The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 052010
 

Interesting piece in the NYT style section recently.  Apparently, in the very long wake of the Great Recession, people aren’t as attracted to the boyish waif look in men’s fashion anymore.  Interestingly, there was a lot of discussion as well about this in the couple of years after 9/11. Something that Bill and I used to suggest, and wrote about in The Fourth Turning: greater distance between gender roles in the [4T] and in the emerging Millennial (born 1982-200?).

Quotes:

Especially in a depressed economy, the editors concluded, the Details man was not well represented by the boys so fashionable a moment ago.

“It’s not just models, it’s actors, it’s advertising, it’s the movies,” said Sam Shahid, creative director of Shahid & Company and a force behind campaigns that first helped put Calvin Klein’s name on half the world’s backsides. “It’s trendy to do this, and everyone’s suddenly jumping on it,” Mr. Shahid said, referring to the abrupt rejiggering of masculine ideals.

Oct 172010
 

Nice retrospective on an iconic G.I. (born 1901-1924) actress (b. 1915) who provided the stereotypical suburban mom to Boomer (born 1943-1960).  When I watched the show as a fourth-grader circa 1960, I was more “the Beav’s” age, and my older brothers and cousins were more the age of Wally and Eddie.  The older siblings were steadier, more responsible.  We were all a bit wilder, a bit more risk prone, a bit more into our own little worlds.  When June Cleaver said, “Ward, I’m very worried about the Beaver,” she had reason to be worried.  She would have been terrified if she had known how many of us would later turn out.

Oct 112010
 

I have argued before that “Mad Men” is a fundamentally unhistorical rendition of how most Americans felt and behaved in late First Turning (the High) America.  To summarize, my point was basically that most of the roles are played by Generation X (born 1961-1981) who meticulously “look” like circa-1960 business-world people—but who fail to reflect the authentic mood of the era as it was lived and experienced.  Instead, the actors come across as Gen-Xers dressed in 1960 clothing and trapped in 1960 social mannerisms.  Let me put aside all instance in “Mad Men” where the script is simply impossible—like characters telling each other to “get in touch with their feelings.”  Even aside from such obvious anachronisms, most scenes (to my eye and ear) are suffused with a sense of oppressive tension and cynicism.

Well, in this columnStepanie Coontz (well-known author and first-wave Boomer) begs to differ.  She says that “Mad Men” is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the period.  Yet she says so for reasons which I think pretty much support my own assessment.  She says the show accurately portrays the suffocating gender chauvinism that prevailed in America just before the sexual revolution began to set things right.  I agree that it does this.  And, I would argue, it does this so effectively because the cast is so clearly ill-at-ease in the world they inhabit.  To take contemporary Gen-Xers and thrust them back into 1960 life roles would be tantamount to physically throwing just about anyone into a jail cell.  No one looks comfortable when they are locked up.

I would argue that to portray a period in which everyone feels out of place is probably not an accurate portrayal.  Coontz, of course, may disagree.  She may say that most Americans really were, objectively, miserable in the 1950s.  Most likely what she really means to say is that most Americans, men and women, *should* have felt miserable if they had only known how they were being abused by their own social norms.  But then again most Americans didn’t really come to this understanding until after the ‘60s were over… and after Coontz had launched her writing career.

Ponder the epistemological question.  To what extent should the mood or tone of an era be judged by standards not widely held until after the era was over?  The best way to think about this question is to imagine how Hollywood, in the year 2060, will portray our own America circa 2010.  (The Washington Post Outlook section had a recent essay on exactly this question.)  What horrible injustices will we be accused of tolerating daily?  One can imagine many candidates.  To the left, what may come most easily to mind is how we all routinely ravage the environment; to the right, how we routinely terminate the lives of millions of the unborn.  (Both candidates were mentioned in the Post piece.)  I submit that no one really knows and that to subject our own present-day world to such a radical perspective, which might require each of us to confess crimes to a tribunal organized by the new regime, would not be an accurate representation of what it actually feels like today to live in our world.

Let me bring this discussion back around to generations, turnings, and cyclical versus linear time.  One thing Bill and I discovered many years ago, even before The Fourth Turning appeared, was that most people who really do not like our perspective on history have fairly strong ideological motivations.  These tend to be people whose ideology colors their perspective on history, who see history moving from absolute error toward absolute rectitude, and who (therefore) are really bothered by a view of history that is not linear.  In this view, the idea that there might be something archetypal in a bygone generation or era of history seems bizarre, even perverse.  There can be no archetype for social dysfunction and blatant injustice.  It’s like a disease.  When it’s over, you hope and expect it never returns.

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 292010
 

I have missed (first-wave Boomer (born 1943-1960), radical feminist) Camille Paglia.  She’s so pungent, so smart.  And now I see this: Her total put-down of Lady Gaga and her entire generation—by extension, we would have to say, of her entire Millennial (born 1982-200?).

Paglia’s emphasis on Gaga’s essential a-sexuality reminds me of that famous Rolling Stone expose of the Millennial libido a few years ago, “The Young and Sexless.”  Gaga doesn’t  say a lot that’s interesting or coherent, but she has commented several times that young people can be happy with or without sex.  She is, as Paglia observes, simply indifferent to the question.

What rankles many Boomers like Paglia is the fundamental sense that Millennials show no evidence of experiencing life with the same clarity, passion, depth, authenticity, and desire to break through and outrage as older generations once did.  Paglia is especially bothered by Gaga’s inability to articulate a single coherent feeling or idea—and her fans’ total comfort with that.  Note Paglia uses Madonna (b. 1958) as the positive Boomer foil.

Critics compare her to the outrageous staging of “glam rock” bands like David Bowie in the ‘70s.  But I don’t really see much resemblance.

Anyone care to guess what role, if any, Gaga will play in defining Millennial pop culture?

Sep 282010
 

Interesting piece in a recent Salon about the troika of big vampire series for tv/movies: BuffyTwilight, and True Blood.  The author tries to distinguish each series (I’m not sure entirely successfully) by its political or ideological outlook.  What some of the commenters point out, however, is that the shows are intended for different demographics—that is, while Twilight is intended for teens, TB is an HBO show intended for older audience… hence, the more nihilistic outlook of the latter.

Btw, does anyone watch True Blood?  (Apparently, it’s HBO’s biggest hit since the Sopranos.)  To the extent most critics have identified any politics at all in the show, it’s centered about echoes of the gay rights movement (“God hates fangs,” “Coming out of the coffin,” etc.).  But apparently, the main plot lines are pretty unruly… and gruesome.

Sep 132010
 

An interesting defense of LeBron against his Xer detractors.  Interesting that most Generation X (born 1961-1981) did not say, OK, LeBron is just maximizing his  future fame and income and looking out for himself.  Who needs Cleveland?  Who needs community?  Instead, they’re on LeBron for wanting to *join* his superstar buddies rather than *compete* with them.  Michael and Kobe says that LeBron could turn out to be many things, but now that he’s buddied up, he’ll never be “the man” who singlehandedly turned it all around for his team.  Jordan and Bryant didn’t invent this charge.  I think the first person to say that LeBron will never be “the man” is Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post.  And to an Xer athlete, nothing could be more important than being “the man.”

“SuperFriends.”  Now that’s Millennial (born 1982-200?).

Aug 162010
 

In no sphere of social life did the brassy me-firstism of America’s Third Turning (Unraveling) manifest itself so conspicuously as in professional sports.  The Nike swoosh, the vast signing and performance bonuses, the limousine loge seats, the intimidating tattoos, the brute physicality and in-your-face attitude, even the very term “free agent”— all of these became iconic symbols, in a celebrity carnival kind of way, of a fundamental mood shift that began in the mid-1980s.  Even the Olympics, which had never before made anybody rich, began generating huge profits.  (Thanks, Peter Ueberroth, for letting McDonald’s start a nifty new game the LA games in 1984: “When the U.S. wins, you win!”)

Now, some twenty-odd years later, it seems that another attitude shift is under way, once again with some of the most interesting signals coming from professional sports.  The tide is beginning to turn on the fighting, the profanity, the performance drugs, the super-lux seats, and the renting of stadium names.  And, as this story shows, pro teams everywhere (though this story in mainly about the DC area) are starting to focus a lot more on how they can give back to the community.

Quote:

“It has changed dramatically,” said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of charity efforts in the multibillion-dollar industry. “Now it’s a central part of the business model of most franchises.”

Sure, you can say it’s hypocritical and just another way for the franchises to win the popularity of local crowds and national audiences.  But I’m sure many of the athletes and managers are sincere, and in any case why wasn’t this a formula for winning over crowds and audiences ten or twenty years ago?  You could also say it’s just the impact of the Great Recession.  People are tapped out, they don’t want to be reminded of things they can’t afford, and they are aware their communities have bigger needs but smaller public resources to handle them.  This is also true.  But it’s got to be more than that.  Nothing much changed in pro sports during the recession of 1991 or during the slow recovery thereafter.  If anything, the violence and drugs and attitude all got amped up: The overall U.S. rate of violent crime peaked in 1994, while ‘roid use kept spreading to more athletes and bad-ass black jerseys (a color proven to provoke aggression in sports and in war) kept spreading to more franchises.

What’s different, I submit, is that this recession is accompanying a shift from a Third to Fourth Turning (Crisis) mood—with palpable changes in the role the public wants pro athletes to play in their lives and in the way pro teams see themselves.

As Boomer (born 1943-1960) move into the ranks of senior managers/executives, they find it easier than the Silent (born 1925-1942) to “discover” authentic social issues and to promote their teams through involvement in passionate cause marketing.  They are also setting up many of the community foundations and philanthropic service firms that make it easy for wealthy athletes to start their own charities.  Silent executives, who were big-institution professionals, never really understood the personalization of philanthropy.

As Generation X (born 1961-1981) become the successful senior athletes and recently retired veterans, many of them are looking for ways to settle down, get serious, drop anchor in their neighborhood, and do something lasting.  For years, they’ve wanted to spend more time with their kids—and now they can, just at the ages (grade school) at which their kids most need them.  Nothing dovetails better with their rediscovery of family than wanting to spend more time with their kid’s friends, with other kids, with their families, with their friends, and so on.

Meanwhile, year by year, young Millennial (born 1982-200?) fans and players are transforming the audience-athlete interaction.  It’s not just that risk-averse Millennials are less turned-on by the violent and aggressive side of pro sports.  They are also less thrilled by the money-and-business dimension, which was big for Xers.  Millennials want to see more about athletes who can be good parents, neighbors, citizens, and good Samaritans.  Last spring, a Washington Post story about NHL player Brooks Laich (born 1983) stopping on the beltway to help a mother-with-kids change a flat tire—just an hour or so after his team had lost their final playoff game—ranked as this region’s most read and discussed sports story of the year.

Jul 212010
 

This article in the LA Times about Sean Combs seems to be a characteristic Generation X (born 1961-1981) evolution: Starting out with a desperate and edgy and alienated and violent image and gradually morphing into something nicer and funnier.  Diddy is following the path of Ice Cube, who went from NWA to “Are We There Yet?”  For slightly older examples, think of Eddie Murphy (actor) or Robert Rodriguez (director).  Anyone care to comment on the significance of this?  I’m wondering about parallels in the Lost Generation — Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney, for example, who definitely trended “nicer” from the 20s and early 30s to the late 30s and 40s.  Instead of just gunning other “mugs” down, Cagney even went back  to his Vaudeville roots and started singing and dancing.