[A Conversation with] Rick Delano

February 5, 2009 | By Marianna Levine

The Bridgehampton School Board member and educational consultant on the impact Gen Xers are having on the school systems, the up and coming Millenials and how each generation enjoys Pepsi in its own way

Recently you held a public forum at the Bridgehampton Public School, where you serve as a school board member, about the "Millennial" generation that is currently going through the educational system and entering the work place.  Could you explain what the term "Millennial" means and the generational theory that formulated this title?

First, I have to give credit to the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe for creating this generational method. Strauss was founder of the Capital Steps parody group, and a Harvard educated lawyer who worked at the Kennedy School of Government. Howe was a specialist in the field of economics and global population. He had a MA in history from Yale. They both had an interest in studying their fields through a generational lens. They were also interested in comparing the generations to each other.  It took several years to write their first book Generations that came out in 1991, and is basically a biographical history of all American generations. President Clinton gave a copy of "Generations" to every member of Congress.  It was a real hit.

As they were writing the book they noticed there were certain generational archetypes that repeated in the same order every 80 years.  Some were inner directed some were outer directed. The Millennial generation is the 14th American generation. When they noticed this generation was being born just as they were writing, they decided to call them Millennials. This is the famous class of 2000 that the media took to following.  Strauss and Howe predicted that they would be like the heroic GI generation that was born between 1901 and 1924. They were alone in predicting that this generation would be seen as a good news story. Millennials, which were at first mistakenly called Gen Y, are actually quite unlike Gen Xers. People expect each generation that follows to be more of the same. And yet, Millennials showed improved youth behaviors and educational outcomes, they are great believers in institutions, and generally are rule followers not breakers. To think of generations as following a linear progression is to miss the whole point. 

Also, I should explain that in 1997 Strauss and Howe released a book called "The Fourth Turning." In this book they outline social moods, or turnings that influence each generation, and discovered that these also seemed to come in four cycles during an eighty year span. If you live to 80 you'll live through all four social moods, or turnings.

Could you give some examples of the different generations and what their characteristics are?

We touched on the Millennial generation, which is the hero archetype. They're our current youth generation. They have strong relations with their parents, they are strong networkers among peers, and they are rule followers. Gen Xers, the Nomad archetype, are similar to the Lost Generation born 1880-1900.  They were generations born into an awaking when children's issues are the lowest social priority. And come of age during a societal unraveling, or a third turning. The Boomers are a prophet archetype and are similar to the Missionary generation born between1860-1880. This generation is born in a post crisis high and comes of age in an awaking like the 60's conscious revolution. Society encourages these children to go out and explore and be independent. Always before the prophet archetype there is an artist archetype - born too late to be heroes and too early to be free spirits. These are children of the crisis and therefore tend be over protected. The Silent generation came into midlife during an awakening, and they collectively experienced a midlife crisis. They had high divorce rates when they realized they were missing all the fun. Generational location in history determines your experience and how you react to it.  This is a great contributor to tension and misunderstandings among generations. 

Can you tell the Sag Harbor Express something about your background and how you became involved in using generational theories in your educational consulting business?

Actually I spent most of my business career in magazine publishing. I started at Scientific American, then went to Time Magazine, consulted for a bunch of Hearst magazines, and ended up at Scholastic in 1992. I spent ten years with them. I ran into the authors of Generations when I hired a researcher in 1992 to help me better understand the young people we were writing for. One of the items he brought to me was this book. I've spent a lot of time thinking about K-12 education. 

What interested you in this theory and how do you apply it to marketing or interpersonal relations?

This theory is broad enough to be applicable to any professional endeavor. Take marketing for instance, many of my clients have been large marketing organizations such as Pepsi, Hewlett Packard, or the Ford Motor Company. This generational method is a very useful strategy for product and market planners who question the assumption that we have a linear progression of generations and taste. Several years ago we suggested that Pepsi drop its series of ever-edgier pop star endorsements for Super Bowl commercials because the idea that youths get edgier in a linear fashion with every succeeding generation was ill informed. And Pepsi took our advice. The other night the Pepsi commercial showed succeeding generations enjoying Pepsi in their way.

In terms of interpersonal relations, I find it helps me to better understand the individuals I meet with each day. We have to assume all members of a generation will be different individually but there will be always some common outlooks and points of view one can use as a reference.

Has it been used by schools either private or public in the United States, and what resulted from applying this theory to our educational system?

Most recently I was working very closely with the Ford Motor Company Fund in supporting their educational initiatives. We use the understanding of generational personalities to understand everything we do in terms of education. For example, right now there is a transition from students being the children of Boomers to being the ones of Gen Xers. Gen Xers bring a very different mind set to the educational system. Xers prefer small learning communities versus large impersonal high schools and Gen Xers want education to be more career orientated. We also see the transition in the educational system. Boomers and Silent generation teachers are retiring now and we see more Gen X teachers coming in and taking over. This is also true of school administrations and school boards. The combination of generations working together can be the cause of tension because they have different expectations of education.

Is this theory limited to generations in the United States or can it be applied globally?

We have been hired by the CIA to study other countries' generations. Over all since World War II, global generations tend to be more similar rather than different. The Millennials seems to be a very globally distinct generation everywhere.

How do you think the Millennials will adapt to the harsh economic realities they face as they go on to college or enter the work force?

The real question here is whether this is another recession or another depression. Does it fix itself in the short term or is this something more systemically dangerous to our society. Today's youth generation of whom much will be asked--will have a "rendez-vous with destiny" just as the GI generation did in the 1940s.

Each fourth turning or societal mood, which we're in now, has a willing youth generation ready to take charge. We're at the early stages of this change. We know there is already a post-Millennial generation called the Homeland generation, which is roughly ages 0-6. It is tempting to think the change of generations was sparked by 9/11. Only in retrospect will we understand the spark that leads to the change. They'll be another over protected, artist archetype like the Silent generation.

Each generation will react to the turning in specific ways. The Millennials' sense of entitlement will morph into a sense of community and responsibility. It already has started to happen. Gen Xers will discover the absolute importance of community for survival. They are potentially the most damaged by this change. The Boomers will begin to set aside the culture wars, and the Silent generation will become even closer to their once alienated children. It's lucky we've built all these big homes recently because we may need to share.

There is one more thing I want to add; there is a greater likelihood that we'll come together as a society around this youth generation in important ways and this might lead to breaking down of barriers among us, and perhaps among our school districts. We need to set aside our differences to better serve this generation.

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