GREAT FALLS, Va.—Economist and demographer Neil Howe sells himself as an expert on generations. He argues that when people are born determines the cultural and historical context in which they are reared and therefore their attitudes and values. His 1991 book, Generations, coauthored with the late William Strauss, proposed a cyclical view of U.S. history as a succession of idealistic or civic-minded—or reactive or adaptive—generations.
Not all scholars were impressed, but the authors’ analysis offers a useful prism for making sense of the nation’s economic plight. Howe foresees a clash between seniors and the millennials—a term that he and Strauss coined—coming of age in this century. (Generation X was sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials.) He also predicts a surprising victor: yes, the young ’uns.
Howe, a baby boomer at age 60, runs a consulting firm, LifeCourse Associates, and is a senior adviser to the Concord Coalition and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He holds master’s degrees in economics and history from Yale. Edited excerpts from an interview follow.
Do you see a coming clash between generations over the allocation of resources?
HOWE: I see, absolutely, a huge imbalance in generations’ economic expectations. The political economy is going to force an enormous shift in all of our expectations. I see something very unexpected about the resolution: I see the old giving way with less resistance than you might think. I see the young being favored across generations in this new New Deal.
What will the old give up?
HOWE: When push comes to shove, we are going to see that a lot of ground will give way under [federal] entitlements—this is where, obviously, all the money is and where all the growth has been. It’s not just going to be a question of cutting but a question of restructuring.
So you see baby boomers accepting some of the changes?
HOWE: Boomers are much more open to the idea that health is not just about technology. Health is about wellness. Boomers will be much more willing to accept the fact that simply throwing more money into this scientific-medical-industrial complex called health care is not always the answer. Boomers [pursue] alternative therapies, psychological therapies, faith-based things, things that broaden in a much more holistic direction what we think of as health.
You have described boomers’ moralism, their inclination to tell others what’s right and wrong.
HOWE: Boomers just wanted to throw bricks through the window. The idea of believing in the system but wanting to reform it became [viewed as] a cop-out. That was like giving in to The Man. The growth behind culture-wars TV—Fox News and MSNBC—is through boomers, not young people. Millennials would rather die than watch that stuff.
How do the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements fit in?
HOWE: The tea party [members are] older. They are libertarian, without question. [The movement] gets its fire and most of its support from boomers and first-wave [the oldest] Xers. Occupy Wall Street has more support from Generation X and particularly millennials. Millennials, more than other generations, believe that inequality is a huge problem.
Will millennials become skeptical of government over time?
HOWE: When they say they are pro-government, they don’t mean that they like what Congress is doing. It means they think there are great things that could be done to bring America together as a community. A growing share of millennials live with their parents. This dovetails into some very positive resolution of the problem of older entitlements. Families will be much closer. That is going to be huge because it avoids some of the huge tax and fiscal drag of a third-party entitlement system supporting older people.
The author is a contributing editor to National Journal.
This article appears in the December 14, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.