It's been a long time since I reviewed the basics of generational theory here, and most long-time readers must be familiar with it, but since I now have so many new ones every week, a quick summary may be in order to put this week's remarks in context.
The theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, as I have mentioned, sees a period crisis in the life of the United States (and, I have concluded, of other nations as well) every 80 years or so (1774-1794, 1860-1872, 1929-45, 2008 - ?). Those crises are closely related to a generational rhythm that produces a new generation every twenty years. Each generation belongs to one of four archetypes, known as Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. Each generation also has a specific name. The current generations are Boomers (Prophets, born 1943-60), Gen Xers (Nomads, born 1961-81), Millennials (Heroes, born 1982-2002?) and Homelanders (artists, who have been born for at least a few years now.) During the previous cycle the Hero generation were the GIs, now frequently known as the "Greatest" generation (born about 1904-24), and the Artist generation was the Silents, born 1925-42, many of whom are still active in public life and about whom I have written a great deal here.
Today's media and politics are dominated by Boomers and Xers--but the last election was dominated by Millennials, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and provided his margin of victory. Millennials had a very different kind of upbringing than either Boomers, who were largely left to themselves within a very stable environment(as the children of the greatest country on earth, how could they go wrong?, and Xers, who had to deal with by far the highest percentage of broken homes and got the least attention from their elders of any living generation. The parents of Millennials--led by Boomers--gave them very structured lives in which they were expected to perform, in one way or another, at least 12 hours a day. They did, for the most part, perform, but they also expected, and received, rewards. My Millennial students at Williams would do anything I asked--but they got very angry when I tried to change the rules in the middle of the game. They were extremely capable, and they had a rather frightening trust in older generations.
Now as the last election showed, Millennials are the greatest threat to the right-wing ethos and policies that gained ascendancy in the United States between 1981 and 2008. What is rather fascinating is that leading conservatives seem to be figuring this out. Here is what Glen Beck, of all people, had to say about Millennials this week.
I do know that there was a story in The Wall Street Journal yesterday about trophy kids going to work. These are the kids that we've raised and we've told them, "Who's super special? You are." And we've never told them anything bad. Well, now they are starting to enter the workforce, and I love this. We're now having these, what do you call them, consultants to help new employers adjust to the employees. Consultants are coming in and saying, "Look, you've got to adjust the way -- because you've got new employees. " Now here's a Boston-based consultant doing the other, coaching a group of college students for job interviews. Who had a consultant for a job interview? Did anyone within the sound of my voice have a consultant that you hired to help you with job interviews? My gosh. Get over yourself. Go out and get a frickin' job. Consultant, what a bunch of pansy -- I'm sorry. I digress.
Anyway, she said to them, "How do you believe your employers are going to view you?" She even gave them a clue. She said, "The word I'm looking for begins with the letter E." One student raised his hand, said "Excellent." Another student rhymed in with "Enthusiastic, energetic." Not even close. Here was the correct answer. "Entitled." The students collectively responded, "What?" Some were surprised. Others were hurt that they would be viewed as people who think they're entitled.
Here's the problem with the Millennial generation, and this is the problem -- I'm telling you, I've said this for years. You want your -- go ahead. You want to be a helicopter parent, you save them for everything, do you know what some companies now have parent day? In the corporation where your parents can come? You bring your parent to work, that's the last day you are coming to my office. I mean if they want to have a sit-down with me. If they want to come by and see your office, that's cool. You want to have a sit-down? Get the hell out of my office. I think we need more people with this theory: Get the hell out of my office. Now, we're not going to be able to do that because soon the government will be able to protect everyone so you'll not be able to fire everyone. You can live more like they live in France where, I'm not kidding you, countries have whole sections of floors dedicated to people who just sit in an office and do nothing because the state won't let them fire them. You can't fire them. So they just, "You're moving down to 12. Well, have a good time." And people just go to work and they sit in their office and they do nothing! That's where we're headed. In the meantime, until the government tells me I can't do it anymore, get the hell out of my office. Don't you feel like that? Don't you want -- some guy who would come to you when he's applying for a job and he wants to work and the next thing he's like, "Well, I've got a consultant to help me." Well, I don't know about you, but you seem to be doing fine, but I'm not going to work like that. Get the hell away from me.
The Millennials that are coming in now, employers are beginning to realize that that is the future workforce and they want to shape the job towards their life rather than have their life adapt to the workplace. I mean, that's all well and good, but... get the hell out of my office. "Although members..." this is from the Wall Street Journal. "Although members from the other generation were considered somewhat spoiled in their youth, millennials feel an unusually strong sense of entitlement. Older adults criticize the high maintenance rookies for demanding too much too soon. They want to be CEOs tomorrow. More than 85% of hiring managers and human resources executives say they feel that Millennials have such a strong sense of entitlement than older workers according to a survey," blah, blah, blah. "The generation's greatest expectations, higher pay, 75%." "What? You're paying what?" "Yeah, that's what I'm paying. Get the hell out of my office." Flexible work schedule, 61%. Promotion within a year, 56%. More vacation and personal time -- oh, I've got a lot of personal time coming your way. Get the hell... can you finish the sentence? They really do seem to want everything, and I can't decide whether it's an inability or an unwillingness to make tradeoffs," says the assistant dean and MBA and admissions director at Stanford University. A study of 18 to 28-year-olds found that nearly half had moderate to high superiority beliefs about themselves. The superiority factor was measured by responses to statements such as, quote, "I deserve favors from others." How about this one? "I know that I have more natural talent than most." They don't want to work 40 hours a week. They happen to wear clothes that are comfortable. They want to spice you will the dull workday by listening to their iPods if they want to. And, "If corporate America doesn't like it, too bad for them." Really? Get the hell out of my office. We have a problem with arrogance in this country. This is what I was talking to you about a little bit yesterday. We have a real problem with arrogance and if you are a religious person, you know what happens whenever people become arrogant. "Oh, they're destroyed." We've got to reconnect with humility. We've got to reconnect with doing the right thing. We've got to reconnect with who we are. We're going to be forced soon to reconnect with what our grandparents taught us and how my generation and older, what they learned. No, you know what, I'm sorry. I can't say my generation and older. Because the generation right before me is so damn screwed up, I don't know what the hell they're doing. The people who were raised in the Sixties, you are the people responsible for what we're living in right now. You people have -- "Oh, I care about the planet. I care..." oh, shut up. You dope-smoking hippies, look what you have brought us now. And because you were in charge of the curriculum, everybody gets a trophy. You know what? There are losers in life. There are losers in life. The losers in life are the ones who don't really try very hard because everything is owed to them. The losers in life are the ones that expect a trophy even though they're in 18th place. The winners are the ones that try. Those are the winners. They may not always exceed but they try. When you couple arrogance with the Social Security problem, when you couple the idea of, "I know I have more natural talents than most, I deserve favors from others," when you couple that with "What about the old people? Are we going to take care of the older generation?" "No, they've done nothing but stand in my way the whole time." Who's going to get the medical care when Social Security really, when it comes down to it, Medicare, Medicaid, when it comes down to universal healthcare? When you're going to have to make a decision because we can't afford good healthcare for everybody, somebody's not going to get a kidney transplant. Somebody's not going to get heart surgery. Somebody's not going to get kidney dialysis. Somebody's not going to get that surgery. Who's it going to be? Is it going to be the Millennial that doesn't give a flying crap about anybody else but themselves because they're special, look at all the trophies they won? Or is it going to be the 80-year-old who's already lived past their time? I mean, look what they have done. You know the answer of that as well as I do.
Now like everything else Beck says, this is intentionally inflammatory, and one of its major implications--that Millennials haven't had to work for what they have-is ridiculous. I would estimate that today's kids spend at least ten times as much psychic energy on the problem of getting into college, for instance, as my generation did. But what is interesting is that Beck, in a way, knows what he's talking about, and is angry for a very good reason. These kids do not share his values and they are not going to. Beck believes in the free market--including the free market in hatred, his product--because it has made him rich and famous. Millennials won't believe in it unless it delivers for them, and they shouldn't. And like the last Hero generation, the GIs, they are going to pose a huge problem for our society in an age of economic decline. They will expect us to find jobs for them, and they have the votes to make sure that we do so. They will probably save a lot more of their money than Boomers and Xers have, and they will want to make sure to provide for their old age. In short, they are going to explode the conservative fantasy that the years 1933-80 were an aberration in American history that has now been consigned to the ash-heap of history.
I was reminded as soon as I read this of another conservative comment on a Hero generation. In 2004, at the height of the campaign, Grover Norquist talked a bit indiscreetly to a Spanish reporter about the GI generation. He didn't date it quite right, but his basic point--which I quoted here at the time--was correct.
Two million people who fought in World War II and lived through the Great Depression die every year. That generation has been an exception in US history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and for obligatory military service. They are the Democratic base, and they are dying
And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort [the GIs] that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. Before that generation, whenever you put a draft in, there were draft riots. After that generation, there were draft riots. This generation? No problem. Why not? Of course the government moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. One side spits off labor law, one side spits off Social Security. We will all work until we’re 65 and have the same pension. You know, some Bismarck, German thing, okay? Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization—not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We’ve spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft. . .
Norquist knew what he was talking about. The death of retired GIs probably accounted for George Bush carrying Florida by over 100,000 votes in 2004 after losing it, barely, in 2000 (according to the most thorough recount.) The GIs had not been consistently Democratic: social issues had led them to vote for Nixon and then for Ronald Reagan. But they had been protected by the federal government all their lives, from child labor legislation through lower marginal tax rates beginning in 1964 to higher Social Security benefits, and they had lobbied effectively to keep things that way.
What Norquist didn't realize, apparently, was that new Millennials were being added faster than GIs were dying. And while they apparently will not have to undergo a draft that will put 20 million of them in uniform, they will expect our government to address their particular problems at every stage of their life. And if Barack Obama can persuade them (as I don't think he has yet) that he is addressing their problems, a new Democratic majority will indeed be reborn.
In Roosevelt's day the media was controlled by Missionaries (his own prophet generation, born 1863-1884 or so), and the Nomad Lost generation, born 1885-1903. Most of them hated him. Not until after the Second World War did GIs become the dominant voice in the media. That, too, is a parallel to the situation today. But well before that, they had become the dominant force in politics--as voters, not candidates. I do not know if Republicans in the 1930s attacked them, too, as spoiled brats who needed government hand-outs--but I strongly suspect that the answer is yes.