Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bye bye boomers

The formal ratification of the outcome of the primary elections at the party’s national conventions marks more than just the beginning of a new era in American politics. It signals the demise of Boomer generation attitudes and beliefs as the dominant motif in American life.

After 16 years of Baby Boomer presidents, first Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush, primary voters in both parties rejected quintessential Boomer ideologues (Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee) in favor of candidates who were explicitly opposed to Boomer-style politics. Although Barack Obama is chronologically a very young Boomer, he signaled, in a March 2007 Selma, Alabama speech, his desire to break with the divisive politics of an earlier, “Moses” generation. Instead he embraced the beliefs of this century’s “Joshua” generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003. For his part, John McCain is a member of the older Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945 and has constantly exhibited that generation’s style, positioning himself as a political maverick who attempts to bridge ideological gaps to achieve larger goals.

But the big break is with the Boomer generation. Unlike Boomers, Millennials have been raised to play nice with each other and find win-win solutions to any problem. Boomer (and Generation X) parents sat toddler Millennials in front of the television set to watch “Barney” and absorb each episode’s lesson of self-esteem and mutual respect (even as they bolted from the room, sick from the sweetness of it all). With the show’s “my friend is your friend and your friend is my friend” lyrics hard wired into their psyche, Millennials have a strong desire to share everything they do with everyone else.

The arrival of social network technologies enabled Millennials to create the most intense, group-oriented decision-making process of any generation in American history. This generation’s need to make sure the outcome of both minor decisions, like where to hang out, and major decisions, such as whether go to war, reflects both a penchant for consensus and team work which will become the future benchmarks for American political life.

In contrast Senator Clinton made a definitive—if sometimes a bit too strenuous—case for a Boomer style of leadership in her primary campaign, emphasizing the value of her experience and wisdom. Governors Huckabee and Romney’s approach, for their part, stridently insisted upon the need to preserve the superior set of traditional values .

Now it’s time to encourage the Boomers to take their well-deserved retirement, and offer the opportunity for newer, Gen X leaders and their values. This may be difficult for many Xers, who will need to overcome their own lack of understanding of, and in some cases outright disdain for, the youngest generation. Humorists Steven Colbert and John Stewart, both quintessential Gen Xers, recently demonstrated their risk-taking mindset by mocking Millennial attitudes as demonstrated by Senator Obama’s rock star reception in Berlin. The failure of their Millennial audience to laugh at the joke, or buy into Senator McCain’s attempt to suggest it somehow made Obama less qualified to be President, demonstrates the challenge the Millennial zeitgeist will pose for those seeking to become the nation’s leaders.

The change from Boomer to Millennial style is already becoming evident in other areas of American life as well. At the 1968 Olympics, as the Boomer inspired, idealist era began, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the men's 200-meter race, raised a black-gloved fist in a protest for black power as the Star Spangled Banner was played to celebrate their victories. Forty years later, Jason Lezak, captured the values of the new Millennial era as he explained how he was able to swim the fastest 400-meter freestyle leg in history to bring gold to his teammates. “It’s the Olympics and I’m here for the USA . . . .I got a supercharge and took it from there. It was unreal.” Lezak was joined at the award ceremony by his Millennial teammate, Cullen Jones, only the second African-American to ever win a gold medal in swimming. In sharp contrast to Smith and Carlos forty years earlier, Jones happily celebrated the victory of his team and country.

Ultimately the 2008 election will turn on which candidate can bring these new attitudes and beliefs to bear on the number one issue facing the country—the economy. Unlike Boomers, whose focus was on economic growth to support their workaholic personalities, Millennials are more concerned about economic inequality and believe government has a key role to play in bringing about a greater degree of economic fairness. Almost 70 percent of Millennials express a preference for “a bigger government that provides more services,” compared to only 43 percent of older generations who agreed with that statement.

Connecting the current sorry state of the American economy and its dependence on foreign oil with the other favorite concern of Millennials, global warming, is an even better way to win this generation’s support on economic issues. Whoever is elected this year will need to reshape America’s economy in line with Millennial expectations of inclusiveness and fairness as dramatically as FDR’s New Deal created a new economic framework for the Millennial’s generational forbearers, the GI Generation.

The Broadway musical, “Bye Bye Birdie,” captured the end of the conventional era of the ‘50s, as the onslaught of Rock n’ Roll pitted child against parent and ushered in an age that celebrated rebellion in all its forms. The confrontations between Boomer “Meathead” (Michael Stivic) on “All in the Family,” with his tradition bound father-in-law, Archie Bunker, captured his generation's desire to overturn the establishment using the power of ideas to persuade the recalcitrant of the error of their ways.

Now it’s time to realize new values are ascending. Millennials generally get along great with their parents and celebrate the wholesome values of “High School Musical,” where boys and girls of all types come together to defeat those that seek to win only for their own personal ambition. Those nominated in the next two weeks at their party’s convention should heed this lesson. To gain the presidency, the winning ticket will have to appeal to the Millennial sense of pride and teamwork in meeting the challenges the country faces.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Generational Guide for Watching the Conventions

The key to waging a successful presidential campaign by either Barack Obama or John McCain will be their ability to use their respective conventions to overcome generational tensions. What happens in Denver and the Twin Cities could give the nominees freedom to embrace the generational changes that will shape American politics for decades to come.

If the candidates pay proper attention to generational politics, each convention will begin with a nod to their party’s Boomers and then pivot away from the past to address, on the final night, new voters whose support they will need to win in November.

The candidates must take the lead in managing their party’s convention so that the ticket and its platform reflect the desire of the electorate to move beyond the cultural wars of the 1960s. Each party’s understanding of this generationally driven challenge will be evident in how it handles the iconic, Boomer figures demanding center stage at their conventions.

Obama, in an acknowledgement of the generational strains in his party, has agreed to Hillary Rodham Clinton's request to not only address the convention in prime time on Tuesday night, but to have her name placed in nomination the following night. In return, he has gained the agreement of former president Bill Clinton to, in effect, lead the Boomers in the Democratic Party to embrace and endorse Senator Obama's nomination on Wednesday night.

As tough as that challenge has been for Obama, the problem is more acute for John McCain. President Bush's job performance ratings are among the lowest of any president. But he remains popular with Boomer ideologues in the GOP, who are continually looking for signs that McCain has stayed from party orthodoxy. Any attempt to deny a sitting president the spotlight at their national convention, as Democrats did in keeping Lyndon Johnson from addressing their 1968 convention, will be met with cries of “I told you not to trust him” from Republican true believers.

It appears that McCain’s advisers have decided to throw cultural war red meat to the delegates with appearances by Bush and Vice President Cheney on Monday, in hopes that the electorate won’t pay too much attention until later in the week.

If history is any guide, the place where both candidates will be willing to make concessions to their party’s ideological base will be the party’s platform. Since this policy statement is debated early in the convention, with little penalty for abandoning a plank or two later in the campaign, platforms are the easiest way to throw a bone to ideological purists. The Generation X and Boomer Democratic blogosphere has previously attacked Obama for failing to adhere to hard left positions on post 9-11 issues and offshore oil drilling.

Similarly, a number of conservatives have condemned McCain's former positions on climate change, immigration, and campaign finance reform.

The choice each candidate must make is whether to use the platform debate to give the cultural warriors in their party a final opportunity to replay the political drama of the nation’s Boomer past or to use the platform debate as a “Sister Souljah” generational moment and decisively break with that kind of divisive politics.

In the end, however, there will be no better place for the two candidates to demonstrate their break with the politics of past generations than in their acceptance speeches.

The McCain campaign has signaled its intention to use their candidate’s story of personal sacrifice on behalf of the nation throughout the convention. This effort will likely culminate in an acceptance speech attempting to simultaneously distinguish his life’s experience from those of the Woodstock generation (“I was tied up at the time”) and arouse the passions of his party’s Boomer base.

The challenge, however, is how to do that that without awakening a set of related thoughts among Millennials about just how old and potentially out of touch with their generation he is. Millennials weren’t around for Woodstock, don’t care about it, and prefer that everyone “play nice” together. Passion displayed as anger turns them off. To capture a new and winning coalition in this campaign, McCain would be better off using his acceptance speech to underline his national security credentials based on a lifetime of service, both of which appeal greatly to Millennials.

Obama’s decision to deliver his acceptance speech before a large outdoor audience on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech comes with its own set of risks. Echoes of that remarkable speech are sure to arouse the passions of the liberal half of the Boomer generation. But, it will also remind viewers of the turmoil of the 60s that drove a majority of the nation to embrace the Republicans’ appeal for “law and order.”

Obama’s rhetoric will need to inspire a new generation to take the next steps toward achievement of King’s dream, without creating a backlash among the rest of the electorate that wasn’t enamored with the racial overtones of the Democratic primary campaign.

To succeed in November, both candidates will have to speak explicitly to the future and demonstrate that their campaign represents the hopes of a new generation. The country is waiting for a new leader with a new approach to guide it out of the Boomer briar patch in which it has been stuck since 1968. After the conventions, we will have a clearer idea who can best lead the country into a new era of American politics.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Millennials and the Future of American Suburbs

In his autobiographical film, Avalon, Barry Levinson captured the impact of America’s suburban exodus on his large and fractious family. He seemed to suggest that the weakening of this previously close-knit family was due to their dispersal to the suburbs rather than the social upheavals of the sixties that he also captured so well in the other two films in his Baltimore trilogy—Diner and Liberty Heights. But while it is true that from 1940 to 1960 the percentage of Americans living in suburbs doubled—from 15 to 30 percent, the weakening of family ties had more to do with the cycles of generational archetypes than the place where those families were raised. Members of the Silent generation, like Levinson, battled with the new, idealistic values of their Baby Boomer children and the tensions captured most popularly in the TV sitcom, All in the Family, were simply too great to maintain America’s idyllic memory of family life in the ‘50s.

But the very same generational trends that pulled American families apart in the late 1960s and ‘70s, is about to return full cycle to the attitudes and beliefs of a “civic” era very much like the 1950s and early 1960s, with equally profound impacts on where and how we live. America’s largest, most diverse generation in its history—Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003—are becoming adults, entering the workforce, getting married and settling down. Where and how they choose to live and raise their families will be the single most important force in shaping America’s housing and communities for the next two decades.

Just like their GI Generation grand-parents or great grand-parents, Millennials have a deep and abiding interest in the communities they participate in. Growing up, this interest was captured by the enormous popularity of social networks, such as MySpace and FaceBook. Over eighty percent of all Millennials have a personal site on at least one of these networks.

The same desire to connect to their friends and build better communities is evidenced in the volunteer participation rates of Millennials, especially in comparison to their older Gen X siblings or parents. Eighty percent of Millennials performed some sort of community service while in high school, triple the rate of high school Gen Xers. Not only do seventy percent of college-age Millennials report having done voluntary community service, but 85 percent of them consider it an effective way to solve this nation’s problems. It is no coincidence that the candidate with the most appeal to Millennials, Senator Obama, issued a call for mandatory programs of service in high school and college in return for financial assistance with higher education during the week leading up to America’s most patriotic celebration, July 4. As he stated in his speech in Colorado Springs, “Community service is at the core of his vision for a new America.”

Now the first initial indications of how this sense of community will impact Millennial behavior as they enter young adulthood are available and it contains good news for America’s suburbs. According to survey data from Frank N. Magid Associates, America’s leading entertainment and media research firm, once Millennial marry their firm preference is to live in a single-family home, and not in a typical urban setting of lofts, condos or apartments. Almost half of “settled” Millennials own their own home, only about a quarter are renting the place they are living in. This represents a significant change from the situation of Millennials of about the same age (mid-twenties) who are working but single. About half of this group reports renting, either alone or with others, and only 13 percent own their own homes. About a quarter of them are living with their parents, which often earns them disdainful comments from older generations. Early evidence would suggest that the “return to the nest” phenomenon has more to do with the economics of graduating from college with large student loans unpaid and entry level pay at their first job then it does with any lack of energy or drive for success among Millennials.

But there is one more generational trait that portends well for America’s suburbs. Millennials like their parents. Unlike Boomers who moved as far away as they could from their family home in order to “find themselves” and express their own unique values, or Gen Xers who reacted to their relatively unloving upbringing (think Married…with Children vs. Leave it to Beaver) by rejecting every aspect of their childhood, including leafy lawns and spacious housing, Millennials like their parents and their way of life. Even Millennials who grew up in more urban settings are optimistic that they will do even better in life than their parents, including owning a nice house in the suburbs with good schools and safe streets.

America’s love of suburban living continued long after the time in our history captured in Avalon. In the 1970s, the racial tensions and general deterioration of central cities pushed more Americans into the suburbs, with a plurality (38%) living there according to the 1970 census and 45% by 1980. By the time the last members of the Millennial generation were being born, around 2000, fully half of all Americans were living either in older suburbs or the new exurbs that surrounded them. America’s desire for its own plot of land will continue well into this century as well. Millennials will want to stay close to the parents they love and live the way they have become accustomed to. Levinson’s experience growing up in Baltimore may never return, but the tight-knit families sharing the joys of family and friends will return as he longed for in Avalon, once more, thanks to the civic spirit and community orientation of America’s next great generation, the Millennials.