The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
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.”

Dec 172009

This article in the Washington Post describes how Americans are much less mobile than they have been in the past.

This is an important trend, and we have been following it.  One important driver—unmentioned here—is generational.  Back in the 1970s, different family generations didn’t want to live near each other: G.I. (born 1901-1924) senior citizens wanted to move to their own cultural enclaves in Sun Cities; Boomer (born 1943-1960) wanted to move to distant communities where they could redefine their lifestyles.  With the divorce rate rising, even couples didn’t want to live together.  We were in a Second Turning (Awakening).  Back then, no one want to live together.  The 1970s experienced the biggest decline in the average number of persons per household of any decade in U.S. history.

Today, the trends are all moving in the other direction.  Millennial (born 1982-200?) say they want to live near their parents.  Boomers want to live near their kids.  Multigenerational families are back in vogue.

Sep 292009

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary Dies at 72

Wow. This is a milestone. So many of us who became teenagers in the early 60s were really into the whole folk revival—and Peter, Paul, and Mary was absolutely the dominant public image of that revival.

They took the progressive G.I. (born 1901-1924) folk movement (The WeaversWoodie GuthriePete Seeger et al.) and culturally radicalized it so that it hit the sweet spot for first-wave Boomer (born 1943-1960). But they were also basically mild mannered—never extreme, unpleasant, or confrontational. Their harmonies were never atonal. They were the most popular “beatniks” ever to perform for the public. The bio points out another Silent (born 1925-1942)  dimension to her life story: four marriages.

Sep 172009

There is a lot of debate about how, and where, people should live in the future. You can hear the contrasting views from Howard Kunstler on one side and Joel Kotkin on the other. Howard Kunstler, a Boomer (born 1943-1960), believes that suburbs are disaster and that we should move towards denser urban neighborhoods. Joel Kotkin, also a Boomer, believes that New Urbanism leads to economic instability and serves only the rich.

But how do the Millennial (born 1982-200?), raised mainly in the suburbs and exurbs, want to create as their ideal living environment?

There is a question of the “suburbs” as an unchanging concept over different generations—as though the G.I. (born 1901-1924)-built beehive Levittown has any similarity at all to the fortress-on-every-hilltop ideal of so many Boomer-build exurbs you see today. Let’s face it: There’s no similarity at all. I think Millennials will indeed reject the Boomer exurb ideal—they are really bothered by the privatization, lack of sidewalks or paths, no recreational facilities, and the vast distances between neighbors and friends that must (or you imperil your life) be negotiated by means of internal combustion engines within Sherman tank-sized vehicles. But the original Levittown concept, with plenty of group facilities (playing fields, swimming pools, etc.), plenty of sidewalks, and everything living nearby, does appeal to them. Maybe you could call this a Millennial affinity for what has been called the “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ideal. I saw this confirmed in a recent age-bracketed poll on ideal places to live.

In the table below, note how rural is uniquely high for early X’ers (which includes some Boomers born in 1960) and large city is uniquely high for Xers. In fact, all four Xer preferences are perfectly ordered by population density. Xers really never liked small towns, despite the affectionate lyrics of John Cougar Mellencamp’s (really nice) song. Also, note that the small town has been making a comeback among Millennials, at the expense of both suburb and large city.

If you could live anywhere you wanted to, would you prefer to live in a city, a suburban area, a small town, or on a farm? Answered by Teens age 13-17


Birth Years 1960-1964 (Boomer + early Gen X)


Birth Years 1971-1975 (Mid Gen X)


Birth Years 1987-1991 (Millennials)

large city 25 39 33
small town 27 21 29
suburb 23 26 22
rural/ranch/farm 25 14 14

Source: Gallup, 5/25/04