The Day the Future Changed

The Day the Future Changed

by / April 15, 2002
Neil Howe is a best-selling author, historian, economist and demographer with graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University. His book Generations (1991) was called "the most stimulating book on American history I have ever read" by former Vice President Gore. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Dan Yankelovich said of his The Fourth Turning (1997), "We will never be able to think about history in the same way." Howe's new book, Millennials Rising (2000), is causing readers to rethink their views on where America's youth are heading.
Visions: The long-term reaction to Sept. 11 still seems to be an open question.

Howe: One thing I'm often asked is the reaction of different generations in terms of how they see the change or mood shift in the context of their lives -- how the meaning is different depending on where you are and what your location in history is. Looking at that helps us gets us to some of the broader issues.

In talking with people and mulling over what we know, I think there is a generation that feels disoriented in many fundamental ways by Sept. 11 and its sequel. These are the Gen-Xers, basically people born in the 60s and 70s. The reason for this is that, unlike older generations, they don't recall, even in childhood, growing up in a time when big institutions and the national establishment were respected and taken seriously. A lot of them can't recall anything before Watergate and the total distrust of big national institutions. At no time in their lives did we really think of ourselves as a nation with a unifying national purpose. For them, all social change and all good things are done by individuals; individuals helping individuals; individuals acting as free agents in the economy; individuals volunteering to do good things where they help each other one on one -- none of this orchestrated or choreographed by any larger establishment. So they suddenly see this event, and everyone beginning to find themselves as part of a larger community again, and they wonder what's going on here. This hasn't been the direction of their lives. They have never experienced anything like that.

One Washington Post survey questioned whether Sept. 11 changed one's daily life or routine in any significant way. The Gen-Xers, far more than other generations, were more likely to say yes, in a sense of pulling themselves in from this individualistic mode, and thinking more deeply about the direction of life and about making fundamental choices about marriage and making commitments to other people. For Gen-Xers, there is a sense of re-addressing or re-evaluating or seeing in a new light the sense of independence that they have taken for granted.

Visions: Other generations have reacted differently?

Howe: Yes, I think that the reaction of older generations is clearly different. In wake of Sept. 11, boomers have come into their own as America's more values-fixated generation. The culture warriors on both sides generally belong to this generation. They hold firm to the political correctness on campus. They are the ones who have been bringing back the whole new language of spiritualism and values to American political life. I think George W. Bush is a good example of that, rhetorically being so vision- and values-oriented in the way he is treating this war -- good against evil. There is a dark side to the boomer generation that is a little bit related to Arnold Toynbee's old war cycle, which is that the generation that has no memory of the previous great crisis [is taken through the next great crisis by] elder leaders.

However, we think it is much more complicated than that. It is not just, as Toynbee indicated, that the post war generation doesn't remember the war. It is raised in a very different way, according to a certain mindset, which gives it values and norms that are very hard to compromise with. So boomers tend to think in terms of good and evil. Even when they were kids, they were railing against their parents. And as they grew older and began to control society, they maintained that vantage point, and that makes it very hard to compromise. You can't compromise on good against evil. One of the things we've seen in the polls is that the boomer age bracket has become increasingly marginal. People began to notice that in Operation Desert Storm, with ex-hippies suddenly wanting to punish Saddam Hussein and to bomb Iraq back into the Stone Age. We saw it a bit more visibly in the operation in Kosovo. When boomers were being polled, people in their 40s or 50s were 15 to 20 percentage points more likely than either older or younger Americans to advocate armed intervention even at the risk of casualties or a broader war in order to bring Milosovich to justice.

Visions: Justice being the underlining motive?

Howe: Justice, but morality as well -- the good prevailing over the bad. In a series of polls in regards to Sept. 11, again boomers are way up in the top. Something like 98 percent of them think we need to go after the perpetrators even at the risk of a wider war. Boomers are 10 percentage points more likely than Gen-Xers or the so-called silent generation to advocate that. The silent generation, for example, Collin Powell's generation, is much more likely to advocate a carefully calibrated multi-lateral response with all kinds of checks, balances and timetables. The silent generation consists of people who were children during the great depression and World War II, and for them there is a great sense of tragedy about those events. Everything about Sept. 11 represents reversal from what they have considered to be their greatest accomplishment in life -- bringing about the tolerant, open, mobile, highly diversified society of the late 80s and 90s. Finally it was achieved, and it was such a wonderful contrast to all the negative things they remember about their own childhood, the closedness, the total war, the simplicity and the bigotry.

Visions: So the mood shift in the country after Sept. 11 is likely to be profound in the long-term?

Howe: A lot of people are comparing the attack to Pearl Harbor. But in terms of the mood change, I think a much more accurate parallel is 1929-1930, because that was really a much bigger shift. It was a less momentous single event, the stock market crash, but the mood change was much more dramatic, because what you had in the 1920s was a society that in so many ways resembled the 1990s. Individualism was rampant, new technologies were being discovered all over the place, the rich were getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the stock market had boomed -- you can go down the list. Government felt very weak. You had businessmen celebrities running to be President. And you also had huge, thunderous culture wars in the 1920s between various groups of moralists, the ones who advocated prohibition and temperance, the ones who wanted to clamp down on the movies and books, and so on.

People certainly have drawn the parallel in terms of the economy. But what people very rarely recall is that generationally, there is also an incredible parallel. In the 1920s, the generational line up looked almost like the 1990s. You had an old generation of veterans of a total war in America, the Civil War, who were dying off. They were the ones very closely connected and supportive of government, nation with a capital N, and the Grand Old Party. The children of the Civil War were in power but fading, Woodrow Wilson's generation. And they had very complex solutions for the world's problems that were being repudiated by a new generation that had come to power -- the post-Civil War generation, the famous generation of moralists. These are the muckrakers and the settlement house workers, the fundamentalist and so on, who were riding strong in the 1920s, presiding over a very individuated America. And you had a young generation, often called the Lost Generation. These young adults of the 20s had a huge reputation for violent, self-abuse, suicide, rum running, barn storming and taking enormous risks. These young people were quintessential individualists. They gave the roar to the roaring 20s. And beneath that you had a newly protected generation of kids, who would be the future GI generation. They were the subjects of much tougher rules on child labor. We had the Harrison Act to keep drugs away from kids. Prohibition was designed primarily to keep alcohol away from family life and kids. We had pasteurized milk and vitamins. We were just doing all kinds of things for children, including moving out all kinds of new youth groups -- the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4H Clubs, Campfire Girls. All those things were founded right around World War I. And these were for this new generation of more civic-minded young people. America took great pride in them. And I think that's interesting because it suggests that the mood of an era is a product that, like a chemical reaction, depends upon the generational ingredients - what kind of generation is in what phase of life. So the generational line-up of the 90s, we think, was somewhat similar to what we had in the 1920s, or the 1850s, or the 1760s. And I think this is going to prove decisive for our future. Our suggestion is that if generations come in cycles, then the events of history have to be to some extent cyclical, or at least have certain rhythms to them.

Visions: You mentioned Toynbee. It might be good to mention that this perspective on history is not new, that in fact some of the greatest historians have actually concluded that there are cycles. This isn't just a pop idea.

Howe: If you look over the social sciences in recent decades, you see a lot cyclical phenomena that has been identified and described, although no one quite agrees what the root cause of these cycles are. In our book, The Fourth Turning, we talk about some of these kinds of cycles -- cycles in technology, cycles in the culture, cycles in family life, you can just go down the list. And we think these cycles may be a manifestation of generational differences, a very basic kind of seasonal change. That is to say, cultural groups that are shaped a certain way when young, shaped by history, then go on, as they grow older, to actually shape history. This is what creates these long cycles. It is very hard to identify anything else in social life that would create these 40- or 80-year cycles, as opposed to cycles every 400 years or every four months or whatever, if it is not somehow related to the process of human aging. That is the one metric that is, to some extent, constant over time.

Visions: In recent years, thinking about technological change, the notion of cycles has not been particularly present.

Howe: And that's why, implicit in the generational suggestion, is a somewhat different approach to dealing with technological change. One thing that I've noticed is that there has been a lot of technological determinism around, particularly in the 80s and 90s. This is basically the sense that by chance or serendipity or whatever, we discover certain technologies, and because we discover them, they automatically lead to certain kinds of uses, which push our society one way or another. We discover certain things like the automobile and the telephone, and they speed up our social life. We discover other things, contraception or whatever, and it disintegrates the family. Whatever we discover, it just kind of pushes us this way, that way, forward, backwards. We take exception to this view because the application of any technology is not determined by any physical law of nature, but rather is determined by what society wants at the time. And what society wants is in many ways determined by the generational mood of the society at the time.

There are many examples to show that the significance and role of a new technology changes as society changes. Radio, telephones and automobiles, for instance, when they were very new in their development, around World War I and the 1920s, were considered very rococo, very individuating, very much enablers of individual choice. Radio enabled people to listen to whatever kind of programming they wanted. Automobiles allowed people to move further away from cities. They were considered part of what contributed to the chaotic individualism of that era. We didn't have any street signs. Roads were chaotic. People invented their own rules. And there was a kind of Dodge City atmosphere in even the early radio days. Then, suddenly in the 1930s and 40s, the role of these technologies changed. Radio, instead of being an individuating technology, became associated with state power and propaganda -- one big radio station marching millions toward a common objective, the march of progress and all that. Suddenly we had this idea of radio being something that was an enabler or a force multiplier for centralized state power.

And what about automobiles? What did we see on our highways in the 1940s? Huge convoys of identical looking vehicles. The best selling car in the mid-1940s was the Jeep. And the same thing was true for telephones. Telephones again became much more closely associated with governments and national planning in terms of communication, propaganda and censorship. We became used to these enormous telephone banks in large-scale organizations that required state stewardship.

Then what happened in the American high after the war? Again, the images of these technologies changed a little bit. They became associated with a whole new infrastructure. They were no longer experimental and certainly were not individualistic, nor did they represent a nation at war. Rather, they came to represent the infrastructure of a whole new middle class. They became almost the standard sign that you had arrived to taken part in mainstream American life, of course joined by television and a number of other things. The idea of owning a car and having a television was all just part of the great barbecue of the 1950s. It was just one thing you did to be an American.

Visions: So your take on history is that it is fashioned by generational differences and desires, and what the generations perceived the problems to be, as much as it is by technology?

Howe: Absolutely. Each generation starts on a life trajectory, which is interesting, not so much for where it starts, but rather for the life-long direction which eventually gets them to a place that is very different from the place they started. Look at boomers or the GIs -- where they started and where they ended up, all due to their perception of how their country needed to change in a positive direction. And it is the non-linearity of those changes, from one generation to another, which makes history seem to take such jumps.

You see this in regard to technology. If you think about it, boomers discovered the personal computer, the tool to aid in the rebirth of their own consciousness in the workplace, and the whole yuppie image of the perfectionist professional individual working with his own computer. Gen-Xers didn't discover it, they just came of age in it, mastered it, and sort of drove it to its ultimate extreme. The Internet, in Gen-X hands, became this Dodge City world of anonymity and individualism -- no rules, no regulations, and so forth.

However, one of the ways the new millennial generation is different from Gen-Xers and boomers is that the ethic of seamless, group life is much stronger in them. I often ask people, if they have millennial kids, what's the first thing they do on the computer when they come home and turn it on. It's chat rooms, email, buddy lists. The first thing is plugging into each other. That's that the last thing boomers would do. You see this in the advertising. The "Where do you want to go today?" ads always show groups of kids around a screen. When have you ever seen a computer ad showing more than one boomer or Gen-Xer in the ad? Most boomers don't want anyone to know where they are going on the Internet. It is a private experience. Kids are very different. And I think, as they grow older, they are going to totally change computer technology in a way that is going to be more institutional and more group oriented. They are going to rebuild walls or perimeters so that the totally wild things will be shut out.

Visions: We will have a network of networks, which is the direction I've often thought it would go.

Howe: More than that, you will have a kind of institutional credentialling, which would be a horrifying thing to boomers. But it will be liberating for Millennials, because it will allow groups to get things done again. This has huge implications, I think. If you look back, boomers thought the real danger to the world was an over-organized society. State or government power had grown far too large and it was going to completely disintegrate the world through nuclear war or some other horrible thing. But look at the tragic experiences for millennial kids -- Waco, Oklahoma City, Kosovo and now Afghanistan and bin Laden.

Visions: What's very interesting is how the public focus tended to go completely to bin Laden. The danger has become the individual, the deviant.

Howe: You nailed what I was about to say. The problem for millennial kids is not the excess of state power. It is the vacuum of state power, because all of these things are caused by individuals or groups that are allowed to flourish because institutions are not strong enough to either contain them or monitor them. In the break up of the Cold War, we have these huge areas of the world that have become power vacuums, in which anything can happen. Just think about this from their perspective and how different it is from the way boomers would have looked at the world. And I think you need to think generationally like that to think about how the future is going to unfold. The agenda for the future, for the 2020s and the 2030s, is already being formed in the minds of kids today.

The big problem I have with futurists is that they are hopelessly linear when it comes to the underlying cultural and social assumptions surrounding the technology. There were big cover stories around the Millennium in Time, Newsweek and other publications talking about what the next century was going to be like. And in all of it, the stress was on technological progress. But underlying the technological progress was a social and cultural agenda that was absolutely unchanging. It was the unlimited expansion of individual expression and fulfillment. In the 2040s, 2060s, that was all it was going to be. But the world changes.

Visions: Sept. 11 does seem to have changed the direction of our society dramatically.

Howe: We will have to wait to see what the eventual reaction is. One point that we make in the historical context is that Sept. 11 comes a bit early for what we call a "Fourth Turning" catalyst, something that triggers a new social mood, which is really the crisis quadrant of our cycle. It is a bit early because the millennial generation is still somewhat young. They are not quite adults yet. And in terms of the historical cycles, we would expect them to be beginning to enter adulthood. Ordinarily the next civic generation would be in their early 20s. Gen-Xers haven't quite reached mid-life yet. Boomers haven't quite reached elderhood yet. And the silent generation is not really waning rapidly from power. They are still strong. Given the roles they play, the generation cycle hasn't quite moved far enough to trigger an extreme fourth turning response to Sept. 11. The silent generation, unlike boomers, is more risk adverse when it comes to institutional choice. The silent ones want multi-lateral coalitions. They want to move slowly, carefully. They want to make sure all points of view are heard. They want to make sure that the full complexities of the situation are appreciated. They don't want collateral damage. It becomes an enormous Rubics cube. The silent generation has always had a way of deflating the passion of the moment, taking a long look before they leap. Today, in the higher echelons of leadership, you still have a contrast between 60-somethings who are cautious and very inclined to listen to the experts. And you have boomers, who are a bit younger and who are a bit more values driven, and I think, a bit more inclined to total solutions. The fact that the silent generation is still strong is one of the reasons we've had a pretty measured response thus far. It is not the event, but the reactions to the event that cause a society to really change.

Visions: So in terms of how all this is likely to change government in the decades ahead, what we are likely to see then, rather than efforts to make the individual more and more sovereign, will be the reverse.

Howe: Government is going to come back in the fourth turning. However, it is [not going to be] the kind of government we were accustomed to in the 60s on. It is not a government that will respond to each constituent's interests or wishes. It will be a government that really governs, where leaders actually make choices, and who say, no you don't get this because we have to do that. Here are the priorities. We've got so much money. We've got this big danger, so this is how we fix it. And so the whole tone and purpose of government changes. Authority will actually comfort people. There was a trend in the 90s, after all the reinventing of government, and we finally have these local governments where the person in charge is actually the citizen, and the government worker is actually the follower. That is going to reverse. We are going to go back to the situation where the citizens will actually want someone to take charge and deal with huge issues and the dangers out there in the world. That is an environment, I think, that very few people are planning for today. I think you are going to start to see budgets in which you are going to find fewer entitlements and more discretionary spending.

Visions: We have seen that priorities shifted immediately after Sept. 11. But in your analysis, we were demographically also heading for a shift of priorities in a few years.

Howe: Yes. And even if the reaction to Sept. 11 doesn't last, even if this doesn't turn out to be what we call the "fourth turning," it does gives you a very good glimpse of what we think is going to occur in the not too distant future regardless.

Visions: But something will happen to spark the change.

Howe: I think the odds are that it will probably be some sequel to Sept. 11, something that will be triggered with some delay by what we are doing now.

Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs