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.

Strauss and Howe have always given a great deal of attention to recording and analyzing popular culture. ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a Millennial archetype, it seems.) They also mention almost as many brand names in their books as Stephen King does in his. If anything, this practice is even more in evidence in "Millennials Rising," with the added feature that the products in question tend to be things that interest primary schoolers and young teens (yes, the authors do have kids of those ages). This book is, in fact, something of a marketing guide. The authors run a strategic consulting firm, LifeCourse Associates, and it seems that they make bold to offer advice to businesses about consumer trends, indeed about trends that have not even started yet, on the basis of their own model of history. As far as I know, no maker of a model of history, from Hesiod until this day, has yet offered so many occasions for possible falsification of the model. Karl Popper would be pleased. I think.

So what is the "generational character" of these Millennial children? In Strauss and Howe's eyes, its nature was fixed by the determination of their Boomer and Generation X parents to avoid the neglectful child-rearing practices of the 1960s and `70s. Millennials are, above all, team players. Thanks to the unceasing oversight of their parents, they play in groups and study in groups. Also, precisely because they are the least race-conscious generation in American history, Millennials value unity, in dress and speech and ideas, far more than they do diversity. For the near future, these things suggest that niche marketing to this generation is a bad idea. For the further future, it suggests a world of gray flannel suits and a revitalized labor union movement.

Since their time is scripted from one activity to another over the course of any given week, Millennials learn early how to carry out an agenda set by others, rather than to create goals of their own. Their improving scholastic record is largely the result of curricula oriented more toward the mastery of facts than toward creative thinking. (Their Generation X parents in particular have bad recollections of progressive schools that "taught how to think" without ever teaching anything to think about.) They accept the legitimacy of the major institutions of their world, from the local school district to the presidency. For that reason, they are particularly angered by persons in authority who are seen to be breaking the rules.

In Strauss and Howe's model, the Boomers came of age in an Awakening (the fourth such episode in US history by their count). By nature, they are a Prophet generation, seekers with a keen interest in all things spiritual (including dogmatic materialism). The Millennials are at just the opposite end of the spectrum, a Hero generation in the model's typology. They will accept the values handed to them by their parents and grandparents and carry them out without hesitation. Life in large institutions should come more easily to them than it did to their parents. They should be good soldiers all their lives, and not necessarily in a merely metaphorical sense.

Church attendance should rise if the Millennials come into their kingdom, not because of spiritual enlightenment in middle age, but because they instinctively join things. In the nearer term, as their influence grows over popular culture, they will more and more turn away from the edgy and rebarbative art that helped give Generation X a dark reputation. `N Sync will drive out Limp Bizkit. In their maturity, Millennials should favor something like "swing music." Entertainment in general is likely to become chaster, less threatening, more child-friendly. Censorship may or may not become official again, but it will be real.

Perhaps the most interesting new development of Strauss and Howe's model is their attempt to take it global. While "Millennials Rising" is mostly about the United States, they also give attention to the generational patterns in other countries. In fact, they now claim that a big slice of the world, outside Islam, Africa and southern Asia, has fallen more or less into the same generational rhythm.

This makes sense for the victor-countries in World War II, including China. (I do not understand the authors' attempt to apply their model to Germany and Japan.) The key regulator in Strauss and Howe's model is the consolidation of a Hero generation that meets a great crisis in young adulthood, and certainly the generation of the Second World War and the Long March received special deference all their lives. While noting that popular culture in Europe still looks pretty grungy, they attribute that to the post-war delay in those countries in getting back to normal, thus slowing the cycle down by a few years behind the US and Canada. They assure us, however, that the first crop of Millennials is about five years from maturing in Western Europe.

This globalization of the pulse of history is not necessarily good news. The chief reason why Strauss and Howe's model is cyclical is that it creates a periodic constellation of generations that is crisis-prone. The key features of this constellation are an idealistic Prophet generation that has finally aged into power and a young-adult Hero generation that is able and willing to do almost anything it is told. Most of the world's major powers will have a constellation like this in the early decades of the 21st century, making them both more likely to perceive threats and less likely to dilute principle with pragmatism. Zero tolerance with cruise missiles is not a comforting thought.

Strauss and Howe discuss scenarios for the "coming crisis" in some detail in their earlier books, but in "Millennials Rising" they do little but outline the chronology again. There is no backtracking. They still expect that some event between 2005 and 2010 will signal the beginning of two decades of chronic fear and struggle, like the financial crisis of 1929 or the presidential election of 1860. This event will have such an effect, not because it is so overwhelming in itself, but because society will have reached a point where compromise is no longer seen as a virtue. The crisis will no doubt have economic, political and military dimensions, but Strauss and Howe have no more clue than anyone else about the specifics. What they do have is some hints about the vices to which the Millennials will be prone.

In "The Fourth Turning," the authors make much of the generational structure of the Star Wars characters. Old Obi Wan Kenobi is a Prophet, who defines the challenge. Han Solo, like Generation X, belongs to a "Nomad" generation that is likely to get most of the dirty work and little of the praise. Luke Skywalker is a Hero, obviously, and he is what the Millennials are supposed to become. The shadow of Luke Skywalker, however, is his own father, Darth Vader. In the otherwise forgettable prequel to the trilogy, "The Phantom Menace," we see Darth Vader as a child, still full of possibility, like the little Millennials now. Strauss and Howe do not dwell on the scenarios by which the Millennials could be deformed to a comparable degree, but they acknowledge the possibility.

As we have observed, the Millennials are prone to collective action. While remarkably hardworking, the entrepreneurial spirit will be less congenial to them than it was to Generation X. Strauss and Howe suggest that severe economic mismanagement could point them toward communism of some sort. "Millennials Rising" appeared too late to discuss the mass protests against the great multilateral economic institutions that occurred in 1999 and 2000. Millennials did not predominate among the activists, but the protests' display of elaborate self-organization in opposition to market economics is just the kind of thing that might attract Millennials in the future.

Of course, if something does go radically wrong, the responsibility will probably not lie with the Millennials. In their earlier books, the authors describe how the budding Hero generation of the Civil War crisis soured into cynicism and self-seeking during the Gilded Age. The failure was not theirs, but that of the Transcendentalist generation that led America at the time of the crisis. This generation of feminists, Abolitionists and table-rapping mediums had matured during the Second Great Awakening, and might have brought the conflicts over slavery and nationalism to a less catastrophic conclusion. However, dumb luck and their own inflexibility put them to the test five or ten years too early, and they made the worst of a bad situation. Boomers could easily do as badly.

These dark reflections are merely asides in this overwhelmingly cheerful book. "Millennials Rising" is more than 400 pages of mostly reliable good news about today's children and the prospects for America and the world. It should help put many parents at ease about the incidence of crime among the young and the performance of the schools. Many of the older kids it is about will probably like it, too, or at least the parts that aren't about marketing. The chief danger is that they may get too full of themselves.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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