Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who’s Got the Baton?

The discussion of generational differences a couple posts back prompted me to pick up Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069 by William Straus and Neil Howe. The same authors wrote The Fourth Turning, one of the earliest books about the Millennials. Both of these books are now two decades old, yet the passage of time has been kind to Straus and Howe – the events and tone of the past 20 years lend credence to their theories. Some of the predictions in the books are downright eerie: “Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning.....a spark will ignite a new mood...In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party.” Speculating on other possible sparks (again, this was written 20 years ago), the authors suggest a major terrorist attack prompting Congress to declare war while “opponents charge that the president concocted the emergency for political purposes.” The financial possibilities include “an impasse over the federal budget reaches a stalemate…Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Default looms. Wall Street panics.”

But don’t such crises appear independently of generational cohorts? Not entirely. They intertwine. Take, for example the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which set the mood for what the authors call the GI Generation and brought the US into WW2. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, but in the context of what the Japanese perceived as US hostility (notably the oil embargo) over the war in China. What if such a war had been in progress a decade earlier when another generational cohort was in power? We actually know the answer to this, because a war in fact was in progress. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931. The US response was a giant ho-hum; there was no thought of an embargo. So, while some external events can intrude with apparent randomness, the type and magnitude of the response is shaped by the differing characteristics of generations -- more precisely, by individuals influenced by their generation. The aftermaths of World Wars 1 and 2 also show a distinction. Both ended in total victory, but the response of the rising Lost Generation (a cognate of Generation X) was cynical and disengaging whereas the GI response was confident and expansive. Moods matter.

The authors first address whether generational cohorts are real. After all, people are born and die all the time, so aren’t divisions between them arbitrary and meaningless? No. People earn money across the income spectrum, too, but economic class is still a useful concept. So, too, with generations. Members of a generation feel a commonality – most Boomers feel like Boomers and Xers like Xers, as examples – because they came of age at a particular social moment. Sometimes a single year can make all the difference, as is obvious in one case where the demographers got it wrong. In the 1960s, the term Baby Boomers was applied to children born in the high fertility years between 1946 and 1964, and it has been used in that sense ever since. Yet, those born 1961 to 1964 never really felt part of the Boomer group: they missed the core experiences of the 1946-60 kids. Other than the national fertility rate in their years of birth, in every major statistical and social way (divorce rate, social attitudes, musical tastes, employment, etc.) the 1961-64s have had much more in common with Generation X, and really should be considered a part of it. On the other hand, people born in 1944 do feel like Boomers. Generations are rather like watersheds, formed by ridges (social moments) that need not be tall. How and where we flow is shaped by which side of a ridge on which we live.

Generations is really an American history book. (A global generational history was something more ambitious than Straus and Howe were prepared to write, given that generations in different nations are not always in sync.) Straus and Howe argue there typically are four extant generational cohorts, each in one of four phases; the phases are Youth (0-21), Rising Adulthood (22-43), Midlife (44-65), and Elderhood (66-87). There can be relatively brief transitional moments when there are five (such as the GI fifth today, though its ranks are getting very thin). There are four recurring types of generations (spanning an average 22 years apiece, though this can vary a bit) and they always succeed each other in the same order – with a single exception: the Civil War was so devastating and upending that it caused generational types to skip a beat. The four types are Idealist, Reactive, Civic, and Adaptive. Which one is in which phase of life explains a lot about any particular period in history. At the moment (in descending order of age), the remaining GIs are Civic, Silents are Adaptive, Boomers Idealist, Xers Reactive, and Millennials Civic. To find a generation with a life cycle and mood similar to one’s own, one needs to look back four generations.

The book offers an unusual way to consider the passage of history, but a convincing one. It is not the only valid approach, to be sure – traditional political and economic histories remain valuable, too – but generational analyses certainly deserve a place on the shelf alongside the others.

As the title of their book indicates, the authors speculate about how current generations are likely to age, and how they will handle a Crisis that is definitely coming. (One always does, and it is not necessarily the same as the “spark” mentioned above, though it may follow from it; the current lingering economic malaise, for example, may only be a prelude to a true debt crisis sometime before 2020.) The authors openly hope the Boomers (who include George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton in their ranks) are not in charge when it does. Given their tendency to take their ideals seriously (whatever those ideals might be) and thereby to regard opponents as evil, Idealists are more dangerous than pragmatists (e.g. Xers) at such times. Said Henry Adams of Robert E. Lee, a member of an Idealist generation, “It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.” The authors have high hopes for the Millennials who, despite prevalent expectations and typical Civic arrogance, are suited to rise to the occasion as the GIs did if the Crisis catches them at the right moment. It’s all in the timing.

One minor side note: a peculiarity of Civic generations is that gender differences increase in them. That doesn’t mean sex roles need become more traditional (that in fact happened with the GIs, but not in previous Civic generations), but only that the sexes become more distinct in the way they present themselves. The authors merely mention this in passing (it was too early to judge the Millennials) without trying much to explain it. Today, one sees this in the way Millennials dress and act even though they in no way are traditionalists; women continue their economic advance and men their (relative) decline, but the unisex look is definitely out.

This is certainly a kinder take on the Millennials than that of Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me. Perhaps Straus and Howe even are right. Too bad it will take a full-blown crisis to find out.

Um, let’s rethink the “hope I die before I get old” lyric

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