The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jun 132012

This cartoon (thanks to, which has been knocking around the Internet for a few months, is good enough to show again here.

Entering an office today full of Millennial knowledge workers (say, a law firm or investment firm) is a curiously subdued experience.  Not a lot of talking, folding, walking, singing, stapling, photocopying… or even moving.  Everyone is intensely focused, busily attending to many tasks, and (usually) communicating with others, often with many others at the same time.  But it’s all done with a screen, keyboard, and headphones.  To the outside observor, there seems to be almost nothing going on.

I am reminded of the climactic scene in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), when Jan (the last real “human”) returns to earth and finds all of the earth’s children, in the hundreds of millions, lying motionless on one continent, not even opening their eyes.  But they are communicating through telepathy, and soon they begin to move and reconfigure the planets through telekenesis.  As I recall, Jan stays to witness the transformation of the rising generation into pure mind (this is where it gets real Boomer!), which finally happens in a Stanley Kubrick-style flash of pure energy that destroys the entire solar system.

Thankfully, most Millennials are as yet engaged in more prosaic activities: emailing their boss, IMing their friend, checking out a YouTube video, airbrushing something out of their Facebook wall…

Jun 012012

OK, prepare for a totally derivative post.  To understand it, you need to go to and take this quiz.

It all revolves around the following question: Do you know the difference between managing Millennials and raising puppies? Are you sure?  Most of the people I know who have taken this test get at least a couple of the questions wrong.

I had to laugh when I took the quiz myself.  When I talk to audiences about Millennials in the workplace–these are often audiences full of Xers and Boomers–I admit to them straight up: This is a high-maintenance generation.  They like to think of themselves as VIPs, no question.  They demand lots of structure, feedback, moral support, mentoring, and some sort of deep connection with the organization they work for.  You need to offer all of the above if you want the best of them to stick around.

It’s work–a great deal more work than the “low-swet” Xers who came along before them.  In many ways I really miss young Xers.  Their day-one attitude toward their employers was simple: You don’t ask much of us and we won’t ask much of you: Let’s just all get what needs to get done quickly and efficiently, so we can all go home.  I don’t think young Xers were ever puppies.  They seemed pretty “broken in” before they ever showed up at their first career job.


Yet here’s what’s really interesting: The puppiness we see in these first-wave employed Millennials is going to become a lot more exaggerated by the time we meet the Xers’ own late-wave Millennial children when they show up en masse in the workplace starting around five years from now.  Why?  Because these Xers are raising their own kids with behavioral handbooks that actually do resemble puppy-care guides.  Many Xer parents look at Cesar Milan’s “Dog Whisperers” for tips on how to be the alpha-dog in their family.  I first started writing about the new behavioralism in Xer parenting on this site a couple of years ago.  Here is an excerpt from that post:

…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.

Here is a story I hear all the time from Boomer and Silent Generation grandparents who have Xer children.  When the Xers drop off their grandkids with their grandparents–en route, perhaps, to a rare vacation alone–they typically include a list of “do’s and dont’s” and a strict schedule regarding their kids.  The grandparents express surprise, “A list?  Why do we need a list?  After all, we raised you.”  To which the Xers rejoin, “Yeah, mom/dad, that’s why we’re including the list.”



Aug 052010

Very interesting essay.  I.Q. scores seem to be continually rising with each passing cohort (the “Flynn effect”).  But creativity—as measured by the Torrence score—has turned direction.  It was rising until about 1990, but then started to turn down, starting with the younger grades.  Sounds like Millennial (born 1982-200?) are the culprit, doesn’t it?

On the road, when I talk with Generation X (born 1961-1981) managers, one of their biggest disappointments with entry-level employees is their lack of professional passion and willingness to take risks and think outside the box.

Jul 172010

Last week there was a NYT feature story about a 24-year-old Millennial (born 1982-200?), a recent grad of Colgate University with a stellar academic record, who has been living with his parents (and grandfather) over the last six months sending resumes and looking for a job.  He wants an executive track corporate position.  A couple of months ago, he was turned down by an insurance company for the job he applied for—but was offered a lesser job as an insurance adjustor for $40K.  The Millennial turned it down, saying that the company made clear it was at least ten levels below the job he wanted.  The author interlaced the story with statistics on the severity of the current “Great Recession” for young adults.

The story lit up a firestorm of reader responses: no less than 1,487 comments thus far, and much larger echoes on the blogosphere.  Many of the commenters lambasted the NYT for suggesting that this privileged young man’s experience (he lives in a nice suburban home and his dad is president of a small manufacturing company) is in any way representative of the employment hardships most youth are facing today.  Even more excoriated the young man for turning down the $40K offer—and the family for letting him live at home while turning down such offers.  The most vicious remarks seemed to come from older (Generation X (born 1961-1981) and Boomer (born 1943-1960)) readers, who often cited their own tough, low-salary beginnings.  Apparently, they disapprove of this generation’s tendency to hold fast to long-term plans and dreams.  Be realistic, they insist.  Eat humble pie.  It will be good for you (to repeat what older Chinese now tell the rising “Little Emperor” generation) to “taste bitterness.”

Wow.  Stern stuff.  What’s surprising about all this indignation is just how vague these critics are about just what is *wrong* about what is going on in this story:

  • The Millennial himself is not complaining.  There is no whininess.  He disavows any legitimate comparison between his own situation and what the unemployed faced, say, during the Great Depression.  He’s looking forward to a happy ending–as are most unemployed Millennials (something we know from data from Pew and others).
  • The parents are not complaining.  The son gets along very well with his  (Boomer) parents and (G.I.) grandpa and runs errands for them.  The marginal dollar cost of the son living at home seems trivial and doesn’t really bother anyone—though admittedly the older folks worry sometimes about the young man’s career.  This is also typical.  The survey data indicate that today’s Millennials and Boomers get along much better in the same home than young Boomers and their own parents did 35 or 40 years ago—when many young Boomers report that they left home in anger… or that their parents simply kicked them out.  Take this trend (closer inter-generational households) and extrapolate it out over the next couple decades and you could be looking at a win-win solution to our unaffordable Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid liabilities, a solution predicated on greater mutual dependence within families.  Our number one fiscal nightmare solved.  And this is a *bad* thing?
  • There is no evidence that this Millennial is selfish or anti-community.  In fact, he expected to enter officer training with the Marine Corps but was barred at the last moment due to childhood asthma.
  • The guy is clearly keeping busy, volunteering for the fire department, working for neighbors.  By the end of the article, the reader learns that he is no longer actually living at home at all, but living with brother (a guy who did get the $75 opening corporate job) to sub for a roommate who just moved out.  He is planning to temp for local eateries while there.  Totally “temp” work—as opposed to quasi-permanent “careers” that the young person does not really want—is also a typical Millennial strategy.
  • There is, finally, widespread agreement among labor market economists that taking a lower initial salary, while certainly a doable and often successful strategy for long-term success, is not the only strategy.  On average, it is likely to result in a lower salary trajectory for many years to come.  Millennials plan ahead and have long time horizons.  If an executive track is important to them tomorrow, they will plan accordingly today.

So let’s move to the bottom line here.

Should we feel sorry for this young man?  No, but then again he’s not asking for that.

Did he make an irrevocable career mistake by not accepting the $40K position?  Not as far as I can see.

Is it unfair that, over the course of the business cycle, youth who graduate into a severe recession are disadvantaged in their career paths relative to those who graduate into a boom?  Yes, it’s unfair, but no more so than a lot of the other vicissitudes of fortune that hit some people and not others.  Besides, the effects of these “cohort timing” differences, while long lasting, gradually fade over time.  As Glen Elder showed, the Great Depression’s impact on the young adults of the 1930s was largely forgotten by the time this cohort reached its peak lifetime earnings years in the late 1960s.  (By then, their salaries didn’t concern most of them nearly so much as their kids’ music!).

Would America be a better place if today’s young Millennials were eager to leave their parents at all cost, even if it meant taking a job they hate?  You’ll have to explain to me why.

To be sure, one might reasonably argue that not everyone, not even everyone with excellent college credentials, can hold out for a $75K salary.  True enough.  But not everyone wants to hold out for a high salary.  And many of those who do will ultimately change their mind.  Maybe even this young man.  So?

My question is: Why do the sober-minded, future-oriented career choices of today’s Millennials make so many Boomers and Xers jump up and down in agitated condemnation?

Jul 072010

Creativity, risk, deception: These are the tools without which no Generation X (born 1961-1981) can get the job done right.  The conflict between this Boomer (flag officer) versus Gen Xer (field-grade officer) is something I have seen before.  This article simply offers another example of what the argument is about.  Sooner or later, thanks to generational replacement, Xers will win this argument.

Michael Oates, btw, is a late-wave Boomer.  But he speaks for his junior fellow officers.  No more than General George Patton or Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, this is not a generation that cares much about the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

Speaking of Patton, I think everyone who saw the movie recalls that Patton himself was used (against his will) to deceive the Germans on several occasions, including the ruse of invading Greece rather than Sicily, which is mentioned in this article.

Jun 072010

Two somewhat different takes on the Millennial (born 1982-200?) leading edge in the workplace.  The first is in the NYT Magazine:

It is called “The Why-Worry Generation,” quotes us, and ultimately agrees with our positive take on how Millennials are handling the current downturn.

An Generation X (born 1961-1981) apparently disagrees and has written a rejoinder called “Children of the Bull”:

Best quotes from this Xer:

First the dripping sarcasm: Nothing was too good for the Children of the Bull, and everyone from jewelers to five-star hotels clamored for the business of their parents, offering up treasures ranging from emerald earings for little Emma to luxury tropical vacation camps for tiny Caleb. But all that money bought other things too, goodies that should not have been purchased so thoughtlessly.

Then the self-revelation: While as a die-hard Gen X slacker myself, I fervently admire the Children of the Bull’s refusal to buckle down and serve The Man, any casual survey of economic data circa 2010 tells you that their burst of self-confidence is probably fueled not by their unique resilience but by the monetary energy received from one last desperate hit from the parental financial tit.

Finally, the bottom line: How the Children of the Bull will deal with making it on their own has yet to be determined.  But I’m betting they will handle it the same way as every generation before them:  they’ll give up on expecting employee paradise and get to work.

In our new book, needless to say, we disagree.  (Though I love this Xer’s style—so archetypal!)  We say that it’s not this young generation that will change, but the behavior of the older generations who manage them—at least in those companies that don’t go bankrupt.

May 032010

IMO, this is a generational shot across the bow. Expect a lot more of this in the years to come.  Bill and I used to talk about up-card and down-cards in our theory. Up-cards are things we expected and have already come to pass. Down-cards are things we expect but have not yet happened to any significant extent. Young-adult dissatisfaction with unfair income transfers to Boomer (born 1943-1960) is a down card. It hasn’t happened yet but surely will happen. We didn’t see it with Generation X (born 1961-1981), because, well, they’re Xers. They all try to find their own individual solutions and survival strategies. But Millennial (born 1982-200?) are different. They will organize and be heard. And Boomers will not dare stand in their way.
Nice X/Y Quote: “Recall that there was once a reason for the unionization movement. History repeats itself….The pendulum swings the other way.”

Mar 212010

Good article from the WSJ. Not so much gone rogue, I would argue, as taken over by Generation X (born 1961-1981) leadership.  Decentralized decision making, risk taking, and insistence on unit cohesion—all discussed in this article—are hallmarks of the Gen X style.  We’ve discussed this on earlier posts.  At this point, the great majority of officers beneath the very top echelon (e.g., McChrystal, who is a late-wave Boomer (born 1943-1960)) are Gen X.

Rogue (“a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel”) is not a nice descriptor, but one can imagine the Nomad archetype taking a certain perverse pride in it.  Sarah Palin, “going rogue” as she likes to say,  probably uses this word for a reason.

Mar 012010

This short article from the Slate (courtesy of David Kaiser) asks whether Unions are on their way out. The two-tiering of wages in union shops, old versus young, started in the mid-1980s just as Generation X (born 1961-1981) were entering the workforce. The young Xers were the first to get lower wages/benefits for doing the same job just because they weren’t “grandfathered” into the contract. It makes sense for the older people because, by letting the employer pay the young less, they let the employer remain competitive (say with a Japanese auto maker) while still protecting their own windfall (an economist would say “rent”). Better still, with each passing year the deal improves because the cost of your grandfathered cohorts diminish with time relative to the total wage bill. By the time you retire, you can even ask for “Cadillac” health benefits that are totally off the radar screen of what younger workers could ever imagine. Boomer (born 1943-1960)motto: Apres moi le deluge.

I’m not surprised talk of two-tiering is still going on. But now it doesn’t matter as much because the unionized share of the private workforce has shrunk so much. Last month, in fact, the number of private-sector union workers fell below the number of public-sector union workers for the first time ever.