Futurists/Trendspotters: Neil Howe and William Strauss

April 1, 2003 | By Pamela Paul 

For William Strauss, the pivotal era that launched his career was the Vietnam War. Fresh out of Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, he narrowly missed the draft and began working at the Ford White House. Strauss wrote his first book about what was then referred to as the Vietnam Generation [now better known as the Baby Boomers]. It was his first of six books about American generations, the last four cowritten with historian, economist and demographer Neil Howe, who has his own double degrees [from Yale, in history and economics]. For Howe, the road to generational studies began by studying the preceding GI generation, the history of entitlements [such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare], and long-term fiscal policy.

From their first book together, Generations [Morrow, 1991], to their latest, Millennials Rising [Vintage, 2000], Strauss and Howe have become the go-to people for generational knowledge. Today they run a consulting firm, LifeCourse Associates, in Great Falls, Va., that helps companies and organizations understand how present and future generational trends may impact their businesses and policies.

When not contemplating generational issues, Strauss directs The Capitol Steps, a successful satirical comedy troupe based in Washington D.C., and writes musicals about the Millennials. Howe is a senior advisor to the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., that advocates fiscal responsibility to ensure entitlements. Howe is also a senior advisor to the Blackstone Group, an investment bank based in New York City. “I’m kind of a policy wonk,” he says.

In Their Own Words

In 1991, we forecast the emergence of a new generation of American youth, born after 1982, whom we then named the Millennial Generation. We said that as Millennials passed through adolescence, they would be very different from Generation X. By the year 2000, we wrote, ‘the child’s world will move toward greater protection,’ and ‘teen pathologies—truancy, substance abuse, crime, suicide, unwed pregnancy—will all decline.’ We forecast a downturn in teen employment, an upturn in homework, scouting, and community service, and a new ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘excellence’ of youth with an ‘optimistic and team-playing attitude.’

Over the next 20 years, while Gen Xers will be moving into midlife, Millennials will be moving into young adulthood, transforming everything they touch. On campus. In the workplace. In the military. In families. In culture. In politics. In all these realms, we foresee higher standards, improving behavior, more social cohesion [even conformity], closer attachments to parents, more institutional trust, longer-term life planning and greater collective optimism about the future. Millennial young adults will vote more heavily, and be far more engaged in mainstream politics, than Gen Xers were at that age. In careers, they will take fewer risks, display more teamwork and usher in a new wave of union organizing. They will marry and have children at a younger age. As culture creators and consumers, they will overwhelm today’s X-oriented post-modern media genres, first in music [whose large corporations will lose their long battle against file-sharing], then in movies and TV, eventually creating new forms of Web-based entertainment that would be unrecognizable today. In the larger marketplace, as consumers, Millennials will be attracted to big brands, friendlier and safer products, more middle-class messages and a quest for a balanced life. They will receive far more positive attention than Gen Xers ever did.