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Against Generational Politics

Generational politics is a socialism of fools.

Gustavo Minas / Flickr

There’s a particular story that I’m surprised anyone is still shameless enough to tell. Like commedia dell’arte, it’s populated by stock imbeciles who bumble through recognizable scenarios. Unlike commedia dell’arte, it’s presented as fact in the dull language of reportage.

The characters in this story will be familiar to anyone who’s ever skimmed the Bloomberg headlines or found themselves in the unsettlingly large number of places where a wall-mounted flatscreen plays a muted CNBC program with the closed captioning on. There’s the éminence grise, known as Silent, who watches the others with reserved disdain; the profligate, individualist Boomer, whose cartoonish ability to convince himself that his self-interest aligns with the greater good makes everyone else hate him; the thinly drawn caricature of middle-child syndrome known as the X-er, an attention-starved, grown-up latchkey kid who’s constantly aggrieved that the others won’t make more mention of him; the Millennial whipping boy, whose sloth and entitlement know no bounds and whose mercurial whims place beloved cultural institutions such as Applebee’s in constant peril; and the Z, a child who, carried on the current of his inscrutable motivations, only stops playing Minecraft long enough to snack on laundry detergent in hopes of achieving fame online.

Only the shameless could depict contemporary life as a series of fairy tales in which the cascading feuds of these oafish stereotypes explain the entire world. Perhaps, then, it’ll come as no surprise that Steve Bannon has become the Charles Perrault of the genre, spinning some of the most heavy-handed generational fables into a “documentary” called Generation Zero. But even more respectable outlets deploy the same unsubstantiated tropes.

“Entitled, demanding, [and] unprepared to carry out tasks they consider beneath them” appears not in some nineteenth-century anthropological treatise purporting to classify the various categories of “primitive man” by skull shape and indolence level, but in a description of millennial stereotypes on The article deploys these clichés to set the stage for “experts” who characterize millennials’ younger siblings, the gen-Zers, in such confounding terms as “weconomists” and “phigital.”

To understand why a reporter feels no qualms placing his byline atop an article that repeats tired stereotypes about eighty million living Americans, let’s go back to the early 1990s, when two ardent supporters of balancing the federal budget — one a creature of DC think tanks, the other a congressional staffer turned down-market Weird Al — came together to publish a book offering a new and influential interpretation of history.

Peer Personalities and Constellation Moods

Before 1991, Bill Strauss and Neil Howe were established personalities only within the Beltway. Strauss, who died in 2007, was a former Republican congressional staffer and the cofounder and director of the satire troupe Capitol Steps, which was (and is) in the business of writing and performing political parodies of popular songs. (The cover of the Steps’ album Unzippin’ My Doo-Dah, which should be pressed in gold and fired into space to teach alien civilizations about 1990s American politics, features a shirtless Bill Clinton bursting through a fly-like zipper in the presidential seal while two Tex Avery-style eyeballs extend down leeringly from the twin “o’s” in “Doo-Dah.” It contains such classics as “The Linda is a Tripp.”) The less flashy Howe had a successful career working for various DC policy groups.

The two shared a commitment to centrism, a desire to balance the federal budget, and a unique theory of history. In the pursuit of the third interest, they coauthored the 538-page Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, which appeared in 1991. The first in a series of thirteen books, Generations pioneered the term “millennial” to describe Americans born roughly between 1982 and 2003. Almost immediately, it became a bestseller.

Generations argues that scholars had up until that point considered history the study of the times rather than of the groups that moved through them; Strauss and Howe, by contrast, proposed to examine history from the perspective of the generations themselves. Rather than simply describing each group, however, the authors attempted to draw out the patterns and configurations that they believed drove recurring historical cycles.

Under their theory, new generations arise every twenty or so years, their emergence signaled by transformative events, often crises, that the authors call “turnings.” The meat of the theory holds that a “recurring cycle of four distinct types of peer personalities . . . arriv[es] in the same repeating sequence.”

The original 1991 text applied different labels, but, in the current formulation, “Artist” generations follow “Hero” generations, which follow “Nomad” generations, which follow “Prophet” generations. (The silents are “Artists”; boomers “Prophets”; gen-Xers “Nomads”; millennials “Heroes”; and gen-Zers “Artists” again.) The authors claim that this “startling pattern” has recurred again and again in roughly eighty-year periods. These four archetypes are present at any given time in a single “constellation,” and these “constellations” also recur in a fixed succession of patterns.

The first 450 or so pages of Generations present a picture of history that brings these recurrent constellations into focus. Though the theory seems fairly simple, the authors’ descriptions and justifications are anything but. Flipping to a random page, you might find a potted history of the Salem witch trials, or you might encounter the sentence, “Since a constellational era typically lasts about twenty-two years, a four-era cycle lasts roughly eighty to one hundred years, or about the lifespan of a long-lived individual,” a claim that somehow nests within the “paradigm” of the “cycle of constellational moods.”

The authors deploy this alien vocabulary in an attempt to cram the past into their procrustean framework. A typical passage will ask you to equate “Beatlean ‘Pepperland’” (the authors’ term for the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which boomers explored “an inner future without dates or chronology”) with “Greenwich Village around 1900,” “the New England communes of the 1840s,” and Jonathan Edwards’s Great Awakening, because “many Americans during each of these eras” were “looking toward the future.”

Of course, many Americans in all eras have looked toward the future. The assertion that any one attitude characterizes a particular period is hopelessly unfalsifiable, and Strauss and Howe rarely descend from their armchairs to provide solid evidence for their historical comparisons. Like the example above, in which the Puritan who gave the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon finds his double in the drugged-out world of “Pepperland,” many of Strauss and Howe’s conclusions seem to betray the authors’ desire to fit the past to their model, instead of the other way around.

The Prediction Machine

The benefits of laying hundreds of pages of historical groundwork become clear in the book’s concluding chapter, entitled “Completing the Millennial Cycle.” If history has unfolded in recurring patterns, extrapolating those patterns will divine the future.

And indeed, some of Strauss and Howe’s predictions seem startlingly prescient. They claim that “Boomer leaders” will respond to a terrorist threat in New York City in 2020 by “exaggerat[ing] the threat,” “[tying] it to a larger sense of global crisis,” “defin[ing] the enemy broadly and demand[ing] its total defeat — regardless of the human and economic sacrifices required.” Others are entirely risible: “Boomer asceticism” will mean that the “proportion of circa-2020 national income spent on elder medical care may rise little if at all above what it is today.” (The authors also betray one of their other pet interests, paying frequent attention to balancing the budget.)

Predictions for the millennials range from accurate to falsified to pure fancy: millennials “will encounter economic and social hardship” upon entering adulthood, “feel most comfortable with widely separated sex roles,” and “command . . . manned space flights to the nearest planets.”

Broad predictions of this sort allowed Strauss and Howe to fill out a trilogy of books. In 13th Gen (1993), Strauss and Howe predicted that gen-Xers, whom they praised for supporting Ross Perot’s presidential candidacy, “will clean up entertainment, de-diversify the culture, reinvent core symbols of national unity, reaffirm rituals of family and neighborhood bonding, and re-erect barriers to cushion communities from unwanted upheaval.” In The Fourth Turning (1997), the authors claimed that, every eighty or so years, the “fourth turning” of their cycle presents itself as a generation-defining crisis and made the bold claim that the crisis moment (due in about 2020) “will be a time of glory or ruin.” Millennials Rising (2000) — which David Brooks called “a very good bad book” — predicts that millennials will be the “next great generation,” a cohort of “Heroes” who will lead a retreat from individualism back to communitarianism.

As the meandering sentences and convoluted diagrams of generational cycles pile up, their books begin to feel like a long horoscope. Phrases like “Boom politics will become more intensely values-laden” stand in for “you will meet a tall man with an unexpected message,” while claims like “around 2003 . . . the generational alignment will match the constellations of 1924, 1855, 1766, and 1673” replace “Jupiter is in Sagittarius.” The authors, like Nostradamus before them, simply wrote down so many prophecies, and in vague enough terms, that some seem visionary in hindsight.

Essentializing Generations

The Strauss-Howe theory depends on two assumptions. The first, as laid out above, is that history unfolds in recurring patterns, a claim that requires bizarre historical comparisons. The second — that generations are coherent concepts to begin with — requires equally painful contortions. Strauss and Howe have filled thousands of pages arguing for their theory of history, but they have spent far less time justifying the group essentialism that underlies their project.

According to Strauss and Howe, each generation’s “peer personality” (“Artist” or “Hero”) corresponds to the “generation’s collective mind-set.” They concede that any given individual “may share many of these [generational] attributes, some of them, or almost none,” but they nevertheless base their theory on this peer personality, which they call “essentially a caricature of its prototypical member.” This “distinctly personlike creation” has “collective attitudes about family life, sex roles, institutions, politics, religion, lifestyle, and the future.” Underneath language appropriated from the social sciences, the authors admit what “peer personality” really is: “essentially a caricature.” A stereotype.

The authors argue that labeling groups of millions of people based on this “caricature” “probably offers a safer basis for personality generalization than such other social categories as sex, race, region, or age.” They claim that “we can more easily fix a consensus personality for [a generation] than we ever could for women, or Hispanics, or Californians, or all the 30-year-olds of a given century” because “a generation collectively feels historical urgency and finality, conscious of the unrepeatable opportunities offered by whatever phase of life it occupies.” This logic seems to suggest that, if it they could “fix a consensus personality” on, say, Hispanics, the authors would feel comfortable constructing an entire interpretation of history based on that stereotype.

Strauss and Howe are characteristically vague about how they distilled a diverse group into a single peer personality. “In some respects,” the authors write, “a peer personality gives heavy focus to the attitudes and experiences of the generational elite,” who “express the tone of a generation’s peer personality.” But the authors add that “the attitudes of women and mothers toward their own sex roles and family roles” and “groups which are (or feel) at the social periphery,” such as “immigrants, blacks, [and] fundamentalists,” are “central” to, or “play a major role in fixing or revealing” a generation’s peer personality.

In practice, however, Strauss and Howe favor the elite perspective; their 2000 book Millennials Rising relied on a survey of six hundred high-school seniors in Fairfax County, Virginia, which became, a few years later, the first county in the United States with a six-figure median household income.

The authors respond to the suggestion that diversity within generations precludes their essentialized claims in a very telling passage in the preface of their first book:

If you are a SILENT, . . . you may dislike the majoritarian elements of our theory — doubting whether any diverse group numbering in the tens of millions can possibly fit into a single peer personality or a single generation.

After assigning their skeptics to one generation, the authors liken them to several historical “SILENTs.” They claim that, “As Henry Clay once did with slave emancipation,” these unconvinced readers “might try patching our new theory together . . . with other competing theories to yield a consensus or ‘compromise’ perspective.” Of all the compromisers in history, even among the narrower subset of SILENTs, the authors chose to compare their critics to an antebellum slavery apologist.

The Stereotype Industry

After the publication of Millennials Rising in 2000, Strauss and Howe (and eventually just Howe, after Strauss’s death) began writing a new sort of book. They turned away from sweeping prophecies about world-historical events and focused on the nearer term. With the titles Millennials Go to College (2003), Millennials and the Pop Culture (2005), Millennials and K-12 Schools (2008), and Millennials in the Workplace (2010), the founders of generational theory began offering specific advice to parents, teachers, administrators, marketers, and bosses.

Perhaps Strauss and Howe gave up soothsaying for consulting because they ran out of future to predict. Perhaps they were just savvy about the market for their work. As Howe said in 2009:

Academia gives [generational theory] no home despite the fact that managers of for-profits and nonprofits find it so valuable. . . . Why is it that I constantly get calls? This is a demand-driven business.

(These quotes appear in Eric Hoover’s excellent piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the stereotype industry.) Indeed, over the last decade, generational theory has found its way into academia, not as serious thought, but through administrators. Their “demand-driven” attempts to identify the millennial character are inextricable from the explosion of administrative costs and expensive student amenities, which they pass down to undergraduates in the form of student fees and to graduate students in the demise of the tenure-track faculty position.

Howe has become a credentialed expert, raking in speaking and consulting fees. Corporations, public and private universities, and the US military have hired his firm, LifeCourse Associates. Hoover reported that LifeCourse advised Ford to use “hero myths” in its advertising, because, “Even when driving back and forth to community college in a Focus . . . [millennials’] future will be anything but mundane.” The LifeCourse “workplace audit” “uncovers how the needs of different generations of workers are (or are not) being met” and “how well employees communicate across generations.” Its “workforce training” program allows companies to “tap into” Howe’s “deep expertise” on millennials and “drill it down into your organization.”

And that’s just Howe. Generational theory’s flexibility has allowed new theorists to put forward their own interpretations, each trying to pen the one true book that explains the millennial disposition. They have written countless articles about how to manage boomers or Xers or millennials. They have started consulting firms of their own.

Generational theory has also permeated the media. You can read about how the millennial monolith has cast its shadow on napkins and breakfast cereal and homeownership, how Empire Records explains why gen-X actually ruined things, how boomers ruined absolutely everything, or how ten so-called gen-Z experts can help businesses craft their strategies.

Headlines call millennials bad workers and gen-Xers bad parents. They declare that “[i]t’s time to stereotype generation Z.” We live in a beltway think-tanker and a parody-song writer’s coauthored fever dream.

The Bad Story

In a world of bewildering complexity, stories offer simplicity. The formless horrors that lurk behind the compounding frustrations of everyday life are easier to ignore if society consists only of four or five stock doofuses in a neverending quarrel over who blew up the deficit or killed bar soap.

But these characters are stereotypes, and bad ones at that. It’s ludicrous to think that a poor person born in 1950 shares more with a billionaire born the same year than a poor person born in 1995. And it’s wrong to call huge groups of people lazy or untrustworthy because of their innate characteristics, whether that’s race, gender, religion, or birth year. A story that depends on this prejudicial logic is a bad story.

To believe otherwise is to ignore history. In the mid-1800s, social scientists began to classify humans by essential racial characteristics; while these stereotypes began as clinical descriptions, the growing pressures of colonialism and empire morphed them into justifications for violent conquest and subjugation. This supposedly scientific work had no basis in fact, but it was persuasive because, like generational theory, it was exceedingly flexible and presented a unified theory of historical progress.

As war, austerity, international movement of capital, climate change, and political and economic hopelessness continue to pull society apart, people could fracture along the divisions that generational theory has normalized. Today’s crises are not just-so stories of improvident boomers waging war on entitled millennials while X-ers and Z-ers are caught in the crossfire and silents look disdainfully on. The essentialism of generational thinking threatens any alliance that could break the stronghold of the rapacious economic and political elite whose power over the lives of ordinary people drives the single simple story resembling reality.

In politics, “we” is a near-meaningless word. The cautious use it to refer to readers or listeners, the shameless use it to universalize the perspectives of people like themselves, and the idealess use it in place of “Americans” or “society” in their Washington Post or New York Times op-eds. Before I invoke this tired pronoun, let me define my terms: “they” are those who have made an idyll of everyone else’s misery; “politics” is the process of seeing who will align to oppose them; “we” are the people who stand together. We have no place in our politics for the bad story of generations.