The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 102010

A very nice piece by Morley Winograd and Mike Hais.  If you look at surveys over time, you will notice that Boomer (born 1943-1960) have *always* been relatively partial to the ideal of rural/wilderness living; and Generation X (born 1961-1981) to the ideal of creative and diverse urban living (now called new urbanism, mixed use, infill paradise, what have you).  Millennial (born 1982-200?) show a partiality to the small town and the suburb—yes, the suburb: take that all you apocalyptic Boomers who have always expressed such hatred for the brave new world your parents built!  Keep in mind, though, that for single Millennials this remains their ideal for their stable, married, familied future, not necessarily for the present.  The favorite destination for single Millennials remains big and busy (and now safer) cities.  NYC tops the list.

btw, when NCLB was legislated back in 2001, no provision was bitterly resisted by teachers unions and the majority of Democratic leaders as the rule that school children in persistently failing districts eventually be given the right to choose new schools.  Go back and look at the record.  This was a Bush monstrosity that would unravel the very fabric of our public school system, etc., etc.  Now this principle is accepted across the political spectrum, and even the unions are conceding.  Reason, imo, is the rapidly growing impact over the last ten years of Gen-X parents.  Districts everywhere in America are now wooing parents with slogans about how they want to “be their choice” of schools.   What a sea change!

May 072010

I have a lot of respect for Ronald Lee.  He’s a big-name demographer/economist.  But I just can’t fathom how he can arrive at his conclusions because the differences in the magnitude of spending are so large.  This year, all levels of government spent around $150 billion on higher ed—but around $1.2 trillion on transfers to the elderly.  Keep in mind too that all generations are taxed to support higher ed, and that higher ed has current benefits (discoveries, R&D) benefitting all generations, whereas the majority of the transfers to elderly go strictly from younger people’s payrolls and pay exclusively for the personal consumption of the elderly.  If he includes all levels of education, the quantitative comparison is less lopsided, of course, but then I find it harder to interpret his comment about the earliest generations who “did not receive public eduction.”  And I’d like to know how he deals with the interesting question of how to calculate the enormous implicit subsidy K-12 education received in the early decades when talented women had few other places to work, and thus could be hired by schools at very low salaries.  Up until the 1970s, you could say, adult women were collectively “taxed” for the collective benefit of children.

Apr 022010

This article in the Washington Post that describes the alternative to failing schools: going online. Like early college and service academies, the most innovative programs introducing on-line education to K-12 is happening with low-achieving, “at-risk”  kids.  Apparently, the school establishment would just as soon hive these off.  But they don’t dare give up their middle- and upper-achievers.

Interesting how parents are beginning to come around, probably due to the rising presence of Generation X (born 1961-1981).  On-line advocates need to stop trying to confirm quality of instruction and begin to address the community and civic dimensions of education, which I think give rise to most of the qualms.  The author mentions this objections, but doesn’t really say how the problem is solved.

She is absolutely right, though,  about the irony of the feds giving new R&D money to post-secondary schools to develop on-line education—as if they need it: The University of Phoenix is now hitting 500,000 enrollees, more than the Big Ten combined!  But nothing for K-12, which remains an utter backwater in the application of any kind of technology beyond the occasional classroom movie.  In this, the teachers unions truly are reactionary.

Feb 222010

Though I’m quoted several times in this article, I don’t really agree much with its conclusions.  As you may know, I tend to downplay the central and causal role attributed to technology by so many generational “theorists.”  More to the point, I pay a lot more attention to the way generations shape technology rather than the other way around.  But apparently that idea is a hard sell.  Listen especially to what many of these people say about the *length* of a generation.  Since they have no definition of what a generation is, nor any theory about how generations are formed, their observations here seem like stabs in the dark.

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.”

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 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.

Oct 262009

I’m talking about the Homelander Generation (born 200? – 202?) . And I mean—literally—silent in the case of this article about using sign language in the classroom.

Let’s glimpse ahead 15 years… to K-12 classrooms where every kid is polite, sensitive to the needs of others, and unwilling to “disrupt” classroom flow for a mere personal request. Another Silent (born 1925-1942) generation in the making?