Millennial Boyz

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.

7 thoughts on “Millennial Boyz”

  1. Jay, great post. Glad I nudged you.

    I have not read Generations, so I was not aware of the upcoming “crisis of 2020”. My kids will be just old enough to serve and die in it. Tough on us. Stay in a state of grace because death is inevitable and you cannot know the day or the hour.

    I had not realized they predicted a “time of troubles”. I have long predicted something similar, and Robb’s book ties in well with that, since he thinks we are going to suffer a lot before we get ourselves reorganized on a racically decentralized basis. I am not sure it will be Islamic terrorism originating overseas. I think we will get buy-in from very large parts of our population that the terrorists are right, and that fighting against the Religious Right and Halliburton, etc. demand violence. This will lead to a confused but basically Red v. Blue civil war here. Dan from TDAXP put it well: “If history repeats itself, or at least rhymes, within a generation of 9/11 active support of al Qaeda inspired movements should be fashionable on college campuses.” There is a sign off the Eisenhower Expressway for “progressive talk radio” that says “Surge Protection”. So, the “progressives” are saying that they are aligned with the terrorists in Iraq against our soldiers and the President. Bush derangement syndrome is a step in a downward spiral, not a one-off. I sure hope Robb, Strauss & Howe and Dan Abbott are all wrong. But I don’t think they are.

    Another cycle is the 70 years or so between major constitutional crises. Major institutional arrangements seem to last about three generations, usually with a pretty severe crisis in the middle. Jefferson thought we’d need a civil war every generation. Founding to Civil War, 74 years, Civil War to New Deal, 67 years, New Deal to ? — we are not at 72 years.

    Interesting times coming around the bend. We are now living in a golden age of peace and fellow-feeling. Enjoy it while it lasts because it ia a wasting asset. There is going to be a discontinuity in our forward progress of serious magnitude.

  2. There was no immense destruction of the US in WWII and there will be none in the next crisis. The Mexicans aren’t that organized and the Canadians aren’t that motivated. Nobody else can get here. Somebody else will get the honor of whipping boy.

    There also was no purple in WWII, the Civil War or the Revolution. There were copperheads and tories in the later two, but never a synthesis of prior polarities. There will be no purple now. Instead, one side or the other will more or less (probably less) disappear when the response of the other to the crisis prevails, much as the isolationists disappeared in WWII.

    More likely to my mind is economic dislocation of Joadian proportions with peak oil, the collapse of globalization, medicare, and asset values (read housing prices). As the Baby Boomer Apocalypse recognizes, there will be plenty of cranky boomers ready to direct our discontent on an obnoxious population. The only question is which one.

  3. Interesting discussion. I think the first time I heard Barnett, I was most struck by his line that the Leviathan is being saved for “The Taiwan Straits crisis, 2025” (IIRC).

  4. I think that the crisis may come sooner. By ~ 2017, there will be roughly two working stiffs for every Boomer on Social Security. Don’t know about you, but I can’t afford an extra mouth to feed (not to mention how Medicare Part D is going to mushroom).

  5. John, that sounds like a plausible tipping point. You have to wonder what concatenation of contingencies will give rise to the next big crisis. It will probably be a confluence of problems coming all at once.

  6. Reacting to the reactions with one overlong, barely-readable comment:

    Lex – I’m glad you nudged me too (you’re a dedicated man, posting at nearly three in the morning Chicago time after a hard night of rock & roll).

    “Stay in a state of grace …” – and don’t forget Matthew 5:9. A Crisis of 2020 seems to me likely, but it is not inevitable, and the possible death toll spans orders of magnitude. Thousands of KIA is a lot better than millions.

    “Red v. Blue civil war here.” – In fact, Strauss & Howe suggested something pretty close to that, explicitly predicting talk of regional secession; and there was some (and could have been a lot more had the ’06 Congressional elections not gone the way they did). I think we’re edging our way past this particular threat; also that “progressive” windbags will never have the cojones for personal violence, though the antics of the ELF are not reassuring.

    I encourage you to read GENERATIONS when you get the chance for their explanation of the timing of Constitutional crises, which Strauss & Howe would deem a type of “secular crisis.” The normal interval is 80-90 years; they go to some length to explain the different timing of the Civil War and relate that to the subsequent perception of it as (mostly) a disaster rather than as nearly the best possible outcome (as the Revolution and WW2 are generally perceived).

    Mrs Davis – I am not sure how to square your prediction of “no [immense destruction in the US] in the next crisis” with, say, this, which I think pretty well finishes off the quaint notion that “[n]obody … can get here.” But as momentous as that event was, it did not, in fact, kick off the Crisis of 2020, and I cannot say, as I did just above, that said Crisis is not inevitable and then insist that destruction is coming. I can insist, however, that it must be actively prevented if it is not to occur.

    Strauss & Howe use the phrase “new and seemingly unlikely alliances” to describe the rise of a political consensus, largely oriented toward protecting the rising generation, that replaces the former schism. It is partially, as you say, simply the result of somebody winning. But no one’s agenda will be adopted unaltered.

    I have also stopped believing in economic dislocation, at least of the sort I’ve been hearing about from libertarians for the past thirty years. To the extent that I think Kurzweil is on the right track, supposedly insuperable problems like Medicare may turn out to be quite manageable. Peak oil is a phantom; nanotech will eliminate every resource constraint but one, that being real estate on Earth’s surface. Which means that people — the ones who stay here, that is — will still fight over land.

    Dan – That’s some terrific stuff over on your blog. I suspect that the mechanism of institutional containment as a replacement for maintenance of political belief will take its own, very 21st-century form, not very much like the one that obtained from 1947-89 or thereabouts.

    I’ll be surprised if China lashes out in such a way as to provoke war. My perception is that the great Chinese risk is internal — a 21st-century analog of the Taiping Rebellion or the Cultural Revolution, with hundreds of millions of dead, but all within its borders.

    John/Lex – One of the more plausible hypotheses in Strauss & Howe is that secular crises are fomented by Idealist generations from whatever materials are at hand (and resolved mainly through the efforts of the younger Reactive and Civic generations).

  7. Jay,

    “I suspect that the mechanism of institutional containment as a replacement for maintenance of political belief will take its own, very 21st-century form, not very much like the one that obtained from 1947-89 or thereabouts.”

    I disagree. Human nature doesn’t change, so why should organizational forms?

    “I’ll be surprised if China lashes out in such a way as to provoke war. My perception is that the great Chinese risk is internal — a 21st-century analog of the Taiping Rebellion or the Cultural Revolution, with hundreds of millions of dead, but all within its borders.”

    I’d be surprised too. But weakening regimes (Argentina, Iraq, etc) do dangerous things. Embracing China is hedging against a victory for globalization, but maintaining the MILC is hedging against such a calamity.

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