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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Millenial Lament

Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069
Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, by Neil Howe, William Strauss

Charles Hugh Smith ( has written a rather provocative lament, or complaint, on the lack of the "heroism" on the part of the Millenial generation, expected and "predicted" by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Of course you should go read the whole thing.

It has been many years since I read Strauss & Howe's book, and I don't have a copy on hand, so what I have to say here is strictly from my own best recall.

Basically, the authors identified a cycle of four "types" of generations, with some very good explanations as to why each generation more or less reliably "creates" the following one (the caveat here is that a robust mass communication must exist for a characteristic zeitgeist to emerge.) I will borrow Mr. Hugh Smith's summary:
Prophet/Idealist. (Baby Boomers) A Prophet (or Idealist) generation is born during a High, spends its rising adult years during an Awakening, spends midlife during an Unraveling, and spends old age in a Crisis. Prophetic leaders have been cerebral and principled, summoners of human sacrifice, wagers of righteous wars. Early in life, few saw combat in uniform; late in life, most come to be revered as much for their words as for their deeds.

Nomad/Reactive. (Gen X) A Nomad (or Reactive) generation is born during an Awakening, spends its rising adult years during an Unraveling, spends midlife during a Crisis, and spends old age in a new High. Nomadic leaders have been cunning, hard-to-fool realists, taciturn warriors who prefer to meet problems and adversaries one-on-one.

Hero/Civic. (Gen Y) A Hero (or Civic) generation is born during an Unraveling, spends its rising adult years during a Crisis, spends midlife during a High, and spends old age in an Awakening. Heroic leaders are considered to have been vigorous and rational institution-builders, busy and competent in old age. All of them entering midlife were aggressive advocates of technological progress, economic prosperity, social harmony, and public optimism.

Artist/Adaptive. An Artist (or Adaptive) generation is born during a Crisis, spends its rising adult years in a new High, spends midlife in an Awakening, and spends old age in an Unraveling. Artistic leaders have been advocates of fairness and the politics of inclusion, irrepressible in the wake of failure.
In summary, the Hero/Civic/Gen Y/Millenial generation (those born between 1982-2000) are coming of age, and their expected heroic traits seem to be a tad, er, repressed, as Hugh Smith points out (after listing a litany of character indictments:)
I am sorry if I offend anyone's tender sensibilities, but I am quite tired of hearing about another 20-something living at home or sucking off Mommy and Daddy for his/her rent, car insurance, medical insurance, travel costs, beer money, etc. Please don't cite the recession; there were also deep recessions in 1973-75 and 1980-82. Yes, perhaps not as systemic as today, but unemployment matched or topped today's numbers.

Where is the greatness in that dependency?...
Well, while my tender sensibilities are not offended (I'm of the reviled Boomer generation, after all), nonetheless I wish to take up the mantle for this shiftless "Facebook generation."

First, I recommend reading Generations, and their follow-up, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. The authors do an amazing job of contextualizing history according to their insightful frame, and in the first book they audaciously extend the history into the future. Written in 1992, one catches one's breath at the events of September 11th. Read the book to understand this statement.

As regards the "Heroic" generations, we are on the third cycle since the Civil War. That 19th century generation was literally decimated because of the war, so there was no "heroic" recovery at all, just a malaise-filled "reconstruction" era that was also a time when the elites were in open plunder of resources and industry (sound familiar?) The "successful" Heroic generation became the "Greatest Generation" because of the peculiar circumstances of the world-wide energy glut, in which all things seemed possible.

Like post-Civil War, not so much today.

What is a Millenial to do?

As I emailed the very good friend who alerted me to this article:
Recall what Strauss and Howe said about the Civil War - an event that cycled in on the same "season" as 9/11. It's the whole crisis/opportunity thing - whether or not things turn out well (like they did in the interim cycle post WWII), hinges on how well the opportunity is seized from the crisis. While that 19th century "Heroic" generation was literally physically decimated in the war, preventing their "zeitgeist" from fully forming, I would submit that our current generation of "heroics" are under enormous pressure because of the specter of global collapse - which they surely sense. At the same time, the "comfort foods" of social networking and consumerism are ever-beckoning, and with the hopes of overcoming a vast and dedicated cabal of global elites being so narrow, I sympathize with these kids. Their disenfranchisement may not be the result of the more "personal" insults suffered by Gen-X, but the current insults are just as gloom-inducing, IMO.

Yes, the Boomers are more involved in the politics of the day, but what Hugh Smith seems to forget is a) It is that very involvement by that psychically damaged generation - Nixon/Carter/Reagan - that is causing much of the muckup, and b) At least the Boomers had an early experience of some successes (civil rights/war protests/taking Nixon out.) Hence they (we) still hold illusions of political power from the people, so they keep hacking away in their quixotic way.

The kids are probably under no such illusions. And just as well. Because it's time to ignore the big players and hunker down to take care of the local community(s).
And that is my take.


  1. Your Favorite BartenderJuly 1, 2010 at 3:08 PM

    First let me say, good to have you back, kinda like walking into the old bar after being out of town for a couple of weeks. You knew it'd be there, but the satisfaction is no less palpable.

    Now...on to the fact that you taken something that shouldn't have taken more than 30 seconds of thought and hyper analyzed it with every fiber of your being for what appears to be the entirity of your "blocked" time.

    To put it more simply...back away from the bong.

    Each generation starts the same and ends the same. We all think we're going to change the world, only the Boomers went and fucked it all up by ACTUALLY CHANGING THE WORLD.

    Now subsequint gereations actually have a bar to clear and we've got short attention spans (and getting shorter) and a gazillion methods of distraction (and getting bigger) so we say "fuck it...we're good...let the next guy get the check."

    The obvious parallels don't really work.
    Boomers had MLK and the Kennedys.
    Gen X had Krista McAuliff.
    Gen Y had Cobain.

    Really? Gen Y equates a rock star who made 4 (3 listenable) albums to the leader of the civil rights movement? Gen X took a teacher who essentially won a contest to go into space and equated it to a family that is more often than not compared to Kings and Princes?

    Its not that we didn't have options, we just didn't care to look harder. Hell, Tupac would've been better than Cobain (who really was more equivalent to Morrison) but he was angry and black (our generation did not do well with angry and black outside of Spike Lee) and AIDS should have been Vietnam (only we never got a bad guy...unless you were really religious in which case you thought the gays were the bad guy and the rest of us thought YOU were the bad guy). We got a lot intimidated and a little lazy and now this next generation just doesn't know where to begin. They watched their parents last great idol (Michael Jackson) devolve into a parody of himself, and not even a good a second rate community theater parody).
    They watched their older brothers and sisters worry about sex tapes where everybody's looking at the camera and phones that either A) set you free or B) make you a complete asshole...often in the same week.

    A lot of us don't have jobs and those that do hate their jobs but at the end of the day we can't justify hating our jobs because we all know ONE person who loves their job...there's no fucking "ideal" there are just a series of painful decisions.


  2. FaveB -

    You really should read Strauss' & Howe's books before talking about this generational thing. They are amazing. Not saying that they are gospel or anything, but this post is within the context of their historical analysis.

    I'm essentially agnostic on it, but I am inclined to give their thesis quite a bit of weight. One caveat I have with them - and I'm watching to see if it bears out - is that self-analysis tends to change the game when previously sub-conscious things come to the fore. So the analysis itself has the possibly of disrupting the cycle (if the meme were adopted by a significant portion of the population).

    Read the books! (Oh, and if you buy them through my links, I get a tiny stipend).

    (And by the way, I was not cogitating on this during my writer's block - that would have been the Gulf - rather, I dashed it together as soon as I read the linked article.)

  3. Your Favorite BartenderJuly 2, 2010 at 8:03 AM

    I agree with your concept that analysis inherantly changes outcome, but like Stephen Colbert, pretty much everyone my generation and younger distrusts books because they often contain facts. To be less funny funny ha ha about it, can you really show me a situation in which an entire, or even the majority of a, generation really did a self analysis (before it was too late/collecting Social Security). We, as human beings, tend to look at ourselves as first in line, most important, and most deserving. What this really means is that any analysis (and it probably isn't much in the first place) isn't going to be about our societal decisions, but instead about our own decisions. Because self interest is first on the list, we're not likely to come to a "universal" understanding, and thus our fractured and selfish ways will continue.

    So while your theory that self analysis almost always changes the outcome, we'll be immune because:

    A) We're not doing the kind of self analysis that brings actual change.

    B) Any analysis we stumble into will almost certainly be filtered through a "me first" lens.

    C) We don't really read anymore.

    Wow...what a depressing post about my generation...and those that have followed...familliar lament, but the Boomers fucked it all up!


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