The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 262012

It is well known that organized Christianity in Europe faces a crisis of abandonment and disinterest. This is even true in the predominantly Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe, which are still popularly regarded as traditionally devout.

In terms of daily cultural habits, yes, plenty devotion still survives: belief in miracles is widespread, genuflection is spontaneous, and a glimpse of the procession of Virgin Mary can still freeze traffic.  Yet in terms of church attendance, the decline is astonishing.  In today’s Spain, only 20 percent of the population goes to church weekly (versus 40-50 percent in the United States).  Roughly half never go to church.  And rest are “holiday” Catholics, going only on Easter and Christmas.

What happened?  Very simply, a large share of Spanish Boomers (born roughly in the same years as in America, perhaps a few years later) simply stopped going to church when they married and formed families in the 1970s and 1980s.  To some extent, American Boomers did the same thing–but then they came back to churches later on, and most Xers and Millennials followed them.  In Spain and Portugal and Italy, Boomers didn’t come back, and younger generations never followed them back.   (Similarly, a cynic might point out, the ’60s and ’70s-era declining birth rate eventually rebounded in the United States, but has just kept trending downward in southern Europe.)

This generational shift has produced a very conspicuous age gradiant: Namely, those who do attend church today tend to be old.  Italians who attend an ordinary mass in the United States are shocked by the sight of so young families with small kids; they simply don’t see that in Naples, Rome, or Milan.  Even more dramatic is the aging of the clergy.  As of 2009, according to one report, the average age of priests in Spain has risen to 63; in some regions, it has risen to 72.  Ireland has responded to its own priest shortage by bringing in legions of zealous Nigerian clergy. Spain, thus far, is simply spreading what is has a lot thinner.  In roughly half of Spain’s 23,286 parishes, there is no permanent priest in residence.  In some rural areas, a single priest ministers to ten or more parishes.  Seminaries, especially during the huge economic boom of the mid-2000s, saw almost no new young people knocking on their door.  As of 2009, Barcelona (an urban area of well over four million) had only 30 seminarians.  Total.

Now comes the crash after the boom.  Now we see one quarter of all working-age Spaniards–and one half of Spaniards under age 25–unemployed.  Vast numbers of Spanish youth have been hanging around public urban areas for months, where they are known as the indignados (the outraged) and carry signs saying Juventud Sin Futuro (youth without a future).  With Euro-credit drying up, with new businesses and real estate in free fall, with economic deleveraging in high gear, with secular dreams dying… could this be a good moment for the Church to recoup its losses?

In 2011, seminary recruitment actually rose by 4 percent–the first rise in decades.  Will it continue?

Before answering that question, let me digress briefly.  Anyone who has followed my writing knows that organized religion typically experiences great challenges entering the “crisis turnings,” 2Ts and 4Ts.

Entering a 2T, the problem is that churches have come to represent the “salvation by works” establishment–in an era when society as a whole (and especially the young Prophet archetype) yearns for values and meaning  and “salvation by faith.”  (This collision has defined all of the great awakenings in American history.)  Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Prophet archetype.

Entering a 4T, the problem is very different, but no less severe: Society as a whole (and especially the young Hero archetype) is looking for practical, material, collective solutions to Establishment breakdown–at a time when the leadership of organized religion is most apt to emphasize the most moralistic, individualistic, and exclusive aspects of its doctrines.    Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Hero archetype.  Very likely, this is going to be a movement that champions the Social Gospel, an emphasis on serving God by doing good deeds in the service of the great mass of His people.

This is the light in which I would like you to reflect upon the following video, produced by an association of Spanish bishops together with an ad agency.  The video has recently gone epidemically viral in Spain.  Note the shrewd focus on youth, service, community, and hope.  (Almost nothing about salvation, conversion, truth, or morality.)  I will show the bi-lingual youtube version here.  My sincere thanks to  Deon N. (Xer living in La Habra, California) for point this out to me.

Will this new appeal by the Spanish Catholic Church succeed?  I have no idea.

But I do know a lesson of history.  It often happens that one ideology and institutional framework, after triumphing over its rivals and delivering great success, suddenly and epically fails.  And when that happens, societies sometimes switch their allegience back to the ideology or belief system that was devalued.  I’m not judging here, just observing.  Look at what happened in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism, a system of thinking which suppressed or marginalized any expression of religious faith.  Result?  Today, several (though certainly not all) of these countries now show rates of (Catholic) church attendance that are much higher than in any western European country–most notably Poland, but also Rumania, Slovakia, and Croatia.

The odds are still long against the Spanish Church making a comeback.  But they’ve been around for nearly twenty centuries.  And they’re are giving it their best shot.

May 212012

“What is it like to be a young person (10 to 18 years old) now?”  That was the question asked on Quora recently.  The questioner then went on: “When I was a teenager during the ‘60s and ‘70s life seemed much simpler.  No TV where I grew up, no internet, not even PCs.  Our only mass entertainment was radio and the drive-in cinema.  The only drug problems were few and far between–the ‘bad’ kids smoked cigarettes or (really naughty ones) weed. The 21st century seems hard and complicated and I feel real sympathy for youngsters who have to survive it.”

The answers offered by over a dozen kids are well worth reading—and reflect most of the salient youth trends of the Millennial era.

Major theme one: the growing structure and regimentation of everyday life by parents, schools, and communities, with ever-fewer opportunities to be alone, act on a whim, or feel free of deadlines.

Major theme two: the ubiquitous and 24/7 presence of the peer group, always monitoring, commenting on, and judging your behavior—thanks to Facebook, smartphones, and other IT wonders.  The same Millennials who testify to digital IT’s profound impact on their lives also explain how its potential to liberate individuals from the group is often overpowered by its tendency to chain individuals to the group.

Major theme three: the mounting and competitive pressure to get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good career in an era of high youth unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor.  Many observed that all the things they had to do to acquire credentials were preventing them from gaining much understanding of how life really works.

Meanwhile, here are a few things we do not hear from these Millennials.  We don’t hear much whining.  In my youth era, kids often charged that growing up today was much worse than when their parents were growing up.  None of these Millennials say this.  (In fact, surveys show that most Millennials in K-12 today say that they have it easier than their parents.)  Also, we hear from them very little existential fear about how political, economic, environmental, or technological developments may overwhelm their future.  (There was a fair amount of such dread in my day—and again surveys confirm that this reflects a genuine shift in youth opinion over the past quarter century.)  By and large, these Millennials deliver answers that are positive, observant, and mature—as though they are used to discussing their lives and their futures with adults (probably with their parents).

OK, now let me offer—from these lengthy answers—a few representative fragments that I found most revealing.

Boy,  18:

According to my teachers, around 10 years ago my school had a ‘smoke pit’ built for the overwhelming majority of kids who had to light a cigarette between classes. Now there’s maybe 6-12 students out of the 2200 who smoke, and they have to do it out of the campus…

There’s piles of homework. Piles and piles and piles. The tests will challenge your psychological endurance.

Somewhere in our timetables, exercise and creativity is squeezed in. It’s mandatory. There’s regulations on what counts as exercise. Regulations on volunteering. Regulations on creativity. Self-exploratory activities so essential to passion are hard to find.

The problem is that we don’t learn anything. I can’t cook and I’m 18. Lock me in a kitchen and I will not survive without my Jamie  Oliver app. I can’t fix the sink. I can’t fix ripped clothing. We have a planning course, but it’s hardly useful. School prepares us for society, it doesn’t prepare us for reality…

Biking after school and spending a Friday night at the cinema doesn’t exist anymore. We have homework. We have Facebook. We simply don’t have the time to do those things. ..

It has become impossible to stay disconnected (a few try, but they come crawling back), and consequently it has become impossible to stay private. I think the idea of privacy will become obsolete in the future (and that just shows you some changing perspectives).

Boy, 14:

Growing up, I played in the streets. Jump rope, tag, hide and seek, wood chips, and the like. It got your lungs gasping, your legs aching, and your mind longing to be active, because it was enjoyable…  I still have a clear memory of when kids used to play outside instead of in.  What happened?  We as a whole youth took an interest in the digital world.

First, it was the warning of sexual predators.

Second, it was the oncoming of middle school with the perpetually growing mass of homework given to us. I remember reading an answer on Quora by a gentleman about how kids in his day used to run and play outside, instead of doing the occasional homework assignment. Occasional is not the word for today’s assignments…

Third, it was the coming of the Internet.

Anonymous, 17:

At around 13, there was Facebook and the pressure for everyone to have friends. People who had a hollow social life were mocked and labeled as ‘weird’ or ‘a loner.’ There is much less privacy, what with party photos and dating status publicized to your so-called friends. Everyone is aware of everyone and can keep track of people who you might not have particularly close social contact with via the magic of lurking…

There is then the pressure of succeeding and the constant fear for the future–something that may or may not be a timeless phenomenon. This has been amplified by the shortage of jobs and the seemingly more competitive university entrances, with more people entering and graduating from university. Most of us were raised with the idea that you go to school, university, get a job and then start a family, but the fact that it no longer seems viable creates an area of uncertainty and conflict between inbred belief, past expectations and reality.

Boy, 14:

Social changes: In this day and age, technology has taken over our lives, and in my opinion, wrecked the beauty of childhood. I miss the days when my friends and I would “explore” the forests in our neighborhoods, play tag until our aching feet could no longer sustain us, and lay in the grass and just watch the world go by. Now it seems as if everything is on a schedule, a strict path that cannot be broken. Every other day at lunch I watch as a group of girls communicates across the table via instagram and text, to lazy [sic] to pull up their make-up laden faces and talk to one another.

Boy, 17:

I attend a public high school in an affluent suburb of New York City and it is an extremely competitive academic environment where absolutely zero value is placed upon learning the material.  All that matters is that you get the grade. Many kids have out of school interests, but these interests often get abandoned in favor of focusing on school work…

School administrators bring up going to a good college as early as the 6th grade.

Unlike many of the surrounding schools my school is fairly diverse. We have people from all across socioeconomic spectrum and about 1/3 of the student body is Latino. This has created two distinct cultures within the school. There are the lower class students who have no plans on going to college and then there is everybody else. Friendships can exist between these two groups, but they are rare…

I don’t think internet changed anything, I think smart phones and Facebook did. Having a cell phone used to be about making plans with friends to do things in person. I remember how kids used to call each other and talk for hours on end, now kids only call each other if it’s an emergency…

Several months ago I was coming back from a field trip to Manhattan. We were taking the train back and there were no open seats so we all had to stand and every single student there took out their phone and spent the remainder of the train ride using it. My teacher remarked that when this would happen to his students 20 years ago they would all stand around talk

Anonymous, 17:

The main concern of 99.99 percent of my peers is getting into college. From what I’ve been told by adults, the process is much more difficult today than it was two or three decades ago. Not only are we expected to have good grades, but we also have to have several extra-curricular activities we excel in or are passionate about. This doesn’t seem like much, but the result is kids like a friends of mine who has a 4.8 GPA, got a 2390 on his SAT, has won numerous national violin competitions, is ranked top ten in the nation in mock trial, and has also raised four million dollars for a charity. The pressure is absolutely astounding.

There’s much more I could write about, but I have to study for the AP biology exam that I am taking Monday!

Boy, 16:

Today, there is too much of an emphasis on getting good grades and scoring well on tests, taking as many AP classes as possible, etc…

PS–nowadays, the kids who smoke cigarettes are considered worse than kids who smoke weed.

May 192012

There seem to be many recent efforts to define and name the next (post-Millennial) Generation.  I’ll deal with the naming question in another post.  Let’s just look at the question of defining when these post-Millennials are born.  Many marketers and psychologists are claiming that this new generation is already in its mid-teens, which means that its oldest members were born in the mid-1990s, which means that the Millennial Generation, if its first members were born in the early 1980s, is only around 13 or 14 years long.

But isn’t a generation supposed to be roughly twenty years long?  Perhaps, but none of these experts really say much about the expected length of a generation—or even care much about it.

Magid Associates, which recently released a report calling these post-Millennial “Plurals,” defines them as all Americans born in 1997 and after (terminal birth date unknown), Millennials as born from 1977 to 1996 (a 20-year generation), and Generation X as born 1965 to 1976 (an 11-year generation).  So Millennials include the 1977 birth year?  So Kanye West is a Millennial?  Very interesting.  Magid, apparently in order to avoid shortening the Millennial Generation, instead shortens Generation X to only 11 years.  This is a solution?  Do they simply think that no one cares about Gen-Xers anymore?  And even beyond the question of generational length, one wonders: What is the justification for these dividing lines?  What is it about the age location in history of these birth cohorts (1976-77 or 1999-97) that makes them generational boundary lines?  We are offered no explanation.  Magid’s report includes not one word justifying its choice of birth-year dates.

A new USA Today piece on the post-Millennials, which attempts to identify some of their key traits, again quotes experts saying their oldest members are now in high school.  Yet unlike the Magrid report, these experts don’t mind lopping off the last half of Millennials without adjusting the first Millennial birth date.  In other words, they don’t mind shortening the Millennial Generation.  And for this, they do have a justification: namely, that history is moving faster, technology is accelerating, and (hey) just so much more is happening now than ever before.  And if more is happening, then generational boundaries (which I guess they regard as arbitrary mile posts of historical change) naturally fly by us ever faster—like roadside telephone poles as you punch the gas pedal of your new 900-hp Mustang.

The gist of this argument is implied by the following passage in the USA Today story (I am quoted here, but not to any effect):


Whether middle- and high-schoolers are really a separate generation, as Rosen suggests, or “late-wave Millennials” isn’t clear; Howe believes the latter.

“I think you’re going to find a lot of disagreement about this,” Rosen says. “I don’t think you can define a generation when you’re in the middle of it. The best you can do is try to characterize the similarities and differences and the overlap.”

He suggests, however, that new generations arise based on their use of new technologies; he says identifiable new generational groups are emerging more frequently than in the past.

The Baby Boom generation, for example, most often thought of as those born from 1946 through 1964, lasted almost 20 years. But Generation X, born from about 1965 through 1980, was five years shorter. And the Millennials (also known as Gen Y) appear to be about 10 years, he suggests.


Well, I certainly agree with Larry Rosen (a psychologist and prolific writer about kids and technology) about one thing: You are going to find a lot of disagreement.

Let me start with the common assumption that history and technology are changing so much faster today than in the past.  I totally disagree—or at least I would insist on asking, which aspect of history and technology are you talking about?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the life experiences of the peers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, born 1890.  When he was a child, kings and queens still ruled Europe, you needed to know Morse Code to communicate faster than a horse could run, and (in fact) horses were the only mode of ordinary street transport, even in the largest cities (the removal of manure being a huge municipal challenge); children routinely died from bacterial infections; and Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of that age, declared that “aeronautical travel” was impossible.  Now let’s fast-forward to Eisenhower at age 69, in 1959, during his second presidential term.  He was inside in a Boeing 707 (the first “Air Force One”) dictating memos on the deployment of hydrogen bombs, sugar-cube vaccines for polio, and plans to put a “man on the moon” (a plan later spelled out by Jack Kennedy and executed on time by LBJ), while flying at 35,000 feet over a nation whose vast, affluent, home-owning, car-driving, union card-holding middle class would have been utterly inconceivable in the presidency of William McKinley (or during the twilight years of Queen Victoria).  Oh, and did I forget to mention that he lived through two world wars and the establishment of two totalitarian states (USSR and PRC), all responsible for the slaughter, deportation, and migration of countless tens of millions—and the rise of a family of liberal and democratic “developed economies” responsible for the affluence of hundreds of millions.

Yeah, he lived through just a bit of history.

Meanwhile, I get up every morning and drive basically the same silly internal-combustion car that people drove fifty years ago–through the same suburbs on the same interstates to the same buildings powered by the same nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams that Eisenhower’s peers saw fit to build.  As for space travel, whoa!—that seems further in the future today than when Eisenhower was Pres.  And I complain about how history is accelerating?  Oh, sure, my peers got to see the Berlin Wall get torn down.  But his generation got to witness the seismic global events that built them up.  I’m not denying that the changes in digital IT over the last three decades have been breathtaking.  They have been.  I’m astounded every time I punch an app on my smart phone.  But I have often observed that people tend to fixate on whatever aspect of their social environment is changing the fastest, and ignore those aspects which are in fact surprisingly stationary.

In the Fourth Turning, we point out that the western world (especially since the Reformation) has adopted a uniquely linear view of history in which practically every generation believes it just happens to be experiencing the apocalyptic inflection point in world history, in which humanity is about to be completely transformed either morally or technologically.  And to buttress such conviction, we try so very hard to persuade ourselves, contrary to fact, that our grandparents and our earlier ancestors have lived through a history in which very little happened.  Let us please rid ourselves of this modernist hubris.

That is point one.  Now for point two: another disagreement.  The “speed” of history—regardless of whether you think it is accelerating or decelerating–is not what determines the length of generations.  Rather, what determines their length is the biologically and socially defined length of a phase of life—in particular the length of childhood, the number of years that elapse between birth and coming of age as an adult.  This is true because a very different social role is associated with each phase of life—so that when the social mood suddenly changes everyone will be shaped differently depending up their age.  The climax of World War II, for example, affected Americans who were still regarded as children (through age 19 on D-Day), very differently than those who were regarded as young adults.  The former (whose role was to keep quiet and stay safe) became the Silent Generation, the latter (whose role was to organize, rise up, and meet the enemy) became the G.I. Generation.  And those would have no memory at all of World War II would become the Boomer Generation.  These boundary lines are not arbitrary, and the transition from one generation to another is not continuous.

Although there’s more to the story of defining these three generations than just World War II, the concept of generations being forged by the intersection of history and phase of life is fundamental to the writing of so many of the great generations thinkers, from Emile Littre and John Stuart Mill to Orega y Gassett and Karl Mannheim.  See a bit more here.  I just wish that the marketers and social scientists who today opine about generational length (those few who even bother) demonstrated a bit more familiarity with the rich history of brilliant thinkers writing about generations over the past couple of centuries.

That is point two.  Now for point three: yes, still another disagreement—and this one is directed specifically at those who believe that “iGeneration kids” are digital natives, differently wired neuronally to be multitaskers , parallel thinkers, etc.  They miss the point.  Technology does not shape generations.  And those who believe it does tend to have a superficial understanding of what a generation is—as though a generation were shapeless and formless before a new device (like a smart phone or an ipad) miraculously imprints something on them.  It is far more accurate to say the reverse, that generations shape technology.  A generation, impelled in its youth by parents and by the prevailing social mood to acquire corrective attitudes and behaviors (toward family, risk, civic life, money, gender roles, rebellion, authority, whatever) will then come of age inventing new technologies to suit these new attitudes and behaviors.

Were Boomers “shaped” by the mainframe “Organization Man” computers they grew up with?  Hell no—only to the extent they invented (with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) “personal computers” that would liberate the individual from mainframes.  (Steve Jobs: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”)  And were Millennials “shaped” by the late-90’s end-of-history dream that the internet would cater to the ever-more privatistic desires of individual.  Again no—only to the extent this pushed them to popularize or invent the IMing and texting and smart phones and social network sites that would reconnect their peers back into one vast fish-bowl community.  (Mark Zuckerberg: “the social graph is our future.”)

No one thinks of his or her own generation as mindlessly or mechanistically “shaped” by the technology they inherited.  They think of their own generation as having a mind and spirit of its own.  So why do they think it will be any different for today’s kids?  These experts would employ their energy much more fruitfully if they were to look closely at the family, community, and economic environment surrounding these kids and to try to draw parallels from past generations of kids that experienced a similar shift in the prevailing social mood.  How did they turn out?  What can we learn here?

Here’s where I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the closest parallel for this new generation of kids is the Silent Generation.  Like today’s Homelanders (that’s our tentative reader-chosen name for post-Millennials), the Silent were a generation of children who were born just too late to recall a boom (the Roaring Twenties) and instead recalled nothing but hard times; who were very protectively raised by hands-on, pragmatic parents (then, Lost; today, Xers); and who learned early in life to fit in seamlessly (conform) to the peer mainstream.  I’ll defend this view in a future post.

That is point three.  And now for point four, which is my cynical take, having been an veteran observer of “generational” discoveries for well over twenty years.  Authors and marketers always want to be the first to proclaim the emergence of a “new” generation.  And to be the first, it always helps to cut short the current youth generation and say—wow!—I just noticed something brand new!  I can hardly recall how many times this happened with Millennials.  I recall the first mention of the term BABY BOOMLET or ECHO BOOM GENERATION applied to kids born in the early mid-1970s, and then GENERATION Y (invented by Ad Age in 1993, and originally applied to kids born from 1974 to 1980), and then terms like DIGITAL GENERATION, NET GEN, GENERATION 2000, GENERATION NEXT, GENERATION 2000, Y2KIDS, and GENERATION WHY.  Without exception, each of these new labels required, breathlessly, the hurrying in of a new cut-off point.

It’s been a wild ride.  And after it’s all over, we have mostly settled on dates for Gen-Xers and Millennials that define each of them as born over a period of roughly twenty years—just like most other American generations stretching back over centuries.  Yes, some generations manifest steep attitudinal or behavioral trends from first-wave to last-wave.  This was certainly true for Boomers.  And it seems to be true as well for Millennials.  But history cautions us against mistaking these first wave-last wave differences for entirely new generational dividing lines.  History sometimes acts on us.  History can speed us up or slow us down.  But we cannot do the same and act on history—we cannot speed history up or slow it down.

As ever, generations will arrive in their own sweet time.

May 142012

I thought you all might enjoy this.  It’s the full text of a commencement address I gave last Saturday at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  It was a glorious spring day, and I got to sit on the dais next to UMW President Rick Hurley watching up close as student after student (roughly 1,100 of them) came forward with smiles and beaming faces to accept their diplomas.  Sometimes just being next to happy young people is does wonders for your mood and morale.  Anyway, here it is:


It’s a beautiful day here in Virginia, and I want to thank the University of Mary Washington for inviting me here.

At a commencement address, speakers often go on too long.  This I won’t do.  I may not succeed as well as Salvador Dali, who famously delivered the world’s shortest speech, only four seconds long.  He announced at the podium: “I will be so brief I have already finished.”  And then sat down.

Commencement speakers also like to intone about “today’s youth generation.”  And this is fine.  Except that they then go on to talk at length about their own experiences in their own youth—and tell you: Because this worked for me in my generation, it will work for you in yours.  Which should alert you that these speakers have no idea what a generation is.

Let me clarify.  A generation is a group of people who share a basic outlook on life shaped by their common age location in history, their common “generational setting.”  The renowned sociologist Karl Mannheim called this “eine Generationslagerung,” which I promise you is both the longest word—and the only German word–that you will hear from me today.

“Youth,” on the other hand, is just an age bracket.  It’s like an empty hotel room that different generations move into—with their own baggage—and then soon leave.  Sometimes that room swells with sweet music, sometimes it throbs with death metal, sometimes it’s utterly silent.  But it’s never the same.

Bottom line: All of you Boomer and Generation X parents are essentially unlike your children—and were not the same even when you were kids.  And you Millennial Generation graduates are essentially unlike your parents—and will not become like them as you grow older.

So how, exactly, are you different?  Well, start with the obvious—pop culture: Believe it or not, parents, your kids have never known that America, Chicago, and Kansas are the names of rock bands, not just places.  Or what about technology?  Ever notice the blank stares when you tell them roll up the window, or turn the channel, or dial a number.  Or what about current events?  For as long as Millennials can remember, NATO has been looking for a mission, China has been peacefully rising, Brazil has been building shopping malls, and Boomers Bill O’Reilly and David Letterman have been hating on each other in the plain view of millions.

Now these markers are interesting.  But if there’s one big I idea I want you to take away from my remarks, it’s that generational differences go much deeper.


You Millennials grew up in an era of rising parental protection—never having known a time without bicycle helmets, electric plug covers, Amber Alerts, and 15 different ways to be buckled into your minivan seat.  We, the parents, grew up in an era of declining parental protection: Our moms and dads told us, we don’t care where you go so long as you’re home for dinner—and as for seatbelts, we were told if there’s an accident to just put up our hands like this.  As kids, we never saw a “Baby on Board” sticker.  “Baby Overboard” would have been more appropriate.

You Millennials were raised to be special—very special—and trust your counselors, support groups, and smart drugs to keep you feeling pretty good about the world, like a Sims character having just the right digital balance.  We, the parents, knew we weren’t very special, didn’t trust anyone to advise us, and thought staying away from counselors was a sign of resilience.  When you came to college, there were long orientations and immersions–and many of your parents clutched teddy bears and wept.  When we came to college, we jumped out of the car and tried to grab our suitcases before our parents sped off.

You Millennials were raised to be teamplayers—which you are, with community service, group projects in the classroom, and clubs for everything.  And, above all, with digital technology that connects you all to each other on Facebook, and smart phones that you go to bed with.  We, the parents, were a lot more into competition, rebellion, and defying the mainstream.  We did not “friend” each other.  Our generation invented the “personal” computer.  Personal, as in—mine and not yours, and certainly not part of the corporate mainframe our own parents bequeathed to us.  Growing up, our biggest fear was that Big Brother might someday install cameras in our rooms.  Our biggest joy was hearing Steve Jobs announce that “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  And now our biggest surprise is to see our own kids connect with each other by installing their own cameras in their own rooms!

As a generation, you Millennials have a surprisingly conventional outlook on life.  Surveys show that as you grow older you wish to become good citizens, good neighbors, well-rounded people who start families.  Violent youth crime, teen pregnancy, and teen smoking have recently experienced dramatic declines.  And for that we congratulate you.

Most startling of all, the values gap separating youth from their parents has virtually disappeared.  You watch the same movies as your parents, buy the same brand-name clothing, talk over personal problems with them—and, yes, feel just fine about moving back in with them.  When I travel around the country, I often ask people today in their 40s or 50s how many songs on their iPod overlap with what’s on their kids’ iPods.  Typical answer: 30 or 40 percent.  Let me tell you: Back in my days on campus (later known as “the days of rage”), we did not have iPods, but if we had, the overlap would have been absolutely zero.  Everything about our youth culture was intentionally hostile and disrespectful of our parents.  That was the whole idea.

Now people sometimes ask me: What does it mean that one generation is different from another—that Millennials, for example, are different from the Boomers or Gen-Xers who raised them?  Does it mean that some generations are better than others?

And I say no: There is no such thing as a good or bad generation.  Every generation is what it has to be—given the environment it encounters when it enters the world.  And history shows that whatever collective personality that generation brings with it is usually what society needs at the time.  As such, youth generations tend to correct for excesses of the midlife generation in power; and they tend to refill the social role being vacated by the elder generation who is disappearing.

To avoid speaking in code, let me rephrase this as follows: The Millennial Generation is correcting for the excesses of Boomers and Gen-Xers who today run America.  I need not remind you what those excesses are: Leadership gridlock, refusal to compromise, rampant individualism, the tearing down of traditions, scorched-earth culture wars, and a pathological distrust of all institutions.

The Millennial Generation is also reprising many of the hallmarks of the original G.I. Generation, the “greatest generation,” who are now passing away.  Like the Millennials, the G.I.s grew up as protected children and quickly turned into optimistic, consensus-minded team-players who saved our nation—in the dark days of the 1930s and ‘40s—from turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents.  Yet again that happens.

So all of you parents out there: Be proud of this new generation.  They aren’t like you, but they are what America now needs.  They don’t complain about the storm clouds looming over their fiscal, economic, and geopolitical future; they try to stay positive.  They don’t want to bring the system down; they’re doing what they can to make it work again.  They worry about you a lot.  And they want to come together and build something big and lasting, something that will win your praise.  Beneath their tolerant, optimistic, networking, and risk-averse exterior lie attitudes and habits that may prove vital for our country’s healing and for our country’s future.

No one knows what challenges this Millennial Generation may eventually be asked to bear.  Hardly anyone expects them to become America’s next “greatest generation.”  But someday you can say you heard it from me: That is their destiny, to rescue this country from the mess to which we, the older generations, have contributed… perhaps a bit more than we ever intended—and in so doing to become a great generation indeed.

Thank you.

May 012012

Last Tuesday, on April 25, President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show (igniting an explosion of cheers from the audience).  Both Obama and Fallon then proceeded to “slow jam the news.”  The video (below) is funny and well worth watching.  Any number of Millennial buttons were pushed:

  • the super-niceness of Jimmy Fallon;
  • the no-anger mellow news delivery;
  • the comedic delivery of serious news, an art pioneered of course by Stewart and Colbert;
  •  the substantive focus on student loans (natch, Millennials are special and deserve to be the center of the policy agenda);
  • the recasting of big government as committed to the young, rather than to the old;
  • the additional plus that supporting colleges means making Millennials super smart (that is, even smarter than they already know they are); and finally
  • the hip and amusing ethnic-role reversal, with Obama playing the white authority figure and Fallon playing the African-American voice over.



I could make a detour here and discuss the pros and cons of our federal student loan policy.  So let me opine briefly.  I believe Obama is correct in spending federal money to keep student-loan interest rates low.  The federal government spent vast sums subsidizing the college expenses of the G.I., Silent, Boom, and (perhaps not so much) X Generation.  So why not Millennials?

I spent practically nothing getting a BA from the University of California; and I wouldn’t have had to pay much to go to a private school.  The reason?  Older generations back in the 1960s and ‘70s paid my way, collectively—the Silent and G.I.s by paying taxes to build and fund colleges, and the Lost, by not asking for much in senior benefits and thereby opening fiscal room.  Why must families now mortgage their homes—or students mortgage their futures—to go to a good college?  Very simply, because Xers and Boomers don’t want to pay more taxes and the Silent and G.I. retirees have become very used to senior benefits and services that consume much of the tax revenue we have.  (At the federal level, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone now consume roughly two-thirds of all federal revenue.)

Do Mitt Romney and the GOP deserve to be cut any slack here?  Maybe a bit.  First, the GOP currently agrees with “the Barackness Monster” on the need to keep student loan interest rates from rising.  Second, the GOP is correct in pointing out that all federal spending at the margin today is financed by federal debt—so that one way or another Millennials are eventually going to have to pay it all back anyway, if not as student borrowers than later on as taxpayers.

Finally, one big reason why tuitions are rising so fast is that regionally accredited colleges been so slow to add capacity in the face a huge new Millennial demand for quality higher ed.  And who keeps putting obstacles in the way of entrepreneurs who would like to conduct a radical hi-tech overhaul of higher-ed so that vastly more students could be eligible for a quality, low-cost education?  I won’t cast aspersions here.  Just give hints.  Hint one: It’s not the GOP.  Hint two: Most pricy higher-ed institutions who fleece their incoming lambs at the sticker price of $30-$60K per year do not want more competition from the likes of the University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, or even the youtube Kahn Academy.  Hint three: Most of the trustees and faculty at these institutions donate money to the Democratic Party.

But here I am, veering into the huge digression that I promised I would avoid.

What I really wanted to do was to use the classy Jimmy Fallon show to comment on a new pop-culture trend that really is at today’s cutting edge.  We call it “the new niceness.”  It’s hardly bleeding edge, and it’s being largely pushed by Millennials.  I’d like to share here a [Social Intelligence] essay by the same name that we ran back in October 19 of 2011.


Brash, pushy, former Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel has just hired a “niceness coach.” The reason, report the tabloids, is that her latest pilot is not going over well with audiences. “She came off as too aggressive,” a source told the New York Post, which went on to reveal that “producers have brought in a Henry Higgins-style mentor” to turn this icon of in-your-face, circa-2008 reality TV “into a lady.”

Pardon our snarkiness, but she should have seen this niceness thing coming. The top-rated show among young adults? The ever so tolerant and good-natured Modern Family. The hottest late-night show host? The ever-smiling, relentlessly upbeat Jimmy Fallon. Then there’s Parks and Recreation, whose characters started out “all ironic and hip and sour,” in the words of its co-creator, Michael Schur, but who are now doing super nice things like giving away all their money to each other.

It’s the same thing with the commercials. “Extreme Advertising” is now so old it’s long since passed into Internet parody. Meanwhile, a new parade of corporate messages, epitomized by Liberty Mutual’s “helping hands” campaign, earnestly extolls random acts of kindness without a shred of irony.

Then there’s sports. “Is Women’s Tennis Too Nice?” The Wall Street Journal asked recently, citing top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, whose nickname is “Sunshine.” And whatever happened to Internet flaming? “Wide swaths of the Web have become bastions of support and earnest civility,” notes The New York Observer. Last week’s big buzz in social media: a viral campaign to help Indian leukemia patient Amit Gupta find money and a donor for a bone marrow transplant. (There, we did our part.)

Sure, nastiness still rules on cable news networks, but notice the age of those talking heads and of their small audiences (overwhelmingly over 50).  There are many possible explanations for the rise of niceness, but one surely is generational. From its earliest years, the Millennial generation has had a reputation for consensus and cooperation, and now that its oldest members are stepping into the adult world, the niceness meme keeps spreading.

As Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais have observed: “Millennials have been taught since their parents first sat them down to watch Barney that the best way to approach problems is to find a solution that works for everyone in the group—since everyone is just as good and important as everyone else.”

When the first Millennials reached junior high school, youth-oriented programming dealing with gritty, “real-life” situations, like bullying, peer pressure, and meanness (e.g. Growing PainsDougHey Arnold!), began giving way to idealized fantasy situations (e.g. Suite LifePair of Kings). As young adults, large majorities of Millennials turned away from wedge-issue meanness in politics.  Instead, they resonated with Obama’s post-partisan pledge to “create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Since then, of course, the generation has experienced tremendous economic adversity—enough, surely, to inspire some not-so-nice thoughts. Yet the historical track record suggests a paradox: As the times become nastier, the youth mood often becomes friendlier.  As during the Great Depression and World War II, the trend in youth culture remains away from irony, cynicism, and divisiveness and toward no-longer-corny communitarian values.

Even the recent demonstrations on Wall Street and elsewhere have so far been marked by a very Millennial insistence on group decision making and broad consensus building. It’s a worldview that sees 99 percent of Americans as having a monolithic common interest in opposing a tiny, antisocial minority. For Boomers in their youth, the enemy was “anybody over 30.” For Millennials, it’s the selfish 1 percent who won’t share their toys.

Apr 222012

So why has Hunger Games broken so many box-office records in its first few weeks in theaters?  Sure, the trilogy was a huge YA reader hit before it became a movie.  But the books weren’t exactly Tolkien, nor did they have the same celebrity status as the Harry Potter series.  And even if the books did generate a lot of buzz behind the movie, that just begs another question: Why was the trilogy so popular to begin with?

I have no idea.  But I do think there are several themes in the film that strike an obvious resonance with 4T America.

Theme One is the overwhelming imagery of the 1930s.  In the film, we see images either of America’s dire want and deprivation—think of dirt-eating Appalachia before the TVA arrived—or we see images of National Socialism triumphant.  On the one hand, scenes of semi-starved District 12 are deliberately filmed as a black-and-white evocation of rural America in the middle of the Great Depression.  Think of the Time Magazine’s cover picture for October 13, 2008: A stark photo of breadlines in the early 1930s.

On the other hand, the computer-assisted scenes of the Capitol of Panem look like Berlin as it might have been redesigned by Nazi architect Albert Speer.  Fortunately, history did not allow him time to complete this task.  He did a brilliant job, however, with the Nuremberg rallies, which look like Panem’s Capitol on a smaller scale.  And what isn’t directly Nazi-inspired comes from Art Deco or Art Nouveau.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out: See this article in the Atlantic for example or this very nice blog post.  I’ve even seen a youtube video pointing to the striking similarity between the Hunger Games Mockingjay pin and Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe badge.  I’ll show a couple of examples here, the most striking of which is the CGI movie image of “Avenue of the Tributes.”  The insignia for each district look disturbingly similar to badges handed out by the U.S. National Recovery Administration (NRA).  Note btw the task assigned to District One: “Luxury.”  Hey, it’s a job and someone’s got to do it.



Why is this important?  Because the specter of National Socialism loomed large over America at the depths of the Great Depression.  As government aggregated greater authority under FDR, many suggested (both on the populist left and the authoritarian right) that perhaps government should go further.  In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist take-over of the United States, which was popular enough to be turned into a stage play in 1936.  In Lewis’ novel, it was not so much that large numbers of people really wanted a dictator.  It was just that no one any longer cared much for the liberal and democratic alternative.

Theme Two is the imagery of a vast gap or distance between the privileged and the subjected.  By most calculations, inequality by income in the United States (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) has recently reached the highest levels since the late-1920s and 1930s.

In Hunger Games, the rich are hi-tech and garish.  The poor are resilient and plain.  In the OWS era, the relevance is clear.



Theme Three is the imagery of a staged yet savage competition among the young for survival.  I think Hunger Games can be read as a metaphor for team-working and risk-averse Millennials entering a young-adult economy defined by survivalist Gen-Xers, who are accustomed to competing against each other in a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all economy without safety nets.  Gen-Xers know all about Survival Games.  They think nothing of working for businesses governed by the Jack Welch managerial philosophy–which is to fire X percent of your workers every year “pour encourager les autres.”  Life is a gigantic Las Vegas casino.  “May the odds be ever in your favor.”  How X can you get?  If Millennials fear anything, it is this future.

How things have changed.  When Boomers were young, William Golding wrote a much-discussed novel about kids killing each other that was quickly turned in a movie.  It was called Lord of the Flies.  And why were the kids killing each other?  Because they wanted to.  Because they were accidentally separated from the adults who would otherwise have enforced order and restrained them.  Hunger Games turns the story entirely around.  In this world, it’s the adults who deliberately stage the teen-on-teen gladiatorial contests.  Hunger Games is by no means the first in this genre.  During the Gen-X youth era, we’ve seen novels and movies like The Long Walk (Stephen King) and Battle Royale (a ‘90s Japanese classic).  And how many Xer “reality shows” have followed this same basic model—with Donald Trump or Simon Cowell or some other middle-aging Boomer yelling “you’re fired” at a young person?  The number is beyond counting.

If you’ve seen the film, then you recall the scene where the competition-trained blond jocks chase down and kill an unseen screaming victim.  An image came to my mind: Karate Kid I (1984), where the Aryan Cobra Kai kids (dressed in skeleton uniforms) chase down and catch Daniel-san and would have beaten him to a pulp had not Mr. Miyagi intervened.  This enormously popular movie persuaded countless millions of young Gen-Xers to practice martial arts, buy a gun, or do just about anything to defend themselves in a friendless world.

But here’s what’s changing.  In today’s new 4T era, what felt OK or normal for young Gen-Xers seems outrageous and unacceptable for young Millennials.  For a generation of kids so fussed-over and protected—now to be sent out with bowie knives and machetes to eviscerate each other from throat to gut?  No, the line has to be drawn somewhere.  And this is what adds a whole new edge (so to speak) to the movie.

I originally had a Theme Four in mind, which is the horrifying Oprah-style interviews of young victims about to be sent to their death.  Here is a glimpse of modern American decadence that deserves fuller treatment.  In the heyday of imperial Rome, gladiators once shouted “morituri te salutamus!” to the clamoring coliseum crowds (we who are about to die salute you).  In Hunger Games, the contestants confess personal secrets like they were on Jimmy Fallon’s ever-nice late-night show.  The effect is truly chilling.

But the hour is growing late.  I’ll come back to this in another post.

Apr 212012

Anyone catch the new HBO series “Girls”?  I would be interested in your take.  “Girls” is a hip/dark comedy about four 20something women living in downtown New York City (TriBeCa) and especially about their sex lives, family lives, and career lives (or, when it comes to careers, their lack thereof).  Does the basic four-girl formula remind you of any other HBO series?  Yes, the similarity with “Sex in the City” is deliberate.  And the first episode even includes a planted reference.  One of the girls describes herself as “basically a Carrie with a touch of Samantha.”

“Girls” has been heavily reviewed by the “media” media, with strong opinions leaning both ways.  The pro reviewers say it’s smart, realistic, and wryly funny.  The con reviewers say it’s cold, emotionally flat, even depressing.  Certain figures on both the cultural left and right say that its depiction of sex debases women (see this from Frank Bruni in the NYT and this from William Bennett).  Maybe both sides are correct.

Another big knock on this show is the utter lack of diversity: All four of these girls are white and from affluent families.  Interestingly, this is true not just of the characters but also the actresses themselves, who are all daughters of privilege, starting with Lena Dunham (born 1986: the lead actress, writer, and director).  So it’s not like “Glee,” and it doesn’t have a strictly representative, push-every-PC-button cast.  Is this a problem?  I don’t think so, but some may disagree.

Still others are saying that the show represents a “fresh” and “zeitgeisty” voice for the Millennial Generation.  And that’s the question I want to address.  Let’s get past the fact that these are all white, educated, urban, secular, blue-zone daughters of privilege.  My question is: Given who these girls are, do they project an accurate representation of today’s coming-of-age generation?

I’ll give you my own verdict: Mixed.

On the one hand, these “Girls” are recognizably Millennial in a great many ways.  They are special, whiny, entitled, protected, conventional, and risk-averse.  They are, for the most part, very close to their parents and take their parents’ support—emotional and financial—for granted.  They are basically sensible, and there is very little desire to “push the edge” in any deadly or dangerous way or even to shock their parents.

“Girls” has nothing in common with that Gen-X classic “Rent” (the girls even joke about this).  Nor does it really have much in common with “Sex in the City,” a show starring one late-wave Boomer (Samantha) and three first-wave Gen-Xers (Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda) who revel in pushing the edge and scandalizing middle-class norms.  The sex in “City” is attractive, bordering on soft porn.  The sex in “Girls” is none of the above.  True, the protagonists of “Girls” are younger.  But they don’t even have the meanness (or affluence) of “Gossip Girl.”  One suspects that “Girls” would rather not bother with sex, if only they were not expected to indulge.  (According to the CDC, fewer are bothering.)  And they would like nothing better than to join the secure middle class, if they only knew how to apply.

Another nice post-Great Recession note is the constant reference to the relative poverty of these girls compared to their Boomer parents.  They know there’s no way in hell they will ever enjoy the professional success of their parents—or ever afford the housing and living standards of their parents.  Survey data confirm this impression: 20something children of affluent parents are especially likely to live with their parents and especially likely to doubt their ability ever to match their parents’ material success.  Generational poverty was also the subtext of Lena Dunham’s earlier movie, Tiny Furniture, the acclaimed indie experiment that brought her to the attention of HBO.

So what are the off notes?  Why do I render a mixed verdict?  To my ear, what’s missing is any note of confidence, ambition, achievement, or optimism.  These too are basic elements of the Millennial peer personality.  The vast majority of Millennials whom I meet and talk to all have plans and ambitions.  Many have family or career mileposts they hope to attain by some date.  True, many of these plans and ambitions are unrealistic.  But they have them just the same.  Even four and one-half years after the onset of the Great Recession, according to surveys (see Pew: “Young, Underemployed, and Optimistic”), Millennials are still going for the gold.

Yet I see nothing of the kind in these “Girls,” none of whom appear to have any long-term plans or hopes or great expectations or dreams.  They are mostly situational in their orientation, moving from day to day, problem to problem, with no aspiration driving them.  This, I think, is why some critics find the show simply unwatchable.  It’s one thing to show alienated risk-takers defying norms.  And it’s another to show young optimists who take on the world and who then must cope with setbacks and disappointment.  Both are good plot lines.  But what about fundamentally decent and well-adjusted young people who just don’t have any ambitions?  No sense of future, but also no desire to transgress?  I would call this a perfect formula for boredom.

I don’t know why the show comes across like this.  Maybe this is what “hipster” has come to mean for Millennials: witty and sardonic, yet also comfortable and passionless.  Or maybe we can see here the influence of uber-Xer Judd Apatow, who is the producer of “Girls.”  This guy has made so many very funny movies.  But maybe here he’s the one who forces every scene in “Girls” to feel fraught and jaundiced, as in such Xer classics as Soderburgh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape.  You can sometimes laugh (or just smile) at the characters, but you can never laugh with them.  “2 Broke Girls” may be down-market network TV, but at least you are invited to join the fun.  After a couple of hours of watching “Girls,” the viewer yearns for just one wise crack from Max (Kat Dennings), a girl who is actually striving (verb, intransitive) to go somewhere.

Your opinion?

Apr 102012

There is a story in this weekend’s New York Times about a growing movement among insurers and health-care system administrators to discourage doctors from prescribing so many opiate pain-killers to patients who don’t clearly need them.  This is indeed a big problem.  These opioids are powerful, dangerous, and extremely addictive.  Twenty or thirty years ago, they were very rarely used outside of extreme suffering, typically among patients with terminal diseases.  Now, thanks to aggressive marketing by big pharma, these pills are often dispensed like candy.  I am amazed at how often, after even the most routine procedure (like getting a cavity filled), doctors will offer to write me up a prescription for Percocet or Vicodin or whatever.

Don’t you ever just want to shout… Suck it Up, America!  And as for doctors, geez, do they really have to be told these drugs are dangerous?  Don’t they already know?

But the real reason the article caught my attention was this paragraph:

Medical professionals have long been on high alert about powerful painkillers like OxyContin because of their widespread abuse by teenagers and others for recreational purposes.

My question: Why single out teenagers?  In fact, kids in their teens and twenties are not the biggest-abusing age bracket for opioids.  Not even close.  Rather, the biggest abusers today are in midlife.  The media needs to wake up to some basic generational shifts here.  Accustomed to associating deadly drug use with youthful rebellion, journalists (even at the NYT!) are slow to recognize that drugs today are a much deadlier threat to the peers of Rush Limbaugh than to the peers of Lady Gaga.

It just so happens that we wrote a recent piece in Social Intelligence exploring this issue.  It looks at the bad breaking trend in fatal drug overdoses—and it compares and contrasts it with a good breaking trend… in motor vehicle accidents.  Here goes.

In recent years, the steady decline in traffic fatalities (now to a record low) has been a genuine good news story.  Going back at least fifty years, motor-vehicle traffic accidents had long been America’s leading cause of death by injury—so the big drop is welcome. Yet according to a new report by the CDC, this is actually a good news/bad news story. Between 1980 and 2008, at the same time that the traffic fatality rate decreased by nearly half, from 22.9 to 12.5 deaths per 100,000, the fatality rate from “poisonings” almost tripled, from 4.8 to 13.5.  This growth in “poisoning” deaths has been entirely driven by the growth in drug overdoses, which now constitutes roughly 9 out of every 10 “poisoning” fatalities.

Bottom line: As of 2008, drugs—not cars—are America’s leading cause of accidental death.

Let’s look at the good news first. The CDC summarizes the broad range of positive trends that have helped to make driving safer.  These include improvements in the safety of vehicles (air bags, auto-body “crumple zones”), improvements in roadways (better lighting and signage), increased use of seatbelts, stricter laws on child safety seats, reductions in speed, and a concerted law-enforcement effort to catch intoxicated drivers and keep them off the road. The rising use of child restraints in particular has been a great success. Researchers found that child safety seats have reduced the risk of fatal injury by 71 percent for infants (younger than 1-year-old) and by 54 percent for toddlers (ages 1-4).  Between 1975 and 2008, according to one estimate, almost 9,000 Millennial and Homelander lives were saved by child restraints.

The dramatic decline in teenage traffic deaths is also very good news.  Between 1980 and 2006, the motor vehicle death rates for teens (ages 15-19) declined from 42 to only 23 deaths per 100,000. Interestingly, the traffic death rate for teens today is down to the death rate for Americans of all ages back in 1980. One big reason for this decline is the spread of graduated drivers licensing (GDL) programs, which restrict (and often effectively delay) the teen use of cars. According to the CDC, these GDL programs are associated with reductions of 38 to 40 percent, respectively, in fatalities and injuries resulting from accidents involving 16-year-olds.  It also helps that the share of teens who consume alcohol is falling.  Today, the teen share of DUI arrests is only about half of what it was thirty years ago.

To be sure, teens and cars remain a dangerous mix: Auto accidents are still the leading cause of death among teens, and account for more than one in every three teen deaths.  Yet the trend over time has been very favorable.

This youth trend, btw, reflects not just how kids are growing more risk-averse in general—but more specifically how they no longer enjoy the association between driving and risk.  This has big implications for auto marketers.  Where Boomers and Gen-Xers once saw their first chance at the wheel of a car as an exhilarating ticket to freedom and independence, Millennials see it as something you do under the watchful eye of parents and family.  The iconic muscle car is no longer an effective youth attractor.  In fact, most Millennials actually take some pride in how carefully they drive.  It may make sense to design messages that appeal to that care and pride.

Now let’s turn to the bad news—the shocking rise in deaths by poisoning. Again, this increase in “poisoning” has been driven entirely by the misuse of drugs. (Indeed, poisoning deaths not caused by drugs have actually been declining.) And among drugs, most of the growth has been in one category: opioid analgesics. The brand names of these drugs (such as OxyContin, Percocet, Avinza, Darvon, Vicodin, and Demerol) have become familiar to many Americans, as have the names of celebrities (from Heath Ledger to Michael Jackson) whose lives they have claimed.

Back in the 1980s, opioid addictions and deaths were relatively rare. By 1999, opioids were responsible for 30 percent of all deaths where the identity of the drug could be determined.  By 2008, that share had risen to 54 percent.  By all accounts, this scourge has been enabled by the increasingly casual distribution of prescription opioids by doctors, typically for pain relief.  Medical use can then lead to addiction, and addiction to death.  The magnitude of this human tragedy vastly exceeds the 15,000 Americans actually died from an opioid overdose in 2008.  The CDC estimates that for every one prescription painkiller death, there are 10 admissions for addiction treatment, 32 emergency visits to the hospital, and 130 people who are chronically addicted.

Which generation has suffered most from opioid addition and death? Given lurid media accounts of youths who host “pharm” or “cocktail” parties (in which teens randomly mix prescription pills in a party bowl), one might suppose that it’s Millennials. Wrong. It’s Boomers. The overdose fatality rate for Americans ages 45-64 is now the highest and fastest-rising of all age brackets. Gen Xers are in second place. Millennials are last. Though overdose death rates have been rising over the last decade for the young as well as the old, the young started from a much lower level. Today’s 50-year-old is now over three times more likely to die of a drug overdose than today’s 20-year-old.

The good news/bad news story from the CDC thus reveals a generational subtext. Consider the good news on traffic fatalities. It wouldn’t have happened without a range of policies—from child safety seats to graduated licensesthat reflect America’s collective determination to protect Millennials and Homelanders, both as drivers and passengers. As for the bad news on drug overdose fatalities, here the important generational driver is Boomers (plus older Gen Xers) moving into their late 40s, 50s, and 60s. Throughout their lives, these cohorts have pushed up personal risk-taking in every age bracket they have passed through. When they were young, teens did more dangerous things with drugs than older people ever imagined. Now that they’re older, they’ve taken the danger with them.

Apr 012012

I often reflect on the various ways Millennials are inexorably transforming the pop culture.

One clear trend is the new youth enthusiasm about “team” creativity.  As in the whole digital mashup scene, where tracks from several artists are merged, altered, and then remerged by successive people.  Or as in collaborative R&B or rap medleys in which several artists take different voices.  Or as in using social media to facilitate direct-to-fan communication, especially among ultra-connected Millennials.  (Fans of Brit Millennial folk singer Ellie Lawson chipped in to finance her new album in exchange for an exclusive look at new material and their name in the liner notes.)  In fact,  the crowdsourcing option has artists at all stages of their careers, from Björk to Kaiser Chiefs (Gen-Xers) to The Vaccines (Brit Millennials), taking it a step further by actually turning to fans for artistic input on their albums and music videos.

Along with trend toward team play, there is the parallel trend toward “depersonalizing” the performance.  For Boomers (and most Gen-Xers) creative individualism and the cult of personality went hand in hand.  You loved a performer not just for how he (or she) sang… but for who he was (ideals, character, passion, ideology).  Now we are into the era of techno and dance hall music–much of it auto-tuned–where personality is suppressed.  People in the music industry tell me that “one-hit wonders” are now commonplace: Millennials all fall in love with a song, but have little desire to listen to the next song by the same artist, unless it stands on its own.  (Admit it, Boomers, how many utterly incomprehensible songs by King Crimson or CSNY did you suffer through just because it was THEM!)

OK, all this is a long wind up to a funny video illustrating all of the above.  Everyone knows that, back in the day, the solo guitar act was the ultimate Boomer expression of creative individuality and the cult of personality.  Think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or CCR’s “Suzy Q.”

Now try this one for size.  It’s by “Walk Off the Earth,” a group of Canadian Millennials.  It’s perfect, especially the expressions of the performers themselves.  I just about fell off my chair when I saw it.


I thank my friend Dave Sohigian for giving me the heads up.



Mar 252012

Some generations come of age in inflationary eras, when midlife bond owners suffer but when young debtors can easily escape from the consequences of bad choices—since the real value of debt just seems to melt away under the impact of rising nominal wages. Boomers came of age in such an era. Other generations come of age in deflationary eras, when midlife bond owners are rewarded but when young debtors are relentlessly punished. Millennials are coming of age in such an era.

In this post, I’m going to publish one of our recent Social Intelligence articles, on “Why Young Adults Aren’t Buying Homes.” There’s a lot going into this mix, but pay special attention to the role debt is playing in slowing both this generation’s willingness to spend—and their ability to buy a home.

First-time home buying by young adults is way down, according to a new white paper by the New York Fed and an annual report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The Fed data show that only 9 percent of 29-to-34-year-olds got a first-time mortgage from 2009 to 2011, compared with 17 percent 10 years earlier. The Harvard study shows that the share of householders under age 35 owning their own home in 2010 was just 39.1 percent, the lowest since 1995.

This is bad news for a housing market that is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Even upper-end houses are affected, since without first-time buyers, lower-end owners will struggle to “buy up.” It is even worse news for Millennials and late-wave Gen Xers.  Homeownership rates for young adults dropped during the 1980s and reached post-war lows around 1990, but then made a gradual, if partial, recovery in the 1990s and early ‘00s thanks to declining interest rates.  Since the recession, however, homeownership rates for young adults have plunged back down to near-1990 lows despite record-low interest rates and very attractive prices for a new home. What’s going on?

The big-picture story, concludes a recent study by the Chicago Fed, is simple. First, young couples are not giving birth to children as young as they used to—and childbearing is strongly associated with home purchasing.  Yet this only partly explains the dearth of home buying because the homeownership rates of young couples with children have fallen sharply as well. The second long-term driver, argues the Chicago Fed study, is “heightened income risk”—which basically means the declining prospect of income growth among young households. That doesn’t sound good. And it isn’t.

Lately, much of this “heightened income risk” represents the greater likelihood of unemployment—which today is 14 percent for people age 25 and under versus 7 percent for people over age 25, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Also according to the BLS, less than 47 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds have had a job since 2007—the lowest rate since the BLS started keeping records in 1948. Even for young adults who do land jobs, their average wage is declining over the long term. According to recent research from the Economic Policy Institute, the average wage in 2011 for male college graduates ages 23-29 was $21.68 per hour—an 11 percent decline in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 10 years. Wages for females in the same age and education group were down 8 percent during the same time period.  (For both men and women who went straight from high school into the workforce, the real declines according to EPI were similar.)

OK, now let’s imagine a 30ish couple for whom everything has gone right: They have college degrees, they’ve never been unemployed, and their wage growth has kept up with that of older Americans.  For them, there’s yet another hurdle: debt, specifically college loans.  According to another recent New York Fed study, total student loans outstanding are at an all-time high of $870 billion dollars—more than the total for credit cards ($693 billion) or auto loans ($730 billion). For someone in his or her 30s, the average college loan balance is now $28,500, and balances over $50,000 are common. Debt at this level stifles consumer spending and can render many young people ineligible for home mortgages, no matter how low the interest rate.

Note: the estimate of $870 billion in student loans made by the New York Fed a couple of weeks ago was superceded last Thursday by a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (a federal agency).  The CFPB’s new estimate is that total outstanding student loans passed $1 trillion late last year.

Young people who can’t buy a home are renting in larger numbers.  They are also moving in with their parents in larger numbers.  Increasingly, Boomer parents intervene to help their adult children buy their first home, either by cosigning the mortgage or by lending the money to them directly. Direct lending is not only good for Millennials, but also for Boomers parents who may enjoy getting a return of 4.0 percent on their assets rather than 0.4 percent on a low-risk CD. And as much as Boomers love their Millennial kids, they may also want their own space back—finally.

For anyone following the rising trend in multi-generational households (especially young adults living with their parents), take a look at this new Pew study.  Tabulating Census data, the study notes that whereas in 1980 only 11 percent of 25–35 year-olds were living with their parents or grandparents (a postwar low point), by 2011 that figure had doubled to 22 percent.  Millennials have now moved back to the way young adults lived before 1950 and the building of suburbia.  They’ve moved back to the “Frank Capra” household.

So what do most Americans think about the economic hardships facing today’s young adults?  While older generations usually resist any claim that young “have it harder” than they did, this time may be different. A recent Pew Research Center study found that a plurality of the public (41 percent) does indeed believe young adults are having the hardest time in today’s economy, and large majorities (70 to 80 percent) agree that it’s harder for today’s youth than it was for them to find a job, save for the future, pay for college, or buy a home.

Yet if older people may be worried about the economic future of today’s youth, Millennials themselves aren’t.  The Pew study also found that despite the difficult times they face, Millennials remain very optimistic about the future.  Nearly 90 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds polled in the study said that they either make enough money to lead the kind of life they want now, or expect to earn enough money in the future. Optimism is one of the most defining characteristics of Millennials, and in these tough times, it is arguably their best asset—that and their understanding and patient Boomer parents.