Baby Boomers: Unfit to Govern

The latest standoff in Congress over the failure of the Trump Healthcare Bill is the latest in a many year saga of Baby Boomers’ legacy in governance. Although it might be tempting to blame this on Republicans who are fractured and used to being the opposition, the cause is much bigger than that. Baby Boomers, as a generation, are individualistic and dogmatic. This is very much in line with their generational archetype, “The Prophet“. Like the Missionary generation before them (FDR, Churchill, MacArthur and Stalin) they are individualists who are also staunch moralists for their cause. They still make up a majority of the Congress (about 58% for the 2015-16 Congress) and have been the majority since around 1997.

But unlike the Missionary Generation, Baby Boomers seem to thrive on conflict and tearing things down, rather than arguing and then building things up. Thomas Friedman and Kurt Anderson called them “A Swarm of Locusts” for how they consumed society and left nothing in its place. The starkest example of this is in their choice to completely ignore any responsibility to govern in Congress. This has been true for both the Democrats and Republicans under Bush, Obama and now, Trump. Baby Boomer Senators and Representatives have consistently put their own idealistic and moralistic views ahead of any practical goals of improving the world through collaboration or consensus.

In many ways this is no surprise given the vigor with which they tore down the society they inherited from the GI Generation. But most generations actually mature with age, while the Boomers seem to remain as uncompromising in their elder years as they were in their youth.

The failure of the Trump Healthcare Bill is just another example of governance by ultimatum favored by the Boomers. Rather than seek a compromise with the Democrats, or even fellow Republicans, the Congress instead decided that sticking to their guns was more important than actually getting anything done. The sad reality is that this pattern will likely continue until the Boomers are no longer dominant in Congress, which might happen in 2-4 years if we are lucky.

As a Gen X’er, Paul Ryan seemed to believe that his colleagues could look past their dogmatism, but he was sadly disappointed by his Boomer peers.

Once the Boomers are eclipsed by Generation X in the legislature, we will start to see a lot more progress in Congress. This is not because Gen X likes to collaborate, as they are just as individualist as Boomers, but because above all else they want to survive and GET THINGS DONE! Because we will likely be in the deepest part of the Crisis by this time, they will finally have the backing of the popular will to take action and get results. Of course, those results will not necessarily be wholly desirable and we can expect a fairly Machiavellian view from Generation X, given their history.

So when will Congress actually get back to deliberating with pragmatism and collegiality? We will probably have to wait at least another 20 years or so until the Millennials are running the show. But the votes will probably be cast using virtual reality headsets or cyber-implants by that point…

Trump and Generations Part 2: Followers Who Demand Leadership

In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we will examine how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out.

In The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, they laid out predictions for how the Crisis, aka Fourth Turning, will progress. The early Crisis, known as the catalyst, was predicted to be around 2005. It is likely that the actual catalyst was the Great Recession which started in 2008. This was when many began to doubt that the US had even the possibility of a brighter future. There are some that argue that the catalyst was 9/11, but that is a discussion worthy of post in its own right. Continue reading Trump and Generations Part 2: Followers Who Demand Leadership

Gaming, Millennial Style

Computer games have come a long way since I first played Castle Wolfenstein on a Commodore 64 at my best friend’s place.

As computing power advanced along with online access, gaming became more interactive but it was only once the Millennial (born 1982-2004) generation joined in on the fun that gaming truly became a team sport.

This recent article in the New York Times outlines how gaming is transforming into a sport much like Major League Baseball or Football. Teams. Groups of young men compete both online and in massive live events for large purses. They live in houses provided by sponsors and practice constantly. It’s becoming a very lucrative market and may be the Millennial answer to traditional team sports.

While it would be easy to ascribe these changes to the effects of more powerful technology and networking capability, it’s the nature of the generations using the technology that defines their popularity. [Gen X] gamers tended to be more solitary, playing tames that pitted individuals against each other. Only more recently has the mass team phenomenon come about (I commented briefly on this shift back in 2009) and it seems to really be gathering steam now that Millennials are directing the action. The NYTimes article mentions that a majority of the gamers and audience are under 30, making them mostly Millennial.

Although the article doesn’t speculate much about the future direction for the gaming industry, one possible scenario is that it ends up rivaling “meatspace” sports for the Millennials. Franchises could pop up with persistent fan followings which could be regionalized even though the games are played online. Are the Portland HipstersTM going to be the next dominant name in Dota 2? Amazon’s purchase of Twitch TV certainly says that the industry is taking the possibility seriously, and it all lines up well with the virtual utopia that the Millennials seem to headed towards…

Generation X vs. Millennials: Agile Development

A vast majority of managers in most companies today are Generation X (born 1961-1981). This is mainly just a factor of age (Gen X’ers are now between the ages of 32 and 54) and certainly isn’t motivated by the desire of Gen X’ers to climb the corporate ladder (we are the original slackers, after all).

When Gen X’ers got their start in the work world we entered a culture created by the G.I. (born 1901-1924) but dominated by the Silent (born 1925-1942) and Boomer (born 1943-1960) in management. The GI model for management was based on their experience from their youth: a hierarchy based on the military circa WWII. Although the Boomers struggled mightily to break these institutions, their workaholic tendencies often meant that their values of commitment and endurance reinforced the structures in place by requiring long tenures to advance. That is the world that Gen X entered into in our work life and we reacted in a way that has become stereotypical for our generation: we sighed “Whatever” and compensated with a drive for a work-life balance instead of challenging “The Man” to change the structure.

So even though most Gen X’ers think that the strict heirarchies in most companies are rather silly, we have not challenged them much in our careers. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but for the most part we just decided to lampoon the “Office Space” and devote ourselves to our children and our tribe. The result is that the structures left over from the days of “Mad Men” remain in place in much of the work world today.

Strauss and Howe have characterized the Silent and Gen X generations as “recessive” in contrast to the “dominant” Boomer and Millennial (born 1982-2004) generations. As Gen X’ers we take a back seat in society to the dominant generations we are sandwiched between. The good news is that we don’t need to shoulder as much blame for the screw-ups (we can justifiably point fingers at the Boomers for many of the challenges we face today) but it also means that we have to count on other generations to truly drive large social change. Which brings me to the Millennials in the workplace.

In recent discussions with Gen X managers in Silicon Valley I have noticed a shift that portends what Millennials may look for once they have the reigns. Most Gen X managers in technology are familiar with a project management technique known as Agile (aka SCRUM or Extreme). Created by programmers to give a more flexible way to manage projects in an iterative manner, it was cutting edge 15-20 years ago but has become the standard for project management today, particularly in software. I even use this method to manage projects on my team even though we don’t do programming. This method was probably developed by Boomers, but Gen X’ers were introduced to this approach early in their careers. As a result of growing up with these techniques (and seeing the failures of the previous approach known as “Waterfall“) many Gen X’ers in the Valley see this methodology as orthodoxy.

One  feature of Agile* that is worth noting for generational discussions are the daily meetings (sometimes called “Standups”) where each member of the team describes what they did the day before, what they will do the next day and any potential roadblocks to getting their work done. These short meetings ensure that each team member can work independently while staying coordinated with the entire team on a daily basis. Quick adjustment based on the information gained in a Standup are a hallmark of a well-run Agile project and are one factor that keeps projects from running off the rails unnoticed for months.

Gen X’ers can be characterized as individualists and so these meetings are a wonderful way to coordinate the activities of many individuals on a team. But Millennials were raised to be much more collective in their attitude (think Barney and High School Musical) and have been working together on projects from grade school through College. Most things with Millennials are group decisions and peer communication is constant (Gen X parents might say obsessively so).

I have heard to several Gen X managers who complain that their Millennial workers seem to think that Standup meetings are optional or that they can just communicate the information via text or Skype. This attitude is perceived as entitled and (optimistically) a bit naive. “Agile is the ultimate project management methodology and who are these kids to ignore its precepts?”, thinks the experienced Gen X manager.

But watching how Millennial teams organize and manage projects gives some insights into their thinking. I have seen Millennial development teams sit in the same conference room together for weeks during a project. After the work day ends they all head to the same bars together before heading home (often to shared living arrangements). They spend the entire day in constant communication, either in-person or via technology. The thought that they would need to “Check in with the team” for 15 minutes every day seems ridiculous. Based on their perspective there can only be one reason for the Standup meeting: to report to Gen X managers on their work. That’s right, Gen X, what started as way to empower individual team members and speed projects is seen as micromanaging on the part of many Millennials.

I have coached the Gen X’ers to work with Millennials to help them understand the importance of the Agile process through the needs of the larger group. Motivating them based on this larger picture can be effective, but it’s not just the Millennials that need to adapt in this situation. Millennials continue to move into management ranks, and, unlike Gen X’ers who succumbed to the existing structures with sarcastic acceptance, Millennials will push for large scale change once they are running the show. Whether it is forward thinking Gen X’ers (such as Tony Hsieh who has adopted the Holacracy for his organization) or Millennial leaders who will instigate these shifts, the Millennial workers will follow their lead.

Forward thinking organizations need to recognize these dynamics go well beyond the Agile example given above. The question to ask is not “How do we attract and retain Millennials?” but rather “How can we change as an organization to make Millennials more effective?” I think the answer will result in some wonderful new approaches to work in our society.

*I realize that Agile is a big umbrella and that Standups, Sprints, SCRUM  and other terms have very specific meanings and are not necessarily interchangeable. I use Agile to refer to the general organizing elements of these methodology. I also realize that standups are just one element of Agile methodologies but they serve as a good example of the differences between generations. Purists can flame me in the comments below.

Millennials are All the Rage

In a fit of meta, this article from last weekend’s Sunday NYTimes states:

“Suddenly, as you may have noticed, millennials are everywhere.”

And its true: people are talking about Millennials (and generations) at a rate not seen in a long time. Since Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term back in 1991, its usage has climbed steadily. But so have the terms “Boomer” and “Generation X” increase in that time. Below is a chart of the use of these terms in books cataloged by Google:

What does this tell us? First, it says that the terms “Millennial” and “Boomer” probably refer to something other than generational cohorts (since their numbers were high before 1990) but secondly it means that interest in generations, not just Millennial (born 1982-2004) is rising.

There are good reasons for this dynamic. Part of it comes from the popularity of Strauss and Howe’s theories. In the NYT article it quotes Morley Winograd and Michael Hais who are often refer to the Strauss and Howe theories in their books. But a bigger part comes from the transition we are going through as Millennials shift from childhood to early adulthood.

This shift in a generation’s life stage always heralds a new awareness of the different character of “young people” at the time. This was true back in the 80’s and 90’s when Generation X (born 1961-1981) came of age and were pegged as “Slackers”. Looking back another 20 years, the Boomer (born 1943-1960) were noted for their rebellious and counter-culture as young adults. These shifts always catch the older generations by surprise (unless they have read Strauss and Howe’s theories!) and captivate the collective consciousness.

The NYT article points out that the perceptions of the older generations about the Millennials is somewhat warped. This, again, is no surprise since the way X’ers and Boomers behaved in young adulthood was very different from Millennials and we judge them on that basis. It’s hard to turn off the tape recorder in our brains that says “Back when I was your age…”

The good news is that all this attention is also breeding a bit more understanding this time around. Although some may judge Millennials as narcissistic or entitled, many others recognize that these perceptions are largely based on our biased frame of reference. I have seen many conversations in my personal and professional life become much more productive once people understand the basics of generational theory. And, yes, that means that if you are reading this you should get started on understanding generations too.


Was 2012 The Start of Something New?

Generational theory tells us that there are four stages to the cycle of history: The High, The Awakening, The Unraveling and The Crisis. We are in The Crisis phase now and this can be further divided into events that Neil Howe describes in a recent post as the catalyst, the regeneracy, the climax and the resolution. As Neil stated in that article, we are clearly in the Crisis, but he wonders when the regeneracy will hit.

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor would argue that we are already there. As Editor John Yemma argues in his upfront commentary:

There’s much more good news than bad news. But bad news travels fast and commands attention. Good news is like water carving a valley or a tree gradually extending its branches. Good news is a child learning a little more each day or a business quietly prospering. We hardly notice it.

Here are some reasons for hope: Extreme poverty is declining. HIV is no longer a death sentence. Technology is transforming everything from African agriculture to urban transportation. Drug violence is decreasing in Mexico. Travel is safer almost everywhere. Crime rates are falling.Somalia is emerging from a long night of anarchy. Myanmar (Burma) is coming out of its dictatorial shell. And while it’s true that China and Russia are only semi-free and the Egypt and other post-dictator nations may be going down ill-considered paths, water is still carving the valley. Freedom lives in 7 billion hearts.

If the regeneracy (which Howe describes as “a new counter-entropy that reunifies and re-energizes civic life”) is more of a ethic rather than a specific event, then I would argue that the world is already moving together in ways that our daily news does not reflect.

Perhaps it will take another massive event to make us truly come together, but all of the articles in the CSMonitor this week point towards a shift that is already in progress. Young people’s expectations and abilities are starting to influence our global conversation. The shift in global power is starting to reveal how the US, while no longer the super-power it once was, is still a symbol of some of the freedoms that many people long for and see as possible in their lifetimes. In some ways our various fumbles (bitter elections, legislative gridlock, unstable economy) will give other nations more empathy for the US as a country that still strives in a very human way.

The regeneracy is about a time when people come together, perhaps as a nation, perhaps globally. It is a difficult time when many will see their ideals crushed and their way of life disrupted. But it is also the time that will define the nature of the next cycle. So while we will likely see political battles and crisis in many forms over the next 10 years there will be an undercurrent (perhaps not noticed) of a strengthening of civic values and cohesion that will eventually overcome whatever we will face.

Call me a blind optimist (an unlikely title for a Generation X (born 1961-1981) like me) but that is the way I see it.

Latest Numbers for Generation X

This is from Neil Howe at


We ran these number per Census as of July of this year for everyone age 18+.  They are cut exactly according to our birthyear boundaries:
G.I. (born 1901-1924), 4.5 million
Silent (born 1925-1942), 26.2 million
Boomer (born 1943-1960), 65.6 million
Generation X (born 1961-1981), 88.5 million
Millennial (born 1982-2004) 18+, 52.0 million
Total: 236.8 million.
Subtract this from the current total U.S. pop (around 311.8 million) gives you 75.0 million under age 18.  That’s about 4.2 million per cohort, which is just under the recent birth per year totals.  Again give a bit of allowance for immigration.  So that fits.
Also, nearly 2/3 of these cohorts under age 18 are Millennials, which gives you nearly 100 million total Millennials–so that fits.  The remaining 25-30 million are Homelanders.

Sticky: Start Here

If you are new to generational research, here are a few starting points for understanding how the generational cycles work.



Educational Posts

Materials from Other Sites

Books for further research

Great X’er Parent Movie

Last night I watched “Away We Go” and felt it really captured the Generation X (born 1961-1981) character (especially the younger Gen X parents).

The story is of a 30-something couple, both living a somewhat vagabond lifestyle, unattached to place or jobs (they both work in jobs where they can telecommute). They discover they are going to have a baby and, soon after, that their self-indulgent Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents are leaving town – so they have no ties to the place. They go in search of the perfect place to raise there child and their trials on their journey are both humorous and touching.

Although our family is past this stage, I really identified with the characters in the film. Doing what was required to get by and thinking about where they should raise their family. Our family traveled up and down the West Coast for years, following work and looking for the right place before settling on Portland, OR. Our two year stint in Sacramento (for my wife’s Masters in Education) is more than half-way done now and I wonder if we will be in the position of those characters once again soon…