Neil Howe with another thought provoking post. He posted this on the same day that a Millenial named James Holmes committed one of the most horrific mass murders in history. Howe’s description of Millenial beliefs and hopes fits perfectly with my thesis about why Holmes snapped. Millenials have very traditional views on success and the American Dream. They believe education will lead to a good job, which will lead to a good income and a nice house in the burbs. Well reality sucks. Howe doesn’t address the current state of affairs, but shifts the discussion to the 2020s when Millenials may get the chance to succeed. That doesn’t cut it in my book. How do the Millenials get through the next ten or fifteen years with staggering student loan debt, lack of good jobs, miniscule income and no chance to buy a house? What does this do to their beliefs and minds? We’ve seen what it did to James Holmes. How many more Millenials will snap?

I was happy to find out that my Generation is actually the most screwed. But that’s alright, we expected it. Gen X relishes being crapped on. We don’t expect much and our expectations keep getting met.

Howe seems to have his own cognitive dissonance. His own books reveal clearly that Fourth Turnings are always violent and bloody, but he doesn’t seem to want to go there. Even when I met him, he didn’t want to talk about that aspect of the current Fourth Turning. I believe the levels of getting screwed that are happening in our society will lead to violence, social unrest and civil war in this country. But I’m Gen X and always expect the worst.


Generation Screwed and Unscrewed

Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?” asks Joel Kotkin in Newsweek.  A professor of urban studies and an astute observer of social trends, Kotkin answers his own question in the affirmative.

He describes a gauntlet of economic challenges facing today’s under-30 Americans that are, I think, pretty well known to readers of this blog.  Some of the adverse trends he cites are mostly of recent (post-2008) origin: High unemployment, falling real median personal and household income, falling median household net worth, a sharply rising share who are living with their parents, a falling share who own their own homes, and (symptomatically) a sharp decline in birthrates by younger moms.

Yet other trends prejudicial to youth, most of which he mentions, have been underway for much longer: a declining national saving rate; rising fiscal deficits; college tuitions rising faster than family incomes; a widening spread between the relative wealth and income of older versus young households; and the steady rise in the share of public spending that goes to the entitled old (pensions, health care)—versus a declining share that goes to future-oriented investment (infrastructure, research, education).

Sounds depressing, I know.  But the reason I emphasize how long many of these trends have been at work is to cast a bit of doubt on whether Millennials are really as screwed as all that.  Keep in mind that back in the early 1980s, many economists and policymakers commented on the “declining fortunes” of late-wave Boomers who came of age during the energy crises and stagflation.  At the time, experts thought that demographic size was the problem: Numbers-driven competition among young workers was depressing Boomer incomes.

Then came the early 1990s, when economists discovered that Gen-Xers–often, at that time, called “Busters”–were even more screwed than Boomers.  (Since there were relatively few of these Busters, the demographic explanation was quietly dropped.)  From the very beginning, a “reality bites” fatalism about diminished economic possibilities emerged as a cornerstone this generation’s very self-image.  Over the next twenty years, as first-wave Gen-Xers moved into their 30s and then their 40s, evidence of “living-standard decline” in their age brackets (despite two-income households and working around the clock) has steadily mounted.

So is there still a good case for calling Millennials yet more “screwed” than these two older generations?  I suppose one could argue that Millennials are uniquely penalized because the adverse trends cited above—savings decline, young-old divide, fiscal bias, etc.—are more advanced and pronounced today than when Xers or Boomers were young.  One could also point to the extreme severity of the recent recession’s impact on youth—for example, the highest unemployment rate over the most months for young adults than during any downturn since the Great Depression.  We know from abundant economic research, starting with Glen Elder’s great book (Children of the Great Depression) that extended unemployment early in life has an impact on future income that lasts long into a person’s career.

On the other hand, of course, one would have to note the even harsher impact of the Great Recession on Gen-Xers and late-wave Boomers (households today age 30 to 60), as I pointed out in my earlier blog post.  And who hurts most during a great famine—the guy who thinks he might someday have a home and kids, or they guy who actually has a home and kids?

One would also have to weigh in the balance certain collective advantages Millennials have enjoyed early in life that their elders did not.  These include arriving as newborns in an era when mothers were more likely to say their newborn was “wanted” and growing up in an era when parents and families (if not always government) spent more time with them, more money on them, spurred them to achieve, and protected them more from harm.  Today, as a result, Millennials have become a generation of youth who commit less crime, cooperate more with each other, take fewer personal risks, and get along much better with their parents.  They are also on track to have the highest educational attainment ever (following college completion rates that actually backtracked for late-wave Boomers and early-wave Gen-Xers).

What’s more, most Millennials already know that history favors them.  Interesting factoid: When asked if being a young person is harder today than it was when your parents were kids, a growing majority of young people since the late 1990s say no, it’s actually easier being a kid today—after decades of polls (in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s) that leaned the other way, with Boomers and Xers bemoaning, year after year, how much harder being a kid is for them.

Kotkin asserts that this generation still believes in a very conventional definition of life success—most aspiring to a stable career and to owning a home in the suburbs.  I agree.  The data I’ve seen point in the same direction.  My favorite recent survey on this topic is the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream, which shows that Millennials are significantly more likely than Xers or Boomers to say that a college degree, acquiring wealth, owning a home, and (yes!) even marriage is “essential” to realizing the American Dream.  Most Millennials have a fairly concrete idea of what they want in life, together with benchmarks for getting there, and thus far most surveys (admittedly, not the depressing Rutgers survey cited by Kotkin) indicate that they remain confident that they will someday get there.

But to me, the most persuasive argument for not regarding Millennials as America’s most “screwed” generation is simply this: They are still young.  Even if the economy continues to deteriorate, a steady recovery that gets underway by the early 2020s will still save the future for most of them.  At roughly age 20 to 40, in this case, most Millennials will still be able to launch successful careers in an expanding economy.  Moreover, they will be able to buy homes at record-low prices and buy stock portfolios at record-low P/E ratios.  Which means, by the time they fully occupy midlife in the late 2040s (at roughly age 45 to 65), they may be doing far better at that time, relative to other generations, than people that age are doing today.

So who really is the most screwed generation?  When it comes to aggregate economic security and upward mobility, I think the most screwed generation already know who they are: Generation X.  Consider the scenario described above.  More chaos followed by a steady recovery starting a decade from now would come too late for most Xers—who by then (their first-wavers hitting their early 60s and thinking about retirement) may be looking at senior benefits programs whose generosity has just been cut way back in the name of fiscal austerity and renewed economic growth.  Any Xer protest is likely to be weak and ineffectual.  Most Boomers will be grandfathered, and most of the public’s attention will be focused on saving America’s future for the Millennials.

As Bill and I forecast twenty years ago back in 13th-Gen (I’ve changed the “13ers” here to “Gen-Xers”):

Reaching midlife, the Gen-Xers’ economic fears will be confirmed: They will become the only generation born this century (the first since the Gilded) to suffer a one-generation backstep in living standards.  Compared to their own parents at the same age, the Xers’ poverty rate will be higher, their rate of homeownership lower, their pension and healthcare benefits skimpier.  They will not match the Boomers’ inflation-adjusted levels of disposable income or wealth, at the same age.  Gen-Xers will also experience a much wider distribution of income and wealth than today’s older generations, with startling proportions either falling into destitution or shooting from rags to riches…  Finding their youthful dreams broken on the shoals of market-place reality, Xers will internalize their disappointment.  Around the year 2020, accumulated “hard knocks” will give midlife Xers much of the same gritty determination about life that they gave the midlife Lost during the Great Depression or the Gilded during Reconstruction.

Twenty years later, I think this prediction still stands.  As I read back over it, the only adjustment I would make is to say “early-wave Boomers” where we wrote “Boomers.”  But now let me move on to something else about Xers—the fact that the economy will recover, in part, precisely because Generation X chooses not to insist on its rightful public entitlement in old age.  We wrote about that in 13th-Gen, as well:

Nor will Gen-Xers ever effectively organize or vote in their own self-interest.  Instead, they will take pride in what they don’t receive, in their lifelong talent for getting by on their own, and in their ability to divert government resources to help the young.  Policy experts who today worry about the cost of Social Security and Medicare past the year 2025 seldom reflect on the political self-image of those who will then be entering their late sixties.  Entitled “senior citizens”?  Hardly.  Like Lost Generation elders in 1964–who voted more for Goldwater than any younger generation even after he promised to slash their retirement benefits—old Xers will feel less deserving of public attention than richer and smarter young people who lack their fatalism about life.

Even back in 1993 we had the concepts of generational archetypes firmly in mind.  As readers of The Fourth Turning know, Gen-Xers belong to same (Nomad) archetype as the Lost Generation.  The location in history of both generations, which manifests so many obvious parallels early in life, will continue (I think) to track each other moving forward.  Who is getting hurt worst in the current age of stagnation and deleveraging?  Late-wave Boomers (born after 1950) to some extent, mostly by have their home and retirement assets values hit hard; Generation X most of all; and early-wave Millennials to some extent, mostly by delayed career starts.  Who got hit worst in the Great Depression?  Late-wave Missionaries (born after 1870) to some extent, mainly by losing their savings in failed banks in the early 1930s; the Lost Generation most of all; and early-wave G.I.s to some extent, mostly by having their careers put on hold until VE- and VJ-Day.  Same archetypes, same patterns.

Koktin points out that today’s hard times are pushing most Millennials in the developed world politically toward the left—that is, toward a greater commitment to national collective action by government.  We’ve witnessed this trend in every election globally since 2008—including of course the massive 2-to-1 margin by U.S. Millennials for Obama in 2008.  (In the fall of 2012, U.S. Millennials will almost certainly give another large margin for Obama, but it will be smaller than in 2008 and whether it will be enough to win the election is uncertain; this is an issue I will handle in a future post.)

These political trends also have interesting parallels in the last saeculum.  The Lost Generation, as we document in Generations and The Fourth Turning, leaned Republican and libertarian all its life.  The Lost hated President Wilson for the fiasco of World War I; voted heavily for Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (though it turned against Hoover with the Bonus Army); comprised the most visible and colorful opponents of FDR; and voted GOP after WWII all the way to Goldwater.  The party valence turned sharply the other way, however, for cohorts born after 1900—those who missed WWI, who belonged (like John Steinbeck) to entirely different artistic circles than the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and who were disposed to mobilize around a new trust in community after the Crash of ‘29.

Although no one collected age-graded polling back in the 1930s, some historians estimate that a very large majority—perhaps 85 percent—of voters under age 35 voted for FDR and the Democratic Party in 1936.  It is widely agreed that this is the first election in which a clear majority of young African-Americans voted for the Democratic Party rather than the party of Abraham Lincoln.  Consulting our own American Leadership Database, we are able to confirm that 28 out of 32 (88 percent) of G.I. senators, representatives, and governors sent to Congress in 1936 were Democrats.  By 1940, 75 percent of incoming G.I.s were still Democrats.

Read the numbers, Republicans, and weep.  That is, unless your new Mormon, whiz-kid, C-suite candidate is able to project a stronger, more hands-on image of strong national leadership than Barack Obama—which may not be setting the bar too high.  Anything is possible.

One last point.  To most Millennials, the whole whiney victimization card (look at me, I’m screwed!) seems like such a stale trope of Boomers and Gen-Xers, that they instinctively recoil from it.  And right on cue, a bona fide Millennial offers a cocky and defiant reply to Kotkin in the Washington Post (“Generation Unscrewed”)—though in a sardonic (“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”) tone that may leave all generations mystified.

28 thoughts on “GENERATION SCREWED”

  1. While I’ve often wondered about Howe’s shying away from the nastiest side of his theory as well, I can see where the discussion of it might well be unproductive from his viewpoint…. Makes me wonder if the late Mr. Strauss would have other views…. A boomer’s a boomer’s a boomer though.

    Contrary to Flash’s limited conceptualization of parallel and abstract association, looking at the data from the last Turning (or major crisis for those who don’t call it ‘turning’) is always interesting. For those who readily associate the economic activities of the last twenty years with the early 20th century, you can see so much similarity that the resolution of that crisis should make us all shit our pants…

    As for the post, and how it points out how GenX, as I like to say, was “born in a briar patch”, and how the millennial generation is remarkably able to shrug off the current ills, it is no wonder. They’re better equipped, more ‘wanted’ in childhood, and their mode of withdrawal from nasty circumstance is achieved in a manner wherein they are not alone… The kid drooling in front of the game is hooked up to an interface, whereas my cohort was relegated to very few others over Street Fighter.

    So when one reads (from the article):

    “Koktin points out that today’s hard times are pushing most Millennials in the developed world politically toward the left—that is, toward a greater commitment to national collective action by government.”

    …. I would caution that this statement should read “… to an effective and decisive collective action by a functioning government”.

    That could mean many things…. Things that would surprise those who hold a dated worldview as well as confirming their fears.

  2. Mr. Howe does not mention that Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, comes from the GOP’s only growth demographic. Indeed, Mormons are the only large group of Caucasians on Earth who reproduce at above-replacement rates. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is a harbinger of things to come as this demographic mainstreams and makes its’ presence felt more visibly in our national life.

  3. “Even if the economy continues to deteriorate, a steady recovery that gets underway by the early 2020s will still save the future for most of them. At roughly age 20 to 40, in this case, most Millennials will still be able to launch successful careers in an expanding economy. Moreover, they will be able to buy homes at record-low prices and buy stock portfolios at record-low P/E ratios. Which means, by the time they fully occupy midlife in the late 2040s (at roughly age 45 to 65), they may be doing far better at that time, relative to other generations, than people that age are doing today.”

    “Far better” is undefined, but set against the larger background of a planet and its dominant species slipping ever deeper into crisis mode, this seems like a rather narrow and dubious assumption.

  4. Izzy:

    It is narrow in that it could very well read “After being drafted en mass and burning much of the developed world to rubble, those left will have a wonderful future where the sky’s the limit”!

    Or “When the mushroom clouds dissipate and the ocean is barren from the plutonium, the cockroaches, generals and Mormons emerging from their miles-deep bunkers will restore the GDP to acceptable levels”!

    Yeah…. He’s just turning attention to the positive side.

  5. I am mostly in a agreement with you admin. X’ers expected it but how the hell did X’ers raise children who “have very traditional views on success and the American Dream.” Who fitted the Millenials with rose colored glasses? Were we hoping to protect them? I suspect that your children will probably do better than most but the few Millenials I know don’t have a clue or even the ability to analyze a clue if it smacked them upside the head like a wet fish.

    Beginning back in 1993 I was a cement mason. I worked for companies that primarily specialized in residential concrete replacement work. I did that job for 13 years and was in a unique position to observe the behavior of many Millenials as well as their interactions with their parents. The parents catered and caved to nearly every demand their kids made. Near the end of many disputes, in exasperation, parents would ask the kids what they wanted or expected as a solution and the parents would nearly always cave. They seemed to want to avoid conflict and just be friends with their kids. I saw very few boundaries set with respect to pets, toys, curfews, chores etc. The kids seemed to be in charge most of the time. Their upbringing seemed to be the polar opposite from mine and had I acted or spoke like that to my parents, I would most definitely NOT have been a happy camper.

    I don’t say these things to disparage the Millenial generation, they are merely my take on what I saw and heard. I sincerely hope they greatly exceed my hopes & expectations despite starting their adult lives in times that appear to be getting more adverse each day.

  6. 🙁

    Unfortunately when these things happen, people tend to eye me askance.

    1) White
    2) Male
    3) 20s
    4) Kind of a loaner (I have no close friends, and am almost completely alienated from my family)
    5) Scientific background (in my case, chemistry and biology)

    Bad background, kicked out of numerous schools, multiple divorces…

    Yeah, I’ll freely admit I fit the stereotype.

    1. TPC

      I don’t believe you are a psychopath that will eventually slaughter dozens of innocent people.

      But, I’ve been wrong before.

      Remember – I’m your friend.

  7. Yeah, I’m odd but not a psychopath lol, it was just funny that you guys mentioned it here, because Friday morning a number of people at work made a dig at me about it.

  8. @DaveL – We’ll still be left footing the bill for Boomer retirement, which would make boomers the only generation to live in illusionland.

  9. No doubt true, but for most, living in the matrix isn’t a bad thing since they don’t know any better. When the collapse occurs, those living in the illusion will see the same real world that many are now living in. They will be less likely to survive, for lack of experience.

  10. HES and swills bay batter…but then the Wall Street polished turd does hail from Berkley , so what else is new.?

    Tonto get with KaD is you really want to know how the cosmos works.

  11. @TPC: how does a guy in his 20’s have multiple divorces?

    That doesn’t raise an eyebrow for a guy in his 40’s, but in your 20’s???

  12. @Persnickety –

    Sorry, I should have been more clear. I have zero divorces. I’ve been married for 3.5 years and dated that same woman 3 years prior to that.

    The divorces are in reference to my upbringing, my mother is a stupid whore.

  13. Got it, thanks. And that completes your perfect Millennial white male childhood (though Xers have it even worse for parents’ divorces, I think).

  14. This article ties in nicely with what you’ve said above:

    Coloradois in profound trauma, and so is a nation unraveling. In such a milieu, people rarely ask the proper questions, but as my fellow-Coloradan, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us, “Asking the proper question is the central act of transformation.”

    The Proper Question(s)

    Perhaps the most obvious one is: What is causing people, particularly young males of college age, who are or have been students, to pick up guns and perform mass executions of people they don’t even know? I do not pretend to hold all of the answers to this question, but a few issues cry out for our attention.

    The most fundamental reality pertaining to youth in their twenties in this nation is that they have virtually no future. Some are already asking if the Aurora massacre is related to the youth unemployment crisis. My generation and those before mine have handed the millennials an enormous load of garbage. Even if they are fortunate enough to have no student loan debt, the perennial maxim of their parents’ generation, “If you don’t get a college degree, you’ll end up flipping burgers” rings in their ears—as they stand there, with or without college degrees, yes, flipping burgers. Or in the case of the many homeless college students in this country, flipping burgers could seem like a dramatic advance in the direction of upward mobility.

    But certainly, young people in their twenties are not the only ones enraged. The entire culture is enraged, but impetuous, troubled young men are often driven to act out their rage in ways that the masses quietly bury or medicate.

    Yet a more accurate and penetrating question must be asked: What in the paradigm of industrial civilization causes not only such grizzly violence of epic and epidemic proportions, but what in that paradigm causes us to so blatantly and blithely ignore the global warming-generated drought that is shriveling at least one third of this country? Are the two issues related?

  15. KaD Wrote: “Yet a more accurate and penetrating question must be asked: What in the paradigm of industrial civilization causes not only such grizzly violence of epic and epidemic proportions, but what in that paradigm causes us to so blatantly and blithely ignore the global warming-generated drought that is shriveling at least one third of this country? Are the two issues related?”

    No, not at all, one is a figment of your imagination.


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