The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Feb 262010

Interesting article in The Atlantic about the effect of joblessness on generational attitudes (courtesy of Pete Markiewicz

In tone, this is a very Fourth Turning (Crisis)  kind of piece. I especially like his figure of the “L-shaped” recession. Yet he really doesn’t present any coherent analytical point of view. He simply puts a negative spin on every observation or study he can cite, making everything consistently downbeat.

In fact, many of the cited studies on the effects of unemployment are now known to have false correlation problems. When a young man has drinking and other personal problems and also sporadic employment behavior, we cannot assume the latter caused the former. It may be the other way around. As for the negative impact of high unemployment on cohorts who come of age in those years, well, Millennial (born 1982-200?) are trying to avoid that negative impact by *not* just taking the first lousy job that becomes available. But the author gives Millennials no credit for that, but bashes them for the softness and risk-aversion etc.

This brings us to what he says about generations and Twenge, which is pretty much all garbage. He says that “Gen Y” got jobs in the high-tech boom of the late 1990s and that that’s why they’re optimistic and rule abiding (as opposed to “real” Generation X (born 1961-1981) who got jobs in the early 1990s)? What? Where does he get his dates?

I’ve been on several radio shows where the host asks me about the impact of recession on youth generations. They often cite the famous Glen Elder book. My response, which seems to make sense to most people, is that how a generation responds to a recession depends upon the underlying peer personality of the youth generation in question, which in turn depends on how they were raised. For the young Silent (born 1925-1942) in the 1930s depression, economic hardship accentuated their other-directedness, their trust in big institutions, and their long time horizons. For the young Xers in the early ’80s, it accentuated the opposite traits. There is no mechanical one-to-one link between an economic shock and the youth response.

It’s the author’s failure to acknowledge generational and era (“turning”) differences that explains how he comes to the conclusion that the emerging ’10s will resemble the ’70s. He has no inkling of seasonality. E.g., youth crime rose strongly throughout the ’70s. But today youth crime is still falling. Incredibly, cities like NYC and DC had fewer murders in 2009 than any year going all the way back to the early 1960s. No mention of this in this article!

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