Understanding what makes generations tick reveals a great deal about the world.
Throughout history, there’s always been generational tensions. They can be seen in the phases and arc of each person’s life, and in society in the newest music, books, inventions and values that people embrace. Astute psychologists not only say that these generational tensions are normal and healthy, but that they unfold like the seasons—on a individual level over a lifetime, and across society as the decades turn into historical eras.
You might think that understanding what makes each generation unique, and how those factors end up shaping its historical challenges would be of endless interest and concern to parents, educators and politicans. Instead, what we’re seeing today is a rising wave of ill-informed and ugly generational warfare mongering. Lead by people such as billionaire investor Pete Peterson, who has long wanted to privatize Social Security, they are trying to incite anger and jealousy in younger Americans by erroneously suggesting that older Americans are stealing their future.
Newcomers to this bandwagon include MSNBC’s Abby Huntsman, whose commentaries seek to foment Millennial anger; Pew Research Center special projects chief Paul Taylor, who told NPR while hawking his book on the coming Boomer-Millennial clash, “We’ve got to rebalance the social safety net so it’s fair to all generations;” and even Salon.com, which writes headlines like, “Waiting for a millennial revolution: Could baby boomers’ worst nightmare finally come true.” The list goes on, as if this is something new.
“Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents,” said generational change historian Neil Howe, quoting the early 20th century composer in a 2012 commencement address. “Yet again that happens.”
To assert that generational tensions are rising; that Baby Boomers and Millennials are on a collision course; and that the generations are the same—all “leeches,” as the National Journal’s 34-year-old Jim Tankserley put it in a piece attacking his father and the Baby Boomers—is intentionally dark or profoundly ignorant. There’s always been generation gaps, as people transition from their childhood, to adolesence, to adulthood and to older age. Ask any psychologist about age-appropriate behavior—and you’ll get an earful.
But sensationalizing generational warfare is not just shallow. The implications get serious when it becomes a political tactic for segments of corporate America seeking to privatize Social Security, which would generate billions in fees but leave tens of millions of needy seniors worse off. Social Security now accounts for 90 percent or more of the incomes for more than a third of Americans age 65 and over—a figure that’s only going to grow.
Telling young people that they will get nothing because seniors are getting too much is factually incorrect and a giant distraction from understanding today’s retirement security crisis. It’s also wrong to blame current economic woes only on Baby Boomers, although the presidencies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton contributed—such as launching a war of choice in Iraq, or deregulating Wall St. before the Great Recession. Look at the ideas and people behind those policies, especially on economics. Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand all predated the Boomers.
It’s also sick for older generations to prey on the young from a psychological perspective. Why? Because psychologically healthier people in their middle and senior years move into a nurturing phase of their life. They give back to younger people; they don’t hype fears to enrich themselves. Magazines likePsychology Today are filled with articles discussing these issues, such as why the Generation Gap persists and what are the normal stages of human development. But there’s more to it when other historical perspectives are brought into the discussion. That’s where this topic gets really interesting.
Astute historians like Howe have noticed that there’s a pattern, like the seasons, where a generation’s defining characteristics and its historic tasks repeat over the decades. In 1991, Howe and fellow historian, William Strauss, wrote a book that recast American history as a cycle of four generational archtypes dating back to 1584. Generations was the first of many books they wrote on this intersection of psychology and history. It’s highly regarded and has been very influential among both professions.
According to their theory, Baby Boomers, who were born to parents who came of age in World War II and in the 1950s, could be expected to rebel against that era’s conformity and ignite the 1960s counter-culture explosion. The next generation, born starting in the early 1960s through the early 1980s—known as Generation X—was characterized by a decidedly different quest. As young adults, they were more like nomads and left to find their individuality on their own. Barrack Obama’s biography, detailing his search for a father and an identity, epitomizes that generation’s tendencies.
Millennials, who were born in the 1980s through the early 2000s, were raised by parents who tended to react to that lack of structure in the 1960s and 1970s by coddling and over-protecting their kids. Howe said that dynamic was almost identical to what unfolded in the Depression-era that preceeded World War II. Howe, who was born in 1951, making him a Boomer, described these generational traits and cycles to 1,100 graduating seniors in a 2012 commencement speech at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia:
“You Millennials grew up in an era of rising parental protection—never having known a time without bicycle helmets, electric plug covers, Amber Alerts, and 15 different ways to be buckled into your minivan seat. We, the parents, grew up in an era of declining parental protection: Our moms and dads told us, we don’t care where you go so long as you’re home for dinner—and as for seatbelts, we were told if there’s an accident to just put up our hands like this. As kids, we never saw a “Baby on Board” sticker. “Baby Overboard” would have been more appropriate.
Howe explained that what was shaping and defining the Millennial generation was not the same as what shaped and defined Boomers. Moreover, the values and skills being cultivated among Millennials were preparing them for different historic roles.
“You Millennials were raised to be team players—which you are, with community service, group projects in the classroom, and clubs for everything. And, above all, with digital technology that connects you all to each other on Facebook, and smart phones that you go to bed with. We, the parents, were a lot more into competition, rebellion, and defying the mainstream.
“We did not “friend” each other. Our generation invented the “personal” computer. Personal, as in—mine and not yours, and certainly not part of the corporate mainframe our own parents bequeathed to us. Growing up, our biggest fear was that Big Brother might someday install cameras in our rooms. Our biggest joy was hearing Steve Jobs announce that ‘1984 won’t be like 1984.’ And now our biggest surprise is to see our own kids connect with each other by installing their own cameras in their own rooms!”
It’s important to see what Howe is saying beyond raising stereotypes of the Boomers and Millennials to make 2012 graduates and their parents feel good. His theories do not make value judgements. He sees Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as idealistic boomers, even though they have different politics, as part of the same generational dynamic. They are products of growing up at a period on American history with specific cultural currents.
One of the biggest takeaways from Howe’s speech forcefully refutes today’s right-wing blather about Boomer and Millennials’ supposedly escalating conflict. These youths are prone to be a caring, not a selfish generation, he said, explaining that their archtype is the same as the American generation that fought in World War II.
“The Millennial Generation is also reprising many of the hallmarks of the original G.I. Generation, the ‘greatest generation,’ who are now passing away. Like the Millennials, the G.I.s grew up as protected children and quickly turned into optimistic, consensus-minded team-players who saved our nation—in the dark days of the 1930s and ‘40s—from turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time…
“You parents out there… They aren’t like you, but they are what America now needs. They don’t complain about the storm clouds looming over their fiscal, economic, and geopolitical future; they try to stay positive. They don’t want to bring the system down; they’re doing what they can to make it work again. They worry about you a lot. And they want to come together and build something big and lasting, something that will win your praise.”
There’s another dimension to the generational cycles analysis by Howe and Strauss that affirms what many people sense about the future—that the nation and world is heading into a period that will be very hard but hopefully transformational. They posit that history unfolds in cycle of four predictable and repeating phases. In another book, 4th Turning, they say where were are today—our current and coming decades—will be the chapter that’s historically always been the most turbulent.
Using their terms, they trace this progression over the past 75 years. They say that the U.S. experienced the “high” phase, with super-power America from 1943-1960. That was followed by the “awakening” phase, marked by the consciousness revolution from 1960-1981. That was followed by an “unraveling” phase, marked by the culture wars and societal fracturing from 1982-2004. Now we are in the early part of the “crisis” phase, which Howe says will be this century’s equivalent to the 1930s Depression and World War II era. Whether the upheaval will arise from economic inequality, global financial crisis, climate change, new wars or something else, remains to be seen.
It’s disconcerting to think that a whole generations’ values and norms lead to the next generations challenges, conflicts and identity. But on the brighter side, Howe told the 2012 graduates and their family members that the cultural habits that perplex the Boomers about their kids—such as the constant texting and being online—actually is preparing them for finding communal solutions for history’s next abyss.
“No one knows what challenges this Millennial Generation may eventually be asked to bear. Hardly anyone expects them to become America’s next ‘greatest generation.’ But someday you can say you heard it from me: That is their destiny, to rescue this country from the mess to which we, the older generations, have contributed.”
Nobody can see the future. But if Howe and Strauss have identified broad generational tides and dynamics that flow over the decades, then it suggests that we think differently about Millennials as a generation. We should take heart with their emerging values and defining characteristics. Needless to say, we shouldn’t fall for the right-wing bait pitting their generation against the Boomers. Instead, everyone should try to understand where their lives fall in the tides and arc of history.