The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
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.