Generational Generalizations Gone Wrong

How the guys who coined the word millennials missed the mark

By Jesse Walker

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and William Strauss, Vintage, 432 pages

When some parents of the 1980s and ’90s started sending their kids to schools where uniforms were required, who could have imagined the social consequences? Those dress codes became a core part of that rising generation’s identity—”a defining symbol of a much larger effort to clean up child behavior,” as one history of the trend recalls—setting the stage for the “compulsory uniformed service” that those same kids joined en masse after they left college. Even outside the service corps, young people took to wearing “‘general issue’ clothing reminiscent of the G.I.s.” With time the generation’s conformist style came to represent a “collective grandeur,” leading historians to see the millennials’ school and soccer uniforms “as harbingers of monumental deeds that came later.”

What’s that? You say you don’t remember any of that happening? Strange: It was predicted in such detail in Millennials Rising, a book published in the year 2000 by the court astrologers of the social sciences, William Strauss and Neil Howe. At that point, Strauss and Howe had spent nine years flogging a generation-based theory of social change that had just enough believability to hook an audience and just enough hubris to spin such wild speculations.

“Underlying those failed forecasts you’ll find a flawed theory.”

With this book, they turned their attention to the lives and worldviews of the millennials, their word—yes, they’re the ones who inflicted the term on us—for Americans born in the two decades following 1982. Looking back from 2014, how have those theories held up?

The saga of the uniforms was at least presented in conditional language: a tale that “may emerge,” not one that was sure to happen. At other times Strauss and Howe didn’t even include that caveat. Under millennial pop culture, they assured us, music will be more melodic, sitcoms will be more wholesome, and young people will turn against “the gothic genre” with its “pessimistic view of man as victim,” since that species of story “reminds them of what they sometimes find irritating about older generations.” (These changes “will be fully locked in” by 2010.) Millennial courtship rituals will stress “deference to parents.” Economic class “will rise above gender or race as a flashpoint for student political argument.” And the new generation will create a more common culture, reacting against the social fragmentation of previous decades. Somehow I missed those developments.

Even when Strauss and Howe’s predictions came true, they sometimes managed to be right in ways that suggest their larger theory of historical cycles was wrong. “Youth voting rates will rise,” they declared, and sure enough, the percentage of young people casting ballots rose in 2004 and again in 2008. Even so, the voting rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2008 was about the same as it had been when Generation Xers voted in 1992 and somewhat lower than when young boomers went to the polls in 1972—a sign that this might not be a break with prior generations after all. And in 2012, the rate started falling again.

The more sensible parts of the book came when the authors cooled down the breathless TED-talk prose (“Millennials will be a generation of trends”) to present some survey data about young people’s attitudes and give a refresher course on then-recent social history. It’s always easier to describe the present than to predict the future, and the authors astutely note developments ranging from the rise of charter schools to an increased national focus on kids’ safety.

When it comes to popular culture, though, they weren’t even adept guides to what was then the present. Millennials Rising spends a lot of time trying to establish that the arrival of wholesome pop stars like Britney Spears (remember when Britney Spears was wholesome?) and retro styles like the ’90s swing revival marked a major break with the “angry and alienated” music favored by Generation X. They seem unaware that the Xers bought their share of innocuous pop records in their teens too—poor Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, consigned to the ash heap of history—and they do not appear to have noticed that the swing revival was largely driven by Xers in their twenties and thirties, not millennials in their teens. And how did the authors deal with rap, today the dominant force in pop music? They reported it was “no longer connecting” with the young.

Underlying those failed forecasts you’ll find a flawed theory. For Strauss and Howe, generations are a series of discrete units of roughly uniform size, one following another in a largely predictable pattern. A team-oriented “hero generation” does great deeds (like, say, winning World War II) and is followed by an “artist generation” born during the crisis. A post-crisis “prophet generation,” like the baby boom, then leads an “awakening.” Then we get a “nomad generation,” like the Xers, and after that we’re set for another cohort of heroes.

Our theorists nodded here and there to historical contingency—acknowledging, for example, that there is no rigid length to the period that constitutes a generation. They even decided, in the one great rupture in the cycle they think they’ve identified, that the U.S. skipped a hero generation in the middle of the 19th century. But they were confident enough in their pattern to make concrete predictions and to assign personalities to entire generations.

Those mass personalities, in fact, are central to how the book defined a generation in the first place. A generation, Strauss and Howe wrote, is “a society-wide peer group, born over a period roughly the same length as the passage from youth to adulthood (in today’s America, around twenty or twenty-one years), who collectively possess a common persona.” They accepted the existence of exceptions and edge cases, but they insisted a core persona is there.

“It’s always easier to describe the present than to predict the future.”

Contrast that with Karl Mannheim’s “The Problem of Generations,” a 1923 essay that has become a touchstone for sociologists studying generational change. Like Strauss and Howe, Mannheim defined a generation not just by when its members were born but by the events that shaped their worldviews in their youth. Unlike Strauss and Howe, Mannheim did not write as though those events shape an entire generation the same way. Instead he wrote of different “generation units” with different reactions to their formative experiences. The Napoleonic wars, he elaborated, produced “two contrasting groups” in Germany, “one that became more and more conservative as time went on, as against a youth group tending to become rationalistic and liberal.” (For a more recent example, consider the ways different American boomers reacted to the upheavals of the 1960s.) For Mannheim, those opposing units still belong to the same social cohort: “they are oriented toward each other, even though only in the sense of fighting one another.” But they did not have the “common persona” that Strauss and Howe imagined.

Mannheim also had the sense to see that a biological generation “need not evolve its own, distinctive pattern of interpreting and influencing the world,” since those biological rhythms will not necessarily be matched by a parallel set of influential historical moments. In a passage that should serve as a warning to anyone tempted by Strauss and Howe’s schematics, he cautioned against “a sort of sociology of chronological tables…which uses its bird’s-eye perspective to ‘discover’ fictitious generation movements to correspond to the crucial turning points in historical chronology.”

Strauss and Howe assigned Americans to different generations as though they were drawing lines on a map, inserting artificial borders that obscure the gradual rolling changes that define so much of the landscape. They apply the label Generation X, for example, to everyone born from 1962 to 1981. Hailing from 1970, I fall smack into the middle of the cohort; and yes, I recognize myself in much of what the authors said about my peers. But I’m also acutely aware of the differences in perspective between me and those fellow Gen Xers who were born about a decade before or after.

Consider the period that came after the cultural revolutions of the ’60s and before the heightened restrictions on minors’ freedoms that began to arrive in the ’80s. Americans who experienced this time as teenagers had rather different early lives than those of us who experienced it as preadolescents and then hit our teens in a more closely controlled epoch. The youngest Xers essentially missed it altogether, getting childhoods more like the millennials’.

I suspect that writers from Strauss and Howe’s other generations could similarly divide their cohorts into finely cut segments, with some slices exerting more cultural pull than others. Some millennials were in college on 9/11; some were in elementary school; some weren’t born yet. Do all these people really belong to the same generation at all, in Mannheim’s sense of the word? Like the uniforms they failed to wear, their uniformity existed only in Strauss and Howe’s heads.

This review originally appeared in Reason magazine’s October 2014 issue. Jesse Walker is the books editor for the publication.

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