Constructive Generational Conflict Between Boomers & MillennialsApril 8th, 2012 at 17:04
Following up on my last piece, “Shot Across my Boomer Bow”, and the provocative Esquire article “The War Against Youth” that inspired it, I am still (as a member of the Baby Boom generation myself) wrestling with what is the best path forward for us regarding these important generational issues. With any conflict that needs to be resolved and involves strong feelings and difficult issues, I believe we do best by focusing on “I” statements when we speak, but also try to listen to those statements from others thoughtfully, beyond ego, and try not to let our buttons get pushed (and at least acknowledge when they have been pushed).
Is there even a legitimate conflict that needs to be resolved? I think so, though a conflict short of Baby Boomers “eating their young” as the inflammatory rhetoric in the Esquire article stated. There are issues on the table in Congress about whether or not to have a two-tier solution for Social Security and Medicare that would leave benefits for existing beneficiaries (and possibly some or all Boomers) pretty much as is, while providing a less rich set of benefits for younger folks. Also, various educational subsidizes of particular importance to younger adults could be in danger of being cut to dial down government budgets.
Beyond that, I’m not sure how much can be done about the transition in the work world towards a global economy and the resulting impact on jobs and wages, plus the transition from traditional pension plans to individual retirement accounts and 401Ks. These seem like horses that left the barn decades ago, and we Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials are pretty equally impacted.
And finally, just the basic issue about who is going to be at the table making these decisions. Will Gen-Xers and Millennials be appropriately represented in terms of voice and vote? Obama is a Gen-Xer and there are others of that generation in Congress and state legislatures (though probably not yet reflective of their numbers). But who will speak and vote on behalf of our Millennial constituency? Back when we were all pretty confident that things would be improving for the younger generation, maybe having our young people at the table was not so critical. But now that the path forward is more problematic?
Getting Young People into the National Discussion
Up to now our young adults have not registered or voted in numbers to reflect their percentage of the population relative to older citizens. Certainly efforts by conservative legislatures to increase ID requirements to register and vote are particularly problematic for young adults, who are more likely to have transitory living arrangements and ID (if any) at an address other than where they are currently residing. Due to that and other typical dynamics of young adult life, Millennials are unlikely to be running for legislative seats in numbers representing their population percentage.
I don’t know if most of us older folks have even been concerned about that up to now, assuming that we are their parents and grandparents (or at least part of those generations) and we feel that younger folks should trust us to consider their interests and know what’s best for them. Or since they will have the opportunity some day to be the elders themselves, we are just not that concerned about fully considering their take on things while they are still not part of that elder cohort. Certainly most of our schools are run on that assumption, that all important decisions about a kid’s development need to be made by adults with little or no consultation with the young person.
If it ever was appropriate to have a discussion about our collective future without younger people at the table, I don’t think it is still appropriate today! But how do we update our country’s institutions to engender more of the voice and vote of those people among us who have the biggest (or at least the longest) stake in the future?
I’m wondering if William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory might give an interesting perspective to this needed discussion about resolving conflict between Boomers and Millennials.
Strauss and Howe define a social generation as the aggregate of all people born over a span of roughly twenty years, or about the length of one phase of life: childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age. Particular generations are identified (from first birth year to last) by looking for cohort groups of this length that share three criteria. First, members of a generation share what the authors call an age location in history: they encounter key historical events and social trends while occupying the same phase of life. Because members of a generation are shaped in lasting ways by the eras they encounter as children and young adults, they also tend to share certain common beliefs and behaviors. Aware of the experiences and traits that they share with their peers, members of a generation also tend to share a sense of common perceived membership in that generation.
Strauss and Howe posit a repeating eighty-year cycle of societal development which includes four stages – high, awakening, unraveling and crisis – each roughly twenty years in duration. Society goes through a “high” period of cohesion and consensus, followed by the emergence of a new way of looking at things (the “awakening”), which eventually “unravels” the societal consensus and leads to “crisis”, which when resolved leads to a new “high” consensus, and on into the next iteration of the cycle.
So in our society’s most recent hundred years we have had a “crisis” (the Great Depression & World War II), followed by a “high” (the post-war economic growth and conformist 1950s), then a new “awakening” (the movements for social change in the 1960s and 1970s), followed by an “unraveling” (the culture wars and hyper-materialism of the 1980s & 1990s), and finally the next “crisis” (9/11 & Great Recession).
Each generation (roughly a twenty-year birth span) has a controlling “archetype” that is formed by the cycle stage of their youth and young adulthood, plus generally trying to differentiate themselves from their parents’ generation. Each eighty-year cycle has the same sequence of four generations controlled by one of the following generational archetypes – prophet, nomad, hero and artist – formed by when they were born in the cycle and what generation their parents were from.
I suggest you read the Wikipedia article if you are interested in more of the details of this fairly complex theoretical mechanism.
Bringing this historical theory back to the generational conflict that’s the focus of this piece, my Boomer generation (born 1943-1960 after the crisis of the Great Depression & World War II) carry the “prophet” generational archetype…
Born after a Crisis, during a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order. Prophets grow up as the increasingly indulged children of this post-Crisis era, come of age as self-absorbed young crusaders of an Awakening, focus on morals and principles in midlife, and emerge as elders guiding another Crisis. Due to this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age fervor and their values-oriented elder leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of vision, values, and religion.
The intervening Gen-X generation (born 1961–1981) fall under the “nomad” archetype…
Born during an Awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas, when young adults are passionately attacking the established institutional order. Nomads grow up as under-protected children during this Awakening, come of age as alienated, post-Awakening adults, become pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and age into resilient post-Crisis elders. Due to this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their adrift, alienated rising-adult years and their midlife years of pragmatic leadership.
The next generation, the Millennials (born 1982-2004), are for the most part the children of Boomers and carry the “hero” archetype…
Born after an Awakening, during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez faire. Heroes grow up as increasingly protected post-Awakening children, come of age as team-oriented young optimists during a Crisis, emerge as energetic, overly-confident midlifers, and age into politically powerful elders attacked by another Awakening. Due to this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their collective military triumphs in young adulthood and their political achievements as elders. Their main societal contributions are in the area of community, affluence, and technology.
So confessing my own bias, I tend to be a sucker for these abstract frameworks that attempt to find some systematic meaning in things that others might see as completely unconnected. I can understand if you are skeptical, or find little or no value in these perhaps oversimplified theoretical constructs. Acknowledging that… I proceed.
Applying Generational Theory to Boomers & Millennials
So if you accept Strauss & Howe’s theory there would be a natural recycling conflict between each succeeding “Prophet” generation and their offspring “Hero” generation, in our current case between Boomers and their Millennial kids. According to the Wikipedia piece, Howe frames our current generational context as follows. Note that the “Silents” are the pre-Boomer generation, and he refers to the twenty-year stages as “turnings”, with the “third turning” being the “unraveling” stage and the “fourth turning” the “crisis” stage…
Howe posits that America is currently in or about to enter a Fourth Turning. The individualism, risk-taking, and conspicuous consumption of the recent Third Turning are winding down, and today’s social mood is marked by new sobriety about unpaid debts at home and unmet challenges abroad. Society is beginning to view the recent Third Turning as a period of drift when public problems were allowed to accumulate — problems that are now reaching a level of urgency where the nation must tackle them head-on.
Like all turnings, Fourth Turnings are pushed by the aging of each generation into a new phase of life. Yet unlike other turnings, the emerging lineup of generational archetypes is likely to push history forward in a sudden, concerted, and decisive direction. According to Howe, this is true today as well. As Boomers replace the Silent as elder leaders, they will reject caution and compromise and act on moral absolutes. As Gen Xers replace Boomers in midlife, they will apply a new pragmatic survivalism to management decisions. As Millennials replace Gen Xers in young adulthood, they will revitalize community, social discipline, and public purpose.
So are we as Boomers faced with our kids’ Millennial generation that is perhaps more externally focused on action within a context of building community while we Boomers have been more internally focused on ideas and spiritual/metaphysical development (Gandhi’s “be the change you seek”)? I ask that question not intending to slight either of these quests. Do our kids need to understand that our gift to them is perhaps a vibrant ethical framework forged in what may appear externally as self-absorption? Do we need to understand that our kids also need the gift of more material resources in their quest to build a new sense of community to weather the impending crisis?
Conflict between world views can be a good thing, when there are appropriate ways to talk it through and find common ground, rather than letting it spiral into “us and them” thinking and direct confrontation.
German philosopher Friedrich Hegel crafted a developmental theory of history that saw conflict between competing world views (and the different groups within society that held them) as a positive rather than a negative, and in fact the main mechanism of the development of human society. A new conception of society begins as a thesis, a set of ideas that are initially abstract and untested, and undoubtedly with some logical flaws. Those flaws catalyze the challenge of a contrary conception, the antithesis, which “stress tests” the effectiveness of those ideas in more concrete terms. The surviving hybrid of tested and modified components of the original thesis and antithesis that weather this real-world trial emerge as a new synthesis.
So when the author of the Esquire piece attempts to speak to generational conflict, but perhaps does so in a way that looks to engender confrontation between “us and them”, I think it unwise to repudiate the whole argument based on its most divisive components. I think it is important to do our best to move beyond just having our buttons pushed, and accept this antithesis as constructive dissonance that highlights the weak points of our generational thesis and the need to find some new common ground and work out the legitimate issues raised.
If Strauss and Howe are right, Boomers have been inwardly focused towards societal contributions (our “thesis”) in the more abstract areas of vision, values, and religion (peace, love, joy and oneness of the human community). If so, we should acknowledge that our Millennial offspring (if they are in fact the thoughtful and intelligent people that we had hoped to raise) are appropriately “questioning authority”, particularly our authority, and poking the appropriate holes in our generational world view.
Suggestions on the Path Forward
In this regard, some things for us to consider as Boomers in our path forward with our Millennial kids…
* If due to pragmatic political deals our societal “safety net” is emerging as significantly stronger than theirs, then we should acknowledge that situation and not support such deals.
* If we have perhaps over-hyped higher education as “helicopter parents”, raising the demand and resulting price of that education above where it should be (based on its true value), then we should back off from that crusade.
* If corporations are exploiting young workers with extended unpaid internships then we should not accept this as a “new normal”.
* If the economic reality (at least for the next decade) is a limited number of well-paying jobs and a higher cost of living, then we should live as simply and frugally as we possibly can so that we can “retire” as early as possible and surrender our own well-paying jobs so they are available to younger workers.
* If the traditional markers of “adulthood” – marriage and family, home purchase, career job – are significantly more elusive in the realities of the new economy, then we should back off from pushing our kids to attain them, particularly if its about our own sense of being “successful parents” and how we are judged relative to our peers.
* Finally, if their continues to an ideological gulf between progressives and conservatives within the Boomer generation that is contributing to the dysfunction of our legislative system, all us Boomers need to take ownership of that dysfunction and keep our focus on resolving it.