Are Millennials A Predictable Part of the Generational Cycle?

Nearly 20 years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a book that theorized a 22 year generational cycle based on repeating generational archetypes called simply “Generations“.  They called these cycles ‘turnings’.  Children raised during a particular Turning share similar historical and cultural experiences, which results in their being like each other, and different from other generations. This was to my knowledge the first appearance of the word ‘Millennials’.

A chapter that begins on page 335 of 427 (paperback version not including Appendices and Sources), is titled “Millennial Generation”.

What makes this chapter on Millennials so fascinating twenty years after it was written is how uncannily it matches what we know to be true of how Gen Y is different from preceding generations.

Part of the reason for its accuracy is that the demographics of this generation were fairly predictable, even in 1991, and demographics are one of the forces that shapes generations. Strauss and Howe were able to accurately project the likely size (76 million) and make up (12% immigrant) based on fertility and immigration trends, even though only 33 million of them were alive when the book was published.

The authors were also tuned-in to the major shift in parenting and education as a cultural priority that was already underway by the early 90’s. This shift would prove to have  a remarkable impact on Millennial self-perceptions, aspirations and values. Nearly twenty years ago they noted that “this new generation of children is being treated as precious” and “Boom parents and teachers have also been slowing down the childhood development clock — unlike the Silent, who sped it up.

“First-wave Millennials are riding a powerful crest of protective concern, dating back to he early 1980s, over the American childhood environment. In 1981, the year before the “Class of 2000” was born, a volley of books assaulted adult mistreatment of children through the 13er (Gen X) birth years. Within the next couple of years, other authors began reconsidering the human consequences of divorce, latchkey households, and value neutral education.

In 1984, two kids as devils movies flopped at the box office, marketing the end of a dying genre and the start of a more positive film depiction of children.

From 1986 to 1988, polls reported a tripling in the popularity of ‘staying home with family’….In general, Boomer parents are determined to set an unerringly wholesome environment for their Millennial tots.

Where Silent parents had brought 13erkids along to see $-rated movies made about them, Boomers take the Millennials to see G-rated movies made for them.””

“From 1976 through 1988 the proportion of students held back in elementary school jumped by one-third.”

One of the central tenets of the book is that the fourth generation in each cycle, the “Fourth Turning”, tends to be more civically minded and engaged.  They look for signs that yesterday’s fourth graders might be more evolved as citizens and found it in Anna Quindlen’s observations that kids seemed to be “assimiliating society’s ‘shalt nots’ about crime, drugs, polution and education with disquieting energy and unanimity.” (page 341) Twenty years later, we know from the research that today’s young adults are much more ‘upright’ than earlier generations in terms of their overall optimism, attitudes toward the environment and social action and behavior regarding drug and alcohol use, teen pregnancy, and crime.

What Howe and Strauss could not have known in 1991 was the remarkable impact that technology and the most severe economic recession in over 60 years would play in shaping this generation.

Beyond demographics, two of the forces that are shaping up to be the most influential are easy access to information of all kinds and a realization that America’s high flying lifestyle is most likely unsustainable.  They have already resulted in a more empowered, yet sobered, generation that is exhibiting very different consumer and media behavior as they move into their prime earning years.

BrandAmplitude’s latest ebook (“How Millennials Are Different”) is focused on spotlighting the ways that Millennials are different from generations that came before at the same age. The book, which zeroes in specifically on longitudinal data from Pew Research and other sources, shows Gen Y is different in many significant ways, only some of which were predictable in 1991.

Nevertheless, what Strauss and Howe foresaw about how Millennials would be different from preceding generations based simply on cultural and demographic trends, they got remarkably right.