red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation

Neil Howe and William Strauss
New York: Vintage Books/Random House ©2000

 

Marketing and business professionals from all fields and industries often recommend books such as Millennials Rising to provide colleagues and teams with 'special insight' into the people they may be trying to reach. That's probably not a bad reason for picking up this book. But there's an even better one — discovering how generations shape history.

Whether or not you have kids, you have parents. And you're part of your own generational group (G.I.s, Boomers, Gen-Xers) that has been interacting (well or badly) with everyone else in society. That should be enough to pique your interest in what happens to and with the next and the preceding generation(s). Whether we come to blows or come to agreement, our ability to understand and appreciate each other will make a great deal of difference in how we can live out the rest of our lives, individually and collectively. Do yourself a favor and dig into Millennials Rising.

In this thoroughly researched and very readable offering, authors Howe and Strauss tackle a huge subject and provide a sweeping historical context. They start by describing key characteristics of the generation they've labeled "Millennials," those born between 1982 and 2002: they are not "lost" (like the contraceptive-era Gen-Xers) but "found" (truly desired in an age of fertility clinics); they are optimistic, cooperative team players who accept authority and willingly follow rules. They are not neglected in any sense of the word. Rather, they are "the most watched-over generation in memory." And despite their lack of enthusiasm for school per se, they are "smarter than most people think," with rising test scores to prove it. Perhaps, most significantly for those of us who are older and who will rely on the world that Millennial youngsters create (or improve), these kids "believe in the future and see themselves as its cutting edge."

As the authors contend, the change underway among today's kids is a "good news" revolution. "This generation is going to rebel by behaving not worse, but better. Their life mission will not be to tear down old institutions that don't work, but to build up new ones that do. Look closely at youth indicators, and you'll see that Millennial attitudes and behaviors represent a sharp break from Generation X, and are running exactly counter to trends launched by Boomers."

While we Americans often think that generations change in a straight line — and that each succeeding group is bound to be worse than the one before, what Howe and Strauss explain is that generational differences happen in cycles lasting between 80 and 100 years, and as such, have an element of predictability to them. No, the particulars are never repeated exactly, but the key qualities do recur over long periods of time and are worth noting. Everything from the importance of their own generational name to their potential for heroic action can be put into historical context and provide a reasonable framework for looking at future possibilities.

Three attributes are required to identify the persona of a generation, including perceived membership in a common generation, common beliefs and behaviors, and a common location in history. And all generations rebel. The authors provide three "basic principles" that "apply to any rising generation in non-traditional societies (like America) that allow young people some freedom to redirect society according to their own inclinations. Each generation:

Every generation has its historical markers. For those who were the high school Class of 2000 ("Millennials"), here are the top 10 key events, in that order: Columbine, war in Kosovo, Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Di's death, Clinton's impeachment trial, O.J. Simpson trial, Rodney King riots, Lewinsky scandal, fall of the Berlin Wall, and the McGwire-Sosa home-run race. And although media news reporting often paints a more negative and cynical picture, Millennials are part of three positive trends:

  1. They see national leaders and pop-culture celebrities as being vastly more spoiled and unethical than their own generation.
  2. They are the first generation since World War II to be confronted with higher academic standards than the last generation — and to show early signs of meeting those standards.
  3. They are less vulgar, less sexually active, less violent than the youth culture adults have created for them.

Howe and Strauss provide a comprehensive look at these primarily American kids in many contexts, including demography, political economy, family, school, the pace of life, personal and public conduct, community, culture, commerce, and world. It is important to remember that Millennials are a global generation, and not just because they have had more — and more extensive — access to globe-spanning communication technologies such as the Internet. Global generations are truly a historical phenomenon.

The following six generations, which still have at least a few living members, are the primary focus throughout the book:

Generation Name Birth Years
Lost 1883-1900
G.I. 1900-1924
Silent 1925-1942
Boom 1943-1960
Gen-X 1961-1981
Millennial 1982-2000

 

Howe and Strauss also take us back to far earlier times that produced "heroic" generations: from Cotton Mather in the Glorious Generation of 1648-1673, to Thomas Jefferson in the Republican Generation of 1742-1766, Woodrow Wilson in the Progressive Generation of 1843-1859, and John Kennedy in the G.I. Generation of 1900-1924. They explain why "heroes" show up only once in every four cycles and why the interim generations happen and are necessary adjustments to corrections made by earlier cohorts.

The challenges we face in dealing with any new generation is to stop seeing it through the lens of our own generational proclivities and biases. Although they provide plenty of cautionary reserve about what could happen if Millennial characteristics turn negative, Howe and Strauss are as optimistic about the Millennials as the Millennials seem to be about themselves. These "special" folks have the potential for re-civilizing social discourse, rebuilding our infrastructure, and taming global crises. Whether or not they can do it is yet to be determined. But the potential is there. And by putting us all in the big historical picture, Howe and Strauss remind us that the members of each generation have critically important roles to play in the high-stakes game that is our future.

 

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