The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Oct 042010
 

Two interesting points made in this recent article.

First, when Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker, starting in 1971, he clearly played an middle- or even early wave G.I. (born 1901-1924)  The guy looked smoked, somewhere (we Boomer (born 1943-1960) would have guessed) around 60.  Yet O’Connor, age 46, was just barely a G.I. (last cohort, George Bush Sr’s birthyear).    Now flash forward to this new show.  Shatner, age 79 (first-wave Silent (born 1925-1942)), is actually playing the role of somebody younger, somebody age 72.  (The new show is modeled after a wildly popular twitter site, shitmydadsays.com, wherein a 29-year-old relates 140-character epigrams given to him by his father.)

So, I guess I’m just amazed.  These two shows are about the politically incorrect sayings of “old guys.”  One appears nearly 40 years after the other.  But the leading “old guy” actor of the more recent show is born only 6 years after the actor of the first.  Wow.  And Shatner actually looks younger now than O’Connor did back then.

Second, Stuever complains that Shatner’s character is much too tame compared to Archie Bunker and that the show passes up the opportunity to portray a tea-partying Boomer in his 50s today.

These are a couple of serious charges.  Yet it would totally against archetype for Shatner—the very definition of a hip, postmodern Silent elder—to voice the  gruff, hard, unenlightened, and unironic thoughts of Archie.  And why not launch a show about Boomer culture warriors—right or left?  The problem for TV drama is that this phenomenon is simply too serious and too central a part of America’s mood today to be treated in a light mood.  With All in the Family circa 1973, everyone knew (and Boomers certainly knew) that Archie was weak, that his generation’s values agenda was toast, and that Boomers were taking over the culture.  Therefore, Archie could be the butt of jokes.  No one today believes that Boomers are weak in the culture or that their values-wars are unimportant.  Americans of all ages are practically holding their breath.  A funny, mocking TV sitcom about Boomer culture wars today would be like a funny mocking movie about the Great Society or the Apollo Moon Landing or the War on Poverty back in 1970.  Simply unthinkable.  Yes, one could launch a serious, well-reasoned critique of either.  But no one would have considered it funny.  G.I.s are supposed to build, Boomers to think.  Those are the archetypes, and there is nothing to smile about.  Reverse the terms (G.I.s thinking, Boomers doing), and sure you get a ton of laughs a minute.

An interesting generational take-off on All of the Family was That 70s Show—which was also very successful and ran for even more years.  Red, the father, is (probably) a first-year Silent who fought in Korea rather than WWII.  But he is very much a G.I. in nearly all of the same ways as Archie, though not with Archie’s really nasty edge.  Red’s wife, Kitty, is also the G.I. female like Edith, except she’s smarter.  The sadistic/pathetic moments between Archie and Edith are missing, which lightens the comedic effect.  Red and Kitty’s next-door neighbors, Bob and Midge, are total Silent, with all of the outrageous midlife passages and youth-outbreak awkwardness (when they aren’t just playing the bland conformists) you would expect.  The kids of course are all late-wave Boomers.

Sep 242010
 

Glenn Beck has quickly become just about the most polarizing figure in America today.  If Obama has come to represent America’s left brain, Glenn Beck is auditioning to become its right brain.  (I mean that in both senses.)  In a Third Turning (Unraveling), this would be cause for entertainment.  In a Fourth Turning (Crisis), this development takes on a darker, more sinister hue.

The red zone widely reveres Beck—not for who he is (no one really knows that much about the guy), but simply for what he says.  The blue zone widely reviles him—not for who he is or what he says, but rather for what he reflects about what is happening in America today.  The Obama election already seems distant.  For the literati, Glenn Beck is William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”  See this cute Youtube video from NYC (“Glenn Beck Scares Me”).

He sends the prophets of the secular left into such apoplectic rage that, like Kunstler, they simply shout themselves into incoherence.  The dominant theme of Kunstler’s piece is that prayer “is what people resort to when they don’t understand what is happening to them.”  I’d love to hear Kunstler’s take on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s original 1963 speech.

Kunstler is on firmer footing when he says that Obama’s caution often stems from the fear that any precipitous policy change may trigger a catastrophe.  In 4T-land, one is tempted to walk on tiptoes.  You are on the brink.  Don’t you dare throw the shadow-bank CEOs into prison.  Or raise tax rates on the rich.  Or shove cap-and-trade down the throats of big energy.  Or close down Gitmo.  Or offend Putin.  Or vaporize Ahmadinejad’s new reactors.  The economy may implode (again).  That dreaded WMD may finally be unleashed.   And *then* what will everyone think of your presidency?

True, by behaving (in Kunstler’s unplugged words) “like a weenie,” Obama may end up encouraging the very riptides of history he is trying to evade.  On the other hand, by behaving as Kunstler would urge, we would almost certainly end up in the midst of a crisis  Though perhaps, Kunstler would argue, it would be a crisis we could survive rather than one that we could not—logic that only makes sense to an Ayatollah like Kunstler.  Maybe what really burns Kunstler up about Beck is that they both share the same turning-yearning.

I offer  here two other more even-tempered reflections on the Beck “honor” rally from the Washington Post.

The first, by Kathleen Parker, makes the interesting point that everything about Beck’s message stems from the 12-step recovery program—with a  riveting emphasis on the utter worthlessness and depravity of the speaker.  Glenn Beck, a first-wave Xer (born in 1964), does this with grandiose self loathing:

“Hi. My name is Glenn, and I’m messed up.”

“You know, we all have our inner demons. I, for one — I can’t speak for you, but I’m on the verge of moral collapse at any time. It can happen by the end of the show.”

“You can get rich making fun of me. I know. I’ve made a lot of money making fun of me.”

And some of his lines are just funny, showing that he didn’t become a radio star for nothing.  Parker quotes one of them.  Not coincidentally, it extends the addiction metaphor in a new direction:

“It is still morning in America. It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America.”

The second, by Ruth Marcus, points out that Beck’s rhetoric has found a way to unite the two sides of GOP—the libertarian (business) side with the moral (evangelical) side.  The tea party has never enjoyed such solidarity, with its “black robe regiment” (an allusion to the [Prophets] archetype during the American Revolution) blasting away from the pulpits.

And to accomplish this, only a cross-over Boomer-Xer voice seems to work.  Beck is Boomer (born 1943-1960) in his bombastic moralism, yet also Generation X (born 1961-1981) in his pessimism about human nature, his fear that everything around us is vulnerable and at risk, his historical revanchism, and his in-your-face bluntness.  His opening lines, announcing that today we talk too much about America’s “scars” and not what makes America “good” is very Xer.  Only a kid who was born the year after MLK’s speech and who grew up in the 1970s would say that.

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin remind us of the un-pretty side of the Gen-X role in history.  Let me offer a prediction we made in The Fourth Turning(1997):

“By the middle 2020s, the archetypal constellation will change, as each generation begins entering a new phase of life. If the Crisis ends badly, very old Boomers could be truly despised. Generation X might provide the demagogues, authoritarians, even the tribal warlords who try to pick up the pieces.”

If any of this comes to pass, I have no doubt that many of the Xers who fill the role described here will remind us of Beck and Palin.

The original MLK (Artist archetype) appealed to our super-ego.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, his lofty, grandiloquent words appealed to principle on the eve of an era of economic and aspirational inflation.   In front of the Lincoln Memorial, he was the right man for his time.  Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (Nomad archetype) appeal to our id.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, their blunt, sardonic words appeal to honor on the eve of an era of economic and aspirational deflation.  Are they (gulp!) the ineluctable duo for our time?

May 132010
 

As Bill and I pointed out in Generations and The Fourth Turning, every generation approaches life’s major passages with its own distinctive style.  And that certainly includes death.  In recent years, most of the media attention has focused on how the Silent (born 1925-1942) are choosing to negotiate the final passage—e.g., with warmly humanized nursing homes and hospices (like the “Eden Alternative”) and movies like “The Bucket List.”  (In his final moments, apparently, Jack Nicholson will be carefully crossing the last of 27 items off his agenda.)  The G.I. (born 1901-1924) exit style—emphasizing social largesse and institutional pomp—is already fast fading.  The Silent style is kinder, gentler, more personal, and, as always with this generation, touched by ironic humor.

Yet we Boomer (born 1943-1960) are also getting older.  And if you look carefully, you can already catch glimpses of how Boomers will do it (and are doing it) differently.  With Boomers, the nursing homes will be gone entirely, replaced by “elective communities” and NORC’s (naturally occurring retirement communities—meaning, I go nowhere; I will get some Generation X (born 1961-1981) contractor to bring services to me!).  As for all those lists, I think many Boomers will throw away the pen and the lined paper… and opt for an experience more interior, more mythical, more transcendent.  And will mind-altering drugs play a role?  For many Boomers, you bet.  They came in handy in our youth, and many of us will revisit them, like a familiar friend, at the end.

It is in this sober and reflective spirit that I offer the following AP story about a 1943-cohort woman who, worried about the grave prognosis for her cancer, enrolled in one of a burgeoning number of programs that offer psychedelic drugs to terminal patients.  In her case, the experience was very positive—as it has also been, it seems, for many others.  The story received an amazing 337 comments.  It took me back to Carlos Castaneda, “the teachings of Don Juan,” certain mushrooms, and the deserts of the southwest.  If you’re not a Boomer, you wouldn’t understand.

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.

Apr 142010
 

With super-Boomer (and now Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman advocating slapping a 25% tariff on Chinese imports and with Obama’s new “National Export Initiative” targeting a doubling of U.S. exports in five year come hell or high water, one senses a seismic shift in the geopolitical firmament. It’s not just the prospect of protectionism and trade wars I’m talking about. Yes, this is a huge danger—and could force the global economy back to the ER in a heartbeat. But there’s something bigger here: The disintegration of the Bretton Woods consensus, built by the G.I. (born 1901-1924), that formed the basis for global trade and power for 66 years, 1945 to 2011–that is, for three turnings.

The Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents created a global system (Bretton Woods, fixed exchange rates, IMFWorld BankNATO, and regular rounds of tariff reductions were all part of it) in which America’s national purpose was global prosperity, not just our own prosperity. We set up all these global rules and then we promised not to game them. Even more, we promised not to care very much if other nations, who really were just focused on their own prosperity, tried to game them. (At one time or another, this included nearly every OECD country, esp Japan.) America was “above all that.” Throughout the postwar era, every single U.S. Commerce Secretary used to complain that while the German or Italian governments made swinging huge export deals for their own companies a national priority, we always subordinated the interests of our workers and companies to broader global political goals. Again, we were America. We were above such parochial concerns. We needed to keep the rest of the liberal democratic world healthy and prosperous in our “long twilight struggle” against Communism. Somewhat surprisingly, this Bretton Woods consensus outlived the fall of the Soviet Union by 21 years, 1990 to 2011—that is, one turning—though there have been growing strains. One might attribute this to generational inertia. Enough Silent (born 1925-1942) were still in power, the Boomers were still finding their voice, and the Generation X (born 1961-1981) were still on the sidelines.

Now that may all be changing. The Silent, who are the last generation to recall, from their childhood, *why* we created Bretton Woods, is passing from power. The Boomers will not rest until they see the last edifices of their parents’ institutions reborn in their own image. And now the Xer influence is rising. To many Xers, the idea that America is “above all that” is a joke. Every since they were kids in the OPEC-stagflation ‘70s, they’ve been hearing that America is in crisis, has reached its last days, and is sliding into no-growth irrelevance and decadence (of which their generation btw is a prime example). For Xers, the hubris and complacency of the G.I. worldview has been replaced by survivalism and revanchism. Yes, we got the message: America’s empire is over. America is just one more desperate player in a dog-eat-dog world. So why not go after our share? I hurt. I need a job. I do not want my life to sacrificed on some insane alter of global stability and progress.

The G.I.s believed in Bretton Woods because it was *their* system. They built it and trusted it. For decades thereafter, younger generations deferred to their institutional confidence. I think that may now be coming to an end. From this perspective, how America emerges from the decline of Bretton Woods will depend hugely on the rising Millennial (born 1982-200?). What new global system will they erect? Will it work? Will it be built in time?

These idle generational reflections were prompted by the following essay (from Stratfor) on the outlook for the Chinese economy. According to Zeihan, the single biggest consequence of the dismantling of Bretton Woods will be the meltdown of the Chinese economy. No more “Chimerica” (to use Niall Furgeson’s phrase). And that meltdown, in turn, will have huge global repercussions.

Jan 252010
 

Three great—and gorgeous—actresses of the Silent (born 1925-1942), all born in 1929: Audrey HepburnGrace Kelly, and Jean Simmons. Now the last of them has passed away. (Grace Kelly, while certainly as gorgeous, OK, maybe wasn’t as great an actress as the other two, but come on: Her career pretty much ended upon her enthronement at age 26.)

Interesting how the serial parade of marriages and divorces of this cohort of actresses (typically starting, as with these three women, with older G.I. (born 1901-1924) manly men) presaged the later divorce revolution of their entire generation. What was OK only in Hollywood in the 1950s became OK in Peoria by the 1970s. Ditto for the alcoholism and drug abuse. And cigarettes, though this addiction spread through the generation a lot earlier. Note that Simmons died of lung cancer.

Not surprisingly, many of their films dealt thematically with people trying to break out of repressive social, religious, and (especially) family environments. Some of these were comedies, like “Roman Holiday.” Many were a lot darker, like “Two for the Road” or “A Nun’s Story” (Hepburn) or “The Happy Ending” or “Home After Dark” (Simmons). There are probably others. I’m not the film critic.

They all knew how to play (as this article notes) “the demure helpmates” of strong leading men. They were outstanding for their decency, humanity, and attention to emotional subtlety and nuance of manners. Here they really outshone their Lost and G.I. elders. Wonderful quote here by one reviewer of “Home After Dark”: “Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character’s wrecked life.” Not often we hear that about Generation X (born 1961-1981) actresses coping with Boomer (born 1943-1960) and Silent Generation scripts!

And of course they came of age at a time when the veil of modesty wrapped over anything erotic was considerably more opaque than it is today. Though who is to say that this did not actually intensify the longing and the desire? There is a great line in a People story on Simmons in 1987: “For men of a certain age, the memory of seeing Simmons naked from the back in the 1960’s ‘Spartacus’ ranks high among their early carnal thrills.”

Jan 122010
 

I just saw Avatar in 3D, and was struck by the generational themes.  Yes, the computerized graphics (a la Lord of the Rings) are spectacular, and the avatar framework (a bit like the Matrix) has a cutting-edge feel on the IT front.  Hollywood spent a zillion dollars producing this film.  It does have a big-movie and definitely big-budget feel to it.  I’m sure it will make lot of money, especially abroad.

Thematically, however, this movie is not Millennial (born 1982-200?)at all.  It’s a Boomer (born 1943-1960)  blue-zone culture war script.  The thinly veiled allegory has the U.S. military killing innocent, close-to-Gaia aliens on behalf of a “dying civilization” that has ”already killed mother earth” on our own planet.  The sound track sounds like Enya.  We (the audience) are supposed to be moved by naked aborigines who hold hands and sing kumbaya-like in communion with the great spirit—and cheer when they kill large numbers of uniformed U.S. soldiers in combat.  The movie’s biggest villain is a hands-on career noncom officer who has dedicated his life to service and speaks in the vernacular of the USMC.  The analogy to U.S. troops in Asia is pounded home mercilessly—from references to “shock and awe,” to the rare mineral the Americans are seeking to extract from this planet, to the way alien women are shown ululating in support of their male warriors.  The viewer is constantly reminded of what this film is “really” about.

In this movie, Barack Obama (to say nothing of George Bush) is cast in the role of Curtis LeMay.  Launch another predator missile, anyone?  Some Boomers applauded vigorously at the end of the movie, the last time I’ve seen that since “V for Vendetta.”

Many Millennials, especially urban bi-coastals, will love this movie.  But I doubt that most Millennials want to see something so laden with moralizing self-condemnation.  They certainly don’t want to see their own peers and nation existentially portrayed as a force of evil.  (That was a Boomer youth script.)  As for those Millennials who now serve in the Marine, Army, and Guard units doing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have talked with many of them.  They truly believe, more than young Generation X (born 1961-1981) soldiers ever did, that they are making the world a better place.  They really like the brand-new Navy recruiting slogan: “America’s Navy: A Global Force for Good.”  I guarantee you these Millennial soldiers won’t be applauding Cameron’s movie.

For what it’s worth, I took along my 10th-grade son to see the movie.  His only terse comment, upon exiting, was: “OK, that’s three hours I’ll never get back.”  On the way home, he purged himself of all the Enya by listening, loud, to his Linkin Park and Incubus.

Dec 302009
 

John Wozniak (born 1971), making him part of Generation X (born 1961-1981), is lead vocalist of Marcy Playground, is pretty much known for his Nirvana-like sound (he’s a huge Cobain fan) and for his big late ‘90s hit, “Sex and Candy.”  Great song, btw, which really does make you think of Nirvana… although I suspect Cobain was usually too wasted even to think much about sex.

Anyway, I recently came across a song he did called “Our Generation.”  Maybe you’ve already heard it.  I hadn’t.  It reflects just about the pure essence of X.  The message is sardonic, self-oriented, bewildered—and makes implicit reference to his hippie parents.

Here are the lyrics:

Are you a child of the free to be you and me generation
And are you in tune with the world around you
I am a child of the free to be you and me generation
And I am with you in being in tune

We shall bring change to this place
Listen to the whistle of the planet twirlin’ through space
Singin la la la la la la to the human race
(She says)
I believe I am the flower of life, the Earth
And the ocean oh oh
I believe I feel the power of light, vibrate
All around me oh oh
I believe you are the children of the one Great Spirit, oh oh

Are you a child of the free to be you and me generation
And are you confused with the world around you
I am a child of the free to be you and me generation
And I am with you in being confused

Children children can you hear it
Listen to the riddle in the melody by Great Spirit
Singin’ la la la la la la there’s nothin’ to it
(He says)
I believe I am the flower of life, the air
And the sunshine oh oh
I believe I am the power of light, the motive
For the universe oh oh
I believe you are the children of the one
Mother Earth oh oh

Dec 252009
 

Very nice piece in the NYTimes by an officer who is almost certainly a Generation X (born 1961-1981) (he started serving too early to be a Millennial (born 1982-200?), and he is not high enough ranking to be a Boomer (born 1943-1960)). Any survey of generational divisions in today’s the armed forces uncovers Xer officers who feel bollixed by their Boomer superiors. The Xers want to decentralize decision making, reduce the bureaucracy, give more initiative to leaders on the ground, make decisive choices, and embrace risk rather than shun it.

Why all the smothering oversight? To reduce American casualties, of course, say Boomer and Silent (born 1925-1942)elders. To create an idiot-proof (Boomer-speak for Xer-proof) safeguard against bad headlines for political leaders back at home. But, counter the Xers, what if this approach simply ensures that America’s effort is ineffectual and that we are still there ten years from now, still slogging around and suffering casualties?

Speaking of the Nomadarchetype at war, I am reminded of the memorable scene in the movie “Patton.”  Omar Bradley (who was given all the best lines because he advised the director) got owned in one exchange after castigating George for being too aggressive in a particular attack in the Sicilian campaign and suffering needless casualties. Patton’s response—and I loosely paraphrase from memory: “Sure, Brad, some died. But we broke through, didn’t we? We brought this war closer to an end, didn’t we? If we did it your way, we might still be pinned down there, dying as we speak.” It is an interesting question whether the war would have been over in Europe in 1944, instead of 1945, if Patton had remained Bradley’s superior during and after D-Day. Germany might never have been divided, and the Soviet postwar domination of Central Europe would have been much weaker.

Ulysses Grant was another famous Nomad warrior who understood better than his elders (except for a few, like Lincoln and his friend Sherman) that sometimes you have to take risks, including the risk of losing lives, to get the job done. This is how the midlife Xer-in-charge pushes the mood toward the Fourth Turning (Crisis).

The final remarks in this article explicitly and eloquently point to the tethering of Generation X leaders:

“The culture of risk mitigation could be countered with a culture of initiative. Mid-level leaders win or lose conflicts. Our forces are better than the Taliban’s, but we have leashed them so tightly that they are unable to compete.”