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How different are you from your parents? Howe explains today’s generations in America

<we, best-selling author and authority on generations in America, delivered a talk titled “Generations of Americans: Lifestyles, Politics, and the Rhythms of History” for his convocation speech. He gave powerful insights about today’s generation, discussing in particular what shapes and motivates them as individuals. Together with William Strauss, Howe coauthored best-selling books such as Millennials Rising discussing the phenomena of generations in the United States, and how they both influence and have been influenced by history and culture.

Howe stated that one commonly associates generations as “intimidating” and an “abstract social concept,” when really, he argues, he reminded that “there is nothing impersonal about them.” Because different people grow up and live in different historical climates, they find comfort in a “connection to a certain childhood era,” and seek solidarity among others in society that share this link. In his detailed outline of the five different generations that are present today in the United States, Howe highlighted the culture of their “childhood era” as well as what characterized their “coming of age.” In this light, Howe emphasized that generations “don’t move in straight lines” because of the great influence that history has upon them.

He characterized the oldest, the G.I., generation as those who were constantly constructing and producing; “making things all the time, and making them modern.” This is also why they are sometimes called the “Greatest” generation, because of their consistent accomplishments. Their childhood was in a highly protective environment, which Howe illustrates through legislature such as the Prohibition Act of the 20’s. The next generation – the “Silent” – found this climate of “protective childbearing suffocative,” and thus had to compensate with the measures of the earlier era. At the same time, Howe argued that they were not out to change the system, but instead “wanted to work with it.” Hence the levels of education and affluence for the Silent generation vastly surpassed that of the G.I., resulting in the general attitude of “we earned it.”
The Second World War changed everything, resulting in the Boomer generation that greatly emphasized individualism. In conveying that they “didn’t need institutions,” this generation possessed “a certain permissiveness.” This lead to the development of their own familial values, illustrated by what Howe argued as the “moralism” of the Boomers: how they were “always telling other generations what’s right and what’s wrong.” Although they were very weak politically, Howe emphasized how they “will still continue to dominate culturally,” as illustrated by their constant presence and highly regarded opinions. From this generation highly concerned with individualism developed Generation X, which “saw the only way to get ahead was to be exceptional.” This generation, characterized by constant risk-taking and opportunities, were very comfortable in a world “of winners and losers.” Furthermore, this generation saw a massive decline in the birth and fertility rate, as young people became highly career driven.

Howe concluded with the latest generation, the Millennials, there is an evident return to the protective climate in which the G.I. generation grew up. He emphasized that this generation knew “they were perfect, special, and should be treated like VIP’s.” In their sheltered lives, with parents spending much more time with them, these Millennials are vastly more confident and optimistic, emphasize team work, and are regarded as the achieving generation. In possessing similar characteristics as an earlier generation, the Millennials seem to illustrate what Howe describes as a cycle: that as we progress, new generations will be adopting certain aspects shared by those who lived in earlier eras. At the same time, historical and cultural differences will produce radically new features in these future generations.

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