The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
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.

Nov 272009

Bob Samuelson’s update on how Health ‘Reform’ That Burdens Our Young. One big question will be whether the House formula triumphs (up to a 2-to-1 difference), which will mandate a huge transfer from young adults, or whether the Senate formula wins out (up to a 4-to-1 difference).

This is the provision btw that won over AARP’s hearty endorsement of “reform,” despite the fact that the plans will pull much of the subsidy away from the “advantage” plans enjoyed by a growing number of Medicare recipients. AARP clearly sees that the “advantage” subsidy is small potatoes compared to this windfall for Boomer (born 1943-1960) who will soon be AARP members.

Samuelson asks a good question: When will AARP back community rating for auto insurance?

At last count the official unfunded liabilities for Social Security and all parts (A-D) of Medicare is roughly $100 trillion. So who’s even going to count the extra nickels and dimes we borrow to fill the Part D doughnut hole? And the fiscal stimulus keeps the economy moving and the Fed is handing out free (zero-interest) money. For me, this is certainly the most interesting and unanticipated fiscal, economic, and political environment I have ever seen in my life. For much of the country, there is tremendous unease that the vaunted “courage” of our national leaders always seems to result in borrowing from our kids, keeping our benefits up and our taxes low, and kicking most of the painful choices (“health care reform”) down the road. What happens when the music stops?

Many informed Millennial (born 1982-200?) will want to ask why — after all their struggles to find jobs, the higher tuitions, the extra debt, and the open faucet on federal debt that they will have to pay back—they also need to pay a new hidden tax to benefit Boomer (born 1943-1960) nearing retirement. Millennials like to be regarded as more civic minded. But I don’t think they like to have a “kick me” sign attached to their backs. If this goes through, some national leader is going to discover this issue and push it in ways that could get ugly. One could, for example, see low-income, go-bare Millennials heavily featured in the Tenth Amendment challenges that will inevitably occur on the mandate. I’m not looking forward to any of this.

Nov 242009

In 2007, PBS released a special documentary on Millennials that centered around interviews with me and Bill.  LifeCourse Associates has just been able to release the DVD  for sale on our website, and I thought you might be interested.  You can access it here.

Here’s the announcement from our site:

Announcing “Millennials,” a PBS Special Featuring Neil Howe and William Strauss

LifeCourse is pleased to announce the release of a 2007 PBS special documentary, Millennials: A Profile of the Next Great Generation, now available for sale in our bookstore.  Using the research of generational experts and bestselling authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, the documentary examines today’s rising Millennial Generation of youth.  Who are the Millennials?  What forces have shaped them as a generation?  And do they have what it takes to deal with the many political, environmental, and cultural issues that may now be reaching a crisis point?  This documentary looks for answers.  It brings the insights of Howe and Strauss to life through in-depth interviews with the authors as well as personal stories of Millennials coming of age.

Nov 232009

The cover of Time Magazine this week features on article on overparenting:,8599,1940395-1,00.html

(thanks to JenX67 for the link)

The claim is that a backlash is forming, but I wonder whether that will really be the case. The author of the Time article doesn’t seem to discriminate between over-achieving parenting (typical of Boomer (born 1943-1960)) and over-protective parenting (typical of  Generation X (born 1961-1981)). Things like “slow parenting” are a good example of where Gen X is rejecting the Boomer over-achiever style:

This is a Slow Family Living class, taught by perinatal psychologist Carrie Contey and Bernadette Noll. “Our whole culture,” says Contey, 38, “is geared around ‘Is your kid making the benchmarks?’ There’s this fear of ‘Is my kid’s head the right size?’ People think there’s some mythical Good Mother out there that they aren’t living up to and that it’s hurting their child. I just want to pull the plug on that.”

There is definitely a Gen X driven backlash against the whole perfectionist Boomer “hyper-parenting” style. But the whole move back to simple, slow, home-based child rearing often leads to parenting styles that are even more hands-on and protective than they were before. Workshops on how to help kids by “letting go” and the mathematical reassessment of which risks are worth guarding against has a comical aspect. You will know when the next generation of young children are arriving (their parents will be late-wave Millennial (born 1982-200?)) when no one is any longer interested in this subject. We’ve built a whole new world that is basically safe, so now let’s just ignore them and not worry any longer. When we reach that point, young Prophets (the next incarnation of the Boomers) will be among us.

Nov 122009

Proviso: I don’t of course agree with everything–or maybe even most of the things–Jim Quinn says.  But I do love the passion and intensity and texture of his analysis.  He is definitely a worthy contributor.  I don’t know his age, but I guess like the rest of you he’s Boomer-Xer cusp.

On the starting date for the Fourth Turning (Crisis) (4T), I believe Bill and I did a column on the 4T site several years ago detailing all the reasons why we thought it did not begin with 9/11.  We got some flak at the time, because there were lots of people who *wanted* it to begin then.  But to our eye, it was clearly too early.  Typically, a new turning begins after all of the living generations begin to move into their new phases of life.  In 2001, clearly that hadn’t happened yet: Boomers were not yet retiring, Generation X (born 1961-1981) were not yet taking over any institutions as midlife leaders, Millennial (born 1982-200?) were barely graduating high school, and so on.  We predicted that the Third Turning (Unraveling) (3T) mood would yet have an Indian Summer… and so it did.  Keep in mind that on the “Hero clock” of the last 4T, we are still not quite due for the 4T to begin.  The ’29 Crash happened 28 years after the first G.I. (born 1901-1924) birth year.  We will hit that same year  for Millennials in… 2010.

All that being said, many are asking me if I think the 4T has yet started.  I’m with Mr. Cooper.  For nearly a year now, I’ve been saying that a strong case can be made that it started in 2008–with the beginning of an epic financial crash (a 60% decline in the global Dow from peak to trough) and an extraordinary national election that may signal an enduring political realignment and that has, for the time being, put government on a sort of permanent emergency fiscal footing (with 10% of GDP deficits that may only come down slowly if at all).  And yes thanks to 911 everyone knows that we are engaged in seemingly endless Asian wars–but now, thanks to the election, they are *bipartisan* wars… and *bipartisan* showdowns over nuts with nukes.  We’ve got plenty of moving parts.  I think one could say we’ve got sufficient or “critical” mass to call this the beginning of a 4T.  The next two or three years must be watched closely.  The crucial question, if indeed the 4T is underway, is determining when the “regeneracy” phase of the 4T will begin.

On the question of dating the Homelanders.  Let’s assume the Millennials are a 23-year-long generation (perfectly plausible: one year shorter than the GIs, one year longer than the Xers).  That would put their last birth year at 2004.  Which means the first Homelander birth year is 2005.  Let’s now assume that 2008 marks an extended period (ten “lost years” or more) of very poor economic performance–with high unemployment, low capacity and consumer confidence, stagnant global trade, etc..  That would precisely mark the Homeland Generation as the generation having no memory of the Great Boom.  All Millennials will recall at least some childhood during the zany ’90s and early oughts; Homelanders not.  Exactly in the same manner that all G.I.s could later recall at least some childhood during the Roaring Twenties–but the Silent (born 1925-1942) (born starting in 1925–the oldest were turning four at the Great Crash) could not.

In presentations I do for K-12 teachers and administrators, I am starting to spend more time talking about the Homelanders (they may now be in preschool–and will soon be entering grammar school).  And yes they have all the early markings of the Artist archetype.  They are heavily protected by their Gen-X moms and dads, who overwhelmingly believe they are raising their kids in a more hands-on, interventionist, kid-safety-comes-first style than they themselves were raised.  Just like the Lost Generation, who discovered the behavioralist child-rearing guru John Watson, so too are Xers parents deep into the behavioralism of child-care guides filled with “do’s and dont’s” rules.  In our recent book “Millennials and K-12 Schools” (2008), we have a small chapter on the Homelanders.  Every day we are expanding our insights.  I hope sometime soon to write a longer column on them for all of you.

It’s getting late.  Anyway, thanks again for being here.  Last weekend I did a three-hour radio show on Coast-to-Coast AM (11 PM to 2 AM Pacific Time), and I was extremely grateful, in the last hour, to get a great number of phonecalls from Boomer (born 1943-1960) and Gen-Xers around the country who first read our books in the early ’90s and have been following us ever since.  This was my fourth or fifth show for them–and they will probably soon have me on as a regular (rough hours I know!).  I hope to meet you on one of these show.  In any case, I can truthfully say that it’s your curiosity, your enthusiasm, and the sharing of your own experiences that has always made this worthwhile for both of us–Bill, while he was still with us, and myself for as long as I am around.

Nov 112009

I found this NYT report (text and video) on the pop culture of Pakistan’s present-day youth generation to be very sobering. It is really worth watching and relates to the Fourth Turning (Crisis)

We see (in the headlines) the pro-western policies of the Iraq’s leadership and (lately) the pro-western military campaigns of its army. Yet one wonders, after watching this video, whether the reality may be very different under the surface. The U.S. and President Obama’s “war of necessity” against the radicalized Taliban has become, more than ever before, the object of vituperation in Pakistan—and of Pakistan’s youth in particular. Our new stepped-up predator/drone campaign is especially hated.

Keep in mind not just that Pakistan has nukes, but that it has an enormous and unstable youth population (the lower fertility that has hit Iran and much of the Arab world has not yet much affected Pakistan), that it remains very poor, with very low human development index scores, that it is riven by tribal, ethnic, and religious factionalism, and that it has a history of violent coups. Not a single former leader of Pakistan has yet died a natural death. And most of them are dead. The “anglo” culture of Pakistan’s elite does not seem to help—indeed, may even further fuel a sense of alienation. Nor, as this video demonstrates, does it matter how many die in Taliban attacks. It’s not a pretty picture.

Nov 022009

This is an interesting and creative essay by Jim Quinn, who writes for a financial newsletter:

Quinn says the Fourth Turning (Crisis) started in 2005 and that we have several more years of worsening wars, higher energy prices, and towering deficits before we reach regeneracy. He still sees a Boomer (born 1943-1960) Gray Champion in our future (which generation is he, I wonder?):

We are years from a final resolution. The cast of characters who will decide our fate is unknown today. Barack Obama will not be a major player in the climax of this Crisis. He will go down in history as the James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover figure that only insured that the Crisis would grow bigger and more painful through his actions. The country is likely to turn to an aging Boomer to lead the country through the violent phase of this Crisis. The initial phase of this Crisis has passed, much like the stock market crash in 1929 and the appearance of a recovery in 1930. The “solutions” that have been implemented thus far will drive our deficits skyward, drive the dollar downward, and ultimately push the economy into a depression. The confluence of a deepening depression with the onset of peak oil shortages in supplies and soaring prices between 2010 and 2014 will plunge the country into chaos. As the world loses confidence in the leadership of our country, they will exit our debt and our dollar. The collapse of the U.S. currency could result in a number of calamitous scenarios.