An Open Letter to the Millennials/Gen-Y: Where Are You?
  (June 23, 2010)

Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss have popularized the view that those born between 1982 and 2000 are the next great heroic generation. If so--where are you? Time's a-wasting to start being great.

Defining "generations" based on dates inevitably suffers from the temptation to assign various shared traits to 60 - 70 million people. Clearly, the primary connection between cohorts is shared cultural/social experiences. But to distill characteristics of a generation based on their shared experiences naturally has limits.

Is there a zeitgeist which defines the values and worldview of each new generation? Obviously war affects those who served or were otherwise influenced by the war (or resisting it). Various technologies and cultural movements shape those who are most impressionable at their flowering (i.e. the young), hence the lasting power of rock-n-roll, MTV and its offspring, the personal computer, the Internet, etc.

Many people identify watershed events such as The assassination of President John F. Kennedy or 9/11 as the defining moments of a generation, but these events influenced all generations. To assign any meaningful shared characteristics to a generation takes more work than that.

According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000), in the grand scheme of their "four generation cycle" analysis, the Millennials/Generation Y born between 1982-2000 (now between 10 and 28 years old) are the next great "heroic" generation.

According to Howe and Strauss, this group is poised to become the next great generation, one that will provide a more positive, group-oriented, can-do ethos.

"Millennials," the authors argue, are different from Gen-Xers: they have grown up in a multicultural country and have never known a recession; they are wanted children (as the increase in both birth control and fertility drugs demonstrate); and protected by an unprecedented number of child-centered laws. Since birth, they have been spurred to achievement in the home, by yuppie parents, and at school, by standardized tests and "zero tolerance" disciplinary measures. The authors show how easily Millennials have swallowed all the efforts on their behalf.

They also attempt to link Millennials to the G.I. generation, suggesting that "hero generations" come in cycles.

Generation X (Those born between 1964-1981: 29 and 47 years old) are categorized as a "nomad" generation comprised of children born during a spiritual awakening.

Baby Boomers have apparently been divided into two cohorts, those born 1946-1955 and those born 1956 - 1963 (all dates cited here are in common but not universal useage).

Here is an important book on one aspect of the Boomers' collective zeitgeist which is often ignored/misunderstood: What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer.

Here are summaries of Howe and Strauss's four generational types:

Prophet/Idealist. (Baby Boomers) A Prophet (or Idealist) generation is born during a High, spends its rising adult years during an Awakening, spends midlife during an Unraveling, and spends old age in a Crisis. Prophetic leaders have been cerebral and principled, summoners of human sacrifice, wagers of righteous wars. Early in life, few saw combat in uniform; late in life, most come to be revered as much for their words as for their deeds.

Nomad/Reactive. (Gen X) A Nomad (or Reactive) generation is born during an Awakening, spends its rising adult years during an Unraveling, spends midlife during a Crisis, and spends old age in a new High. Nomadic leaders have been cunning, hard-to-fool realists, taciturn warriors who prefer to meet problems and adversaries one-on-one.

Hero/Civic. (Gen Y) A Hero (or Civic) generation is born during an Unraveling, spends its rising adult years during a Crisis, spends midlife during a High, and spends old age in an Awakening. Heroic leaders are considered to have been vigorous and rational institution-builders, busy and competent in old age. All of them entering midlife were aggressive advocates of technological progress, economic prosperity, social harmony, and public optimism.

Artist/Adaptive. An Artist (or Adaptive) generation is born during a Crisis, spends its rising adult years in a new High, spends midlife in an Awakening, and spends old age in an Unraveling. Artistic leaders have been advocates of fairness and the politics of inclusion, irrepressible in the wake of failure.

Which brings up this question for Millennials: where are you? What are you doing that's great and heroic?

I ask this not as a snide slam: I have friends who performed heroically in their early to late-20s. To name but a few:

Dexter Cate: Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, school teacher, political activist, my comrade in the People's Party of Hawaii and congressional candidate, my colleague in the American Friends Service Committee, and environmental activist who single-handedly swam through storm-tossed open ocean at night to slash the nets imprisoning dolphins which had been trapped in order to be slaughtered. Here is a first-hand account. I am proud to say that Dexter was my friend. He was a hero on multiple levels, on multiple occasions, brave in the face of long odds and an aggressively amoral authority bent on suppressing any dissent.

Ian Lind: One of the Kaho'olawe Nine who occupied the island of Kaho'olawe in 1976 in defiance of the Federal government.

"This is an extraordinary example of what looked like a lost cause," Lind said. "How can you possibly challenge this government policy? Officials said if they stopped bombing Kaho'olawe they would have to close down Pearl Harbor; the nation's defense will collapse. They gave one reason after another why it couldn't happen."

Here is Ian's slideshow of photos from the landing. The island was returned to the state of Hawaii in 1994--almost 20 years after the occupation.

Ian is a free-lance journalist/blogger who does the hard work of journalism, digging through obscure public documents to hold elected officials to the laws of disclosure, campaign finance and ethics. He inspired me to launch and I am proud to call him my friend.

Jeff Blair: Jeff publicly torched his draft card to resist the Selective Service Act (the draft) on the basis that it was illegal and an infringement of constitutional rights. I happened to be present when the FBI arrested him, and I visited him in Halawa prison. He defended himself in Federal Court at the age of 21 against charges that carried a five year sentence in the Federal pen. He was also the key instigator of the People's Party of Hawaii, a fully legal third political party ruled by "The Triumvrate" of Jeff, Dexter and myself. I was 20 years old in our first election (1974) and had only gained the right to vote myself when the law changed the voting age from 21 to 18. Jeff also served with Dexter and I in the American Friends Service Committee.

Jeff teaches college in Japan, and I am proud to call him my friend.

Ken Ellingwood: Career U.S. Marine, served on the ground in Vietnam where his hearing was shot to hell. Retired to join the People's Party of Hawaii, and became an anti-nuclear activist; later, he went to Harvard Law School to do more for the causes he believes in. (I think he must have been the only Vietnam-era Marine in the place.)

I am proud to have worked with Ken and to call him my friend.

These are just "regular" people I have known for a long time; none are "famous." All did extraordinary, important things which required great courage in their 20s. They set a very high standard for what can be counted as idealistic, deeply informed, important, courageous, and requiring great personal risk.

I live in Berkeley, California, home to one of the great public universities in the world. As a result, I meet dozens of Millennials from all over the world and have the opportunity to observe hundreds more. The students at UC-Berkeley are certainly among "the best and the brightest."

My brother-in-law has taught at another public university for over 30 years. He has been well-placed to observe hundreds of Millennials pass through his department.

Here are my first-hand observations of Millennials:

1. They can't/won't recycle. Here in a "green" capital of activism, very few American students can be bothered to recycle cardboard, paper or even aluminum. They stuff a cardboard box (unfolded) into a trash container, filling the container, and then pile the garbage on the side since they are too lazy to recycle the box (the recycling containers are right next to the trash cans) collapse the cardboard box or even press it down to make room for more garbage.

2. The males generally own their own vehicles; on my street, that includes Mustangs and Jeep SUVs sporting bumper stickers like "The environment is all we have." The Millennial owner is apparently blind to the irony.

Most of the students who recycle with any sort of consistency (i.e. demonstrating their belief via actual action instead of bumper stickers) are Europeans.

3. At the end of the Spring semester, Millennials stuff dozens of huge 20-foot long containers with their waste and tossed-out "stuff"-- trash bags full of barely worn shoes, perfectly good beds, desks, books, etc. I have no direct knowledge that any graduating student took all their perfectly good shoes, etc. to the Goodwill, a few blocks from the university. From my informal dumpster diving, I can attest they throw out tons of high-quality food--whole unblemished fruits, canned goods, etc. Based on my direct observation, I would say the Millennials are the most wasteful, profligately consumerist generation in history.

4. My brother-in-law reports that the vast majority of his students are in active denial about the economy or the interlocking problems of the nation and world. They express little to no interest in environmental issues or actions, or in Peak Oil, etc., even though it will most certainly impact them.

5. Local "progressive" politics is still completely dominated by Boomers and Gen Xers. If there is a Millennial political movement or zeitgeist, it is currently invisible in one of the great political hotbeds of the nation and world.

6. The over-arching emotion of the Millennials I have met and observed is fear: fear that they won't get a cush job with bennies, fear that the "good life" which apparently means a secure job with high pay might not open up, fear that life might not work out easily.

It's over, so move on to something better. The whole cheap oil, Savior State, consumerist/media/facebook solipsism has no future. Clinging to it in the hopes you can extract some meaning, security or swag is a losing proposition. Where is the excitement about changing things, rather than fearfully hoping the swag lasts long enough for you to get your share? Fearfully clinging to Mommy, Daddy and the Savior State is no path to greatness.

One of my favorite stories about my friend Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds (a Gen-Xer with a deep appreciation for the 60's counter-culture and much much more) involves the week after he was expelled from high school in a small town in West Virginia at the age of 17. He announced to his parents that he was going to Europe that very weekend, and they responded (in a superior tone, I gather) that he needed to apply for a passport first--a rare thing to have in small West Virgina town in those days. He pulls out his passport, his parents' jaws drop, and he's in Amsterdam a few days later, living in a squatted flat, having foresaken his slot in a prestigious Ivy League university.

That's just about as cool as being harrassed and questioned by the FBI (my experience at 19 years of age)--and certainly a lot more fun.

I am sorry if I offend anyone's tender sensibilities, but I am quite tired of hearing about another 20-something living at home or sucking off Mommy and Daddy for his/her rent, car insurance, medical insurance, travel costs, beer money, etc. Please don't cite the recession; there were also deep recessions in 1973-75 and 1980-82. Yes, perhaps not as systemic as today, but unemployment matched or topped today's numbers.

Where is the greatness in that dependency? The much-maligned Gen-X looks damned fine by comparison with Gen-Y, sorry. I see Tommy K. over at Freedom Guerrilla and Chris Sullins (Garden SERF) as heroes--Gen-xers, by the way, vets who served in Iraq, who are doing great and important things in their own communities. As far as I can see, gen-Xers rock. More power to you, the 4% Gen-X Remnant; keep leading by example.

By all means blame the blubbering Boomers if you're of a mind to (I am 56); certainly the Boomers have botched every opportunity to provide political leadership, and many have become whiners who have descended to one-upping each other on who's the bigger "victim."

But my Boomer friends are evidence that at least 4% of the Boomers did something real, important, worthy and personally risky in their 20s and beyond. We did not need big money to push forward with our passions; we lived in crappy studios, in old Quonset huts and made our own food, our own parties and our own music. We worked extremely hard and had no debt. We were self-reliant and owned little. Bourgeois excess and pride in owning lots of "stuff" were anathema. We did insanely impossible things with little to no support from the Status Quo world. If you doubt it, please re-read the brief bios of what my friends accomplished with essentially no support.

According to the Pareto Principle, those 4% of the Boomers, the 4% of Gen X and the 4% of the "artist" generation who are older than Boomers--the Remnant-- have the potential to exert outsized influence on 64% of the populace.

My question is this: where are the 4%--the leaders by example--of the Millennials? They must be out there, doing great, daring, courageous and important things against long odds and the dead weight of bureaucratic State authority. How have I missed them?

I make two humble requests of Millennials: please tell me about the great things your friends are doing, the projects designed to make a difference, the projects that require resourcefulness, courage, resilience, and a desire to learn from those who blazed paths before you. I want to know about the 20-somethings who are doing things on the same scale as my friends did in their 20s.

The second request is that you read my blog. Maybe you'll learn something, and if not, then you can teach the rest of us through what you contribute to this blog. We need to hear your voices somewhere where important ideas and actions have an audience.

I have started a new thread on the Daily Java forum for you to share the projects being pursued by Millennials. It's called Great Things Being Done by Millennials and you can find it under "Of Two Minds-Charles Smith" in the forum.

We need the 4% of the Millennials who are ready and willing to step up and be leaders by example to become the Millennials' Remnant. Not later--now. You're plenty old enough to start doing great things. Time's a-wasting and the need for greatness has never been more pressing.

I recently engaged one of our good friend's daughters, a 16-year old Millennial, about some semi-weighty topics, and her response was funny and sad at the same time. I asked what her generation would do, and she said in a mocking voice, "We'll just keep playing with our Facebook pages and then we'll all die."

It was a joke, but it left me pondering all the subtexts of her quip.

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