Generation 2000: America's new conformists

Last Updated: Nov. 12, 2015

March 1, 2003 | By Neil Howe

The Millennial Generation. A new wave of American youth voted for the first time in the Gore-Bush election and is now beginning to assert itself in the US. The apathetic individualism of “Generation X” is being swept aside by these “Millennials.” They believe in security rather than radicalism, political order rather than social emancipation, collective responsibility rather than personal expression. They will come to define the next stage in America’s role as a hyper-power.

A new generational wave is breaking across college campuses in America—and soon, perhaps, across campuses around the world. What’s going on here? Very simple. A new generation—the Millennial Generation—is coming of college age. Millennials first arrived in American colleges in the autumn of 2000, and ever since they have been gradually replacing the Gen-Xers who have camped out there since the early 1980s. Millennials are different from Xers. Millennials have amazed the experts by triggering a wholesale reversal in many negative youth trends.

Since the early 1990s, the rate of violent crime among teens is down 70 percent, the rate of teen pregnancy and abortion is down 30 percent, and the rate of sexual activity in high school is down 20 percent. In 2002, rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption among high school students reached all-time lows. Teen suicide rates are on the downturn for the first time in decades. The combined SAT score now stands at a 25-year high—a remarkable accomplishment considering that a much larger share of all high school seniors now take the SAT, including millions of low-income minorities and the sons and daughters of recent immigrants.

In many ways that please older Americans, and in some ways that don’t, Millennials are recasting the youth mood in America. The arrival of young adult Millennials in the decade of the 2000s will trigger social and political consequences that could be as profound (though very different) as those triggered by young Boomers in the 1960s.

By an accident of history, the terrorist attacks of 11th September are serving as the initial catalyst of this mood shift. That day may, in time, define the coming-of-age of a generation—but had that day never happened, the collective direction of young Millennials would have found other ways of revealing itself.

The rhythms of history suggest that the Millennials, in youth, resemble the last generation in America to come of age at a time of growing national urgency. This was the generation of the Millennials’ grandparents—the generation that went on to win the Second World War as footsoldiers, that built the postwar Pax Americana of peace and prosperity and complacency against which Boomers raged, and that only much later became known to history as America’s “greatest generation."

Every rising generation of young adults is shaped by—and comes to reflect—an era of history. The famously risk-averse “Silent Generation” came of age during the security-conscious American High of the late 1940s and ‘50s. Young Boomers had the Consciousness Revolution of the late 1960s and ‘70s. And young Gen-Xers had the free-agent stock market and info-tech boom of the late 1980s and ‘90s.

Now, says Newsweek, it’s time to start talking about a post-X “Generation 9/11,” a new crop of young Americans who are inheriting the sober civic mood of the new century and its new wars.

In the immediate aftermath of 11th September, journalists and child psychologists began speculating on how the trauma of those events would disorient school-age Americans for years. But when the experts actually looked into what was happening among America’s children, they were surprised to find that the most disoriented Americans were not to be found among the young, but among older generations. Many Silent Generation 70-year-olds worried that America was being pulled back into the closed, secretive, war-emergency era of their childhood. Many Boomer 50-year-olds struggled to square their desire to urge national mobilisation with their lifelong antipathy for powerful national institutions. Gen-X 30-year-olds, occupying an age bracket that suffered the most casualties and produced the most heroes, had reason to feel the most disoriented of all. All their lives, Gen-Xers had thrived as consummate individualists and risk-taking free-agents, both in the economy and in their family lives. Now they were facing a challenge that demanded personal prudence and community action.

Millennials, for the most part, were strikingly poised. To the amazement of adult interviewers, America’s tweens and teens gave thoughtful and well-reasoned answers to questions about the meaning of 11th September and what America should do about it. They sympathised with the worries of their parents and respected the leadership burden of their President. When interviewed in groups, they often deferred to each other and, in the end, offered a consensus response.

Few American youths engaged in the sort of bellicose “nuke ‘em and go home” bravado that one sometimes heard from Gen-Xers back in the brief ‘80s wars (Granada, Panama, Libya). Even fewer voiced the sort of anti-adult, anti-establishment passion that one often heard from Boomers during the Vietnam War. Through the fall of 2001, as US federal authorities exercised aggressive authority in garrisoning airports, patrolling harbours, installing videocams on city streets, and rounding up “suspects,” Millennials had no problem adapting. Indeed, Millennial teens often gave timely reminders to their Boomer parents about how to behave.

WHY WERE MILLENNIALS SO UNPERTURBED? Here’s the short answer. More than two years earlier, they had already had their own 9/11, in April 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. After that tragic day, on which two teenagers killed twelve schoolmates and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves, high school students across America experienced the same sense of alarm and danger and were asked to make the same trade-offs of liberty for security, that adult America experienced in the wake of 11th September. Ever since, students have learned what would happen if they dared keep a sharp object in his pocket, or hide something in a backpack, or crack a joke about student shooters.

But that’s only a partial answer—because, like 11th September itself, Columbine was more a crystallising than a shaping moment for this generation. Long before Columbine, Millennials had been swaddled in an envelope of protection and surveillance that accustomed these kids to seeing community authorities as benevolent protectors against the danger and violence of those outside the community. “Zero tolerance” of misbehaviour, SWAT teams in the hallways, scanners and cameras and detectors—adults knew nothing of this before 11th September. Millennials did.

Polls show that Millennials have been the generation least surprised by new security measures—not a surprise, since they are the most used to having ID cards examined, luggage searched and jokes screened by authorities. In America, today’s kids trust and confide in authorities, set up web cams in their rooms and keep in constant electronic contact with parents and friends. For better or worse, privacy is not a big issue among teens, and challenges to civil liberties are less of a worry than to older people.

America’s teens and younger kids have taken handily to the new post-9/11 mood—donating blood, organising fund-raising car washes, sending dollars in envelopes to Afghan children, dressing up as firemen, policemen, and Uncle Sam on Halloweens. They sported the first non-satirical political masks (of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani) seen on kids since the days of John F. Kennedy. First in Afghanistan, and again as threats loomed about Iraq, older veterans of prior antiwar movements kept looking to the nation’s college students to erupt in peace movements—but, for the most part, they didn’t. Many were busy hanging American flags. For the post-X Millennial Generation, the children and teens born since 1982 who now fill grade schools and the first two years of college, 11th September provides a defining moment.

TEACHERS, PROFESSORS, MILITARY OFFICERS, and others who work with youth often pride themselves on being the first to notice generational change when it occurs. Yet even those in closest contact with the youth culture are sometimes confounded by both the direction and timing of such change. Usually, the mistake is to assume that next year’s collegians will be like last year’s, only a bit more so. Most of the time that’s true, but every two decades or so such linear projections prove to be catastrophically mistaken. Each new youth generation born in the twentieth century came as a major surprise.

The Silent Generation (born 1925-1943, now in their sixties and seventies) was expected at the end of World War II to be just like the world-conquering generation just before them. But instead, they hunkered down, married early, and compliantly joined big corporations. In the words of historian William Manchester, they were “withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent."

Boomers (born 1943-1960, now in their forties and fifties) were envisioned in the early ‘60s as a new corps of technocratic corporatists, a Silent Generation to the next degree, even more pliable and conformist than the Silent Generation right before them. No one—not even Erik Erikson or Margaret Mead—saw a hint of the youth explosion that was about to shake America.

Generation Xers (born 1961-1981, now in their twenties and thirties), the “Baby Busters,” were expected at the dawn of the ‘80s to be like Boomers, only more so, ideological, “holistic,” morality-driven, uninterested in material aspirations. To quote the famous Xer dismissive, yeah whatever. As flower power gave way to punk, grunge and hip hop, institutions that serve youth were again thrown into disarray.

Millennials are coming as just as large a surprise. Today, another 20 years have passed and yet another generational change is on America’s doorstep. As a group, Millennials are unlike any other youths in living memory. They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated and more ethnically diverse. More important, they are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct. Yet most people’s perception of youth (especially those who don’t have regular contact with teens) still lags behind reality. As was true 20, 40, and 60 years ago, a common adult view is that today’s teens are like the prior batch (Generation X), taken to the next degree (alias, “Generation Y"). If you look closely at youth indicators, however, you’ll see that attitudes and behaviour among today’s youth represent a sharp break from Generation X and are running exactly counter to trends launched by the Boomers.

Across the board, Millennials are challenging the dominant and negative stereotype. Are they pessimists? No. They’re optimists. Nine out of ten describe themselves as “happy,” “confident” and “positive.” Teen suicide rates are declining for the first time in the post-war era. A rapidly decreasing share of teenagers worry about violence, sex or drugs, and a rapidly increasing share say that growing up is easier for them than it was for their parents.

Are they rule-breakers? No. They’re rule-followers, as the fall in their rates of violent crime, drug use, abortion, and pregnancy attest. As public attention to school shootings has risen, their actual incidence has fallen. Even including such shootings as Columbine, there have been fewer than half as many killings by students since 1998 (averaging fewer than 15 per year) as there were in the early 1990s (over 40 per year).

Are they self-absorbed? No. From school uniforms to team learning and team grading, they are gravitating toward group activity. Twenty years ago, “community service” was unheard of in most high schools. Today, it is the norm. According to a 1999 Roper survey, more teenagers blamed “selfishness” than anything else when asked about “the major cause of problems in this country."

Are they distrustful? No. They accept authority. Most teens say they identify with their parents’ values and more than nine in ten say they “trust” and “feel close to” their parents. Half say they trust government to do what’s right all or most of the time—twice the share of older people answering the same question in the same poll. Large majorities of teens favour tougher rules against misbehavior in the classroom and society at large.

Are they neglected? No. They’re the most watched-over generation in memory. The typical day of a child, tween or teen has become a nonstop round of parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, babysitters, counselors, chaperones, minivans, surveillance cams and curfews. Since the mid-1980s, “unstructured activity” has been the most rapidly declining use of time among preteens.

Are they stupid? No. During the 1990s, aptitude test scores have risen within every racial and ethnic group, especially in elementary schools. Eight in ten teenagers say it’s “cool to be smart,” while a record share of teenagers say they “look forward to school,” take advanced placement tests and plan to attend college.

Are they another “lost” generation? No. The better word is “found.” Born in an era when Americans showed a more positive attitude toward children, the Millennials are the product of a birthrate reversal. During the Gen-Xer childhood, planned parenting meant contraceptives; during the Millennial childhood, it has meant visits to the fertility clinic. In 1998, the number of US children surged past its previous Baby-Boom peak and over the next decade, college freshmen enrollment is due to grow by roughly 40,000 per year.

ONE WAY TO DEFINE A GENERATION’S LOCATION in history is to think of a turning point in the national memory that its earliest birth cohorts just missed. Let’s trace the historical location of each of the prior generations described earlier.

The Silent arrived during the Great Depression and the Second World War, events they witnessed through the eyes of childhood, tending their Victory Gardens while the next-older (GI) generation built and sailed in the Victory Ships that won the war.

Boomers arrived after the war, during the “great American high” that followed it, a childhood era of warmth and indulgence that marked them forever as a “postwar” generation, while the next-older Silent compliantly entered the suburban and corporate world.

Gen-Xers arrived as the children of the “consciousness revolution,” amid the cultural turbulence of the Boomers’ passionate upheaval en route to becoming perfectionist “yuppies” with “meaningful” vocations and careers. Millennials arrived after the consciousness revolution—and during the recent era of the “culture wars” and economic “long boom,” while young-adult Gen-Xers navigated a one-on-one world of high-risk free agency and dot-com entrepreneurialism.

Millennials live in a world that has taken trends Boomers recall from their childhood and turned them upside down. Boomers can recall growing up with a homogenising popular culture and wide gender-role gap in an era when community came first and family stability was strong (though starting to weaken). Millennials have grown up with a fragmenting pop culture and a narrow gender-role gap in an era when individuals came first and when family stability was weak (though starting to strengthen).

As a postwar generation, Boomers arrived just when conforming, uniting and turning outward seemed the nation’s logical priority. As a post-awakening generation, Millennials began to arrive just when diversifying, atomising, and turning inward seemed preferable. Such reversals reflect a fundamental difference in the two generations’ location in history. Millennials also represent a sharp break from Generation X. Gen-Xers can recall growing up as children during one of the most passionate eras of social dissent and cultural upheaval in American history, an era in which the needs of children were often overlooked or discounted. All this has left a deep impression on most of today’s young Gen-X adults.

But Millennials can recall none of it. They have no personal memory of the ordered Cold War world (when only large and powerful governments had weapons of mass destruction). They only know about a post-Cold War era of multilateral confusion and power vacuums (when terrorists and rogue states are seeking these weapons). This generation has been shaped by such formative collective experiences as Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, the first World Trade Centre attack and now 11th September and the War on Terror. In all these instances, the real danger seems to come not from out-of-control institutions but from out-of-control individuals, or small groups of conspirators, who have become a menace to humanity because national or global institutions are not strong enough to even monitor them.

If it’s true (as Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote) that “in America, each generation is a new people,” does some pattern or dynamic help us determine how each generation will be new? Yes.

THREE BASIC RULES apply to any rising generation in nontraditional societies, like America, that allow young people some freedom to redefine what it means to be young, and to direct society according to their own inclinations—in other words, to “rebel."

First, each rising generation breaks with the young-adult generation, whose style no longer functions well in the new era. Second, it corrects for what it perceives as the excesses of the current midlife generation—their parents and leaders—sometimes as a protest, other times with the support of parents and leaders who seek to complement their own deficiencies. Third, it fills the social role being vacated by the departing elder generation. When you apply these rules to the generational dynamic in America, you can see what’s been happening, and will continue to happen even more powerfully, with Millennials.

Stylistically, today’s teens are breaking with today’s thirtyish Gen Xers and the whole “X” (and “X-treme") attitude. Expect teamwork instead of free agents, political action instead of apathy, technology to elevate the community and not the individual, T-shirts with school colours instead of corporate swooshes, on-your-side teamwork in place of in-your-face sass. Gen Xers in their late twenties and thirties often regard themselves as the trend-setters of the teen culture, but often they know little about what actually goes on there. People that age are usually too old to have teens as siblings and too young to have teens as children. So they fall out of touch and, in time, a new batch of teens breaks with their culture. This happened in the early 1960s, again in the early 1980s, and it’s starting to happen again.

Meanwhile, Millennials will correct for what teens see as the excesses of today’s middle-aged Boomers: narcissism, impatience, iconoclasm and a constant focus on talk (usually argument) over action. In their “rebellion,” Millennials will opt for the good of the group, patience, conformism and a new focus on deeds over words. When they argue, it will be less among themselves and more with older gen-erations whose members stand in the way of civic progress. With adults of all philosophical stripes yearning for “community,” the Millennial solution will be to set high standards, get organized, team up and actually create a community. Unlike Boomers, Millennials won’t need three days at a retreat to figure out how to rewrite a mission statement.

The third rule of rebellion may be the key to understanding not just what Millennials are now doing, but where they see their clearest path in the years ahead. Remember those whom Tom Brokaw christened the “greatest generation"—the ones who pulled America out of Depression, conquered half the globe as soldiers, unleashed nuclear power, founded suburbia and took mankind to the moon. The most important link this “GI Generation” has to today’s teens is in the void they leave behind. No other adult peer group possesses anything close to their upbeat, high-achieving, team-playing and civic-minded reputation. Sensing this social role unfilled, today’s adults have been teaching these (GI) values to Millennials, who now sense the GI “archetype” as the only available script for correcting or complementing the Boomer persona.

Today’s Millennial teens often identify the GIs as their grandparents. When asked in surveys to assess the reputations of older generations, Millennials say they have a much higher opinion of GIs and a somewhat lower one of Gen-Xers than they do of any generation in-between—Boomers (the children of the postwar American High) or the Silent (the children of World War II). Many speak glowingly about G.I.s as men and women who “did great things” and “brought us together as a nation.” In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly cover story, author David Brooks has labeled Millennials “organisation kids,” a tacit reference to the original GI “organisation man,” and about as far as you can get from the “Bourgeois Bohemians” Brooks finds so common among the middle-aged.

Teens in 2001 don’t rebel against midlife Boomers by being hyper-Xers—not when the oldest Xers are themselves entering the fortysomething bracket. They rebel by being GI redux, a youthful update of the generation against which the Boomers fought 30 years ago. No one under the age of 70 has any direct memory of teens, or twentysomethings, who are GI in spirit. Millennials are, and will be. That’s why what’s around the cultural corner is so profound that it might better be called a youth revolution. Rebellions peter out—but revolutions produce long-term social change.

MILLENNIALS CAST THEIR FIRST VOTES in 2000, when roughly one million Americans born in 1982 voted for George Bush or Al Gore. In 2004, the number of Millennial voters will rise to perhaps 10 million. By 2010, they will comprise roughly one-fifth of the U.S. electorate. Every rising generation brings its own surprises to politics. What surprises will this one bring?

Today’s collegians have no real recollection of Ronald Reagan and their main memory of George H.W. Bush was of watching Desert Storm on television just before bedtime. The first President to whom they paid much attention was Bill Clinton. Surveys showed that Millennials loved Clinton’s strong policy focus on “children” but, during his second-term impeachment troubles, viewed his personal conduct more harshly than older people. The first election they watched closely was in 2000, when 500 Florida ballots (and absentee ballots) were decisive in the outcome. The first President to whom they are paying mature, college-level attention is George W. Bush.

On the whole, polls show today’s teenagers supporting their President by large margins, not least on foreign policy. Last winter, roughly 80 per cent of college students supported air strikes in Afghanistan and 70 percent supported ground troops—which is slightly beneath the approval offered by the public at large but clearly higher than that offered by college faculty. A month after 11th September, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 60 per cent of all college students said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing “all or most of the time"; 86 per cent believed their generation “is ready to lead their country into the future"; and 93 per cent regarded themselves as patriotic (with only 7 per cent saying “not very” or “not at all” patriotic).

On many campuses, deans and professors grouse at U.S. flags on dorm windows and pro-war rallies. Collegiate applicants to the CIA, FBI, and school-based military officer training programs have all surged.

How will they vote? Far more heavily than Gen-Xers did when young, that’s for sure. Whatever their agenda, it will loom large in national campaigns. We expect them to be more conservative on cultural and social issues than older people—and more liberal on economic issues like taxation, regulation and government spending. They will likely trigger a resurgence in the labour movement, reversing the decline in unionism started by Boomers and accelerated by Gen-Xers. Unlike their elders, Millennials are not attracted to a high-flux economy which is constantly sorting individuals into winners and losers. They prefer a planned future in which groups share collective rewards.

Compared with older people, they are more anti-abortion, more interventionist in foreign policy and more focused on long-range consequences. They trust government more—which is hardly surprising since, in their experience, government has always been trying to do wonderful things for Americans their age. Moreover, they are more likely to believe that big problems (both at home and abroad) arise in the absence of effective government. At the moment, with the war on terrorism atop the nation’s agenda, they are therefore more likely to associate Republicans with a welcome growth in institutional authority and Democrats with “yes but” obstructionism. In all those respects, they are quite different from young Boomers back in the Vietnam years.

On the whole, this “Generation 9/11” does indeed appear to be signaling and embodying—and, in time, maybe leading—a new American mood. A shift from localism and globalism to renascent patriotism and national identity. A shift from faith in individualism to trust in civic authority. A shift from the edgy culture of shock to a more ritualised culture of reaffirmation. A shift from a focus on the rich and the poor to a new focus on the middle class. A shift from an economy that vaunts risk and rags-to-riches mobility to one that prizes security and community.

American Millennials could be the leading edge of a global generation—one that will step forward in societies elsewhere to show that, yes, there really is something new after Generation X. Millennials could soon be at the doorstep of workplaces and college campuses all over the world, from Europe to Asia, Latin America to the Arab Crescent, asserting their new tastes, launching their new movements.

They’ll be with the new youth, for the next twenty years or so, until they too are supplanted by another new wave, one that will personally know nothing of life, and the world, before 11th September, 2001. They could be the next generation of heroes, what Americans might imagine as a “next great generation.” That’s if all goes well. If all does not, they will be the resolute workers and soldiers and parents who pick up the pieces. To some extent, that depends on them. It also depends on us, their parents, teachers and leaders.