Golden Age or Catastrophe: Obama & the Millennials

(thought provoking! – promoted by pfiore8)

Generational scholars Strauss and Howe dedicated their lives to analyzing the four dominant generations of the twentieth century: the GIs, the Silent, the Boomers and the X-ers.  Then, near the end of their collaborations they published Millennials Rising. The thesis of their whole canon of work is that each generation fulfills overall needs or niches from prior ones, and creates problems that future generations must solve.

The concept behind the Millennial Generation is that a national or global crisis will arise unlike anything since the GI’s Depression and WWII, and the millenials will rise to meet it. Or else society itself will falter.  (Can you take a guess at how this thesis is already playing out?)

The range for the Millennial Generation (1982-2000) is that same group of voters that Obama outshined in harvesting. With Clinton showing strong youth appeal in second as by overall votes cast for Democrats.

Why do Millennials prefer first Obama, and then Clinton? Is it enough to say that Millennials are “liberal” and pack up the wagons? I say no.

When it comes to Obama’s “transcendent” nature with Millennials I guess the seeming joke–if you’re cynical–is that Obama is a Gen-Xer or a cusp Boomer either way you look at it.  This really isn’t that unusual (Bob Dylan is clearly a Silent Generationer [Malcolm X, John McCain] who appealed to Boomers) and many people have pointed out how young Obama looks, especially until right before he hit the campaign trail. But enough about Obama in and of himself.

Obama and Millennials are both pegged with much the same complaints: lot of expectations, failure to “step up to the plate” and achieve. Big optimism. A lot of agist/inter-generational fighting here on the intertubes springs from a lack of understanding of generational theory.  Assumptions made on the part of other generations are often less relevant to the one being criticized.

Since each generation has its own context, goes the generational thesis, the summarization of millions of people requires a framework of key words. For Millennials, perhaps the most key word is civic. Not optimistic. Not necessarily whatever your opinion of your teenager is. From civic you can see any number of possible assumptions–nationalistic, more willing to vote, expecting more from their government.

Newsweek ran an article on February 9th about called He’s One of Us Now: Obama embodies my generation’s attitudes and aspirations, for better and for worse, and it explains this civic uniting thread:

We distrust traditional channels of information and prefer to learn from peers (again, often online). We are diverse. After George W. Bush, we believe, as Obama youth-vote director Hans Riemer puts it, “that it matters who’s running the government-and that government is a powerful way to make this country a better place.” And we’re more optimistic than boomers about the possibility of change. According to a January survey by Frank N. Magid Associates, a plurality of boomers (43 percent) believe that the 2008 election will leave the United States unchanged or worse for wear. Only 32 percent of millennials agree-and a full 40 percent say that it will make America stronger.

Since most of the Millennial age range can’t even vote yet, the key if not major section of life for Millenials has been spent under the least popular president since anyone alive today was even born, with a growing sense of threat to national security, the economy and of course the spectre of global warming.

It helps to understand that Strauss and Howe consider generations in groups of four, and that Millennials are the counterpart or echo of the GI Generation.  This suddenly explains the seemingly lofty description of Millennials, exactly how it makes sense, and where this is not a simple adoration to any Boomer or Silent Generationer who was raised by the GI’s.  The GIs are called “Great” or “Greatest” but that is in regards to their achievements, not any individual superiority.

Interestingly, both GIs and Millennials can be described as “morally complacent”–remember the sprawling suburbs? The way the poverty of the 50s was swept under the rug, the stubbornness–racial, gender roles, simple refusal to adapt to new things, the conformity (heavily bolstered, it’s alleged, by Silents) Kennedy’s underside, all of Nixon’s sides, Reagan’s smile fronting Star Wars, dirty wars, Iran-Contra, G.H.W. Bush and his Washington buddies?  

No, Generational Theory does not posit that one generation is merely better than another. It would be besides the point altogether. But it also means no generation can deny another without great friction and struggle, and without this generation the rising national crisis, which happens throughout history, cannot be met. The theory does posit that as Boomers themselves reacted against the problems of the GIs and Silents, they’ve now created social woes, morality wars, identity struggles: a new hole. It is the Millennials’ society role to deal with fill this social vacuum and solve the crisis.

That is why Millennials are so important, without even exhaustively covering the findings of the book. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, trying to circumvent the things you don’t like about Millennials (that’s my upcoming diary). Indeed, the crisis present have not evolved enough for the Millennials to get sucked in–to date there is no draft, no national engagement. No victory gardens. No civic recycling akin to WWII. Incidentally, it was not the GI’s who usually spent their childhood in the Depression–the Silent Generation began in 1925, with GI’s going back to 1900.  In the roaring 20s and the return to normalcy it would have been impossible to forsee how truly transformative that then unnamed generation would be on this country, for good or ill.

Again I write that it is not that Millennials are liberal or progressive any more than any generation is liberal or porgressive. In the short term, sure, but in the long term no generation has the same views of liberalism or conservatism as the past. In the near future Millennials will change it with their own analysis of the problems facing us.

As was said of Strauss and Howe’s complementary book to Millennials Rising, The Fourth Turning:

The Fourth Turning helps us understand the dramatic cultural changes and mood shifts in our times.  Economic and technologic conditions alone, for example, would have told you little about the pessimism of the ’90s.  Surely similar shifts lie ahead, and The Fourth Turning gives us a tool for thinking through possible scenarios.”

WIRED, April, 1997

The Fourth Turning was not even happening in 1997, but rather the signs of the storm. Strauss and Howe called it an Unraveling, the Third Turning to this present one’s Fourth.

There are things coming to fruition that no individual Obama or Clinton can absolve. Climate change is happening, combined with the economic bubble, peak oil and the wars and instability among the nuclear powers. Obama’s use of “we” is perhaps bigger in explaining his generational appeal than it seems.  But it’s the Millennials themselves that are going to be solving or failing at these pan-administration crisis: we are almost at the next decade.  What is on the horizon that’s not in place now?  National service for college? A draft? A new and different war? A nuclear standoff or environmental catastrophe in Indonesia?  Massive conservation works? National urban and rural redevelopment?


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    • nulwee on February 22, 2008 at 19:22

    Thanks for reading.

  1. I had my own little “generational” awareness happen a few years ago. I’m a boomer and work mostly with Gen Xers. Knowing that most change is prompted by young people, I used to bemoan the fact that they were so complacent. Then I thought about the importance of the messages we receive during our formative years. I grew up hearing “I have a dream” and “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I realized that the Gen Xers had been weaned on the failure and corruption of every system we know…government, church, large non-profits (ie Red Cross). I looked at them with new eyes at that point. And I saw their determination to do what they could on a small scale – face to face, and not risk involvement with corrupt institutions.

    It will be fascinating to see what millenials learn from all this, and what approach they take!

  2. as the cannon fodder generation.  Yes they are internet connected but that is their demise not their salvation.  They see not the Machiavellian themes of data mining and it’s potential for totalitarian control over their lives.

    They see not Obama for what he really is, but flock to him with open drooling mouths.  The script here is blatanly transparent, to us at least.

    • Viet71 on February 23, 2008 at 18:21

    the Millennials and the first group (1946-52) of Boomers is that the early Boomers were driven more — driven to become educated (which meant the opportunity to get ahead); driven to make the U.S.A. and the world a better place; driven to explore (think:  2001, A Space Odyssey); and ultimately, driven to turn inward, satisfy selfish needs, make money.

    The Millennials have no driving force.  From their standpoint, everything sucks, and nothing good is ever going to happen.

    I’ve seen and lived all this.  I grew up with the early Boomers.  My daughter is 24.

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