The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 222012

I know some young adults in NYC who are crazy about “tough mudding.”  So when I got this email I really wanted to pass it along. It definitely has the Millennial thematic going for it—raising money for wounded veterans and showcasing teamwork and party-style challenge rather than finishing first and doing whatever it takes to win. Yet it also shows plenty of Xer overtones, including the whole super-tough, warriors-never-show-fear line. (Note: I did see one mudder in one video below holding a sign, “It’s OK to Cry.”) I think the video, below, nicely balances these Millennial and Xer notes.

He’s certainly correct that you won’t meet here any Boomer-like young people trying to teach the world to sing.

Anyway, here is Andrew’s brief testimonial:

Hi Neil,

I’m a 27 year old first wave Millennial (1984) and a recent fan of yours.

I discovered Generations last year, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the generational history, trying to apply it to my experiences. I was having mixed feelings about the theory’s validity for my generation, particularly the questions of what it means for my generation if the latest crisis has already arrived (early) and whether my generation really values team work as you and William predicted.

Those doubts were lifted this past weekend, when I attended the latest Tough Mudder challenge in New Jersey.

If you are unfamiliar with Tough Mudder, take a look at their website. This year, 500,000 people (mostly Millenials) gathered to partake in physical challenges all based around the theme of teamwork. Here is their pledge, which they repeat in unison, military style before the challenge begins:

I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
I do not whine – kids whine.
I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
I overcome all fears.
            —Tough Mudder Pledge



It got me thinking: Half a million (mostly) young people, from a single generation gathered in a field, covered in mud. Woodstock? The parallels are amazing. Except instead of self-expression and spiritualism, my generation values teamwork and physical prowess.

Just thought I would share my experience with you.


Andrew Atkins

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  • Madi

    “Why can’t we be friends, why can’t we be friends” is the song humming in my head. Tolerance is the new values regime in a society of idealized globalization with a community sensibility – sigh – I am gonna sorta miss rebellion, because it gets humans to ask the deeper questions about life, the universe and everything. The next peg in the pack are the New Silents who will have to grow up and be our next Jimmy D’s and Marlon B’s (and Woody Allens, Bob Dylans, Andy Warhols, Jean Baudrillards, Jacques Derridas and Jurgen Habermas’) – because we all know the end result of not asking questions, the 1950s all over again.

    • Kevin

      I was born in ’84, so call me an oldish millennial. I struggle associating a strong correlation between this story and Woodstock; and furthermore, using this story to paint a picture of an entire generation. I also fail to see how this is a generation defining event. Will we even remember this event 6 months from now? Much less 40 years from now? No. As a millennial, I enjoy ‘youtubing’ woodstock videos to get a glimpse of what it was like when good music was still being made. But will young adults 30-40 years from now tune into a muddling event from 2012? This muddling event is not significant in any way (specifically, it’s far short of being a statistically significant sample that could be used in any predictive capacity).

      I definitely buy into the strength of generational forces (or else why would I be on this site?), but I oftentimes feel like an extremely large paintbrush is being used for the Millennial crowd. I think the popular description of millennials properly describes 1/5 of all millennials (which is a lot in my mind, but still well short of the proportion that would make generalized associations appropriate). As the generational concept becomes more and more agreeable, I’m affraid we’re getting caught in the trap of generational stereotyping. I think the millennial generation is much more segmented than most think (yes, I know, this truth sadly makes for a much less compelling narrative).

      While a portion of the millennial crowd uses the weekends as an escape from their parents basement to think existential thoughts, another portion are quietly minding their own business and leading productive lives (and using weekends to visit parents (who are not their roommates)).

      Please, acknowledge that this is an extremely small glimspe (in time and across a much larger group of people) of a generation. Thinking this describes a generation is like seeing rain outside and thinking it’s raining all across the world (or me thinking I know Madi based upon his/her below comments). Also, please ignore some grammatical errors I may have allowed (I just had my 4th day in a row of all day meetings! you would miss things too! yes, some millennials are employed.)


      • Thanks for your comment, Kevin. (I’m the one who wrote the original email to Neil.)

        I agree that the Tough Mudder does not represent a single event that will be remembered the way Woodstock is remembered. In fact, while roughly 500,000 people participated in the Mudder in 2012, they did so on different occasions in different locations around the world. My point was not that Tough Mudder will have the same cultural significance as Woodstock, but that it represents a stark contrast to the ideals, beliefs and social norms that once drew half a million young people to a muddy field. The attitude that draws large groups of today’s coming of age generation is (by and large) collectivist.

        To your point about the Tough Mudder not representing an entire generation – I couldn’t agree more. I’ll use myself as a case in point:

        I was actually not a participant in the Mudder, but a spectator (my wife is much more hardcore than I). Instead of crawling through mud, dodging electrified wires, and helping strangers climb 10ft walls, I spent my day in quiet introspection, observing and analyzing the Mudders’ behavior. I am not, by nature, a conformist or collectivist, which is why I was shocked by my peers’ willingness to conform and swear oaths. A similar experience was undoubtedly had by many Boomers who did not participate in Woodstock and were shocked by the drugs and free love.

        One need not identify or agree with the cultural current to recognize where and how it is flowing.

  • Ed Wheeler

    The other “obstacle course” that I’ve seen gaining in popularity is the Spartan Race – – more tones of the never-show-fear X’ers however still interesting for those following this type of thing.

  • Tara Hayman

    This got me thinking about the collective civic action recently that us under 30’s have been up to here in New Zealand. I live in Christchurch where we have experienced devastating earthquakes which have devastated my city. I also was born in 1984 and I am 28 and I took part in a youth organised group which values team work and thinking about people before self called the student volunteer army (SVA for short.) It involves clearing silt away from the suburbs (a LOT of silt!) giving necessities to people like water and food, and even rebuilding or patching up homes and generally helping out the community in any way we can. A lot of us (myself included) ended up in hospital because silt is a clay which when get into your lungs makes you a very sick pup but despite the 4 consecutive times we were called into action with every massive earthquake and the illnesses it put us through I don’t think one of us would take back what we did. After all our army is based on the idea, community before self. It was a positive time of fixing what was needed to be fixed and in doing so we brought our community closer. Christchurch has never been a closer community as it is now than it has ever been before the earthquakes. Just an added thought I would also like to say people view us young people now in a more positive light. I am recalling now of a story of fellow volunteers who found an elderly lady who had collapsed due to dehydration. NO ONE had looked in on her to see if she was ok. Not even her neighbours. I myself found an elderly lady who had no water (she’s ok now) I am very glad I did not listen to my mother when she said I didn’t have to go out and give some relief to people in the community. Her idea was to ‘just leave it, someone I am sure will help these people’ smh.

  • Joe

    Hopefully this blog continues soon. So much going on… every minute passing you can see the public demand for more and renewed order, while reactionary post-seasonal forces forces like the tea party and House republicans desperately try to propagate the “government is universally bad and useless” meme, currently again by starving government of funding. They do not see that they behave the same way as Hillary Clinton with universal health care in the early 90s and how they are digging their own grave, falling into complete meaninglessness. This exactly while universal health care becomes reality in the US… how ironic.

    • vladdy1

      Boy, did you get that wrong!

  • Cheryl Spencer

    I’m missing your blog posts. I hope you have time soon to write more. They are incredibly insightful and always interesting.

  • Neil, I hope that you are well. You must be very busy these days. Really missing your thoughts as much has happened since November. Hoping for your views on Boston, Newtown, Syria/Iran/North Korea as they pertain to the 4th turning (social mood, gun control, terrorism, civil liberties, etc). We learned that the government has a copy of every email, phone call, etc… (sounds more like a 1st turning?)

    Or any of your thoughts and views on other issues.


    • kelly_mhs

      Actually from other historical cases the “police state” with regards to encroachemnt on individual liberties and privacy is actually greatest around the current time – late 3T into the 4T. What happens as we move towards the 1T is the government’s focus shifts from policing individuals and their behavior (an example from America a saeculum ago is Prohibition – started in the late 3T and repealed into the 4T) to policing large groups (once again another American example from the last saeculum is McCarthyism looking down on communists). The 2T represents the best time for privacy from government overall.

      • Kelly, thank you for your insight. I will have to review my Generations and Fourth Turning books again.

  • Joe

    Regeneracy seems to initiate around the ACA, desperately fought by the post-seasonal forces of Tea Party and GOP but they are way behind the curve, splintering and if the GOP does not come around soon it will be replaced by a new conservative party. Embracing the Tea party was suicidal. Anyways, I hope that from the ACA a new New Deal will spring up across all sectors of the economy. … and that this blog regenrates itself as well soon.

    • Joe Hohokam

      The way I see it, ACA plays a role – just not quite in the way you think it does. ACA has the potential to adversely impact the credibility of the government to manage
      any new large programs. Flawed implementation and adverse impacts upon the healthcare coverage choices of some (notable even if the actual impact is minimal, due to high-visibility promises regarding everybody being able to keep current coverage) do not instill confidence in the public. The details of who to blame for these problems (contractors writing sloppy computer code, or health care companies using ACA as cover to raise rates or drop coverage) is largely irrelevant – the public will assign blame or praise to the ACA based upon what results from its implementation.

      Normally, I wouldn’t think that ACA’s problems alone would be sufficient to turn the public against future large government programs; after all, large projects have “growing pains.” But in the context of its effectiveness coupled with current perceptions of government effectiveness, ACA’s implementation plays a role in how likely the public is to welcome “new New Deal” solutions during this Fourth Turning. Public confidence in the government’s effectiveness to manage both domestic and international problems has been diminishing for the public as a whole, notably since 2000. This makes sense given the actions of both political parties over the past decade-and-a-half to unintentionally damage their credibility by not working for the public good. Two wars that haven’t rebuilt nations into stable allies nor created strong coalitions, a corrupt banking system for which no one of notable culpability has been prosecuted (indeed, bail outs instead), increased surveillance upon citizens to a degree not currently well understood, a stagnant economy despite promises that government stimulus would help (now weakly defended – if at all – by its advocates in government), the Russians upstaging us regarding the Syria question, and a pointless shutdown of government. Again, I’m not arguing details of blame, but only providing the outline of the larger picture: government dysfunction (at least at the Federal level) persists.

      Most telling will be how civic-minded Millennials view government programs, and in
      turn whether they accept or reject “new New Deal” solutions. Are they actually viewing voluntary community service and organizations as being more effective than government solutions, as a recent Atlantic article suggests? Do they even care about the Federal government’s dysfunction? They have a very large say (I would argue the final say) in welcoming government solutions as a part of a “new New Deal” for this Fourth Turning, or rejecting a “new New Deal” as a post-seasonal approach that was effective for the current Saeculum’s government but will be ineffective for the next Saeculum.

      I don’t know which way this will all play out, and what I wrote could be the wrong interpretation of events. Perhaps a “new New Deal” will be viewed as the way to go. I don’t think so, but then again as a “top dead center” Gen-Xer I don’t really care … I just want to push on through to the next Saeculum, transition my Homeland kids out into a safe and stable society, and spend my final decades basking in the (if all goes well) springtime of the new Saeculum. Whatever happens had better happen soon.

      But I do definitely agree with you on one thing, for sure: I hope that this thoughtful
      blog does regenerate itself, and soon.

  • Darren Lehane

    Hey Neil, love your work and so far your predictions have been right on the money, but how do you account for millennial narcissism when we’re supposed to be the most civic minded generation? I’m sure you’re familiar with the Time magazine article done earlier this year on us, that cited evidence that we’re more narcissistic than previous generations. When I go through my news feed on Facebook, people my age (21) post a lot more pictures of themselves and their friends than they do articles concerning world/national affairs. Any insights?

  • Joe

    Good article on Gen X as main losers of financial crisis and with a bleak financial future. Financially, they are certainly another “Lost” generation… Seriously, this is bad, folks. Where peak income inequality meets peak poverty: your Gen X.

  • Where are you? You are a brilliant researcher and writer and got us all hooked. But you dropped us five years ago. Talk about cliff hanger. Come back.