What Future Awaits Today’s Youth in the New Millennium? (1)
by William Strauss
13ers Entering Childhood: Rosemary’s Baby (2)
Amid the gathering turbulence of 1964, baby making abruptly fell out of favor. In the spring of that year, American women were still giving birth at a record pace. But in the months that followed, conceptions plummeted — and by mid-1965 the U.S. fertility rate was entering its steep post-Boom decline. A national fertility study confirmed that a third of all mothers now admitted having at least one unwanted child. Stay-at-home moms began wearing buttons that read “Stop At One,” “None Is Fun,” and “Jesus Was an Only Child.” The reasons for this sudden turn included birth control pills, nascent feminism, and a new society-wide hostility toward children.
America’s new antichild attitude revealed itself most clearly in the media. By the mid-1960s, the production of smart-kid family sitcoms and creative-kid Disney movies slowed to a trickle. Replacing them was a new genre featuring unwanted, unlikable, or simply horrifying children. Rosemary’s Baby, a thriller about a woman pregnant with an evil demon, anchored a twenty-year period in which Hollywood filmed one bad-kid movie after another (The Exorcist, It Alive, The Omen, Halloween). Most came with sequels, since audiences couldn’t seem to get enough of these cinematic monsters. Movie goers also lined up to see kids who were savages (Lord of the Flies), hucksters (Paper Moon), prostitutes (Taxi Driver), emotional misfits (Ordinary People), spoiled brats (Willie Wonka) and barriers to adult self-discovery (Kramer vs. Kramer). Meanwhile, Hollywood made far fewer films for children. The proportion of G-rated films fell from 41 percent to just 13 percent, and the new R-rated films soon became Hollywood’s most profitable. Disney laid off cartoonists for the only time in its history.
Throughout the 13ers’ childhood era, the adult media battered their collective reputation and, over time, began to portray this generation as having absorbed the negative message. “We’re rotten to the core,” sang the preteen thug-boys in Bugsy Malone. “We’re the very worst-each of us contemptible, criticized, and cursed.” As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, teenagers began repeating this line, as when one student mockingly tells his friends in Rivers Edge: “”You young people are a disgrace to all living things, to plants even. You shouldn’t even be seen in the same room as a cactus.”
America’s new consciousness celebrated childhood as an ideal, but it neglected childhood as an actual living experience. The nation moved from what Leslie Fiedler called a 1950s-era “cult of the child” to what Landon Jones called a 1970s-era “cult of the adult.” With older G.I.s still smarting from attacks by their own kids, with the Silent now reconsidering their High-era family choices, and with fertile Boomers taking voyages to the interior, the very image of more children provoked widespread anxiety. Parents were shunned if they tried to bring small children into restaurants or theaters. Many rental apartments started banning children. The ascendant Zero Population Growth movement declared each extra child to be “pollution,” a burden on scarce resources.
Sacrificing one’s own career or conjugal happiness for the sake of the kids became passé — even, by the logic of the era, bad for kids themselves. A flurry of popular books chronicled the resentment, despair, and physical discomfort women now said they endured when bearing and raising 13er children. As the cost of raising a child became a hot topic, adults ranked autos ahead of children as necessary for the “good life.” The abortion rate skyrocketed; by the late 1970s, would-be mothers aborted one fetus in three. In Ourselves and Our Children, a committee of Silent authors ranked “considering yourself” ahead of “benefiting our children” as a principle of sound parenting. Parental guides began emphasizing why-to-dos over what-to-dos. The popular Parental Effectiveness Training urged adults to teach small tots about consequences rather than about right and wrong. As Marie Winn noted, an “early-childhood determinism” enabled parents to assume their kids could cope with later trauma, “given how carefully they had been tended as tots.” Thus reassured, Awakening-era parents spent 40 percent less of their time on child raising than parents had spent in the High.(3)
The Awakening’s casual sex, nontraditional families, and mind-altering drugs left a large imprint on this child generation, an imprint reflected in much of today’s 13er music and prose. In the late 1960s, sings Susan Werner, “There were some people smokin’ weed, there were some others doin’ speed / But I was way big into raisins at the time.” “I remember wall-papering my younger brother’s room with Playboy centerfolds,” recalls Adriene Jenik. “I remember bongs and pipes and art and music among my parents greatest artifacts and my mother’s vibrator and reading my father’s Penthouse forums.” As novelist Ian Williams writes, “We could play truth or dare with our parents’ sex lives if we wanted to.” By the late 1970s, once 13ers began practicing what they had learned, adults grew accustomed to seeing kids dress and talk as knowingly as Brooke Shields in ads or Jodie Foster in film.
As the media standard for the typical American family changed from My Three Sons to My Two Dads, divorce struck 13ers harder than any other child generation in U.S. history. Where Boomers had once been worth the parental sacrifice of prolonging an unhappy marriage, 13ers were not. At the end of the High, half of all adult women believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the sake of the children, but by the end of the Awakening, only one in five thought so. Best-selling youth books like It’s Not the End of the World tried to show that parental divorce wasn’t so bad, but left children with the impression that any family could burst apart at any time. In The Nurturing Father: Journey Toward the Complete Man, Kyle Pruett promised that family dissolution “freed” parent and child to have “better” and “less-constricted” time together. By 1980, just 56 percent of all 13er children lived with two once-married parents, and today this generation’s novels and screenplays bristle with hostile references to parents who didn’t tough it out. Polls have since shown 13ers far more inclined than older Americans to believe current divorce laws are too lax.
In homes, schools, and courtrooms, America’s style of child nurture completed a two-decade transition from Father Knows Best to Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood: “Was I making a mistake now? If so, it would just be mistake number nine thousand seven hundred and sixty-three.” “If anything has changed in the last generation,” Ellen Goodman later admitted, it was the “erosion of confidence” among “openly uncertain” mothers and fathers. Alvin Poussaint noted the dominant media image of parents as pals who were “always understanding; they never get very angry. There are no boundaries or limits set. Parents are shown as bungling, not in charge, floundering as much as the children.”
Parents who admit they are “many-dimensioned, imperfect human beings,” reassured Ourselves and Our Children, “are able to give children a more realistic picture of what being a person is all about.” At best, the new model parents were, like Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable, gentle and communicative; at worst, they undermined trust and expressed ambivalence where children sought guidance. Like father and son in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, adults became more childlike and children more adultlike.
This antiauthoritarian nurture fit the iconoclastic mood of the Awakening. Older generations went out of their way to tell children (in the words of Mad’s Al Feldstein) that “there’s a lot of garbage out in the World and you’ve got to be aware of it.” Silent parents, recalling their Closeted Crisis-era childhood, were especially eager to expose their kids to everything. Judy Blume exhorted parents to expose their children to every possible human catastrophe. “They live in the same world we do,” she insisted. She and other Silent authors launched a New Realism bookshelf for children, targeting subjects (like abortion, adolescent cohabitation, child abuse family-friend rapists, and suicide) that prior child generations had never encountered. After absorbing the books, movies, and TV shows the Awakening-era culture offered them, and after observing adults carefully and emulating how they behave, many 13ers began resembling Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, the kind of kid adults have a hard time finding adorable.
The events of the Awakening reinforced the impression that grown-ups were neither powerful nor virtuous. To the child’s eye, adults were simply not in control, either of their own personal lives or (during the years of Vietnam, Watergate, and gas lines) of the larger world. Instead of preventing danger or teaching by example, adults were more apt to hand out self-care guides that told kids about everything that might happen and how to handle it on their own. As Neil Postman observed in The Disappearance of Childhood, 13er children were given “answers to questions they never asked.” It was an era in which everyone and everything had to be liberated whether it was good for them or not. In Escape from Childhood, John Holt urged freeing children from the vise of adult oppression, while Hillary Clinton published articles on children’s rights.
Nowhere were 13er children liberated more than in Awakening-era schools, where High-era education now stood accused of having dehumanized little Boomers. Each child should be “left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind,” urged Open Education advocate A.S. Neill, who suggested that facts and rules and grades and walls be replaced with “tools and clay and sports and theater and paint and freedom.” Reformers tried to boost child self-esteem through “person-centered” education that stressed feelings over reason, empirical experience over logical deduction. Rather than ask students to evaluate a book’s universal quality or message, teachers began probing students about how a reading made them feel. Grammar was downplayed, phonics frowned on, and arithmetic decimals replaced by the relativistic parameters of New Math. Textbooks emphasized sensitivity and accessibility. Standards were weakened, in line with reformer Roland Barthes’s theory that “there is no minimum body of knowledge which it is essential for everyone to know.” The average time children spent on homework fell to half what it had been in the High era, and grade inflation ran rampant. As the Awakening progressed, the percentage of high school graduates who described themselves as straight A students nearly tripled.
Back in the High, being a good adult had meant staying married and providing children with a wholesome culture and supportive community. Now it meant festooning the child’s world with self-esteem smiley buttons while the fundamentals (and media image) of a child’s life grew more troubled by the year. Increasing numbers of children were born to unmarried teen mothers. While underfunded foster-home systems buckled in state after state, the media began referring to latchkey, abandoned, runaway, and throwaway kids. In the middle 1970s, the distinction of occupying America’s most poverty-prone age bracket passed directly from the (elder) Lost to the (child) 13th without ever touching the three generations in between. By the late 1970s, the child suicide rate broke the Lost’s previous turn-of-the-century record. Through the Awakening, the homicide rate for infants and small children rose by half, and the number of reported cases of child abuse jumped four-fold.
The Awakening’s new hostility to power, authority, and secrecy had one meaning for 45-year-olds seeking a nuanced view of a complicating world, but another for ten-year-olds trying to build dreams. For the Silent, taught to Think Big as Crisis-era children, Thinking Small was a midlife tonic. But never having had their own chance to Think Big, preadolescent 13ers heard a new message: America’s best days were over. Like the child of divorce writ large, this generation wondered if it was only a coincidence that they came along at just the moment in history when older people started complaining that everything in America was falling to pieces.
Ask today’s young adults how they were raised, and many will tell you that they raised themselves — that they made their own meals, washed their own clothes, decided for themselves whether to do homework or make money after school, and chose which parent to spend time with on weekends (or side with in court). They grew up less as members of family teams, looking forward to joining adult teams, than as free agents, looking forward to dealing and maneuvering their way through life’s endless options. In their childhood memory, the individual always trumped the group. During the Consciousness Revolution, as older generations stripped away the barriers that had previously sheltered childhood, 13ers were denied a positive vision of the future — denied, indeed, any reassurance that their nation had any collective future at all.
13ers Entering Young Adulthood: Top Guns
America’s college class of 1983 came with a new label, the first official welcome of their coming-of-age generation. Around the time of their graduation, the U.S. Office of Education published A Nation at Risk, describing the nation’s student population as “a rising tide of mediocrity” whose learning “will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents. This diatribe became the first in a flurry of reports, studies, and books (keynoted by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind) that castigated America’s new youth as mindless, soulless, and dumb. In their caustic What Do Seventeen-Year-Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn answered: not much. Grading youths in 29 subjects, they dished out 20 F’s, eight D’s, and one C minus.
Through the early Unraveling years, recent graduates heard older writers and columnists call them a “nowhere generation, a tired generation,” a “generation of animals,” a “high-expectation, low-sweat generation,” and “an army of Bart Simpsons, armed and possibly dangerous.” Russell Baker decried their “herky-jerky brain” and “indifference to practically everything on the planet that is interesting, infuriating, maddening, exhilarating, fascinating, amusing, and nutty.” Youth-targeted films (Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgmont High) scripted adolescents to confirm these elder judgments. In Pump Up the Volume, Christian Slater’s Hard Harry dismissed his peers as a “Why Bother Generation.” As novelist David Leavitt has observed, “Mine is a generation perfectly willing to admit its contemptible qualities.”
In the early 1990s, as Wayne and Garth chanted “We’re not worthy!” and Beck sang “I’m a loser, baby,” America’s twenty-somethings begrudgingly settled on the label Generation X. Like so much of the new youth culture, this term was a pop derivative: Somebody wrote a book about 1960s-era British mod teenagers, Billy Idol named his band for the book, the term became a Canadian youth cachet, and along came Doug Coupland’s defining title. After the 1992 film Malcolm X landed X logo merchandise on black kids’ caps and shirts, southern white kids began wearing T-shirts to match (“You wear your X and I’ll wear mine”). Soon the letter was everywhere.
Seizing the new generational discovery, a barrage of media began portraying everything X as frenetic and garbagey. In their own lyrics and manuscripts, young people maintained the facade of self-denigration they had already learned in childhood — with a touch of ironic malice. “Our generation is probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation,” said a college graduate in Metropolitan. When Subaru showed an ersatz grunger selling supposedly punk rock cars, the ads failed. Asked to buy a car decked out in their own culture, young people refused. “Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” sang the theme song of Cops. “Bad boys! Bad boys!” Bad as I wanna Be, Dennis Rodman chimed in.
“Nobody’s really got it figured out just yet,” Alanis Morissette sings in her album Jagged Little Pill, and indeed, many of her peers resist any effort to define their generation. Today’s youths often regard their own circles of friends as too diverse to be thought of in collective terms. To them, X stands for nothing, or everything, or (as Kurt Cobain sang) “oh well, whatever, never mind.” Compared to any other generation born this century, theirs is less cohesive, its experiences wider, its ethnicity more polyglot, and its culture more splintery. Yet all this is central to their collective persona. From music to politics to academics to income, today’s young adults define themselves by sheer divergence, a generation less knowable for its core than by its bits and pieces.
As the 1990s have progressed, young adults have asserted more control over their own image. The generational TV shows have taken X from the glitzy Beverly Hills 90210 to the atomized Melrose Place to the ersatz community of Friends, whose cast resembles the people who watched those other shows. Many of the story lines depict youths as noncommittal, unattached, brazen about sex and work, obsessed with trivial things, and isolated from the worlds of older people or children. In film, young directors explore their peers’ disjointed alienation (sex, lies, and videotape; Bodies, Rest, and Motion) in a disappointing youth economy (Clerks, Reality Bites) and a life that seems to lead nowhere (Slacker, Singles, Dazed and Confused) amid a culturally splintered world (Boyz ‘n’ the Hood, El Mariachi, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.) full of exploitive sexuality (Kids, My Own Private Idaho) and remorseless violence (Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, Menace II Society, Doom Generation). These films often have no beginnings or endings, or any “right” things to do, or older mentors who aren’t cartoons, or any environment that isn’t what Robert Rodrigues calls “spare and tough.” What they do have is lots of drugs, alcohol, violence, moving around, boredom, meaningless sex, social chaos, and personal directionlessness.
Older generations mostly avoid these movies, so their impression of X mainly arises through mainstream media (Newsweek, Fox’s sports broadcasts) that aggressively pursue young-adult psychographics and, especially, through advertising. Marketers zero in on young adults less because they have spendable money — of all adult age brackets, they have the least, per capita — than because they dominate the margins of product choice. Today’s young adults have thin loyalties, what Coupland calls “microallegiances.” “With them, once the fizz is gone, that’s it,” says a Shearson-Lehman pump-sneakers analyst. As advertisers search for the right fizz formula, shocked elders see constant thirty-second snippets of hyperkinetic, inarticulate young body-worshipers trampling the Tetons in pursuit of raw pleasure. Young adults may buy the beer, but the image leaves a hangover.
“X got hypermarketed,” declared Coupland in 1995. “And now I’m here to say that X is over.” Generation Ecch! declared one parody, as polls showed only 10 percent of youth willing to embrace the letter label. From Coupland to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, putative leaders of the youth culture declare no interest in speaking for anybody, except perhaps to share writer Jennifer Lynch’s realization that “maybe I have nothing really to say.” The whole X persona has come to be perceived as such a mess that nobody wants to identify with it, as if to cut all connection with a loser.
Often, talk of X has degenerated into pretentious putdowns by a Boomer-dominated media bent on confirming the superior authenticity of their own Awakening-era youth. The 1994 Woodstock revival produced much Boomer talk about how much nobler and less commercial the original had been. In return, the bombast of middle-aged narcissists has provided a ripe target for this younger generation of survivors. “Boomers are finally growing up,” says Kate Fillion, “and we don’t hold it against them that they forced so many of us to beat them to it.” To hear many 13ers tell it, following Boomers into youth is like entering a theme park after a mob has trashed the place and some distant CEO has turned every idea into a commercial logo. “Make love not war / Sounds so absurd to me,” sings Extreme, confirming America’s latest generation gap.
To get a fix on the today’s young-adult generation, forget the X, look beyond the pop media, and skip the Boomers. Focus instead on their place in American history — number 13 — and how different 13ers are at this age from the generation that nurtured them: the Silent.
Where Silent youth felt the need to break free from a gravitational conformism, 13ers feel the need to ground themselves out of a centrifugal chaos. The Silent were America’s least immigrant generation and yearned for more diversity; 13ers are the 20th century’s most immigrant generation and yearn for more common ground. Where the Silent inhabited the most uniform youth culture in living memory, 13ers dwell in the most diverse minicultures.
Where the Silent were the youngest-marrying generation in U.S. history, with low rates of premarital sex, abortion, and venereal disease, 13ers are the oldest marrying, with the highest-ever rates of teen sex, abortion, and venereal disease (including AIDS).
Where the Silent’s worst high school discipline problems were gum chewing and cutting in line, the image of troubled 13ers is Kids, in which the adult world is invisible amid a numbing youth search for violence and drugs and sex and money. Where the Silent had an annual young-adult arrest rate of 13 per 1,000, the 13er arrest rate is 117 per 1,000. One 13er student in six knows somebody who has been shot.
Where Silent youths came of age believing in sweet sentimentality, as kids who (sang Elvis) “just want to be your teddy bear,” 13ers came of age believing in rock-hard reality, as kids who (writes Bret Easton Ellis) want to be “unambiguous winners … Tom Cruise characters.” Where the young Silent wanted a Heartbreak Hotel, 13ers would rather be Top Gun.
“How could such wonderful parents as ourselves have produced such awful children?” asks William Raspberry. Try this: Where the Silent were children of a Crisis who came of age in a High, 13ers were children of an Awakening who came of age in an Unraveling.
Where the Silent grew up just when a hungry society wanted to invest, 13ers grew up just when satiated society wanted to cash out. Where the Silent came of age in an era when individualism was discouraged but economic success guaranteed, 13ers are coming of age when individualism is celebrated but economic success is up for grabs. Where the young Silent climbed the corporate ladder and flocked to Washington to staff the New Frontier and Great Society, twice as many 13ers say they would rather own their own businesses than be corporate CEOs, and four times as many would rather be entrepreneurs than hold a top job in government. With the Silent, prosperity and institutional stability gradually exceeded expectations, allowing them to turn their focus to affect and detail. With 13ers, the opposite happened, and expectations were betrayed. Where the Silent came of age with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 13ers have the stark declinism of Rent, riveting them on the bottom lines of life.
Generational economics bear this out. Unraveling-era 13ers, males especially, have been hit with a one-generation depression. From 1973 to 1992, the real median income for young-adult males fell by 28 percent, more than it did for the entire nation from peak to trough of the Great Depression. (During those same two decades in which youth incomes were plunging, real median income for seniors rose by 26 percent.) In 1969, the median earnings of full-time working men under age 25 was 74 percent of the median for all older full-time men; since 1986, that figure has never risen above 55 percent. In the Awakening, only eight percent of young employed household heads lived in poverty; now 18 percent do. Notwithstanding this harsh youth economy, the image of Beverly Hills 90210-style wealth (cars, TVs, CD players, leather logo jackets) has wrapped itself tightly around 13ers. Yet what sociologist Jerald Bachman calls “premature affluence” has done more harm than good: It has accustomed youths to parentally subsidized luxuries they cannot possibly afford on their own, and it has persuaded older generations that if some young people aren’t doing well, they have only themselves to blame. “The poor stay poor, the rich get rich,” sings Concrete Blonde. “That’s how it goes, everybody knows.”
For a generation that struggles so much in economic and public life, fatalism is a survival skill, comforting those who are not doing so well. They apply it to wall off each fragment of life — work, family, friends, culture, fun — from the rest and thereby contain any damage from spreading. Unlike Boomers, 13ers can’t spare the energy to be “together” people, linking every act to a core self. Instead, they tend to be modular people, dealing with each situation on Its own terms. Nowhere is fatalism more rampant than in 13er views on crime. The Unraveling’s youth crime rate has ebbed below its Awakening-era (Boomer) peak, but the public tolerates it far less. Where the Boomers were the most alibied and excused criminal generation in U.S. history, 13ers have become the most incarcerated. Roughly one-third of all 13er black males are either in prison, on probation, or under court supervision. Today’s convicts are perceived as incorrigible, deserving not of rehabilitation but of pure punishment — from butt-caning to merciless execution. Yet of all Unraveling-era generations, 13ers are the toughest on criminals. If you’re guilty and get caught, so the thinking goes, don’t complain about what’s coming to you.
Taking risks comes naturally to what is far and away America’s most active generation of gamblers. As on-line sports bettors, lottery-ticket regulars, and avid bar bingo players, 13ers fill the age brackets that are now (but were not previously) most at risk to compulsive gambling. Lacking any guarantee that slow-but-steady, follow-the-rules, and trust-in-the-future behavior will ever payoff, 13ers tend to view the world as run by lottery markets in which a person either lands the one big win or goes nowhere. They have constructed a flinty ethos of self-determination in which being rich or poor has less to do with virtue than with timing, salesmanship, and luck. What people get is simply what they get and is not necessarily related to what they may or may not deserve.
Their dating and mating reflects much the same quest for risk amid decline, for modularity amid chaos, for doing what works amid constant elder judgments about right and wrong. Where the young Silent looked at sex as euphoric, marriage as romantic, and feminism as a thrilling breakthrough, 13ers look at sex as dangerous, marriage as what a St. Elmo’s Fire character calls “all financial,” and gender equality as a necessary survival tool in a world of wrecked courtship rituals, splintered families, and unreliable husbands. As older feminists debate what Deanna Rexe calls “problems of affluence and success, rather than serious ones,” their 13er successors are more concerned about immediate self-defense (against AIDS, date rape, and street crime) and longer-term self-defense (against potential spouses who might be unreliable providers or abandon their families).
As the youngest-copulating and oldest-marrying generation ever recorded, 13ers maneuver through an unusually long span of sexually active with the threat of AIDS ever lingering in the background. They have always been the physical center of the abortion debate-first as the surviving fetuses of the most aborted generation in U.S. history, later as the pregnant unmarried woman faced with the “choice” of what to do. Small wonder 13ers have such split feelings about the Consciousness Revolution. They fantasize about how the 1960s and 1970s supposedly offered Boomers easy sex without consequence, while resenting the lasting damage done by an era in which they now realize they were the babies adults were trying so much not to have.
A similar alertness to the hard truths — and anxiety about danger — informs the 13er view of race. They are coming of age in an Unraveling era that allows institutions, but not individuals, to discriminate on the basis of race, exactly the opposite of what the Silent encountered in the High. To the young Silent, affirmative action in schooling, college, and job selection was a goal of conscience. They didn’t confront it themselves, but later on declared it fitting and just for their children to do so. To many 13ers, racial quotas are just another game in a larger institutional casino: They like it if it helps them, but not if it doesn’t. At best, 13ers defend quotas as a sort of blood law. “Two wrongs don’t make it right,” says Sister Souljah, “but it damn sure makes it even.”
Though often accused of rising racism and hate crimes, including many of the mid-1990s bombings of black churches, 13ers are by any measure the least racist of today’s generations. Certainly none other in U.S. history has been as amenable to working for, voting for, living next to, dating, marrying, or adopting people of other races. America’s black-white marriages have quadrupled over the span of just one generation. Yet the 13ers’ greater color blindedness doesn’t necessarily bring them together as a generation. Their real diversity problem is less racial or ethnic than economic and familial: Young black professionals are faring almost as well as white peers, while uneducated 13er blacks are doing worse than one or two generations before. Nearly half of all young black males in the inner city do not hold full-time jobs.
Political surveys show 13ers to be somewhat more conservative, considerably less liberal, and far more independent than older generations are today or were at like age. “In a dramatic shift,” writes James Glassman, “young people now constitute the majority of Republicans, while Democrats have become the party of the old.” Never knowing anything except institutional decline, 13ers are deeply skeptical about grand policy visions they assume will somehow only add to America’s fiscal debt and social chaos. From criminal justice to tort law, from public schools to the federal bureaucracy, government is viewed by many 13ers as a morass that is far too complex, far too tied to special interests, and far too enmeshed in ideology to get simple things done. Having grown up in an era of rising political cynicism, Ian Williams notes how “we are moving beyond cynicism to apathy.” As MTV airs Like We Care in a fruitless effort to show that Tabitha Soren’s peers somehow do, millions are reaching voting age as what that network calls the “Unplugged” — total nonparticipants in public life. For many, nonvoting has become an acceptable social choice.
More than three 13ers in four do not trust government to look after their basic interests. As they see it, other people get benefits, while they pay the bills. In California, thanks to Proposition 13, young new homeowners can pay several times as much in property taxes as their elder neighbors with identical homes. In Virginia, a 30-year-old couple with a $30,000 income and a $100,000 house pays more than $8,000 in major local, state, and federal taxes, while the typical 65-year-old couple with the same income and house pays nothing at all. Nearly every major Unraveling-era policy proposal on taxes, health care, and Social Security has proposed transferring more money from youth to elders. And 13ers are even less inclined than Boomers to believe that paying now will benefit them later, when they grow old in their own turn. A Third Millennium survey found that more 13ers believe in UFOs than in Social Security lasting until they retire. Thus has arisen the downward spiral of 13er civic interest: They tune out, so they don’t vote, so their interests are trampled, so they tune out, and on it goes.
Many 13ers prefer to express their community spirit less by voting than by hands-on volunteering. They believe that society is changed not by presidential orders or Million Man Marches, but by the day-to-day acts of ordinary people. When 13ers pick up a newspaper (which they do a third less often than the Silent, at like age), many skip the national news for the local and personal. When asked if they look at their world as “a global village” and not just as the town where they live, only 38 percent of Americans under age 30 say they strongly agree, versus 54 percent of those age 45 and over. Today’s youth voluntarism comes less through big institutional philanthropies than through small local charities that have no crusading figureheads or profiteering middlemen. More than older generations, 13ers believe in doing small acts of kindness as individuals, without caring if anybody applauds or even notices. The president of MIT has likened their civic attitude to that of the Lone Ranger: Do a good deed, leave a silver bullet, and move on.
Into the New Millennium: Generation Exhausted
His “Great Goal” for the 21st century, says Wayne’s World’s Mike Myers, is “to have fun rather than not to have fun.” His generation will, but only by continuing to wall off the money problems and elder criticisms.
Economics will continue to tell the 13er story. By the early 21st century, young-adult incomes will be lower, their poverty rate higher, and their safety nets skimpier than was true for Boomers in the early 1980s — confirming the 13th as the only U.S. generation (aside from the Gilded) ever to suffer a lifelong economic slide. Many will be kicked off welfare. Others will buffer their downward mobility by working multiple jobs, living in multiple-income households, or moving in with their parents.
An Unraveling that began unfriendly to entry-level job seekers will close unfriendly to promotion seekers. From professional partnerships to store manager positions, 13ers will find their paths blocked by institutions that aren’t expanding and by older generations who aren’t leaving. This is already the first generation born in this century to be less certifiably professional than its predecessors. By the Oh-Ohs, many 40-year-olds will remain permanent temps, no-benefit contractors, second-tier careerists, and lesser-paid replacements. Since the Awakening, young adults have shown by far the greatest rise in income inequality (while elderly incomes have actually become more equal). The share of young workers with benefit cushions — health insurance, unemployment compensation, pension plans, collective bargaining — has fallen (while the public and private cushions for the elderly have grown substantially more generous).
Into the Oh-Ohs, the 13er reputation will be no better than now. Whatever thirty-to-fortyish people do will be criticized by elders — not just for failing to meet the prior standard, but also for being a bad influence on children. This generation will personify what America will dislike about the widening gap between haves and have-nots. Its failures will be perceived as deserved, its successes less so. High-flying youths will be condemned as economic predators and appropriate targets of luxury taxation, while lowlifers will be assailed as incorrigible and unworthy of public aid. By the end of the Unraveling, the American social category with the greatest reputation for virtue will be the one to which relatively few young adults will belong: the middle class.
The 13er high-risk mind-set will come under attack as a national affliction. High-stakes entrepreneurs will be busy arbitraging deals and acquiring U.S. assets for foreign interests. They will be making markets more fluid, leveraging more risk, establishing more distance and anonymity in the links between debtors and their creditors, and flooding the world with American pop culture. In cyberspace, they will be hacking, spamming, code breaking, and tax evading. For all this, they will come under heavy criticism, prompting urgent new calls for government regulation.
At the same time, what the Wall Street Journal calls “high-tech nomads” will be the fungible workers of the Unraveling’s globalized economy They will barnstorm the marketplace, exploring its every cranny, seeking every edge, exploiting every point of advantage. They will talk about jobs rather than careers, emphasizing what can get totally done by the end of the day rather than potentially done later in life. Where the Silent believed in the building blocks of success and inhabited a corporate world of stable pay and benefits, 13ers will believe in the quick strike and inhabit an economy of erratic pay, no benefits, and little loyalty. Where young Silent workers let others negotiate for them, 13ers will strike their own deals, stressing near-term incentives like piece work or commissions. Where the typical Silent expected to stay with a first employer for decades, the typical 13er will expect a rapid turnover of employers and work situations.
The 13er low-sweat, task-efficient work style will be extremely good for U.S. profitability — one enterprise at a time. Economists have long said this sort of worker is what an ever-changing global economy needs, but once America acquires a whole generation of them, older managers won’t be so pleased. The perceived problem won’t be whether 13ers work enough, which they will, but rather their distance from corporate culture. Young workers will follow the contract: When it’s time to work, they will focus; but when it’s quitting time, they will disengage. Ersatz social arrangements (often a platoon of friends) will provide them with the life-support functions for which their parents once looked to employers.
Many 13ers will skip the institutional economy entirely and go it alone or with friends, outpacing and underpricing older rivals, playing crafty high-tech games with and against elder-built systems. What Saren Sakurai calls “countercommerce” will steal markets from big corporate rivals, undermine rule-encrusted state enterprises (mail, education, security), and mount gray-market challenges to credentialed professions (law, insurance, finance). Whenever governments privatize or big companies restructure, 13ers will benefit. In the military, 13er officers will flaunt a spartanlike warrior ethos. On campus, their laconic libertarianism will clash with the voluble liberalism of aging tenured professors.
By the Oh-Ohs, fortyish novelists, film makers, and pop stars will be pushing every niche, every extravagance, every Xtreme sport, every technology, every shock (sex, violence, profanity, apathy, self-mutilation) to the maximum, prompting Boomer calls for boycotts and censorship. As young-adult attendance sags at national parks, historic sites, museums, and classical concerts, a clear demarcation will exist between the 13er fun culture and the Boomer “classic” alternative. Sports and celebrity entertainments will acquire a brassy quality, more akin to gladiatorial than civic ritual. Athletes and entertainers will raise sports and media to new heights of commercial glitz. Star salaries will skyrocket ever higher, but journeymen will lose ground. Their individual exploits will be applauded, their team spirit condemned. Fan loyalties will weaken, as parents urge children to look elsewhere for role models. Eventually, the 13er youth culture will come to feel, like Kurt Cobain before his suicide, “bored and old.”
Near the end of the Unraveling, 13ers will start tiring of all the motion and options. Feeling less Generation X than a generation exhausted, they will want to reverse their life direction.
Their attitude toward risk will change. Those who are doing well will reveal a young-fogey siege mentality that discourages further risk taking. High-achieving married 13ers will push family life toward a pragmatic form of social conservatism. Restoring the single-earner home will be a male priority; restoring the reliability of marriage will be a feminist priority. Late-born 13ers will start marrying and having babies younger, partly to avoid the risks of serial sex and harassment at work, but also to get a head start on saving and homeowning. By the end of the Unraveling, the median age at first marriage will be lower than it is today.
In time, even 13ers without good jobs will take comfort in their toe-holds on the American Dream. On the whole, they will appreciate the worth and precariousness of whatever good fortune they have achieved and will fear how far they could fall if they ever lost it. Many will scrupulously avoid risk in their personal lives, even if they still have no choice but to keep taking long shots in their work lives. They will become intensely frugal, loyal to kin, faithful to spouses, and protective of children. They will not take a close and supportive family for granted; building one will be an achievement in which they will take great pride. “Been there, done that” will be their parental attitude toward sex, whose dangers they will be determined to shield from children. As 13ers cordon off their self-contained lives, older critics will find fault with a home life that will strike some as too much family and not enough values. Modular-minded young parents will go out in the evening and enjoy Quentin Tarantino films, and then come home and tuck toddlers snugly into bed, much to the amazed disapproval of older people.
By the Oh-Ohs, 13ers will comfortably inhabit a world of unprecedented. Few will share the High-era view that race in America is simply a problem of black versus white. Asian and Hispanic Americans will make 13er race issues a more multivariate equation. As those ethnicities catapult into the cultural mainstream, they will be greeted with demands for a clampdown on immigration. A small but significant share of young adults (including whites) will gravitate toward organizations touting racial or ethnic separatism. From poverty to crime to making families work again, 13ers will redefine old civil rights issues into problems independent of race. Many will come to associate the phrase civil rights with elder ministers, teachers, and bureaucrats whom they won’t want meddling in their lives. Their goal will be to stop all the racial game-playing, and they will be skeptical that the solution is simply to get everybody to understand one another.
As more 13ers form families, they will finally start voting in respectable numbers. By 1998, they will comprise America’s largest potential generational voting bloc and, by the end of the Unraveling, the largest actual bloc. Once they discover the voting booth, their prior partisan detachment will work to their advantage. Come the Oh-Ohs, 13ers will occupy the critical margins of politics, capable of deciding who wins and loses. They will apply their “Pop and Politics” internet skills for the benefit of candidates who avoid hype, who do what it takes to get a job done, and who promise not to make their problems worse.
The first prominent 13er politicians will detach positions from principles, simplify the complex, and strip issue debates to their fundamentals. To their mind-set, no program will be untouchable, no promise inviolable, no budget incapable of balance. They will propose bold new remedies to crack down on the Unraveling era’s most elusive targets, from trial lawyers to wealthy seniors to corporations at the public trough. Among their first political goals will be to eliminate no-fault divorce and racial quotas. Their no-nonsense pragmatism will be criticized — by the Silent as uninformed, by Boomers as unprincipled. Few of their proposals will be enacted — not yet, anyway.
As the Unraveling nears an end, the public image of a worn-out era will fuse with the image of a worn-out and unraveled generation. By the mid-Oh-Ohs, the 13er persona will be thrown into relief not just by very different older generations but also, now, by a very different younger generation. As always, 13ers will handle it with a shrug before going ahead and doing what they must, knowing that, as a generation, they are not getting anything except older. As these 40-year-olds buy and collect pop culture junk from the 1970s, their childhood anchor-decade, they will sense the irony of their situation.
Whatever their elders may think of them, America’s 13er Generation will be around for the usual duration. “They are our children, and we should love them,” says Mario Cuomo, “but even if we don’t love them, we need them, because they are our future.”
13ers Entering Midlife: Doom Players
“Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said after the crash that hit his peers at the cusp of what should have been their highest-earning years. “A generation with no second acts,” he called his Lost peers — but they proved him wrong. They ended their frenzy and settled down, thus helping to unjangle the American mood. Where their Missionary predecessors had entered midlife believing in vast crusades, the post-Crash Lost skipped the moralisms and returned directly to the basics of life. “What is moral is what you feel good after,” declared Ernest Hemingway, “what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” “Everything depends on the use to which it is put,” explained Reinhold Niebuhr on behalf of a generation that did useful things regardless of faith — a role the Missionaries chose not to play.
This “no second act” generation lent America the grit to survive dark global emergencies and, in the end, to triumph over them. In the Great Depression, the Lost were hard-hit but refused to ask for public favors. In World War II, they manned the draft boards, handed out the ration coupons, mapped the invasions, and dispatched the bomber fleets. They gave the orders that killed thousands but saved millions. From “blood and guts” generals to “give ‘em hell” presidents, the Lost knew how to prevail over long odds and harsh criticism. This was the last time the Nomad archetype entered a Fourth Turning.
In a recent genre of action films (from War Games and Back to the Future to Terminator and Independence Day), a stock drama unfolds. A young protagonist — alone, unprepared, and immersed in a junky culture — is chosen by chance to decide the fate of humanity. The situation looks dicey. The protagonist, too, has slim expectations of success. But at a pivotal moment, this lonely wayfarer challenges destiny, deals with the stress, zeroes in on what matters, does what is required, and comes out on top. The most popular video games, following the same script, stress one-on-one action and deft timing: Find a treasure, grab the tools, rescue a princess, save the kingdom, slay the enemy, and get out alive. Everything is yes-no, full of code words and secret places — in a style one TV executive calls “Indiana Jones meets a game show.”
“I’ve glimpsed our future,” warns a high school valedictorian in the film Say Anything, “and all I can say is — go back.” The message to her classmates is understandable, because Nomad generations — what Christian Slater refers to as “a long list of dead, famous wild people” — have always been the ones who lose ground in wealth, education, security, longevity, and other measures of progress. Yet they have also been the generations who lay at the fulcrum between triumph and tragedy, the ones who hoist their society through the darkest days of Crisis.
The onset of the Fourth Turning will find 13ers retaining their troubled reputation, the only change being that America’s troubled age bracket will then be perceived as more fortyish than twentyish. They will carry the reputation for having come of age at a time when good manners and civic habits were not emphasized in homes and schools. With their arrival, midlife will lose moral authority and gain toughness. Their culture will be a hodgepodge of unblending styles and polyethnic currents that will reflect the centrifugal impulse from which many Americans (including 13ers) will now be eager to escape.
In the economy, 13ers will fare significantly worse than Boomers did at like age back in the mid-1980s. They will fan out across an unusually wide range of money and career outcomes. A few will be wildly successful, a larger number will be destitute, while most will be losing ground but doing tolerably. The Crisis era’s image of a middle-aged worker will be a modest-wage job hopper who retains the flexibility to change life directions at a snap. The prototype midlife success story will be the entrepreneur who excels at cunning, flexibility, and high-tech ingenuity. The prototype failure will be the ruined gambler, broke but still trying. The high-risk harbors where 13ers will have bet their stray cash during the Unraveling (from lottos to Indian casinos to derivative markets) will, like this generation, be stigmatized and left to rot.
As they confront their money problems amid a mood of deepening Crisis, 13ers will take pride in their ability to “have a life” and wall off their families from financial woes. Their divorce rate will be well below that of midlife Silent and Boomers. They will clamp down on children. In exchange for financial help, many will invite their better-off parents to live with them.
Surveying the Crisis-era detritus of the Unraveling, 13ers will see the opposite of what the midlife Silent saw in the Awakening-era wreckage of the High. Where the Silent felt claustrophobic, yearning to break free in a world that felt too closed, 13ers will feel agoraphobic, yearning to root in a world that feels too open. Where the Silent were torn between the socially necessary and the personally desirable, 13ers will be torn between the personally necessary and the socially desirable.
Gripped with deeply felt family obligations, 13ers will resist the idea of relaxing their survival instincts — yet will sense the need to restore a sense of community. They will widen the continuing dispersions of technology and culture — yet will vote for politicians who promise to reverse it. Middle-aged Hispanic-, Asian-, and Arab-Americans (among others) will embrace their racial or ethnic identities — yet will yearn for new ties to the communal core.
The Unraveling’s initial 13er pop elite will lose influence as their peers tire of the old ways and seek something simpler and less frenzied. Those who persist in the discarded culturama will be chastised and perhaps even quarantined in the newly wholesome Millennial youth culture. A few aging outcasts will scatter around the world, feeling like those whom Doug Coupland calls “a White Russian aristocracy, exiled in Paris cafes, never to get what is due to us.” Replacing them as the cutting edge of their generation will be a Revenge of the Nerds, slow-but-steady plodders (many of them ethnics) who will overtake the quick strikers who took one risk too many.
The 13er mind-set will be hardboiled and avuncular, the risk taking now mellowed by a Crisis-era need for security. Middle-aged people will mentor youth movements, lend stylishness to hard times, and add nuts-and-bolts workmanship to the resolute new mood. They will be begrudgingly respected for their proficiency in multimedia and various untutored skills to which old Boomers will be blind and young Millennials dismissive. Throughout the economy, 13ers will be associated with risk and dirty jobs. They will seek workable outcomes more than inner truths. “We won’t have a bad backlash against our lost idealism,” predicts Slacker film maker Richard Linklater, since his generation “never had that to begin with.” Like Hemingway, their moral judgments will be situational, based on how everybody feels afterward.
As the Crisis deepens, 13ers will feel little stake in the old order, little sense that their names and signatures are on the social contract. They will have reached full adult maturity without ever having believed in either the American Dream or American exceptionalism. They will never have known a time when America felt good about itself when its civic and cultural life didn’t seem to be decaying. From childhood into midlife, they will have always sensed that the nation’s core institutions mainly served the interests of people other than themselves. Not many of their classmates and friends will have built public-sector careers, apart from teaching and police work. Most 13ers will have oriented their lives around self-help networks of friends and ersatz institutions that have nothing to do with government.
The “we’re not worthy” 13er streak of weak collective esteem will define and enhance their new civic role. Where the Boomers’ Unraveling-era narcissism interfered with America’s ability to exact even minor sacrifice for the public good, the 13ers’ ironic self-deprecation will render their claims unusually selfless. “We may not get what we want. We may not get what we need,” chanted the young adults in True Colors. “Just so we don’t get what we deserve.” They will vote against their own short-term interests if persuaded that the community’s long-term survival requires it. Where the Silent once agonized over procedural braking mechanisms, where Boomers had huge arguments over gesture and symbolism, 13er voters will disregard motive and ideology, and will simply ask if public programs get results that are worth the money.
In the Fourth Turning’s Next New Deal, 13ers will be strategically located between moralistic old Boomers and cherished young Millennials. With 13ers occupying the margins of political choice, no intergenerational bargain will be enacted without their approval. In The Breakfast Club, a Boomer teacher despaired of “the thought that makes me get up in the middle of the night: That when I get older, these kids are gonna take care of me.” As elder benefits hit the fiscal wall, Boomers and 13ers will, like siblings, half-remember and half-forget how they behaved toward each other in earlier decades. There will be some talk of ethnogenerational war, as non-Anglo 13ers attack Boomer benefits as what former Social Security Commissioner Dorcas Hardy has called “a mechanism by which the government robs their children of a better future, in order to support a group of elderly white people.” Led by ethnic populists, 13ers will strike a hard bargain with elders they will collectively perceive as lifelong hypocrites with a weak claim on the public purse. So long as the Next New Deal hits Boomers hard, 13ers won’t mind if it’s projected to hit themselves even harder.
As the Crisis rages on, the era’s stark new communitarianism will require 13ers to rivet new grids in place. New-breed mayors and governors will abandon old labels and alliances, patch together people and technology, and rekindle public support for community purpose. Having grown up in a time when walls were being dismantled, families dissolved, and loyalties discarded, 13er power brokers will reconstruct the social barriers that produce civic order. They will connive first to get the people behind them, next to bribe (or threaten) people into doing what’s needed, and then to solidify those arrangements into something functional. They won’t worry about the obviously insoluble and won’t fuss over the merely annoying. Their politicians won’t brim with compassion or nuance, and won’t care if they have to win ugly. To them, the outcome will matter more than democracy’s ritual aesthetics. Their hand strengthened by the demands of Crisis, 13ers will sweep aside procedural legalisms and promises legislated by old regimes, much to the anguish of the octogenarian Silent. They won’t mind uttering — and listening to — the sound bite that seems to sum up a situation with eloquent efficiency. To critics, the new style of 13er urban leadership will appear unlearned, poorly rooted in values, even corrupt, but it will work.
This generation’s institutional rootlessness will make its leaders and electorates highly volatile, capable of extreme crosscurrents. Lacking much stake in the old order, many 13ers might impulsively welcome the notion of watching it break into pieces. They won’t regard the traditional safety nets as important to their lives. The real-life experience of their own circles will reinforce their view that when people lose jobs or money, they can find a way to cope, deal with it, and move on. Looking back on their own lives, they will conclude that many of the Awakening- and Unraveling-era trends that may have felt good to older generations didn’t work so well for them — or for the nation. Come the Crisis, many 13ers will feel that emergency action is necessary to re-create the kind of secure world they will feel was denied them in childhood.
In this environment, 13ers could emerge as the leaders of a Crisis-era populism based on the notion of taking raw action now and justifying it later. A charismatic anti-intellectual demagogue could convert the ad slogans of the Third Turning into the political slogans of the Fourth: “No excuses.” “Why ask why?” “Just do it.” Start with a winner-take-all ethos that believes in action for action’s sake, exalts strength, elevates impulse, and holds weakness and compassion in contempt. Add class desperation, antirationalism, and perceptions of national decline. The product, at its most extreme, could be a new American fascism.
The core feature of the 13ers’ midlife will be the Crisis itself Early in the era, the Great Devaluation could quash many a midlife career and cause real hardships to families under their protection. Like the Lost Generation in the 1920s, 13ers will have bought into the Unraveling-era boom market late and high — only to sell out late and low. At the same time, urgent necessity will lend new meaning to their lives. Many of the traits that were criticized for decades — their survivalism, realism, lack of affect — will now be recognized as vital national resources. The emergency will melt away much of the Unraveling era’s old fuss about political correctness. Now 13ers will hear far less complaint about their soldiers being too much the warrior, their entrepreneurs too much the operator, their opinion leaders too much the blunt talker As the Crisis catalyzes, they will recall the old Jesus Jones lyric, feel themselves “Right here, right now / Watching the world wake up from history,” and know they are the generation on the spot. Though 13ers will have little ability to influence the elements and timing of the Boomer-propelled Crisis, they will provide the on-site tacticians and behind-the-scenes bosses whose decisions will determine its day-to-day course.
Middle-aged 13ers will be the only ones capable of deflecting the more dangerous Boomer tendencies, The Boomers won’t check themselves, nor will Millennials, so the task will fall to 13ers to force the Boomer priest-warriors to give it a rest when the fervor gets too deep, to get real when the sacrifices outweigh the fixture reward. A 13er may indeed be the intrepid statesman, general, or presidential adviser who prevents some righteous old Aquarian from loosing the fateful lightning and turning the world’s lights out.
At or just after the Crisis climax, 13ers will supplant Boomers in national leadership. History warns that they could quickly find themselves playing a real-world SimCity, facing quick triage choices about who and what to sacrifice, and when and how. They will need every bit of those old Doom player joystick skills — the deft timing, the instinctive sense of what counts and what doesn’t, the ability always to move on from one problem to the next. Whatever they do, they will get more than their share of the blame and less than their share of the credit.
As the Crisis resolves, the society will be fully in 13er hands. If all ends well, their security-minded leadership will usher the society away from urgent crusades and into the next High. If not, 13ers will be left with no choice but to yank younger generations by the collar, appraise what’s left of their society, and start anew.
(1) This paper is adapted and reprinted with the permission of the author from William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), pp. 194-198, 233-243, 287-292.
(3) According to Strauss, history unfolds in cycles, or what he calls “turnings.” First turnings are “High” cycles when a new order takes hold after the end of an older one. America’s latest “High” was during the 1950s and early 1960s. Second turnings are “Awakening” periods like the 1960s and 1970s when there is rebellion against a new order. Third turnings are “Unraveling” times when social institutions falter and societies are set adrift. Now is such a time according to Strauss. “Unraveling” third turnings are followed by “Crisis” eras or fourth turnings. During the first decade of the coming century (2000-2010)—a decade that Strauss calls the “oh-ohs”—America will finish its “Unraveling” third turning and enter the next fourth turning crisis.