Ypulse Interview: Neil Howe, President, LifeCourse Associates
- March 18th, 2010
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Today’s Ypulse Interview with Neil Howe, President of LifeCourse Associates, kicks off the first in a series on a few of the Ypulse Youth Marketing Mashup Event speakers we have lined up. Consider it a sneak preview to the wealth of insights you should expect at the big event in May and yet another reason to register today and qualify for Early Adopter Rates!
This year, we were lucky enough to land historian and demographer Neil Howe as our keynote interview. Along with co-founding LifeCourse Associates— a marketing, HR, and strategic planning consultancy serving corporate, government, and nonprofit clients—Neil has coauthored six books with William Strauss, including Generations (1991), 13th Gen (1993), The Fourth Turning (1997), and Millennials Rising (2000). Today, we catch up on his latest, upcoming release Millennials in the Workplace, and get a glimpse at what Ypulse President Dan Coates will tap into when he asks Neil about the deep generational forces that are reshaping media, pop culture and technology today.
Ypulse: Tell us about your newest book: Millennials in the Workplace? What can readers expect to learn?
Neil Howe: Well, it’s about this new generation—the group of Americans born after the early 1980’s—that are the ones now being hired out of college and professional schools. It’s a big issue among employers now. They realize that these young people are very different from the Gen X’ers they’ve been accustomed to meeting over the 1990’s and much of the last decade, and they want to know more about them. Their impression is that these kids think of themselves as being special, and they want to be pampered. They’re also very programmed; they want to be sheltered; they want long term plans for their careers; they’re very close to their parents, often calling them at lunchtime and even bringing them by so they can see where they work! They have different attitudes towards working in teams: They want to work collaboratively a lot more. They’re feedback junkies. They need people to evaluate how they’re doing and make sure they’re on the right track.
But every generation has strengths and weaknesses. They have strengths that you want to work with and they have weaknesses that you either want to guard against or put them in areas where the weaknesses won’t really matter. I think the real lesson we have for employers with all generations is to have a division of labor. Have different generations concentrate on the tasks that they do best. If you want visionary leadership, if you need to redefine your corporate culture, go to your Boomers. If you need to apply incentives in a creative out-of-the-box way, if you need that cost-cutting, reality shock therapy done to your department, get your X’ers to do it. But if you want a group of people to come together in a team and to design a system and a protocol to get everything working effectively in an organized fashion, if you want to improve the morale of the group, get your Millennials to do it.
YP: What are common misconceptions attached to this generation? What do people just get wrong?
NH: An interesting complaint among a lot of older people is how this generation wants to be praised all the time. And from a Millennial perspective what’s really going on is that they think of Boomers and X’ers as being downbeat and cyncial about where they work, and they would prefer to work at a place where people feel good about what they do. They feel their company is actually contributing to the community. For a lot of X’ers that was never really that important, i.e. “Let the market sort it out. I don’t have to really worry about what I’m doing. If someone wants me to do something, I’ll do it, Then I go home. So why should I care about that?” Different generations, different perspectives.
You know, people often make up their minds about what young people are fairly early in life. They often extrapolate the trends that were in place for their own generation, and then they never really rethink it. They never really revisit the subject very much. For example, many Boomers came of age at a time when almost every youth indicator was moving in the direction of increasing risk-taking and dysfunction. For example, from the first to last Boomer birth year—for people born in the early 40s and late 50s—educational achievement scores were going down, crime rate was going up, violent crime was going up, teen pregnancy going up, suicide, self-inflicted accidents, drugs, all down the line. Then a lot of these trends were echoed in a weird way with Gen X.
A lot of Boomers just think that’s the way it is. They think, “We live in a declining civilization. We live in a time of rising youth decadence. That’s just the trend.” Everything they hear on TV and everything they hear on the radio magnifies that or rather, magnifies that impression. One of the things I often bring up to people, and I cite data that shows this very clearly, is that Millennials as a generation are pushing all of these indicators in the opposite direction. We’ve seen a tremendous decline (65-70%) in serious violent crime among teenagers over the past 15 years, a decline in teen pregnancy, decline in teen abortion, decline in the use of alcohol and cigarettes. Also, we’ve seen a rise in many indicators of educational achievement. And I find that when I lay these out, and when I talk about them in the context of the new generation and why this is happening, they’re genuinely surprised. This is how you demolish myths.
YP: You’ve said that contrary to popular belief, Millennials are not simply deﬁned by the technologies that have surrounded them since birth. Can you expand on that idea?
NH: The fundamental proposition here is that people spend too much attention on how technology shapes a generation. We spend a lot more attention on how a generation shapes technology. When you look at that causal link, when you reverse the direction of causality, it’s a perspective that allows you to project the future of technology. Because once you understand what a generation is, you’re going to come up with some pretty good ideas about how they will apply that technology differently as they mature.
For example, if you knew in the late 60’s or 1970’s that Boomers were a very individualistic generation (This is what the demographer Cheryl Mercer called the master trend of Boomers—Individualism, self-sufficiency, doing it yourself) then you might have predicted that they would want to take their parents’ mainframe computers and refashion them into personal computers with one on everyone’s desk so that each person could be personally creative. By understanding the generation, you can make predictions about where the technology is going. Gen X took that individualism further. Of course, what was very important to Gen X’ers, what we know from a lot of polling data, was figuring out what was going to work in the marketplace. How are you going to buy low, sell high and make some money from it? I think one of Gen X’ers’ most cardinal contributions to the expansion of information technology on the web is the development of web commerce. It wasn’t Boomers who thought of that, it was Gen X’ers who thought of that in the 1990’s.
I think now that we look at Millennials, they are beginning to have their impact on technology, the huge contribution is the way they’re redirecting it is towards community, towards the team, towards the group. Everything from the use of texting and IM, to Facebook, to keeping contacts through mobile phones, that makes older people joke that your generation is completely tethered together all day long.
Each of those changes come along as a surprise if you’re just looking at the technology. You think, “Wow I never knew that was coming.” But when you look at the generation that’s coming along, and you look closely at who they are, you can actually predict the direction in which some of these changes are likely to go. On the other hand, if you’re just looking at how this technology shapes this generation, it’s not going to give you much of an idea of what the next technology will be.
YP: In your research, what has been the most unexpected discovery about Millennials? What has surprised you?
NH: There are always surprises. It’s less in the broad elements or broad direction of the generation, but the individual things it does that are often surprising. We knew, for example, that this generation was going to be a political powerhouse: It was going to vote more, be more politically, civically engaged. We didn’t predict that two-thirds of them were going to vote for the Democratic ticket for Barack Obama in 2008. That was a surprise. Not entirely unexpected. This was the party of collective action and government, who seemed to have an optimistic view of the future. There were a lot of elements that resonated with Millennials. But that was a surprise.
Looking forward politically year to year, who knows. Right now actually, a report just came out of the Institute of Poltics at Harvard suggesting that Republican Millennials are motivated to vote in 2010 for the Democratics. What does that mean? That’s much harder to say.
YP: What can Mashup attendees expect to take away from your keynote interview?
NH: What I like to do with a group is to give them some insight towards what I’ve done. How I look at generations. Two big points I like to impress upon people is 1) that generations are a lot more important, a lot deeper than just different experiences with pop culture and technology, which is the way a lot of people see it, i.e. “I came of age in the 60s so I know about four track tapes and The Who. If I came of age in some other decade, then it changes me in that way.”
Generational changes are much more profound than that. They involve being shaped very differently by a time in history, and as a result, having a very different attitude towards family, religion, politics, risk taking, career, product, work ethic, all of these things. It’s a completely different collective temperament. A different set of life priorities. These will express themselves in technology, in the pop culture, in their choices of careers, in education, but underlying that is something that’s not going to change. It’s a different way of looking at the world. It will grow older and it will leave its mark on every age group that generation passes through. I often get asked by people, why is it now that people even in their late 30s, early 40s are watching all these reality and survival shows? Because this is the generation that grew up as kids in the 70s. With the new realism and Judy Blume, it was all about reality and survivng. There are certain preoccupations, an agenda that stays there.
The second point is don’t look to someone like me to say what you should and shouldn’t do in marketing, how to fashion your marketing messages. What I really like to do, what gives me a much greater sense of accomplishment, is to teach people and inspire people to think generationally themselves. To draw their own links so that when you’re looking at a target audience, you’re thinking, “How did they grow up? Who were their parents? How were their experiences different? What other evidence do we see in the collective life story of those people that are different from mine and likely to be different from their kids?” That way they can draw their own connections and apply the generational method for themselves. You can give a person a fish, or you can teach them to fish. And it’s teaching how to do it that gives me a lot more satisfaction.
More on Neil Howe : Neil Howe is a historian, economist, and demographer who writes and speaks frequently on generational change in American history and on long-term fiscal policy. He is cofounder of LifeCourse Associates, a marketing, HR, and strategic planning consultancy serving corporate, government, and nonprofit clients. He has coauthored six books with William Strauss and his other coauthored books include On Borrowed Time (1988). He is also a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he helps lead the CSIS “Global Aging Initiative,” and a senior advisor to the Concord Coalition. He holds graduate degrees in history and economics from Yale University. He lives in Great Falls, Virginia, with his wife Simona and two children, Giorgia and Nathaniel.