The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Mar 202012

I ended the last posting with a portentious remark about how a 4T is defined by a growing desire for order—and how Millennials will play a key role in securing that order.

With that in mind, take a look at the new recruiting campaign now being launched by the US Marine Corps.  The tag line: “Toward the Sound of Chaos.”  The new campaign is explicitly designed to be Millennial friendly.  Listen to these lines from their press release:

“Our survival, status and reputation as an elite force are dependent on our connection with the American people, and specifically with today’s youth–the millennial generation.”

“This campaign represents an opportunity to share who the Marines truly are–tough warriors, but also leaders in service and altruism–two of the core values of the millennial generation.”

Based on extensive recent research, the USMC “found that today’s millennial generation is more politically, culturally and socially diverse than previous generations. Historically, youth have viewed military service as a way to improve personally while serving the country. However, today’s youth want to be ‘part of something bigger,’ to help others in need.”

OK, enough preamble.  Now take a look at the top of their ad reel:

Go to this site to view the USMC’s whole new line of “episode” spots.  There’s definitely a new vibe here.  Millennial themes?  These soldiers don’t merely fight and win battles, they champion Good against Evil, wrest order out of chaos, and solve giant global problems.  These videos don’t show one-on-one gladiatorial combat (so popular in the famous Marine ads run for Gen-Xers in the 1990s).  Rather, they show vast teams working in unison.  Ties to past traditions (again, hidden in the ‘90s ads) are now celebrated.  Needless personal risks, once bragged about, are now shunned.  The warrior ethos is under a short leash; the democratic ethos–safeguarding the ordinary civilian–is now paramount.

I could go on and on here.  As some of you know, LifeCourse has consulted for just about every branch of the military since the late 1990s.  We were the ones who first advised the Marines to start co-marketing to parents… and developing a strong relationship with the recruits’ families.  We wrote a “Recruiting Millennials” handbook for the US Army in 2001, which was distributed to 6,000 recruiting officers.  Our doctrines have percolated through USAREC and TRADOC.  By now, I think that just about every recruiting, training, and retention specialist in any of the armed services is pretty much saturated in Millennial doctrine.

One nice result, dreamed up by McCann several years ago, was the wonderful parent-friendly Army slogan: “You made them strong, we’ll make them Army strong.”  More recently, the US Navy came up with a Millennial-friendly Bigger Cause slogan, which the Marines are in some way echoing: “America’s Navy.  A Global Force for Good.”

For decades, going back as far as the 1950s (with the Silent) and certainly since the birth of the all-volunteer armed forces in the early 1970s (the early attempts to connect with Boomers were disastrous!), the successes and failures of recruiting campaigns have revealed, year by year, something about the psychographic of whichever birth cohort is hitting their late teens/early 20s.

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  • Lichyard Nomad

    Mr. Howe: Great to see you back online.

    Being part of something greater, in my observations and opinions, drives every one of my Millennial friends… that the USMC has taken this approach will indeed draw what they are looking for.

    Many would find this disturbing, but whether one does so or not is beside the point. As a Nomad attending a university currently, I find it refreshing… things like food drives and volunteer work WITHOUT official capacity especially make me crack a smile… Folks majoring in Nursing, not because of the money but genuine regard to help others… these things have taken on an intensity my cohort didn’t show.

    One may think the “Us against Them” mentality would take root, but the “clickiness” of folks my age is toned down and if anyone wants to help, or for that matter, START something, this generation is inclusive and very resourceful…

    These ads don’t suprise me in the least.

  • Wow.  This brings back memories.  When I was a National guard recruiter in the early 1990s, I wanted to run a campaign using an updated version of JL David’s ‘Oath of the Horatii’ that I wanted to call, ‘Take the Oath.’  (If you need a reminder of the painting, here’s a link: .)
    My idea was to have three soldiers raise their hands to swear theor oath of enlistment on three rifles held aloft by an officer, while one of them held a guideon with their free hand.  Needless to say, I was hopelessly off-cycle for this kind of appeal.
     The Milennials I served with 9ret. 2007) would respond to this kind of thing, as you’ve successfully proven.  Can you imagine an ad like a 19th-century one I recall that offered low pay, privation, danger, hardship, danger and …a cause?  It resonates with the spirit of this age.  (I actually have a reproduction of a Civil War recruiting poster that my unit used in the 1860s that we updated for the 1980s – same theme – ‘join our cause!’  Timing is everything.)
    Thanks for making your blog active again, Mr. Howe.  I read your books, and I follow 4T discussions on ‘The Burning Platform’ with great interest.  Reading your musings again will be a treat.

  • It would be hard to find anything more 4T in mood (and more classical and republican in spirit) than the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the pinnacle of whose career coincided with the French Revolution and who became practically the minister of propaganda under Robespierre.  Later on, have deftly avoided the guillotine (unlike many other politically active artists in France),  he became a romanticizing suck-up to Napoleon.  Interesting how many of his paintings glorified laurels and awards and garlands handed out in gaudy ceremonies.  Lots of official prizes… how Millennial!

  • I’ve talked to many Gen-X officers in the Army National Guard (today that means some majors, all the colonels, and some of the one-stars).  They certainly grouse about the weaknesses of the Millennials–like their sheltered upbringing and their perceived lack of resilence (haven’t these kids ever had a serious job,  used a pick and shovel… or read a map without GPS??).  But nearly all of the Xers agree that the Millennials in the Guard today show a spirit of dedication and sacrifice that they themselves never had at the same age.  Back in the day when serving in the Guard meant little more than the occasional weekend chore/party in return for free state college tuition.

    • Lconway

      It’s an interesting observation that you’ve made about their perceived weakness, Mr. Howe.  Not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy carping about the poor state of our youth, but I was able, as someone who played no sports in school, to out-run nearly every one of them, right up to the end of my career, at age 45, and this in spite of some health issues, too.  They are nice kids, but soft.  They cling to their cell phones, are used to an easier life than combat against a ‘Division 1-A’ opponent would bring, and are lacking in basic fieldcraft skills.  
      Two of my children joined before I retired.  One, a daughter, told me that Basic was hard, but not unbearably so, and she’d played no sports in school, so she wasn’t a high school jock already in top shape. (They didn’t even have room inspections, if you can believe that.)   My son joined the USAF and told me that their basic wasn’t that physically challenging.  I can also recall, mid-190s, when at Ft. Sill, OK, hearing about ‘stress cards’ that the troops could produce if they were too stressed-out and needed a break.  The NCOs on post were very unhappy with this, as you can imagine.
      My belief is that, while PTSD is a fact of sustained ground combat (see ‘Achilles in Vietnam’ by VA shrink Jonathan Shay), it is more prevalent because Basic does not weed out enough of those who aren’t really military material.  the Jack Webb movie, ‘The D.I.’ makes exactly that point, as Drill Sgt. Webb tries to break a trainee (Pvt. Olsen) that he thinks is too weak for combat.
      Certainly, units and non-coms, myself included, have a responsibility to toughen up the troops we get, regardless of how they come to us.  However, it’s harder to do when  they arrive under-trained to begin with.
      Of course, the ones in uniform volunteered to be there, and they are part of the 30% who are actually service-eligible out of each year’s crop of 18 year-olds.  that’s perhaps the real story – that 70% of these Millennials can’t enlist due to weight, health, drug use, criminal records or low test scores.  I keep waiting for that ‘Regeneracy’ moment to change things, but, at least as far as this topic is concerned, I have yet to see it.

      • dsohigian

        @aabff60b791b909155acd2ded1bb3de8:disqus  It is really a treat to see such thoughtful comments from people knowledgeable about generations AND the topics at hand!

      • Cwk4

        I think the answer is to try to devise other means to discover who can handle combat vs. who can’t.

        One of my favorite websites is which claims they can determine stress-management skills simply through one’s body mannerism.

      • Lloyd: Thank you for your interesting and well-informed comment.  When I mentioned Millennial weaknesses, I didn’t mean to imply that I was providing an exhaustive list.  

        Yes, there is a physical fitness problem.  I’m talking about the obesity epidemic (which I have written a lot about elsewhere) and this generation’s poor relationship to outdoor exercise.  (The great majority do too little, and a small minority–the club team elite–do too much without variation, giving rise to repetitive stress injuries.)  The USMC is adjusting to this.  They are noticing a greater incidence of bone stress fractures, due to little or no prior cross-training by recruits.  They are organizing “pre-training” camps for poolies, to precede actual entry into basic training.  Etc.

        On the other hand, I would urge you (as a Boomer, I am presuming) not to be too judgmental and to be aware of your own generational bias.  There is a significant minority of workaholic Boomers who were extremely fit at age 45 or 50, and who continue to be fit at age 55 or 60, who could have outrun most young recruits not just in 2010 but back in 1990 or 1970.  Ever see the movie “Stripes” (1981) with  Bill Murray?  ‘Nuff said.  I never cease to be amazed by how Boomers continue to dominate, out of all proportion to their physiological potential, the entries into today’s super iron man and ultra-marathon competitions.  Most Xers and Millennials I know say, wow, dude, you gotta be sick to try that!

        “Achilles in Vietnam” is a great book.  It uses an ancient epic to throw much-needed perspective on the PTSD issues talked about today.  The Army and Marines need to provide more care and structure to Millennials after their tours of duty–“hands off” no longer works.  On the other hand, there is no reason to suppose that “berserker” PTSD behavior is affecting Millennials any more than Xers.  (NB: Robert Bales was born in 1973.)  –Neil

  • LichyardNomad

    “They certainly grouse about the weaknesses of the Millennials….” -NH

    A few Patton Slaps ought to take care of that….

    (Actually, that wouldn’t go over as well today as it might have 15-20 years ago).