The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Dec 302009

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

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

Here are the lyrics:

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

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

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

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

Dec 282009

Check out this article in the NY times:

Frustrated With West, Turks Revel in Empire Lost

OK, we got it: We’re all into our imperial “roots” these days. The Russians are reveling in nostalgia about Stalin and the glory days of the USSR. The Chinese are confessing their cultural ties to Confucius and all those pre-western millennia when China was indeed the “Middle Kingdom” (those characters still form the Mandarin anagram for China). And yes the Persians, reaching a bit further back, are playing up big the glorious imperial precedents of the Achaemenids (CyrusDariusXerxes, et al.) and the Sassanids (ever hear about Shapur the Great?). But now the Turks join the ranks of the revanchism brigade. I could have told them all along that the EU would never accept them. Their Ataturk-inspired “westernization” has reached a dead end. So now it’s time to turn back to the great Ottoman Empire.

Maybe you were taught in high school or college that this was the perennial “sick man of Europe”? How wrong you were! Did you know that if they had taken Vienna in 1683, they could have driven straight into the heart of Europe? Maybe Lawrence of Arabia, who did so much to help the Arabs liberate themselves of the Turkish Empire, did history a bad turn. From 1517 to 1924, the Ottoman Turk “Sultan,” number one in political power, chose the “Caliph” of the Muslim world, number one in religious authority. Not only were the Arabs under the Turk thumb. Islam itself was under the Turk thumb.

Well, thanks to Lawrence, the Turkish thumb eventually disappeared. And ever since all hell has broken loose. Question: Now that Obama has blown a fateful (and deadline-delimited) trumpet on behalf of our effort in Afghanistan, and now that he has to worry that Al-Qaida could (even if Obama is successful in roughly 550 days) just as easily regroup in Somalia or Yemen, could it not be the moment to enlist the aid of the ancient Turkic virtue? Their empire, revived? Their noble Janissaries? The Turks were always better warriors than the Arabs. It was the Turks who booted out the Crusaders. And the Turks (Mamluks) who turned back the Mongols. Why not turn back to the Turks again? Just a thought.

Dec 252009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 232009

A friend sent a link of this video of Drake’s new hit “Money to Blow” recently:

It’s the typical Millennial (born 1982-200?)translation of the original Generation X (born 1961-1981) hip hop: Dial up the money and pleasure—but dial down (to practically zero) to desperation and survivalism, which once upon a time was such a essential theme of Xer hip hop.

IMO, this stuff is just dream fluff.  Genuine Xers, claim you don’t know this guy.

Dec 222009

Nice piece in the Washington Post by Joel Achenbach on the weird hi jinks going on over the health-care bill in the Senate.  Here’s an excerpt.  Note the generational roles being played here.  Lieberman (1942), Bernie Sanders (1942), and McCain (1936) are all Silent (born 1925-1942).  Blindsided by the disappearance of politeness and process, they are expressing utter perplexity.  Franken and Coburn, of course, are (very) Boomer (born 1943-1960).  I’m sure they’ve never felt so alive.

Love the final reference to the “smoking tweet.”

Lieberman discovered to his great surprise how the tension of recent weeks has altered the Senate. Holding forth on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, he reached his time limit and made a routine request for an additional moment to speak. Presiding was the freshman senator from Minnesota, Al Franken. Party leaders had told him to be strict about time limits. Franken said, “I object.”

“Really???” Lieberman said, astonished.

He didn’t take it personally, and later said he realized Franken was just following orders. But the incident raised the hackles of Republican John McCain (Ariz.), who sensed comity going out the window.

“I don’t know what’s happening here in this body, but I think it’s wrong,” McCain said. “I’ll tell you, I have never seen a member denied an extra minute or so, as the chair just did.”

What’s happened is that there is no such thing anymore as a routine “unanimous consent” request. That notion died on Wednesday, when Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, used his senatorial prerogative to insist upon the line-by-line reading of Sanders’s 767-page, single-payer amendment. Three hours of droning by clerks later, Sanders had to pull his amendment.

Later, Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin said he’d found irrefutable evidence that Republicans had no goal other than to delay a vote on health care. His people had intercepted a Twitter message authored by a Republican senator that revealed an obstructionist intent.

“I have in my hand,” Durbin told assembled journalists, “a smoking tweet.”

Dec 212009

This article in the NYT can be read on many levels.  As an indicator of the tremendous pressure facing young Millennial (born 1982-200?) who want to excel.  Or as a sign of how far Millennial girls are willing to go to slavishly jump over every bar that teachers put before them.

Or it can be read as pointing to the changing role of entertainment in a nation now governed by the “cultural elite,” no longer by the “power elite.”

Young Boomer (born 1943-1960) recall their parents and teachers taking such a casual attitude toward culture and entertainment.  It wasn’t part of the civic and institution building that (G.I. (born 1901-1924) believed) really mattered.  Cultural performers were not very well paid, and no one really cared if the production was original or innovative.

Now look at Millennials.  If they want to excel in entertainment, they had better be ready to enter some astronaut program of all-consuming perfection.

Bill and I once wrote—I think it  was in Millennials in the Pop Culture—that if “The Graduate” were re-written today, the key word “plastics” would be replaced by the word “media.”

Dec 172009

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

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

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

Dec 072009

The following study in the LA Times makes a very interesting point about turnings:,0,3380394.story.  Cases identical to Polanski’s today receive much more severe sentences, on average, than the sentence that Polanski avoided in 1978 by fleeing the country.

Committing a sex crime against a (Nomad) minor during a Second Turning (Awakening) will result in much lighter sentencing than waiting 20-odd years until late in a Third Turning (Unraveling) when everyone will be thinking about Hero minors.

Nov 302009

Great piece in the NY Times about behavioral parenting. Generation X (born 1961-1981) are really getting into this. Here’s a good line:

“It’s finite, and it’s what they crave,” Ms. Hope explained. “Children love structure, the same as animals love structure.”

2009-11-25_1259There were plenty of “authoritative” childcare guides back in the 80s that Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents gobbled up. Bill and I looked at a lot of them. They were, to be sure, very different from what Xers are reading today. The Boomer guides tended to be very attitudinal, even counter-cultural, stressing the need for a whole new way of looking at relationships, at society, at gender roles and at your own life. It was really an extension of the Lamaze Movement-very spiritual and full of the power of suggestion-that hit full on in the 1980s. Bill Cosby influenced a lot of young adult Boomers, but because he was Silent (born 1925-1942), Boomers wanted to take his value-free-let’s-discuss-everything point of view and move it in a more normative direction. A lot of Boomers really wanted to change society with the way they raised their kids. And in trying to do that, they believed all that mattered was the intensity and quality of their relationship with their child and the correctness of the values they taught them.

With Xer guides, everything has changed. Xer guides are much more prescriptive, full of do’s and don’t’s, and much less attitudinal. Many of the Boomer guides looked a bit like the Whole Earth Catalogue: It showed how raising children was part of a whole world view. To Xers, hey, child rearing is just like any other technique or business-there must be a good way and a bad way to get the job done. I want to do it the good way.

Xer guides are much more scientific in the sense that the authors need to show that there’s empirical evidence favoring one way over another. Skeptical Xers don’t take advice on pure faith. Amazingly, Boomer guides rarely talked about evidence: We just “knew” e.g. that Lamaze just *must* be a vastly superior way to give birth. Just look at those Hopi designs on the book cover! (btw, I’m a big supporter of Lamaze; I just acknowledge that it was never sold to us as an evidence-based practice.)

As I’ve mentioned, Xer guides are putting a lot more stress on behavioral techniques. Dog whispering is, admittedly, an extreme example. But apt. As in so many other things, Gen-Xers know how to take their own ego out of the equation, which is what behavioral parenting requires. The whole behavioral point of view is very Xer in that it looks at the human condition as a matter of external conditioning and adaptation-a useful antidote to the endless Boomer fixation on interior motives and values.

In the end, one must say that there’s a real bottom-line pragmatism about Xer child raising that wasn’t there for Boomers. Raising children isn’t about saving the world or making a perfect child or self-actualizing the parent. It’s just a set of tangible practices that will keep your child safe, reasonably happy, well behaved, and ready to take on life’s challenges when they’re good and ready but not until then. Forget the “supermom,” striving to correct her shortcomings. Now it’s the “good enough mom,” humorously self-deprecating about her shortcomings. What else would you expect from someone who’s read The Idiot’s Guide to Parenting. Good parenting for Boomers depended on being a good person. Hence the anxiety. Now it just means knowing a bag of tricks and being there at the right time. So now you can joke about it.

Xer pragmatism means today’s parents are much less interested in trying to make their kids perfect in situations where it really doesn’t matter that much. Xer parents, for example, are notoriously careless about how their kids in public places. (OK, civic comity is not very high on their priorities in any case.) But if they don’t care how other adults see their kids, they are extremely wary about other adults approaching or interacting with their kids. That’s “hands-on” parenting.

Here’s another example. Boomer parents often didn’t think very hard about exactly *where* they raised their kids. As long as the emotional bond was high quality, the place really didn’t matter. So Boomers trekked with their small tots out to wildness outposts, or to communes, or to inner-city neighborhoods as urban homesteaders, and so on. So long as you lived your own authentic dreams, your kids would be fine. Xer parents are much less likely to think that way. To them, place really matters. Lots of Xers are moving into very pricey suburban or exurban communities whose lifestyle they loathe (god, do I really have to feed and mow all that grass!), just so their kids will be able to attend the best schools and be around other kids with like-minded parents.

According to Judith Harris, whose influential though admittedly controversial book “The Nurture Assumption” appeared in 1998, Xers may be making the smarter choice. She argues that the only important influence that parents actually have over their own kids is the genes they pass on. The environmental influence of parents is practically nil-much less important than the influence of the youth peer group that surrounds the child as it grows up. Thus, according to Harris, Xers are indeed focusing on the one variable which turns out to make a difference.

btw, the Harris book is excellent. She supports her conclusion with reams of academic evidence (she’s practically a walking library on twin and adoptee and child development studies), and in any case she writes very well. Her thesis also has very important implications for any theory of generational formation-which is why I find her work especially interesting. But that’s a discussion for another time.