G.I.s and Millennials

In the theory of Strauss and Howe, the Millennial generation is the same archetype in the cycle as were the G.I. generation.

They are supposedly similar in that they’re both optimistic and civic-oriented generations, and similar in that they both have high expectations of society and themselves. The other similarity is that they both dealt with a major war (started by an attack on American soil) and financial crisis early in their lives.

However, the world is very different now. For the G.I.s, the Depression came before the war and so they returned to a country that was better off than when they left. The G.I.s were given tons of opportunities by society: cheap education, cheap housing, plentiful job openings, high wages, etc. Society actually lived up to their high expectations. Quite differently, the Millennials are fighting a war that can’t be won and they’re not treated as heroes on their return. What they get offered is expensive education, expensive housing, fewer job openings, and lower wages. To say the least, society isn’t living up to their high expectations.

Twenge claim that the Millennials are narcissistic and unrealistically demanding. As I see it, they may or may not be narcissistic in some ways, but certainly not in others. They are actually a very group-oriented generation, not that narcissism can’t include a focus on others because research has shown that it can. Strauss and Howe have written that Twenge was only looking at research that used self-reports. As such, Millennials speak in terms that sound narcissistic, but that is because they’re simply parroting back what they were taught by Boomers. However, Strauss and Howe claim that other evidence shows that their actual behavior is the opposite of narcissistic. For example, they volunteer more than the generations that came right before them.

Anyways, my point is that they’re no more narcissistic than the Great Generation of the G.I.s. The G.I.s were just as demanding of society and just as much wanted a good life right away. The G.I.s came back from the war and they felt they deserved a good life and not that they had to “earn” it. They wanted a good job, a nice house, and a perfect family; and they wanted it immediately. They got what they wanted, but we blame Millennials for the same expectation. The Millennials have also fought for America’s freedom. Why don’t they also deserve the good life that the G.I.s received? Why don’t they deserve to be treated as heroes for all of their sacrifices? Why do many people glorify the G.I.s who represent our past all the while criticizing the Millennials that represent our future?

According to the theory, Millennials have the potential to become another Great Generation. The Boomers, for good or ill, have dominated society for the last half century. When we speak of the present American culture we are speaking of Boomer culture. Boomers are at the start of the cycle. They disturbed the previous order and jumpstarted the digital age, but they’ve also been a brake on continued progress. They haven’t embraced technology and instead they’ve become known for their Neo-conservativism as represented by Bush Jr.

Interestingly, the G.I. generation is known for its many great presidents. But, despite their size, Boomers have had only two presidents (neither of which will probably be remembered as great… certainly not as inspiring speakers) before the smaller in number Gen Xers managed to get a president in. That is even more interesting because Boomers are known for their dominance of mainstream culture and Gen Xers have mostly played a lesser role in the background.

The generations following have been very different from the Boomers Neo-conservativism,. Gen Xers (because of?) their alternative tendencies and certainly because of their small numbers have been more conservative (in the traditional Libertarian sense). Millennials are supposedly more Progressive. As the theory goes, we are hitting the crises point of the Fourth Turning. Gen Xers role is to be the realist leaders that guide the civic-minded Millennials, and thus create a new social order. However, credit must really be given to the Millennials because it will only be their numbers that can counteract the numbers of the Boomers (and other previous generations).

Not to put the Boomers down, but I think America is ready for some real change. I know I’m excited to see where the world will go. Strauss and Howe predicted that if the Silent generation (the one following the G.I. generation) McCain was elected it would slow down the change that is happening and if the Gen Xer Obama was elected it would speed it up. They’ve been right about their predictions of the last couple of decades (e.g. school dress codes and school security in the ’90s, and major crises in the first decade of the new century) and so I hope they’re right about this one. However, they also predict that the following 20 years will be challenging and I wouldn’t mind them being wrong about that.

As a cynical Gen Xer, I’m not always the most optimistic about society. Gen Xers grew up as latchkey kids and because of this have some issues with abandonment and need for security. Gen Xers are actually more stable and family-oriented than the Boomers who had lives that revolved around their careers.

So, I’m cynical about the groupthink conformity of Millennials and their bland mainstream pop culture. I do fear that since they’ve grown up in schools that resemble something out of a police state that they might go too far in their acceptance of letting their civic rights be taken away for “the greater good”. To them, walking through metal detectors and having cameras watch them is normal. They’re used to having no privacy and so they don’t value it.

On the other hand, they have the potential of creating social institutions that actually benefit society as a whole. They will revolutionize society and I look forward in particular to the massive technological shift that will most likely happen in the near future. The world they will create will be a very connected culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more change in the next few decades than we’ve seen in a century or two.

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