The Long View: Millennials Rising

Strauss and Howe took a slightly different approach in this book from their previous works. This book focuses on one generation, the Millennials, born after 1982. This book in particular gives us an opportunity to revist Strauss and Howe's predictions nearly 15 years later. Pew Research has a report on the tendencies of Millennials in Adulthood that proves interesting.

Strauss and Howe accurately predicted that school performance will improve due to increased focus on mastery of facts, in part due to the bad experiences of Boomer and GenX parents in schools that taught "how to think" without providing anything to think about. They also predicted that economic mismanagment could turn Millennials again the free market, which the Housing Bubble and subsequent recession demonstrated. They also predicted crime would fall. All of these things have indeed happened.

Some not-so-accurate predictions included that church attendance would rise. Strauss and Howe's model suggest that Millennials are especially likely to join institutions, but also that they are especially harsh judges of authority figures that break the rules. The rise of the Nones and a tendency to resist affiliation with either major American political party suggest that either Strauss and Howe were wrong about the supposed acceptance of the legitimacy of the major institutions of the world by Millennials, or that the major institutions of the world fall short in their eyes. There were some darker intimations in the book, pondering how the Millennial generation could be warped by a confluence of terrible events. The prior example Strauss and Howe cite is the Civil War, which should have produced something like a golden age after the successful resolution of the slavery and seccession crisis, but instead turned into a bloody war of brother against brother that left everyone worse off. We can only hope that 9-11 plus a major recession did not have a similar effect now.

Something we can only see the glimmerings at present, but that matches not only Strauss and Howe's model, but Spengler's and Toynbee's as well, is that compromise is becoming impossible in politics. Now, it is relatively harmless, but in the late Republican period of history, losing an election can mean losing your life. This will be worse if the Millennials turn decisively against the institutions that uphold public order. It was much easier to be an optimist in 2000 than 2014.

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation
by Neil Howe and William Strauss
Vintage Books, 2000
415 Pages, US$14.00
ISBN 0-375-70719-0

Imagine that Hegel had written a baby-book for doting parents, and you will have the formula for this book. William Strauss and Neil Howe, a political scientist turned theatrical impresario and an economic historian respectively, have been promoting a cyclical model of American history since the appearance in 1991 of their first joint book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." "Millennials Rising" is rather different from that work and from their heavily theoretical "Fourth Turning." Both those books were characterized by complicated graphs and tables, covering all of American history and then some. Graphs and tables are present in great numbers in this book, too, but this time the information is mostly about a specific generation, the "Millennials," whom the authors say began to be born about 1982 and who should continue to appear for another few years. (There are also original cartoons, some of them quite witty.) According to the authors' system, this generation will be positioned to play a role like that of their grandparents, whom the authors call the GI Generation. In this year when the oldest Millennials turned 18, "Millennials Rising" is intended as a national family snapshot of this generation just as it begins its career as a historical actor.

Strauss and Howe are in a somewhat unusual position for long-term prophets: their predictions tend to be right. They were not, perhaps, the only social critics who forecast a decade ago that crime rates would fall and scholastic performance would rise, but few if any others had a general theory to explain these trends. The same theory made predictions for the cultural climate that are harder to verify but which seem consistent with current developments. (There is a two-frame cartoon in the book which illustrates what the authors call the "Culture Wars" phase of the current 90-year cycle. In the first frame, a hairy young baby-boomer writes "Unconditional Amnesty" on a blackboard in 1968. In the second, his balding older self writes "Zero Tolerance" in 1998. As a younger Boomer myself, I find this deeply embarrassing.) Oddly enough, they have performed least well in the area of economic forecasting, precisely because they have hewn closer to conventional wisdom. The intimations scattered throughout their books that the 1990s and early 2000s will be like the 1920s have not proven helpful. The current economic situation, based on the initial application of novel technologies, is probably much more like that following the Second World War.