(this is a repost of an essay I wrote in 2016, perhaps more relevant today.)
This is going to be a very strange commentary, almost entirely sociological in nature. I think I’ve found a useful lens to explain a wide variety of emerging social/political/economic puzzles.
- Why do 70% of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction even as violent crime, deaths from terrorism, and unemployment are near the lows of the last 100 years?
- Why do so many people from all over the ideological spectrum think the US is in the midst of a crisis (for such wildly different and conflicting reasons)?
Why do young progressive liberals seem to be demanding very “illiberal” social justice policies (like racial quotas for professors and campus censorship)?
Why is most popular media today so “squeaky clean” (Taylor Swift, Drake, “Modern Family”, super hero movies)?
- Why are technologically “boring” products like Twitter, Game of War, and Pokemon Go so successful, and should we expect that to continue?
- Why did Bernie Sanders produce such strong youth turnout and earn nearly half of Democratic support in the primary; can we expect high youth turnout going forward?
- Why are teen suicides rising even as academic performance and optimism among that age group are off the charts, and violence in general is falling?
- Will the push for radical changes to our economy and political system from both left and right succeed? What form will the changes take?
The questions above became less puzzling to me after thinking about them within a generational framework that properly identifies the Millennial zeitgeist.
Millennials (currently aged 12 to 34) are civic-minded collectivists. They trust authority and government institutions, but think little of current leadership. They are optimistic and conformist. They’re outer-directed; instead of self-improvement, they focus on improving the world around them. They’re team players.
As consumers they will look for products that let them engage with a community (e.g. Twitter, Pokemon Go), they will continue preferring media that is idealistic and “clean” (e.g. Taylor Swift, “Modern Family”, and simple super hero movies.) As voters they will produce record turnout and throw their support behind politicians who promise ambitious social reforms via a larger federal government (i.e. Bernie Sanders.) As employees, they will demand meaningful work and a sense of being part of a team. As citizens, they will be honest collectivists with a strong sense of social responsibility. They’ll ambitiously and optimistically rebuild large institutions around themselves and their vision for the country. While they tend to be more liberal and atheistic than previous generations, the civic collectivism crosses party and theological lines. Religious millennials are embracing huge christian rock concerts and public purity ring ceremonies. Millennials are in many ways traditional, non-rebellious, and conformist; a generation of boy scouts…and occasionally bullies.
I am of course grossly simplifying when I reduce the extreme diversity of a generation to a set of common traits, but capturing general trends is useful. This commentary draws very heavily on the work of authors William Strauss and Neil Howe.
Social Justice: Rejecting Baby Boomer Individualism
There have been major protests on over two hundred college campuses in the last 18 months, with some of the most newsworthy at the University of Missouri, Yale, and Amherst. The protests have centered primarily around social justice for black Americans, with demands and tactics that are problematic for even most self-described leftist liberals. For example, students at many schools are demanding quotas for black professors, mandatory “cultural competency training” for all students, censorship of political discourse, and the renaming of buildings named after US presidents like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. The latest version of the “Movement for Black Lives” platform (which has been endorsed by Black Lives Matter), demands legalized racial discrimination, including free national education exclusively for people with black skin. To many veterans of the civil rights movement, these demands threaten the rights of others, through active censorship and racial discrimination.
I previously thought of Millennials as continuing the idealism, materialism, and individualism of the Baby Boomers, and that left me perplexed by the form that some of the recent social justice protests have taken. The Baby Boomers (born between 1943-1960) were inner-directed idealists. Some of their most famous and representative members were president Bill Clinton, comedian Steve Martin, and entrepreneur Steve Jobs. They believed in the individual – individual rights, individual transformation (through drugs and dance as adolescents, and now through diets and exercise schemes and religious revival movements as adults), and individual success (through materialist consumption). The civil rights movement was focused on the individual and the argument could be summed up simply: people are people, treat them the same. A black person should be treated equally to a white person, a gay person deserves the same rights as a straight person, immigrants the same rights as native born Americans etc.
In contrast, Millennials care about injustice, but frame it not as justice for individuals, but as justice for groups. Previously, assistance to the poor or oppressed was generally framed in terms of providing equal opportunity. But the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, the Millennials’ candidate, is about outcomes of groups – that income inequality is in itself an obvious problem and inherently wrong. To put it simply: Civil rights advocates of the baby boom generation were fighting to remove institutional obstacles from individuals. Social justice minded millennials are fighting to provide equal opportunity for groups, and measure opportunity in terms of outcomes.
The inward-focus of Baby Boomers led to the surge in psychedelic drug use, therapy and self-help books, fad diets and gym memberships. As adolescents they sought inner purity, as adults they chased personal wealth and happiness, and as parents they believed in coaching their children to personal perfection. In contrast, Millennials are outward-focused; when they talk about “fixing things”, they don’t mean their waistlines or relationships with their mothers, they mean the environment and the societal institutions around them.
Optimism and Ambition: Rejecting Gen X Cynicism
Gen X (born 1961 to 1981) was a cynical, pessimistic generation. Nihilistic, rebellious, and scared, they came of age in an atmosphere of low expectations and neglect. They caused a spike in crime rates and a drop in academic performance. Gen X is the generation of punk rock, Marilyn Manson, Dennis Rodman, “South Park”, and “heroin chic” fashion. Gen X views the world as a cold and unforgiving place. They don’t trust authority or each other and subscribe to a mantra that if you don’t look out for yourself, no one else will. To Gen X, success is self-sufficiency, independence, and survival.
In contrast, Millennials are incredibly optimistic and ambitious. They reject the cynicism of “Seinfeld” in favor of idealistic “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation.” Their favorite musicians are squeaky clean idealists in every subgenre – Drake, Taylor Swift, NSYNC, and Skrillex. I’m personally a fan of electronic music so I’ll use that as an example to dive a little deeper: Gen X listened to electronic music in illegal underground raves in filthy warehouses in groups of a few hundred or a couple thousand adolescents; millennials fill stadiums to hear their favorite DJs and buy their tickets 6 months in advance via Ticketmaster.
Boy Scouts: Embracing GI Collectivism
So if Millennials are are wildly different from Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, who can we compare them to? The GI generation (currently between 93 and 115). As youths they were similarly civic-minded team players. Theirs was the generation that started the Boy Scouts, built the nation’s highway system, and put a man on the moon. They gave us sunny idealists like JFK and Reagan the pols, Artie Shaw and Judy Garland the musicians, and Joe DiMaggio the sportsman.
Millennials began developing their worldview with a childhood of “gold stars.” They grew up in a culture that embraced children as the future, with mothers that kept a pile of child-rearing books on the bedside table, and with schools that sought to replace competition with encouragement. They could do no wrong. Unlike most previous generations, they were told even as children that their views were important and valuable. Their parents and society as a whole demonstrated they were constantly here to protect and support them.
By the time Bill Clinton took office, “kinderpolitics” dominated the political scene – it seemed like every public policy debate was framed in terms of what was best for children. “Children are our future” became the mantra. Adults were expected to embrace parenthood as a defining role of their life. Adults who chose not to have children, or to have children but not make them a central priority of their life, were viewed as selfish.
As a result, Millennials trust authority and are quick to anger when high expectations aren’t met. Their childhood made them ambitious, confident, demanding, and fragile. They don’t know how to deal with disappointment or failure. On college campuses, this manifests as a very specific type of protest. Unlike the civil rights protesters of the 60s, today’s students have no desire to “burn it down.” When they encounter something they don’t like, like a school newspaper that publishes Op-Eds they view as insensitive, today’s protesters don’t react by creating an alternative/competing paper – rather they demand that the administration fix or replace the existing newspaper. Millennials believe in institutions (even if they think those institutions are currently run by corrupt people).
Millennials’ life is always quantified. They count their Facebook “likes” and Twitter “followers.” They know how many Pokemon are in their Pokedex. Their popular computer games always include some form of “leveling up.” In public policy, they reject abstract ideals in favor of tangible results on both sides of the political spectrum. Debates over the role of government or constitutional interpretation, are the domain of ideological Boomers. For Millennials, these abstract discussions are uninteresting and unimportant. They’re far less interested in thought experiments than concrete results.
Sense of Crisis:
Strauss and Howe’s generational model suggests that “hero” generations like the GIs and Millennials always come of age during a time of crisis. The idea of “crisis” is less about fact than about narrative.
I look at statistics that define our quality of life – violent crime, deaths from terrorism, hunger, infant mortality, life expectancy, etc, and by almost every measure imaginable, Americans (and people throughout most of the world) have never had it so good. Yet, 70% of Americans say they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Many black Americans feel like they’re in the midst of a crisis after watching youtube videos of police killing unarmed black teens. The LGBT community feels under assault after the North Carolina Trans Bathroom bill and Orlando terrorist attack. Middle-America whites feel under assault from a variety of angles – they feel unsafe from foreign risks due to Islamic terrorism, unsafe from domestic threats of racial violence and the recent assassinations of police officers; and they feel like they’re losing the “culture wars” and being painted as villains for being christian, straight, and white. Blue collar workers have a sense of economic hopelessness after a generation of stagnant wages and decreasing job security. Parents feel helpless in the face of school shootings.
Perhaps most nefarious is the perception that our political system is increasingly corrupt. More people believe that the economy and political system are rigged and controlled by a small number of elites. People have less faith in police and congress and industry leaders than at any time in the last century.
This sense of crisis was launched by the 2008 economic collapse. High school and college age millennials went from a certainty that they would have wonderful job offers showered on them to a reality of moving back in with their parents, scrambling for unpaid internships, and returning to grad school or taking disappointing low-skilled jobs as a fallback. It seemed like overnight the narrative for a 16 year old went from, “get good grades, go to a good college, and you’ll have a wonderful life” to “if you’re lucky, you may some day be able to pay off your student debt and afford a mortgage.” The financial sector bailouts made Americans believe the economy was rigged in favor of the already rich and powerful. Some of the hardest hit in the Great Recession were the black and hispanic poor who experienced a disproportionate increase in unemployment and destroyed the sense of slow progress in those communities. While the economy has largely recovered since 2008, the sense of disillusionment and lack of opportunity remains.
For the GI generation, the crisis began with the 1929 stock market crash and culminated in WW2 victory. So far we seem to be following a similar timing. If history continues to rhyme, this crisis period might culminate around 2022, possibly against an external threat like Radical Islam, or perhaps as domestic crisis in the form of a massive corruption scandal that shakes our confidence in government (far deeper than even our current distrust.)
This sense of crisis spawned both the Trump and Sanders candidacies. Millennials are still too young to take control of the political sphere, but we can expect to see them playing an increasing role each coming election.
Millennials as Populists: The Dangers of Collectivism
What’s the next step? This cohort of Millennials isn’t going to fade away quietly. Rather, we’ll see a rebirth of civic engagement, rising rates of voter participation, and increasing (often shrill) public discourse over expanding the role of government. The danger (at least to people with Boomer values) is that the civic minded Millennials will demand too heavy handed intervention from the government. Their trust in authority and belief in collectivism may slide into fascist tendencies. Millennials weren’t outraged by Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying; they’re more outraged by a lack of government action to right historical wrongs, to prevent domestic violence, to censor hate speech, to prevent terrorism, etc. Traditionally, liberals believe in “big government” on economic issues, and “small government” on social issues, while conservatives believed in the opposite. But millennial liberals expect increasing involvement from the government on social issues as well to enforce their sense of fairness, shifting liberalism into populism.
The Millennial belief in collectivism can take the form of bullying. In the Baby Boomer’s adolescence – individualism was hip. In the Gen X world – rebellion was cool. In the Millennials world – being a team-player is paramount. The millennial generation is quick to ostracize, condemn, and bully those who fail to conform. As a result, we’re seeing an increase in teen suicides and an increase in school shootings by self-identified outcasts.
This whole essay is a great oversimplification of the infinite diversity of humanity…but hopefully a useful one for explanatory and maybe even predictive purposes. Let me try to reduce all of this to a single takeaway that transcends context and may be useful to you when you think about economic and political issues:
In every aspect of life, Millennials want to join a team, set a quantifiable goal, and climb a ladder with measurable steps to that goal. They are collectivists, and institution builders.
This essay is based directly on work by Strauss and Howe, especially “Generations” and “Millennials Rising”, (with a few twists by me, for better or worse). Finally, I owe thanks to my friend Ben Kream for recommending the authors to me.