born just too late to recall a boom (the Roaring Twenties) and instead recalled nothing but hard times; who were very protectively raised by hands-on, pragmatic parents (then, Lost; today, Xers); and who learned early in life to fit in seamlessly (conform) to the peer mainstream.  I’ll defend this view in a future post.

That is point three.  And now for point four, which is my cynical take, having been an veteran observer of “generational” discoveries for well over twenty years.  Authors and marketers always want to be the first to proclaim the emergence of a “new” generation.  And to be the first, it always helps to cut short the current youth generation and say—wow!—I just noticed something brand new!  I can hardly recall how many times this happened with Millennials.  I recall the first mention of the term BABY BOOMLET or ECHO BOOM GENERATION applied to kids born in the early mid-1970s, and then GENERATION Y (invented by Ad Age in 1993, and originally applied to kids born from 1974 to 1980), and then terms like DIGITAL GENERATION, NET GEN, GENERATION 2000, GENERATION NEXT, GENERATION 2000, Y2KIDS, and GENERATION WHY.  Without exception, each of these new labels required, breathlessly, the hurrying in of a new cut-off point.

It’s been a wild ride.  And after it’s all over, we have mostly settled on dates for Gen-Xers and Millennials that define each of them as born over a period of roughly twenty years—just like most other American generations stretching back over centuries.  Yes, some generations manifest steep attitudinal or behavioral trends from first-wave to last-wave.  This was certainly true for Boomers.  And it seems to be true as well for Millennials.  But history cautions us against mistaking these first wave-last wave differences for entirely new generational dividing lines.  History sometimes acts on us.  History can speed us up or slow us down.  But we cannot do the same and act on history—we cannot speed history up or slow it down.

As ever, generations will arrive in their own sweet time.