I’m on a mission from Lex. On Thu 12 Jul at 5:34 PM CDT, he wrote me:
> Are the Millennials Different?
> I know you are a fan. Any response must be cross-posted on CB!
I can think of nothing better to do on a fine Bastille Day evening — having missed the concert by virtue of being 400 miles to the southwest — than consume modest quantities of ethanol in the form of Boulevard Lunar Ale and compose a rambling post for infliction on the readership here. By way of my usual thinning out of my prospective audience, graze on over to Arcturus for what has become known as the Baby Boomer Apocalypse post, which will 1) impart what I think is the most important aspect of Strauss & Howe’s model and 2) very likely cause you to decide you’ve got better things to do than read the rest of this.
Barone’s commentary is brief, and notes only what I regard as a couple of minor and tangential trends. (For a more bracing example, note that homicide in the US has declined to the rate of the 1950s.) I will return to what he has to say presently, but should first give some background.
GENERATIONS was published just over sixteen years ago (it was completed in 1990). A good capsule explanation is at Cycles of History; my own 25-words-or-less version is that alternating styles of parenting produce four different predominant generational outlooks in recurring 90-year cycles. These outlooks, in turn, produce a cycle of “spiritual” and “secular” crises. Past secular crises in American history are: late 17th century (King Philip’s War, Bacon’s Rebellion, Salem witch trials); the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention; the Civil War (actually a break in the cycle, according to Strauss and Howe, that caused it to “skip” a generation); and the Great Depression and World War 2. Based on their definition of generational boundaries since the early 1940s, they predict a “Crisis of 2020,” specifics TBD, which may be perceptibly underway as soon as 2012.
Objections to Strauss and Howe are many: cyclical theories of history are numerological nonsense, they cherry-picked their data, plenty of people in their generations as defined don’t have the requisite outlook, Hari Seldon was a great fictional character but nobody can really predict the future, etc. I do not lightly dismiss these and encourage interested readers to take careful note of the negative reviews on Amazon.
But 2007 is not 1991. We now have a timespan we can review to evaluate whether their model is predictive as well as descriptive, and the major (and many of the minor) indicators are startlingly in accord with Strauss and Howe. The broader trends, it seems to me, are inescapable; and even some of the specific predictions, such as that the first Boomer president would be a historical analog of Warren Harding, were stunningly accurate.
Besides, it may all be a just-so story and yet convey a deeper truth. The relationship between narrative and reality can be tricky, as masterfully elucidated by Taleb in The Black Swan and (I believe) ably commented on by my friend Dr Cline over on Rhetorica. For my part, I see the cycle operating in the Biblical narratives of Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon; and Strauss and Howe note a possible parallel with Moses-Joshua-”children of Israel” and Nestor-Agamemnon-Odysseus-Telemachus. At the last secular crisis, the alignment was: FDR, Marshall, etc (Idealist); Truman, Bradley, Eisenhower, etc (Reactive); millions of GIs, including every future President in office from 1/20/1961 to 1/20/1993 (Civic); and children who would become the “Silent Generation” (Adaptive).
Well, if they’ve been right so far, and go on being right, what does that mean for us?
The next thing to watch for is a narrowing of the red/blue state divide — the development of a consensus that seems impossible now, with the hostility and backbiting going on in DC. There may, just may, be a hint of this already, with the election of Democrats like Jim Webb (another possible example is Claire McCaskill). If Strauss and Howe are right, Purple America is about to arise.
And then, the Crisis of 2020. After, on my recommendation, reading GENERATIONS, Dr Cline remarked to me in conversation that at the next event at his daughter’s elementary school, he looked at the children and thought, “these are the heroes of the Crisis of 2020.” I immediately remarked that some of them are going to be the casualties of the Crisis of 2020. On that event, and its magnitude, speculation can be virtually unbounded. I note that Robb seems to predict a lengthy series of nuisance attacks (some quite painful), beginning in the very near future and being largely brought under control by 2016. I predict only certain elements:
- Survival of the US as a society and a polity even in the aftermath of immense destruction. The present-day equivalent of King Philip’s War would kill everyone living west of the Continental Divide and make refugees of everyone living west of the Mississippi. At the end of that conflict, New England had, man for man, the best military in the world. So will we.
- Assuming terrorism is a significant element, dramatic adaptations analogous to those described by McNeill as occurring in response to Viking raids in Western Europe: reconfiguration of agriculture that inadvertently facilitated greatly increased food production via moldboard plows drawn by large teams of oxen. Again, see the Robb for some ideas on this. Note that the diffusion of these innovations is hardly voluntary, so vocal opposition to them before the Crisis would be rendered moot.
- Nanotechnology — in the full sense, not just nanomaterials — as a key factor in resolving (and perhaps causing) the Crisis; the expression “Nanhattan Project” has already been coined. Plenty of people smarter than I am think we’ll have most of what Drexler talks about in Engines of Creation in another ten years.
Unknown effects include: the very large number of surviving Idealists, who will be present both in absolute numbers and as a share of the total population far larger than that of, say, 1940; knowledge of, or at any rate belief in, the generational cycle itself — GENERATIONS was blurbed by everybody from then-Senator Al Gore to Cato honcho Bill Niskanen; the 22nd Amendment, which ensures that no FDR will be in the White House for three-plus terms; and certainly not least, the temptation to escape Earth’s troubles altogether via the cheap access to space that nanotech will provide (imagine the population of the border states in 1861 being offered transport to California, by jumbo jet).
Back to the Barone, finally. He notices items indicating a moral conservatism among the youngest adults. Do not confuse this with any sort of religious orthodoxy; Civic generations are more secular than others. I’d love to see a pollster with the guts to explicitly pose Barone’s “abortion should not be criminalized but should be disfavored” idea and see how favorable a response it gets, and from whom.