The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 202012
 

Wonderful generational clip from the NBC show, “Community.”  Every role is nicely done: The Millennials kids, who know how to suck up to Boomers by flattering their mythic role in American cultural history; the Boomer (Chevy Chase), who enjoys being sucked up to; and the Xer (Joel McHale) who is disgusted by the whole thing.  The medley itself is pretty good, going from Be-Bop in the late ‘40s to New Wave in the ‘80s.

My thanks to Matt Duran, astute Millennial culture maven, for contributing this one:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3Ue_Dj2GXk

 

“That Baby Boomer Santa” raises an interesting question: How much does the popular post-war music of Christmas actually revolve around Boomers?  You may have seen this funny chart, from the xkcd webcomic site, which was passed around last December.  Provocative tag line: “Every year, American Culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ Childhoods.”

 

 

This chart is accurate, so far as it goes.  The vast majority of the pop Christmas “songs” we hear on the radio did indeed become hits during the years when Boomers were being born and growing up as little children.  And nearly all of them were written and first recorded and sung (in their “classic” versions) by G.I. composers, band leaders, and vocalists (e.g., Bing Crosby, Bop Hope, Nat King Cole, Gene Autrey, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, writer Robert May, et al.).  We sometimes forget that one or two them (“I’ll be Home for Christmas”) exude the haunting melancholy of a nation that had sent 12 million men abroad to fight a brutal war.  OK, a few late-wave Lost were involved (like Irving Berlin); and a few Silent and even Boomers, especially on the “rock” songs (“Jingle Bell Rock” by Silent Bobby Helms in 1957 and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by 14-year-old Boomer Brenda Lee in 1958).

But my main point is that–though Boomers participated in this “White Christmas” explosion as child listeners—the inspiration for these songs was totally G.I.  They were celebrations of hearth and home.  They expressed the poignant longing for domestic tranquility by a history-tossed generation that just wanted (in the words of a returning soldier in Best Years of Our Lives) “A good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.”  Yes, other generations participated in this mood while it lasted.  So maybe it’s fair to say that these songs were really more an expression of the (First Turning) era more than any one generation.

Boomers, truth to say, participated less in the spirit of this mood than any of the older generations they recall in their childhood—Lost, G.I., or Silent.  And by the time they came of age in the Second Turning, they began to move the culture in a direction that frontally attacked the treacly domesticity and bourgeois conventionality of those sweet violins and those basso profundo (G.I.) male voices.  And that took us straight to Jimmy Hendrix and Neil Young—and all the other artists who are gently lampooned by the “Glee” Millennials in the “Community” clip.  The only genuine “turning” outlier in the above list of twenty most popular Christmas songs is Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”  Not only was this song written and sung by a Boomer, it was surely a Second Turning song—intended to celebrate America’s emerging multicultural reality rather than our passing “melting-pot” aspirations.  This, at last, was the voice of that new generation, not the old.

One last note.  Throughout history, First Turnings have almost always been the eras in which society’s celebration of the conventional and the domestic reaches its paradigmatic apogee.  When did Christmas first become a widely celebrated family holiday in the United States, with all of its Victorian and Dickensian trappings—the fat Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, the huge family gatherings, the commercialization of gift giving, etc.?  During roughly the two decades from the late 1850s to the late 1870s.  That is to say, during a (short) Fourth Turning, the Civil War, and then during the subsequent First-Turning era of Reconstruction and Victorian nation building.  This is when Dickens’ Christmas Carol became hugely popular, Prince Albert’s Christmas trees (a favorite with the queen) started appearing throughout America, piano sheet music of carols sold briskly, states at last made Christmas a public holiday (even in New England, where Puritans had earlier always denounced Christmas celebrations), and the whole commercial angle (cards, gifts, photos, meals) got underway.

The young children of that era: The Missionary Generation, like Boomers a moralizing generation that would later became famous both for destroying an older cultural paradigm (the Victorian) and for giving birth to new one (the Modern).

Oct 112010
 

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 232010
 

I’m always amazed at all of the interesting ways the moral rectitude of Boomer (born 1943-1960) comes back to bite them.

A couple of random examples:

  • We once wanted to protect the freedom and privacy of college-age youth (and inspired FERPA and other legislation to ensure this).  Now, guess what, we’re angry that we—as parents—have been stripped of our God-given right to see our kids’ grades and health records.
  • We once believed that society would function better if everyone were a bit less inhibited about sex—and more transparent about what they do as leaders.  Then came Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski, which nearly persuaded Boomer-dominated Congress to impeach a President for being a bit less inhibited… and a bit more transparent.

All of this brings to—enough silly preamble—my latest example: The “scandal” at Goldman Sachs.

I would wager to say that, back in the 1960s and 1970s, nothing infuriated Boomers more about how the American economy was run than the idea that powerful greasy old men, dressed in oversize pin-striped suits and hidden away in smoke-filled rooms, essentially made all the strategic decisions about where capital would flow and (therefore) what would be produced and consumed.  These anonymous titans, from their “commanding heights,” claimed they exercised prudent and responsible judgment, but their very paternalism just infuriated us more.  We wanted to blow it all up.

And guess, what?  We succeeded.  The ascendancy of Boomers as voters and leaders since the late 1970s has coincided with a radical deregulation of our economy, especially in those areas, like investment and finance, where trusted “fiduciaries” were supposed to take care of others.  In the new Boomer world, the market was the great leveler and everyone was liberated to take care of themselves.  Today, you buy and sell on ebay as you wish, you invest your 401(k) money as you wish, you purchase and liquidate hotels or firms as you wish, and you can even invent new financial instruments (this brings us to derivatives) to gamble or hedge or arbitrage against any event you wish.  Goldman Sachs, run by G.I.s back when Boomers were young, was your typical “investment bank.”  It was supposed to watch out for the rest of us and steer capital accordingly.  Now Goldman Sachs, run by Boomers, is no longer really an investment bank at all.  It’s just a hedge fund and its purpose is to make money, just like everybody else.  And let’s face it, because everything is deregulated and competitive, there’s no real money to be made in investment banking anymore any way.

And now we’re shocked that GS set up a derivative that it sold to clients on both the long and short side?  That it didn’t warn these billionaire speculators that they might lose money?  And that they, GS, might be taking the other side of that transaction?  (We’re not talking about widows and orphans here.)  This is crazy.  Boomers set up this new world.  Many Boomers have made billions off it.  And, so be it, other Boomers should be allowed to *lose* billions off it.  Yes, a deregulated hands-off financial system may make it easier for the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to get start up funding (something that wasn’t easy for them back in the “bad old days”).  But it also makes it easier to lose vast amounts of money on bad bets.

You can’t have it both ways.  Nothing infuriates Americans more than the idea that, for these very rich 50- and 60-somethings, we’ve privatized risk on the up side but socialized risk on the down side.

Boomers should stifle their shock.  It’s like being bothered by the sight of Bill Clinton caught with his fly open.  Boomers have taken America all the way here on that whole long crazy trip of theirs.  And now they have to accept the consequences.

In the longer run, Samuelson’s final question looms large: “But if Wall Street can’t control itself, someone else will.”  Prediction: Come the next First Turning (the High), some new institution (maybe a new government agency, maybe some new business cartel) will be in charge.  Which means that, come the next Second Turning (Awakening), the young [Prophets] of that era will have something to rage about.

Aug 182009
 

You may like this ad, or just find it creepy. But it does dramatize the society-wide fantasy of watching Millennial (born 1982-200?) lead a totally sheltered and planned life.

In certain respects, in fact, this is a “Homelander” (the generation to follow the Millennials) commercial before its proper time.  The protectiveness is not portrayed as the result of passionate and committed Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents—but rather as the result of a new “system” that works to protect everyone automatically. The parents’ (midlife Generation X (born 1961-1981)) role is portrayed as a newfangled system that does  its job and waves goodbye. This is more like the attitude we expect during the upcoming First Turning (the High), rather than the current Fourth Turning (Crisis).