Coronavirus: Boomers, X’ers and Millennials React

This is the first in what I hope will be a series about the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Many of the readers of my blog will be familiar with the generational theories of Strauss and Howe, but if you are not, I would suggest you start here.

For this post, the most important concept is that history has a cycle, and there are four distinct “turnings” or parts of the cycle. We are currently in the “Crisis” which will eventually lead to the next turning, the “High”. The last Crisis Turning was the period of the Great Depression and WWII. They typically last ~20 years, but it is often difficult to determine their start and end while still in the middle of one (much like an economic recession). After the fact they appear self-evident.There is a lot of debate about when the current Crisis started. But regardless of the start date, it does now appear that we are headed into the “climax” portion of the crisis where the whole world is consumed by events that define the next era. I had written about how this could be a war and thankfully that has not come to pass. But the COVID-19 pandemic may be even more costly in terms of loss of life and disruption of social and economic structures.

At this stage the pandemic is global but the loss of life is minimal. Projections point to the highest pandemic loss of life since the Spanish Flu in 1918-19. Governments worldwide have enacted oppressive restrictions that would have been thought impossible just weeks (or even days) before. I am writing this from Oregon where a “Stay at Home” order was just issued.

These restrictions on personal freedoms are perceived differently by the various generations. Note that I am focusing on the generations that are currently in the workforce:

 Boomer Generation (born 1943-1960): This generation is extremely individualistic and anti-establishment. The thought of group-think is an anathema to Boomers, even as they reach elderhood. Boomers, more than any other living generation, don’t want to be told by governments or organizations what they should or should not do. The result? Even though they are of an age where COVID-19 can have devastating effects (Boomers are currently age 60-77 years of age), they are also the generation least concerned with it. Boomers are often fatalistic and seem to believe that the world is going to end when they leave the stage.

Generation X (born 1961-1981): This generation is also individualistic but is survivalist rather than anti-establishment. Gen X’ers were raised as “latch-key kids” who had to fend for themselves from an early age. Many X’ers have been planning for the “Zombie Apocalypse” for a very long time and now that it is finally here, they are sounding the alarm and headed to the fallout shelters. Since all Gen X’ers are under 60, they are not likely to die from COVID-19, but they know that institutions that have been destroyed by the Boomers will be of little use in this crisis. Many X’ers are spending time lecturing their parents on why they need follow “Social Distancing” practices. Look for Gen X’ers to do whatever it takes to make sure that we survive this crisis.

Millennial Generation (born 1982-2001): This generation is of the same archetype as the GI Generation that fought in WWII: The Hero. Raised to be idealist and collaborative, they use social media to enforce social norms (adhering to what a Boomer would call “group-think”). According to Strauss and Howe this generation will rise to the call for action in the Crisis and be the foot soldiers that sacrifice to ensure the future of society. Unfortunately so far their life stage (young adults) and the fact that they are at limited risk from COVID-19 seems to have guided their behavior so far. Whether it is partying on Florida beaches or making up cynical meme’s for COVID-19, it sure doesn’t look like we are seeing the best out of Millennials so far. They do seem the best psychologically prepared generation for “Physical Distancing” since they were raised on social media.

Who’s Following the Script?

Back in 2009 I wrote about the generational “scripts” described by Strauss and Howe in their seminal work, The Fourth Turning. The scripts describe how each generation should behave to have a “successful” outcome from the Crisis. Let’s explore how each are doing on that path.


Boomers are supposed to be our leaders during the time of crisis. You can read more about their ideal role in this post. Here is an excerpt from the the Boomer script:

Boomers must also display a forbearance others have never associated with them. By nature, they will always tend toward self-indulgence in their personal lives—but if they allow this to overflow into public life and demand generous public benefits, they will bankrupt their children financially, themselves morally. 

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997

President Trump is a Boomer, and regardless of your political leanings, it would be difficult to say he has “cast aside self-indulgence or focused on collective sacrifice in the face of a crisis”. In addition he has not inspired the upcoming Hero generation (Millennials) as they showed in the ballot box in 2016. Unfortunately, this means that, at least in the US, we cannot count on Federal leadership to provide a clear vision of the coming transformation. This is not to say that the Federal government won’t be effective in fighting COVID-19, but that they likely will not bring the country towards a collective vision as part of that effort.

That said, there does seem to be a large role for State Governors, and 60% of them are Boomers (including Andrew Cuomo who gave this very Prophet/Boomer address yesterday). And although I don’t have the numbers for CEOs of major corporations, I suspect a majority of them are Boomers. The Senate is 61% Boomer as well. How much these leaders are willing to sacrifice for the greater good in the coming months will be a huge factor in the outcome. More than anything they must inspire confidence in the Gen X’ers and give a mission to Millennials.

Generation X

Gen X does seem to be fulfilling their generational script quite well. Whether they are fighting to keep both their parents and children safe, or demonstrating how to do social distancing, GenX’ers are easily the best prepared for a crisis of any kind. X’ers will need to continue to show that we can move past our cynicism and individualism and support community and the greater good. Strauss and Howe note that we can no longer be risk-takers, and I am confident that most GenX’ers are quickly circling the wagons in spite of what other generations say or do.

Survival skills are what a society needs most in a Fourth Turning, and those are precisely what the most criticized archetype—the Nomad—possesses in abundance.

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997

While X’ers only make up about 30% of the Senate, they are 44% of the House (about equal to Boomers). For both houses of Congress they will be forceful voices for pragmatic, practical solutions to the crisis. They will likely be more willing to set aside partisan differences than their Boomer counterparts whose idealism can blind them to focusing on results. But we can’t look to Gen X’ers to lead the transformation as we remain “middle management” in the crisis.


Although much has been made of how Millennials are disregarding the seriousness of this pandemic, I believe there is still a huge opportunity for them to step up as the crisis unfolds. In their script, Strauss and Howe write about the Millennials, referring to them by their “Hero” archetype:

Whether the Crisis will be won or lost will depend in large measure on the Hero’s teamwork, competence, and courage. By forever sealing his reputation for valor and glory, the Fourth Turning can energize the Hero for a lifetime of grand civic achievements.

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997 7

Because the vast majority of Millennials will not get terribly sick during the pandemic, they may have new-found opportunities for employment. There have been complaints over the years that Boomers in particular are slow to retire leaving little opportunity for Millennials. That may all change quickly as we come out of lock down and find that young people are more willing to risk interacting with others in the public sphere.

But the big question remains whether Millennials will be able to look beyond their own generation and support the country in fighting this crisis. It is unclear to me whether they will have the “teamwork, competence and courage” in this crisis. Don’t get me wrong, in my work and other interactions with Millennials I have been impressed by their work-ethic, team-focus and determination. But will they actually have a call-to-action that gives them a chance to prove their value? That is, of course, up to our (primarily Boomer) leadership.

Trump and Generations Part 4: Parabellum

In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we examined how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out. In Part 3 we looked at what is next based on that historical perspective. In Part 4 we will consider the powerful forces aligned to drive us towards a Climax.

Are we headed to War?

Since I originally posted the earlier parts of this series back in 2017, I will consider one of the important players in the Climax drama at that time: Steven K. Bannon. Bannon has some strong views on what direction our country should be going in the future, and he has not been shy about sharing that vision through his media property, Breitbart News. He was a key strategic advisor in the White House who shaped Trump’s campaign, and it remains clear that he wants to make his vision a reality. Although he didn’t last very long in the Trump administration, he continues to spread his populist vision around the globe, most recently in trying influence the EU Vote.

Bannon is a Baby Boomer of the first order, as outlined in this cover article from Time magazine. He was born in 1953 during the “American High” and was raised a Democrat by a working-class father. Later in life he shifted his beliefs as he became convinced that mainstream liberals and conservatives were not serving the country.

More interestingly, he is a devotee of Strauss and Howe’s generational theories. In 2010 he made a film, Generation Zero, which is an alt-right polemic view of Strauss and Howe’s work. The film is crystal clear on the view that we are headed for a massive conflict and that the US will be victors only if we ascribe to Bannon’s ultra-conservative viewpoints. David Kaiser pointed this out in two Time Magazine articles: one in November 2016 and a anoother in February 2017.

I think it is critically important to state that Strauss and Howe’s theories were not intended to support any particular viewpoint. I know Neil Howe personally and although I won’t reveal his political leanings, I can say that he is definitely NOT an extremist and I have been told the same about Bill Strauss. In their books they describe how public sentiment enables leaders to accomplish different things in different periods but it does not determine the political direction of those accomplishments.

“Generation Zero” is very clear that the dominant liberal democratic values held in most of the West are the root of a problem which will lead to the next “War to end all wars”. Is a war between the superpowers possible? I believe the risk today is greater than any other period during my lifetime (note: I was not alive during the Bay of Pigs invasion).

Although Bannon’s view is that populism is the opposite of liberal democracy, I don’t believe that the Chinese or Russians would agree. Their worldview is authoritarian and their focus is on stability through a single ruling authority. That is the true opposite of a liberal democracy.

What would World War III look like?

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Possibly Albert Einstein

The Novel, “Ghost Fleet”, written by P.W. Singer is an entertaining, and terrifying, vision of what a global war in the Information Age would look like. I don’t want to give it away, but the story revolves around the combination of physical and cyber attacks, used to disable the US military and economy. The enemy is a slightly futuristic version of the Chinese government.

If Trump’s trade war with China continues to escalate alongside our difficulty with Russia and North Korea, perhaps Singer’s nightmare might become a reality. How could this be possible in the Atomic Age? In Singer’s book, China’s goal is to cripple the US, not take it over completely. Through a combination of traditional and cyber warfare they cause chaos for both the military and the civilian population. But a nuclear response remains an unpalatable option because of mutually assured destruction. Is this realistic? Singer spent years at the Pentagon, so maybe it is not that far-fetched…

In the US we are quite concerned with how the Chinese and Russians continue to grow their cyber warfare capabilities. Many are concerned that these capabilities will inevitably lead to a conflict. One of my very best friends had a long military career, serving at the highest levels. When I spoke to him about this he reminded me that capability alone is not what causes conflicts: there must be a political or economic factor that pushes a nation towards war. In the case of both Russia and China, their fundamental ideological disagreements with the West may be that factor.

Imperialism as the Driver

Russia, in my view, is a particular concern. Looking back at the previous Crisis Climax (WWII) is the source of my concern. Although Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s are now remembered for their inhumanity and the holocaust, that is not the thing that made them such a terrifying enemy at the time. Hitler used racism and xenophobia to motivate the German people, but he also had a “higher” goal of “Lebensraum” that inspired the German’s desire to recapture their rightful domain (and a sizable buffer around those lands). During the Blitzkrieg he showed Germany and the World that he could quickly take what Imperial Germany had failed to dominate in WWI. Hilter had a lethal combination of an “inspirational” vision for a downtrodden people coupled with a thirst to dominate and colonize.

Putin shares many of these characteristics. One of his early advisors was Alexandr Dugin who, like Stephen Bannon with Trump, helped define Putin’s winning election strategy. He was the founder of the Eurasia Party which seeks to “reunite” the nations of the former Soviet Republic (and a sizable buffer around those lands). He also directly opposes liberal democracy and believes that a dictatorship is the only viable option for Eurasia. Like Bannon he is no longer part of the ruling administration, but his ideas remain entrenched.

Proof of this came in 2014 when Putin made his foray into Crimea. While the international community condemned his actions, they did not take military action. The same was true for Hitler with Poland, but, thankfully, Putin did not push his advantage like the Nazi’s did at that time. Putin knew that he lacked allies that could support him militarily and economically. But he certainly noted the muted international reaction to his brazen imperial effort. Putin’s success with the disinformation campaign during the last US Presidential election, he also showed that he could cause great disruption with a relatively small investment.

China does not seem to share quite the same level of imperialism, but they certainly want to be acknowledge as one of, if not the, dominant world power. Their cyber abilities continue to increase and they have been consistently willing to flex that muscle internally. Governments around the world have become very concerned about this cyber capability, and the Huawei debate is just the most recent example of this concern. Both China and the West are dependent on the Internet for economic growth, but China has already built-in protections for their network including the Golden Shield and the Great Cannon. This gives them a huge asymmetric advantage in a potential cyberwar.

China’s approach to imperialism seems to be taking a mostly economic form so far. Although Taiwan and other nearby nations may fear a direct takeover, China seems more focused on African nations and building it’s “belt and road” initiative to spread its influence globally. This may be, in part, because China’s ability to wage kinetic war is more limited than Russia or the West. Although China has a massive arsenal, it’s traditional military force is largely untested.

If the China-US trade war continues to drag on alongside the Russian Sanctions, the West may inadvertently create an environment where China and Russia have nothing to in an alliance against the West. Given enough time, they may shift their economies away from global trade, which would allow for more open conflict with their ideological nemeses.

The Rise of Nationalism in the West

The common theme globally today is a focus on nationalism. It is one of the big drivers for Chinese and Russian imperialism, and, conversely, for the West’s move towards isolationism. Nationalism is decried in liberal democracies, but it is steadily gaining ground, with the 2019 EU vote being the most recent example. But the nationalist politicians in most of the West are also preaching an isolationist policy; pulling out of trade agreements, closing borders and defying international bodies. So while Russian and Chinese nationalism increases their desire for global domination, the Western nations are rapidly pulling away.

Although Trump is regularly called a fascist inside and outside of the United States, there are few that would argue that he harbors openly imperialistic goals. His “Make America Great Again” vision is not about returning to a time of manifest destiny but rather a view that the US deserves payback for all our efforts since WWII. Brexiteers follow a similar “logic” with a desire to pull away from a Europe that has been “bleeding us dry“.

This obviously mirrors the situation back in the late 1930’s when the US had enacted multiple isolationist policies. The public’s distaste for getting involved in another war in Europe was driving the policy of the day, and because they were barely recovering from the Great Depression, the focus remained on the domestic agenda. It took Pearl Harbor to finally wake the sleeping giant.

What will be the Spark?

WWI started with an assassination, while WWII began when Germany invaded Poland. But it was the geopolitical climate at those times that were the actual cause of the conflict. The political climate today is extremely divisive and all sides are ramping up towards a climax. Vice President Mike Pence recently told West Point Grads to prepare for combat. As the tensions rise between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies, eventually it will take the smallest spark to kick off a conflict. Will that be another annexation by Russia, another economic meltdown that pushes the West to resort to conflict, or the expansion of a proxy war in the the Middle East or elsewhere? In reality, the spark is not the real issue.

The generational cycles of history are what provides the fertile ground for a conflict in the Crisis period. Our top leaders today globally are almost exclusively Baby Boomers, known for their idealistic dogma. Gen X’ers dominate the “middle management” in government and corporations, with their “ends justify the means” pragmatism. And Millennials make up the bulk of the potential fighting forces with their focus on collaboration and cohesion. This “stack” of generational archetypes is what creates such great potential for conflict and eventual resolution.

While there are many parallels between today and the last climax (WWII), there are also many differences. In the next post I will explore those differences and consider how they might lead to a very different outcome.

Baby Boomers: Unfit to Govern

The latest standoff in Congress over the failure of the Trump Healthcare Bill is the latest in a many year saga of Baby Boomers’ legacy in governance. Although it might be tempting to blame this on Republicans who are fractured and used to being the opposition, the cause is much bigger than that. Baby Boomers, as a generation, are individualistic and dogmatic. This is very much in line with their generational archetype, “The Prophet“. Like the Missionary generation before them (FDR, Churchill, MacArthur and Stalin) they are individualists who are also staunch moralists for their cause. They still make up a majority of the Congress (about 58% for the 2015-16 Congress) and have been the majority since around 1997.

But unlike the Missionary Generation, Baby Boomers seem to thrive on conflict and tearing things down, rather than arguing and then building things up. Thomas Friedman and Kurt Anderson called them “A Swarm of Locusts” for how they consumed society and left nothing in its place. The starkest example of this is in their choice to completely ignore any responsibility to govern in Congress. This has been true for both the Democrats and Republicans under Bush, Obama and now, Trump. Baby Boomer Senators and Representatives have consistently put their own idealistic and moralistic views ahead of any practical goals of improving the world through collaboration or consensus.

In many ways this is no surprise given the vigor with which they tore down the society they inherited from the GI Generation. But most generations actually mature with age, while the Boomers seem to remain as uncompromising in their elder years as they were in their youth.

The failure of the Trump Healthcare Bill is just another example of governance by ultimatum favored by the Boomers. Rather than seek a compromise with the Democrats, or even fellow Republicans, the Congress instead decided that sticking to their guns was more important than actually getting anything done. The sad reality is that this pattern will likely continue until the Boomers are no longer dominant in Congress, which might happen in 2-4 years if we are lucky.

As a Gen X’er, Paul Ryan seemed to believe that his colleagues could look past their dogmatism, but he was sadly disappointed by his Boomer peers.

Once the Boomers are eclipsed by Generation X in the legislature, we will start to see a lot more progress in Congress. This is not because Gen X likes to collaborate, as they are just as individualist as Boomers, but because above all else they want to survive and GET THINGS DONE! Because we will likely be in the deepest part of the Crisis by this time, they will finally have the backing of the popular will to take action and get results. Of course, those results will not necessarily be wholly desirable and we can expect a fairly Machiavellian view from Generation X, given their history.

So when will Congress actually get back to deliberating with pragmatism and collegiality? We will probably have to wait at least another 20 years or so until the Millennials are running the show. But the votes will probably be cast using virtual reality headsets or cyber-implants by that point…

Trump and the Generations Part 3: When Did the Fourth Turning Start?

In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we examined how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out. In Part 3 we will look at what is next based on that historical perspective.

America is headed towards an extreme crisis which will probably culminate in the next 4 to 8 years. According to “The Fourth Turning” written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, we are on track to repeat the historical cycle of Crisis that has gone on for centuries. But a big question remains in how this Crisis will play out: will it be a global war for domination or an internal war for control of the US?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Satayana

For a primer on Generational Theory, go to Neil Howe’s site

According to generational theory, we are now in a period called “The Crisis” which will culminate in a “Climax” that has historically been a military conflict. These world-changing events occur every 80-100 years:

  • 1929-1946 (17 years) – Great Depression and WWII
  • 1860-1865 (5 years) – Civil War
  • 1773-1794 (21 years) – American Revolution
  • 1675-1704 (29 years) – Glorious Revolution
  • 1569-1594 (25 years) – Armada Crisis
  • 1459-1487 (28 years) – War of the Roses

In most of the examples that “The Fourth Turning” outlines, the battles have resulted in clear winners and losers and the heroes are rewarded generously for their victory. This is true for all of their examples except for one: The American Civil War. This battle, fought on US soil with Brother against Brother, and the result did not feel like a victory for anyone, but rather defeat for all involved.

The reason that Strauss and Howe give for the quagmire that resulted from the Civil War had to do with timing. In the other Crisis battles, there had been adequate time for a “Hero” generation to form and prepare for battle. This was certainly true in WWII with the GI Generation as the heroes as well as the American Revolution with Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Generation. There were no such heroes in the Civil War because when the war started in 1860, the Progressive Generation of Woodrow Wilson were too young to fight.  The generation that did fight in the Civil war was the Gilded Generation who are more similar in character to current day Gen X’ers. They were not lauded for their role and were not interested in taking up the mantle of victors since survival was their main desire. Because the Civil War came too early, in generational terms, it also was extremely short, and brutish. All the other Crisis in history have covered from 17-29 years, enough for an entire generation to feel their full effect.

So the timing seems the key factor in determining the nature of the Crisis Climax. The timing of the current Crisis has been debated for some time in generational circles. There are three possibilities:

  1. The Crisis began 2001 with 9/11
  2. The Crisis began in 2008 with the Great Recession
  3. The Crisis hasn’t started yet

First we have to understand how the Crisis is broken down into sections. The Crisis starts with a Catalyst, which Strauss and Howe describe as “a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood”. Following the Catalyst, society should move quickly, typically from 1-5 years after the catalyst, into the regeneracy, which is “a new counter entropy that re-unifies and re-energizes civic life”. The Regeneracy should last from 10-15 years. And then finally we have the Climax which is a relatively short period of extreme conflict that leads to a resolution.

If we consider 9/11 as the Catalyst, we can certainly see that it was a startling event that produced a sudden shift in mood. But we would have expected 1-5 years later that the country really started to pull together. That would have been around Obama’s first term which got off to a strong start that seemed to pull young Millennials into a new civic engagement, but that energy was quickly lost after his first mid-term elections. The rest of his terms left most on the left and right feeling disillusioned not “re-energized”.

Perhaps the The Great Recession was the startling event that produced a massive shift in mood. Most in our society had never faced the degree of economic turmoil and worry that engulfed the nation. It was only the extreme actions of the Federal Government that staved off immediate disaster, and we are still deeply in debt from those actions. But once again, if we look 1-5 years after the Great Recession, the civic regeneracy did not seem to materialize.

It might also be possible that the Fourth Turning has not started yet at all. This seems very remote, given how Strauss and Howe characterize the Fourth Turning mood. Unlike the Unraveling it is a time of clear polarization between sides, not just a splintering of society into many pieces. Although today’s social mood is definitely split, it is primarily a battle between open or closed society, which is a new set of rules from the old liberal/democrat split. So it seems unlikely that we are still in an Unraveling waiting for the catalyst.

But now with the populist movement of Donald Trump, perhaps we are seeing the civic regeneracy that was going on, all along, unbeknownst to the mainstream media. The Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin’s popularity and the election of a large cache of extreme conservatives in State and Federal Legislatures should have tipped Americans off that something was changing. The American people, or at least the Electoral College, chose a decisive direction for the country during this volatile period.

But perhaps there is another possibility: that the Crisis began with 9/11, deepened with the Great Recession and finally forced its way towards a Climax when those who felt most ignored and repressed finally spoke their minds. This would put us on course to have a resolution to the Crisis sometime in the next 4-8 years, which would mean that we should be done with a massive decisive conflict sometime between 2021 and 2025. That is right in line with Strauss and Howe’s original predictions from “The Fourth Turning” and would make this Crisis total out at 20-24 years.

In Chapter 9 of “The Fourth Turning” Strauss and Howe outline how the prior Climax have occurred. In their analysis there is one striking similarity to each Crisis cycle: practically no one sees the climax coming, even less than a year in advance. This is very instructive for the situation today where most of our populace knows something feels very different than in the past, but they can’t imagine another World War or individual States rising up in defiance of the Federal Government.

But back to the original question: will the Crisis be an internal battle between Liberal States and Trump’s Federal Government? Or will it be a war between the US and some other Sovereign Nation(s)? We will answer that question in Part 4 of this series.


Trump and Generations Part 2: Followers Who Demand Leadership

In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we will examine how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out.

In The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, they laid out predictions for how the Crisis, aka Fourth Turning, will progress. The early Crisis, known as the catalyst, was predicted to be around 2005. It is likely that the actual catalyst was the Great Recession which started in 2008. This was when many began to doubt that the US had even the possibility of a brighter future. There are some that argue that the catalyst was 9/11, but that is a discussion worthy of post in its own right. Continue reading Trump and Generations Part 2: Followers Who Demand Leadership

Trump and the Fourth Turning, Part 1

It has been over three years since I last posted to this blog, and a lot has changed in that time. The effects of this generational cycle are becoming clearer, especially with Brexit, Trump and other nationalist forces coming to the fore in 2016. I have been reluctant to talk much about it because I prefer to stay away from partisanship in generational research, but I think it is important to discuss the larger forces at play in the next 4-8 years. Understanding that bigger picture during this pivotal time will be critical to the health, safety and perhaps survival of your family and community. In part one of this post I will cover the relevant basics of generational theory. Part two will attempt to interpret recent events using this lens. If you are not familiar with the Strauss and Howe’s generational theories, I suggest you start by watching my primer on generational theory.

According to Strauss and Howe, we are in the midst of “The Fourth Turning”, the final, winter-like stage of a cycle that began in 1946 with the “American High” following WWII. It is likely we started the Fourth Turning in 2008 with the market crash and that it will continue until around 2025. It will be during the last quarter, the climax of the Turning, that we will see a fundamental shift in the nature of our society and the world. The most blatant shift, currently, is a political one. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump both signaled a significant shift in politics, certainly the largest most Gen X’ers have seen in our lifetime and, according to the theories, the largest since The Great Depression and WWII. The nationalism that these movements represent seem to be gaining steam around the Western World, along with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and other strident politicians threatening to overtake traditional styles of governance. While there are many reasons for these shifts, the often forgotten generational component is not insignificant.

There three currently active generations in our society. The first are our elders, the Baby Boomers who are, for the most part, our national leaders. As of 2015, About 58% of Congressmen and 73% of State Governors are Boomers. Baby Boomers are known for their strident, obstinate views and purist idealism. In the case of Donald Trump, that idealism focuses primarily around both American Exceptionalism and that the idea that world should be viewed as a Zero Sum Game.

The second currently influential generation is the middle-aged Generation X. Generation X has are notoriously pragmatic, individualistic and cynical. A majority of Generation X voted for Donald Trump. Generational theory suggests that many of them voted this way because they felt that the status quo has served them poorly for the last 20 years, prompting them to ask what they had to lose. Gen X’ers hold most of the remaining leadership positions (Paul Ryan is a Gen Xer) but they are not as well represented in government as the Boomers.

Finally, the Millennials. Millennials are young adults who were raised to be collaborative, idealistic and civic-minded. Many of them backed Bernie Sanders—at least on the Coasts—and did so because they believed that a new approach to civic engagement was needed. Although Trump does not personally appeal to many Millennials, if he starts to tout a message of stronger collaboration and working towards a common good, he could successfully woo followers in this group.

Each of these generations has an “archetype” which aligns with previous generations. Boomers are of the “Prophet” archetype, last seen in the Missionary Generation (FDR, Churchill). Gen X, the “Nomad” archetype, was last paralleled in the Lost Generation (Truman, Patton). Millennials represent the”Hero” archetype of which the GI Generation (JFK, Reagan) is the previous example. The last time that we saw these archetypes in this particular alignment was in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. This is the key insight of generational theory: that the life stage cycle of the various generational archetypes help to push societal shifts. For a visual of this cycle, take a look at this chart.

Based on generational theory we are at a particularly pivotal point in history where the “stack” of generations presents great risk and great possibility. In Part 2 I will examine more specifics consequences, especially in light of the recent nationalist movements around the world.

Millennials as Leaders? What About as Followers?

This article about how Millennial (born 1982-2004) will behave as CIOs misses the marks on pretty much every point. It describes how they are distrustful of big brands and tend to be risk-takers! Nothing could be further from the truth about Millennials. They tend to be very conservative in their life choices (they have been carefully guided at every stage since early childhood) and although they may not believe advertisers as much as Boomer (born 1943-1960) did, they definitely have a herd mentality to consumption.

Unfortunately the article is perpetuating several ideas about Millennials that are based on a “Generations X+1” idea. [Gen X] is known for being pragmatic individualists who are willing to take risks in an effort to survive. Many view Millennials as the same but more extreme, which is why they are sometimes called “Generation Y”. This entirely misses the true nature of generational cycles. Where X’ers are individualistic, Millennials are collectivistic. Where X’ers are cynical, Millennials are optimistic and hopeful. Where X’ers lack trust of institutions, Millennials are willing to work with and build institutions.

For example the article says:

“This is a generation that’s going to beg for forgiveness when something goes wrong but won’t ask for permission,” Thibodeaux says.

Um, no. Generation X’ers are the ones that will beg forgiveness instead of asking permission. Many managers can attest to the fact that Millennials are in their office all the time asking if they are doing things right! They are not risk-takers and they are not rule-breakers.

I can see how Gen X’ers and Boomers can get confused by the behavior of Millennials. Just because a Millennial does not get swayed by advertising does not mean they are an independent thinker. It just means they trust a different source: Their massive circle of online “friends” who influence every decision they make.

The final thing that is misguided about the article is that they are speculating on how Mills will behave when they are executives. Sorry guys, but that is a long ways off and we should be focusing our efforts on understanding how Millennials are as followers right now instead of how they will be as leaders 10-20 years from now. Most organizations are miserable at managing Millennials and believe that this generation is full of job-hoppers who will be even more mercenary than Gen X’ers were. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gaming, Millennial Style

Computer games have come a long way since I first played Castle Wolfenstein on a Commodore 64 at my best friend’s place.

As computing power advanced along with online access, gaming became more interactive but it was only once the Millennial (born 1982-2004) generation joined in on the fun that gaming truly became a team sport.

This recent article in the New York Times outlines how gaming is transforming into a sport much like Major League Baseball or Football. Teams. Groups of young men compete both online and in massive live events for large purses. They live in houses provided by sponsors and practice constantly. It’s becoming a very lucrative market and may be the Millennial answer to traditional team sports.

While it would be easy to ascribe these changes to the effects of more powerful technology and networking capability, it’s the nature of the generations using the technology that defines their popularity. [Gen X] gamers tended to be more solitary, playing tames that pitted individuals against each other. Only more recently has the mass team phenomenon come about (I commented briefly on this shift back in 2009) and it seems to really be gathering steam now that Millennials are directing the action. The NYTimes article mentions that a majority of the gamers and audience are under 30, making them mostly Millennial.

Although the article doesn’t speculate much about the future direction for the gaming industry, one possible scenario is that it ends up rivaling “meatspace” sports for the Millennials. Franchises could pop up with persistent fan followings which could be regionalized even though the games are played online. Are the Portland HipstersTM going to be the next dominant name in Dota 2? Amazon’s purchase of Twitch TV certainly says that the industry is taking the possibility seriously, and it all lines up well with the virtual utopia that the Millennials seem to headed towards…

Let the Homelander Movies Begin!

With the oldest of the Homelander Generation (born 2005-202?) entering their tweens in the next few years, it appears that Hollywood is preparing for the new mythology for their generation. According to [S&H] the Homelander generation will be similar to the Silent (born 1925-1942) in that they will be forced into a very conformist view of success through both parental and social pressures. This is definitely reflected in two different summer movie releases.

The first is “Divergent“, based on the 2011 novel of the same name. Here is the summary from Wikipedia:

It is a young-adult dystopian novel set in the so-called Divergent Universe,[1] that features a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago. The novel follows Beatrice “Tris” Prior as she explores her identity within a society that defines its citizens by their social and personality-related affiliation with five different factions. Underlying the action and dystopian focused main plot is a romantic subplot between Tris and one of her instructors in the Dauntless faction, nicknamed Four.


Divergent imagines a society where children are raised to become workers based on their aptitude, and secondarily, their choice. But once this choice is made it is set for life, and those that have multiple aptitudes are considered “divergent”. These “divergent” along with anyone that changes their mind about their direction after their choice are cast out of society. The goal of the society’s leaders is to avoid the suffering that occurred before their utopian system was devised.

The second movie is “The Giver” which is based on the 1993 novel of the same name. The plot here is similar:

It is set in a society which is at first presented as a utopian society and gradually appears more and more dystopian. The novel follows a boy named Jonas through the twelfth year of his life. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to “Sameness,” a plan that has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with its weight.

In the movie the protagonist is 18 while in the original book he was a mere 11. But the story is very similar to the later Divergent in that the elders of society are choosing for the youth their path in an effort to preserve a perfect society.

The rebellion depicted in both films smacks of Boomer (born 1943-1960) rebellion, but the oppressor here is not the G.I. (born 1901-1924) of from the Boomer’s youth, but rather a depiction of current [X] parents as stifling in their control of their children. Strauss and Howe predicted that the Homelanders would be sensitive, helpful and rule-playing because of how they are “carefully” raised by Gen X parents (I think this is a politically correct way of saying it).

Although there have been many books and movies on the theme of breaking away from uniformity of society (Fahrenheit 451, Gattaca, 1984 etc…) these two have a particular spin that is unique. The idea that society can be made perfect by each individual “choosing” (the amount of choice varies in each movie) their purpose is the central theme for both. That is the part that fits with the Homelander generation, who, like their Silent grandparents will have a life path that is sheltered and directed with close guardrails. The thing that struck me about these two movies is how they came out close together and with almost identical plot lines. 

This is somewhat of a contrast with the other dystopian blockbuster “The Hunger Games“. In that series the themes are similar but the governing powers are much more obviously corrupt and society is nowhere near equal. The societies in “The Giver” and “Divergent” are perfect and balanced but only if everyone does not question the role they are given at an early age.
Millennials were raised with excellence, cooperation and success as the goals. Homelanders will have safety,purpose and conformity emphasized in their youth. “The Hunger Games” feels more Millennial while “The Giver” and “Divergent” have a more Homelander character.

The business world is already moving in the direction of purpose as the driver for careers. Author Aaron Hurst has written a book titled “The Purpose Economy” on just this topic. He even provides a way to test your purpose with “The Imperative” (the definition of imperative? “of vital importance; crucial” and the second definition? “giving an authoritative command; peremptory“). These concepts are perfect for our time because they address the needs of Millennial (born 1982-2004) and Homelanders to have structure and a clear path to success or safety. The collective nature of both of these generations allows them to accept the categorization of their talents as long as they know that there is a guaranteed method for them to succeed (Millennial) or avoid risk (Homelander).

But 30-40 years from now there will be a massive backlash against these types of methods, which will be viewed by the Millennial’s children (Boomer’s grandchildren) as oppressive. That is where “Divergent” and “The Giver” are prescient in understanding the eventual rebellion.

P.S. The Giver was written by Lois Lowry, a Silent who has seen this path before in her youth, while “Divergent” was written by Veronica Roth, a Millennial who probably felt these nascent pressures growing up.

Generation X vs. Millennials: Agile Development

A vast majority of managers in most companies today are [X]. This is mainly just a factor of age (Gen X’ers are now between the ages of 32 and 54) and certainly isn’t motivated by the desire of Gen X’ers to climb the corporate ladder (we are the original slackers, after all).

When Gen X’ers got their start in the work world we entered a culture created by the G.I. (born 1901-1924) but dominated by the Silent (born 1925-1942) and Boomer (born 1943-1960) in management. The GI model for management was based on their experience from their youth: a hierarchy based on the military circa WWII. Although the Boomers struggled mightily to break these institutions, their workaholic tendencies often meant that their values of commitment and endurance reinforced the structures in place by requiring long tenures to advance. That is the world that Gen X entered into in our work life and we reacted in a way that has become stereotypical for our generation: we sighed “Whatever” and compensated with a drive for a work-life balance instead of challenging “The Man” to change the structure.

So even though most Gen X’ers think that the strict heirarchies in most companies are rather silly, we have not challenged them much in our careers. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but for the most part we just decided to lampoon the “Office Space” and devote ourselves to our children and our tribe. The result is that the structures left over from the days of “Mad Men” remain in place in much of the work world today.

Strauss and Howe have characterized the Silent and Gen X generations as “recessive” in contrast to the “dominant” Boomer and Millennial (born 1982-2004) generations. As Gen X’ers we take a back seat in society to the dominant generations we are sandwiched between. The good news is that we don’t need to shoulder as much blame for the screw-ups (we can justifiably point fingers at the Boomers for many of the challenges we face today) but it also means that we have to count on other generations to truly drive large social change. Which brings me to the Millennials in the workplace.

In recent discussions with Gen X managers in Silicon Valley I have noticed a shift that portends what Millennials may look for once they have the reigns. Most Gen X managers in technology are familiar with a project management technique known as Agile (aka SCRUM or Extreme). Created by programmers to give a more flexible way to manage projects in an iterative manner, it was cutting edge 15-20 years ago but has become the standard for project management today, particularly in software. I even use this method to manage projects on my team even though we don’t do programming. This method was probably developed by Boomers, but Gen X’ers were introduced to this approach early in their careers. As a result of growing up with these techniques (and seeing the failures of the previous approach known as “Waterfall“) many Gen X’ers in the Valley see this methodology as orthodoxy.

One  feature of Agile* that is worth noting for generational discussions are the daily meetings (sometimes called “Standups”) where each member of the team describes what they did the day before, what they will do the next day and any potential roadblocks to getting their work done. These short meetings ensure that each team member can work independently while staying coordinated with the entire team on a daily basis. Quick adjustment based on the information gained in a Standup are a hallmark of a well-run Agile project and are one factor that keeps projects from running off the rails unnoticed for months.

Gen X’ers can be characterized as individualists and so these meetings are a wonderful way to coordinate the activities of many individuals on a team. But Millennials were raised to be much more collective in their attitude (think Barney and High School Musical) and have been working together on projects from grade school through College. Most things with Millennials are group decisions and peer communication is constant (Gen X parents might say obsessively so).

I have heard to several Gen X managers who complain that their Millennial workers seem to think that Standup meetings are optional or that they can just communicate the information via text or Skype. This attitude is perceived as entitled and (optimistically) a bit naive. “Agile is the ultimate project management methodology and who are these kids to ignore its precepts?”, thinks the experienced Gen X manager.

But watching how Millennial teams organize and manage projects gives some insights into their thinking. I have seen Millennial development teams sit in the same conference room together for weeks during a project. After the work day ends they all head to the same bars together before heading home (often to shared living arrangements). They spend the entire day in constant communication, either in-person or via technology. The thought that they would need to “Check in with the team” for 15 minutes every day seems ridiculous. Based on their perspective there can only be one reason for the Standup meeting: to report to Gen X managers on their work. That’s right, Gen X, what started as way to empower individual team members and speed projects is seen as micromanaging on the part of many Millennials.

I have coached the Gen X’ers to work with Millennials to help them understand the importance of the Agile process through the needs of the larger group. Motivating them based on this larger picture can be effective, but it’s not just the Millennials that need to adapt in this situation. Millennials continue to move into management ranks, and, unlike Gen X’ers who succumbed to the existing structures with sarcastic acceptance, Millennials will push for large scale change once they are running the show. Whether it is forward thinking Gen X’ers (such as Tony Hsieh who has adopted the Holacracy for his organization) or Millennial leaders who will instigate these shifts, the Millennial workers will follow their lead.

Forward thinking organizations need to recognize these dynamics go well beyond the Agile example given above. The question to ask is not “How do we attract and retain Millennials?” but rather “How can we change as an organization to make Millennials more effective?” I think the answer will result in some wonderful new approaches to work in our society.

*I realize that Agile is a big umbrella and that Standups, Sprints, SCRUM  and other terms have very specific meanings and are not necessarily interchangeable. I use Agile to refer to the general organizing elements of these methodology. I also realize that standups are just one element of Agile methodologies but they serve as a good example of the differences between generations. Purists can flame me in the comments below.