Monday, January 05, 2009

Trends for 2009: Generational Optimism

The Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1990) view the future not with doom-and-gloom dread but with optimism. While this could be written off as delusion or "mere youthful optimism," the younger generations' optimism may well be an accurate assessment that the patterns, ethics and lifestyles of the older generations have run aground; as a result, the U.S. economy's deadwood (self-indulgence, moral dysfunction, solipsism/narcissism, debt-based bogus "prosperity," etc.) can finally be tossed out, along with absurdly impossible National debts and pension/Medicare obligations.

In a recent "conversation with Richard Metzger," we discussed the Millennial generation's optimism as per this research: Millennials Anxious Now, Optimistic About Future: "Despite a failing economy, employment woes and countless other concerns, a key segment of Millennials, people born between 1980 and 1990, remain confident about what 2009 will have in store for them. According to an omnibus survey conducted by StrategyOne on behalf of Pepsi, four out of five Millennials are hopeful about the future as the New Year approaches, and nearly all surveyed (95%) agree that it is important for them to maintain a positive outlook on life.

Lisa Orrell, generation relations expert and author of Millennials Incorporated, says "Children of the '80s and '90s inherently feel a strong sense of optimism in the future and their ability to shape it. This age group feels refreshingly unencumbered by history or tradition, a feeling that they can accomplish anything they resolve to achieve."

According to the survey, Millennials spend more time enjoying life than worrying about it and this group is most optimistic about their overall well-being and relationships with friends and family. Other findings include:

74% find that supporting causes make them feel more optimistic
77% of Millennials report having a strong sense of optimism about their careers
95% of Millennials make positive associations when they think of the word "change," associating it with "progress" (78%), "hope" (77%) and "excitement" (72%)
67% of Millennials say that the election of Barack Obama is making them feel optimistic about the future of the country

Those feeling "excited" about the future include:

57% of Millennials
49% of Gen Xers
38% of Baby Boomers
27% of Post-War Americans"

How much of this youthful optimism is just, well, youthful optimism? Is the study too small to be judged accurate? Perhaps the sample is small, but the responses seem to reflect a real difference between generational views of the future. We all have been inculcated with American culture's basic optimism; yet where is this optimism in the older generations' responses?

Perhaps these numbers reflect a true generational divide: the older generations which counted on tapping younger generations to pay for their retirement pensions and Medicare are no longer optimistic because they are finally absorbing the reality that their $66 trillion (or is it $90 trillion? Nobody knows above about $60 trillion) in unfunded liabilities are essentially uncollectable/unaffordable/ain't gonna happen.

Meanwhile, the younger generations are more optimistic because they sense that these unsustainable burdens will inevitably be lifted from their shoulders, freeing them to get on with the work of fixing all that's wrong with the U.S. economy, infrastructure and society.

Richard made these insightful comments on the study:

"What I make of the optimism is that is it FAR better to be an optimist than a pessimist.

In terms of your health, everything. Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson have written extensively on this. Why perform the "loser script" when you can be following the "winner script"? What's the point in being gloomy all the time? You only get one life. You've got nowhere else to go, you're stuck here for a passage of time on Earth, make the best of it. Fake it until you make it!

Simple but sage advice.

Taken in generational terms, the Millennials haven't, at this point, aged enough to have either a) firm political opinions or b) any sort of real, muscular political power. Both are coming, but in due time. I've been saying this to anyone who'll listen to me for the past few days, that I have complete faith in the up and coming generation, especially if 75% of them see reason for optimism! This is good news indeed.

Here's the key statement:

"95% of Millennials make positive associations when they think of the word "change," associating it with "progress" (78%), "hope" (77%) and "excitement" (72%)"

... which translates to me as a fair degree (putting it mildly) of more OPEN MINDEDNESS in the young and a greater WILLINGNESS TO CHANGE AND IMPROVISE as events require them.

95% associating "change" with "progress" and not the backwards thinking reaction such a word inspires in, say, the hardcore GOP/Pat Buchanan types out there, well, this is good news to me. It means that the, the twenty-somethings of today, will not hesitate to throw out the BAD and try something new. It means the reactionary element of American politics is on the run.

I don't think this means that a new "New Left" manifests itself, far from it, I see this generation as being largely NON-ideological. It'll take the form of Pragmatism, in it's truest sense, the ultimate American philosophy. Or else there will be a cult of personality that will spearhead it. I don't think that an "ism" is necessarily what we'll be dealing with, but maybe. More of a "meme" methinks and anything "green" will be on the ascent, but again, I don't see any new "ism" on the horizon. except pockets of populism in some of the Red States.

And another thing, I simply do not see the young accepting the massive debts that we accrued before their birth or when they were young children for them and for their children to pay off. If memory serves, I didn't sign up for this either, did you?

Why should the productive capital of a generation be held up in debt when all it ever was was were digital "values" predicated on DEBT (i.e. fractional reserve lending --I borrow $1000 and so now the bank has $9000 to lend out) in the first place? The concept of money has become very, very fragile. Three percent of all "money" is in paper form, the rest is digital.

It doesn't GET any more arbitrary than THAT and yet this is what the world is basing its collective economic systems on... something that doesn't even stand up to common sense or "balancing your checkbook" math!

The idea of being 43 in an era of what I believe will be incredible REVOLUTIONARY change in, not just the young, but in all societies sick of what they've become, is to me, a blessing. I used to always think that I was born a few years too late for "the Sixties" and then punk (true, but I got post punk 1979-83 which was even better in hindsight) and then the dotcom era came along and I had quite a ride on that current.

But to be an adult, with the benefit of experience and age and all the (ahem) wisdom that confers (knowledge of history, old enough to have seen how little things change over time, seeing trends of all sorts come and go, old enough to know better and old enough to know that I will never, ever understand womankind) is, I think a good place to be in during a transition of sorts, for society.

I've always thought that the US needed a revolution. I think we're going to get one. I didn't think I'd see it during my lifetime, but now I'm sure of it will happen.

I can think of a number of positive things that are just around the corner, not the least of which is (as we discussed two weeks ago) is the fact that there should be a LESSENING of stress in terms of the tremendous "fees" and hidden taxes of life in America.

If housing costs and rents drop dramatically... If the leases on automobiles drop dramatically... If there is anything even close to universal healthcare in America (and this MUST BE, they have to do it with the kind of unemployment we face), well, these are three tremendous reasons for the common man to rejoice.

I mean, if universal healthcare, for the most part, just looked like these walk-in clinics that Wal-Mart and Target have opened, and $10 generics, I'll TAKE IT.

Imagining this doesn't sound all THAT BAD to me. If a LOT of people get pushed off the hamster wheel of modern living... I think a lot of them will LIKE IT.

It's the monetary system that has gotten society to where it's gotten (in terms of the modern world, world trade, wealth creation) but that same system to led to such bounty has been abrogated beyond all repair. When that system is understood (as is now starting to happen) by average people, the game is up. WHO would stand for it and WHO would agree to set themselves up again with the same stupid game with the same rules?

When 97% of the world's financial assets are held by 3% of the population or whatever that number is, the idea of private property and inherited wealth is idiocy for that 97% to put up with."

Thank you, Richard, for directing our attention to this research and for your commentary.
I would summarize the situation thusly.
The "generation that won World War II" is now roughly 82 years of age or older (any younger, and you couldn't have served in World War II). There is a largely unspoken "social contract" to continue to provide the care which these citizens were promised for the remaining decade or so of their time on Earth; they saved Democracy, and this care is right and just.

But the 76 million-strong baby Boomer generation has no such "social contract" for the simple reason it is demographically impossible for 130 million workers to pay the pensions and horrendously costly Medicare benefits for 75 million retirees.

Yes, I know millions of Boomers will be working past 66 years of age, and so on; that is all just statistical noise in the long view. Two workers cannot pay for one retirees' benefits when a week in the hospital costs $120,000. (My friend's father recently exited the hospital after a modest procedure and that was the bill paid by Medicare--the equivalent of three year's pay or decades of Medicare taxes blown for one week without major surgery.)

Then there's the undeniable fact that the Boomers were front and center in the past two decades' orgy of debt, lies, obfuscations, greed and bogus "prosperity." Not just the Wall Street crowd, but the "flippers" who leveraged multiple homes on shaky credit, etc. Yes, the younger generation tapped the same vein of greed and malice, as did a few enterprising oldsters; but the Baby Boomers flocked unskeptically to worship the gold-veneered gods of rampant debt-fueled consumption and unproductive speculation.

So what "social capital" was built up by the Boomer's experiments in narcissitic consumption and political/financial self-destruction? Not a whole lot, and I say that as a Boomer (I just turned 55). Exactly what have the past two Boomer presidents and their political cronies accomplished to win the accolades and gratitude of the generations which follow? Borrow trillions and squander it on unproductive wars, speculative excesses and benefits which should have been paid for responsibly out of net National income via taxes.

I can already predict that some readers will chastize me for this moral-tinged outrage at the squandering of the nation's wealth and the Boomers' role (either active or curiously passive) in that destruction of wealth, trust and credibility, but to claim that this level of self-indulgence, destruction and willful myopia was "always the norm" is simply not true.

Two decades ago there was widespread outrage that Chrysler was extended $1.7 billion in Federal loan guarantees; now an $850 billion bailout of the most corrupt and venal elements of our economy drew muted cries, and a $14 billion bailout of the auto industry now seems picayune and modest in scale.

This is the Boomers in charge, and there is very, very little to be proud of in my view. It has been a parade of shame for well over a decade: a shamelessly neurotic and remarkably ineffectual trash-TV drama (the Clintons) was replaced by a simplistic charade of "strength" which masked raw stupidity, ignorance, greed and a willful looting of America's environmental, global and financial assets for private gain.

Guess how well the "privatization of Social Security" would have worked out. That was the ultimate ideological end-game of this administration and its minions on Wall Street--the privatization of immense profits and the socialization of risk.

I have long suggested the Baby Boomers should prepare to gracefully accept that the benefits we promised ourselves are simply unaffordable. Boomers, Prepare to Fall on Your Swords (June 2005):
"Now it falls to us to fix the finances of our foolishly bankrupted nation. Either we sacrifice our freebies (every recipient of these programs has extracted far more than they paid in, even including accrued interest) or we leave our children and their children burdened by an impossible debt. I say we go out with idealistic panache, and fall on our swords with grace and dignity."

For more on the demographic impossibility of the Boomers receiving the benefits of their parents' generation, please read A Generational War We All Lose (March 19, 2008). The loss of these retirement benefits is rather naturally a source of pessimism for Boomers, but perhaps the nation needs to start looking at its future through the lens of the challenges ahead rather than through the broken lens of what was irresponsibly promised in the past.

I am way behind on my email--I appreciate your patience as I strive to catch up from a few days visiting family.

New Operation SERF installment. Operation SERF, Part 6:
“Dad,” said Daniel after he walked into the log home from outside. “The French are uploading the video they shot by satellite link.”
“And?” asked Josiah as he sat on his couch looking at the fire in the woodstove.
“Do you want them doing that,” questioned Daniel, “after what happened? What they have us on video doing.”

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