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The Making of a Millennial Culture

  • S.T. Karnick
  • Jun 1, 2003
  • : Citizenship

The Baby Boomers grew up in a culture built by the so-called Greatest Generation, the people who spent their childhood years during the Depression and then fought World War II. It is a great irony, however, that the generation we call our greatest should have failed so miserably as parents, by all outward indications. Their children, the Boomers, have been, since reaching college age, widely derided as selfish, feckless, cowardly, and disdainful of traditions and moral standards. That characterization is surely something of an exaggeration, as the Boomers are a much more diverse group than that, but it is perfectly fair to say that the Boomers do not yet have a list of achievements matching that of their predecessors.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that although the Greatest Generation did indeed suffer through the Depression and fight the war, they were not in fact the leaders during World War II. They were sent to war, and heeded the call, and for that they deserve great honor. The leaders, however, during this period were largely born in the 1880s and 1890s. They were the World War I generation, people such as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower; Generals Patton and MacArthur; and artists and entertainers like Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks, and John Ford.

Those are the people who built a culture that lauded self-reliance, rectitude, self-sacrifice, duty, and honor, and responded to the challenges raised by communism and Nazism. The generation that actually fought in World War II gave us leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Robert Dole, George Wallace, Orson Welles, Jack Kerouac, Isaac Asimov, William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Timothy Leary, Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah. Quite a mixed bag.

That generation fostered the technological advancements that ultimately helped drive the Soviet Union to destruction and ended totalitarianism in that part of the world. It also achieved important advances in civil rights (and made some dreadful mistakes which have yet to be resolved, such as the imposition of forced integration and affirmative action, both of which quickly became blows against the very freedoms they were supposed to uphold). Having grown up during the Great Depression, this group tended to seek security, rather than growth, as its primary goal in economic policy. As might have been expected, economic growth stalled in the years between Presidents Johnson and Reagan. 

Trust No One

One aspect of the Greatest Generation that has received insufficient notice, in my view, is their experience of government power. The groundwork for their decided ambivalence toward government was laid during the Depression and World War II. Clearly, despite Herculean efforts, the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations utterly failed to lift the country out of the Depression. The war brought an end to that, of course, but it created additional problems beyond the obvious ones affecting any nation in such a conflict.

That is to say, the war effort plunged young Americans—both those who served overseas and those who stayed at home—into an altogether new and not at all appealing experience with bureaucracy and authoritarian control. The factories geared up at home, which was nice, but the government told Americans how much butter, gasoline, and other products and services they could buy, when and where they could shop, what they could and could not say, and much more.

For the nation’s armed forces personnel, the situation was just as bad, and included the additional danger of being shot or blown to pieces. The American military bureaucracy was unmatched in its ability to move people, weapons, and supplies as the war effort demanded, but the regimentation and frank dehumanization involved in this “last good war” could not help but create a certain amount of cynicism toward authority.

This distrust of authority became even more evident during the postwar years and so-called McCarthy era. The generation of kids that reached college in the 1960s, as noted in my introductory article for this issue, were raised in this environment of distrust, and were taught that the individual conscience was the most trustworthy judge of right and wrong—“Let your conscience be your guide,” as Jiminy Cricket said.

In the intellectual realm, influential books such as The Authoritarian Personality (1950), written by Theodor Adorno and others, argued that people who mindlessly accept authority lay the groundwork for all sorts of evil. The popular characterization of the 1950s as a time of lockstep social conformity and mindless repressiveness is wrong. If anything, the culture of the 1950s represented a widespread reaction against efforts toward social conformity, as I argue in my introductory article for this issue. All of the trends that social historians have identified as characterizing the 1960s were present in the ’50s as well, and in no small measure. This is not the place to go into great detail on the sources of the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, but rather than speaking of the ’60s as a unique moment of sudden upheaval, it is best to see it as an important part of a half-century of social transformation which began shortly after World War II and has only begun to fade in the past few years.

The key to this transformation was the combination of waning authority (concomitant with the rise of individualism) and increasing prosperity. The children of the first decade or so of the Baby Boom (born approximately 1947-1957) were more widely pampered, in material terms, than any previous human generation, as postwar economic growth enriched their parents, who understandably vowed not to let their little ones suffer the sorts of deprivations common during the Depression, especially given that there was no need to do so with more money rolling in. Dr. Spock’s hugely influential book on child-rearing, first published in 1946, also contributed to the new vision of parenthood, when it was widely misinterpreted as prescribing a great relaxation of parental supervision and discipline.

This latter trend also may well have had its roots in the Depression and war years: people who had suffered much deprivation in childhood and young adulthood could well be expected to want to take advantage of the relative prosperity of the 1950s and early ’60s, catching up on good times missed. The presence of children, however, would of course cramp their style, unless they could find a justification for not paying as much attention to them as they had previously been told they should.

Science, in the guise of new psychological theories and Dr. Spock’s book, provided the answer. Hovering over one’s children, it was said, would only make them grow up weak and easily manipulated—and instill in them the dreaded Authoritarian Personality. Better to let them learn to make decisions for themselves. This new freedom and prosperity, along with the birth-control pill, set the stage for the Sexual Revolution, which really began in the 1950s and reached full bloom in the mid-’60s. The hippie movement only built on what was already there.

Burn, Baby, Burn

In addition to these conditions, the first flush of Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of the atomic bomb, occasionally huddling under their school desks in practice for the attack that could well come. The Russians’ launch of the Sputnik satellite established that the United States had fallen behind in the Space Race, and John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign relied on the terrifying specter of a “missile gap” between the United States and Russia—with America behind the eight ball. The Cuban Missile Crisis made a confrontation with the Soviet Union seem that much more imminent.

And there were many more failures. America’s race problems were a continuing embarrassment and becoming increasingly perilous. Anti-American protests increased in Latin America and other parts of the world. And then President Kennedy was assassinated. It seemed that no one was safe.

This combination of fear and distrust erupted in the 1960s when the Vietnam War began to heat up and it appeared that rather than dying in an atomic attack, countless young people would be killed in a puzzling war in Southeast Asia (which turned out to be true). The antiwar movement took its initial cue from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early ’60s, organizing peaceful demonstrations and working within the system. As the war escalated, however, its opponents’ frustration increased, and they revived the time-honored American tradition of violent dissent and outright rebellion, in many cases openly opposing the ostensibly oppressive political and economic systems that had brought society to such a pass.

This dissatisfaction blossomed into a fairly comprehensive rejection of modern American society in the hippie movement. Numerous Americans turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, in the phrase made famous by the drug-use and consciousness-raising guru Timothy Leary. Of course, most young people had nothing to do with the hippie movement, but the general tenor of the society was surely more latitudinarian and antiauthoritarian than in past years. Technologically and militarily, we had caught up with the Soviet Union, and the Vietnam War was starting to go our way, but the spirit of rejection was by then too strong to be averted. The nation experienced rises in crime rates and incidences of divorce, abuse of drugs and alcohol, abortion, suicide, teenage sexual activity, illegitimate births, cohabitation, and other such behaviors. Conventions in the arts and professions were shoved aside. Police were widely scorned and called pigs. The military was beyond the pale. Students took over schools and closed them down for days at a time. All authority came into question, as the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” made clear. The ’60s ended with a paroxysm of riots in the streets, assassinations, the free love movement, the rise of feminism, and, in general, a great national effort toward a transvaluation of all values.


This is a distinct contrast to the situation facing young people today. The kids of the late 1980s and ’90s are the first in decades never to have had to worry, however abstractly, about perishing in a nuclear war. Their nation suffered no humiliating defeats in the Cold War. In fact, their nation won that long war, and now their enemy is no more. We live in what is now the world’s only superpower, a nation that has been able to project its power around the world in a quite surprisingly free manner. The only thing that holds back the United States is its own restraint.

Things are far from perfect, of course. Social pathologies continue to occur at far higher rates than in the first half of the previous century. Race is still a thorny issue, but nothing like it was in the 1950s and ’60s. The September 11, 2001, attacks were a horrifying blow, but also an infuriating one that resulted in an immediate and aggressive American response.

The government that today’s young people have known all their lives allows considerable freedom in the economic sphere (which started, of course, in the 1980s) and is fairly timid about imposing moral judgments on others. On the other hand, the nation’s political authorities show great concern over people’s health, to the point of not allowing people to smoke tobacco around one another or drive automobiles without wearing seatbelts. A bit of an inconvenience, of course, but such well-meaning meddlesomeness, it is important to note, is in stark contrast to the openly antiauthoritarian attitude so prevalent among these people in the 1960s and ’70s, which brought such catastrophic consequences at the time. Although they are sometimes fatuously described as fascists and totalitarians, these people are by no means as stern and forbidding as the authorities of World War II and the Cold War era.

Religious folk occasionally flex their electoral muscles, but they don’t seem to have any great political power—abortion is still legal, books and movies are as dirty as ever, the rest of the popular culture is even more freewheeling than in prior years, and it’s not like you can’t go shopping on Sunday. No, we’re not exactly living in a new Puritan era, at least as far as most kids are likely to see. There has been a return, however, of religious authority in both the private and public spheres in the last decade or so. Religious observance among the young in particular is on the rise.

The numerous rules and regulations common in schools these days are a real pain in the neck to young people, especially those in college, but school has been a nuisance to every generation; students always think their teachers are too strict, regardless of what adults think. All in all, the society in which a young person growing up today lives does not look overly oppressive. As a consequence, there appears to be a waning of the powerfully antiauthoritarian impulse that arose in post-World War II America and characterized the United States throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

As noted earlier, the social pathologies characteristic of that period took a great toll on the young people of the past couple of decades. The trends that were so solidly in place by the late 1960s did not begin to recede until the 1990s, and then only very slowly. Like their Generation-X forerunners, today’s youth have grown up in a world in which families broke up with alarming regularity. If a child’s own family was still intact, countless others weren’t, and there was no way to be certain that one’s own situation wouldn’t soon follow the trend. Drug abuse, crime, alcoholism, and other such worries were all around them. Every American born in the last three decades has dodged the fatal bullet of elective abortion, and knows it.

Today’s young people thus have quite plausible reasons to consider giving traditional social values a try, and the poll numbers and their own behavior indicate that they are indeed beginning to do exactly that. Their Generation-X predecessors saw the problems but, having been raised in an antiauthoritarian culture, had no real notion of how to go about combating them.

Today’s young people, however, have grown up in an era when the excesses of the past half-century were only too evident, and it is obvious to them that some alternative must be embraced. As Neil Howe and William Strauss observed in their year 2000 book about this group, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, children polled said that the two top causes of problems in schools today are “students who don’t respect teachers and authorities,” and “selfishness, not thinking of the rights of others.” The authors also cite a poll reported in the July 5, 1999, issue of Time, in which 79 percent of the children surveyed said that of all the people they know or know about, the ones they look up to the most are their parents.

Hence, I would argue that today’s American culture, what we might call the Millennial culture, is something new. It represents the final exhaustion of the past half-century of social cynicism and distrust of authority, and I believe that this is likely to be a true and lasting cultural transformation. As I noted in this magazine shortly after the September 11 attacks, the firemen and police officers who raced into the World Trade Center, like the crew and passengers of Flight 93, were not born on September 11, 2001. Nor did they suddenly develop new, post-September 11 personalities when the terrorists took over those planes. They already were the people they proved to be on that day. They were heroes in waiting.

Those heroes were exceptional people called to do great things, of course, but they represent a reality that is becoming increasingly visible in America today. From soldiers to police and fire workers to political figures to ordinary people just down the street, America is increasingly showing a different side of itself these days: more confident and assertive (some would say reckless), more patriotic (some would say chauvinistic), more religious (some would say intolerant), and more loyal to family, church, and community (some would say provincial). My point here, I hasten to add, is not to stand in judgment on these changes but, rather, simply to take note of them and shed light on what they might mean.

The Millennial generation is a great repository of these impulses. Having survived the many pathologies of their childhood era, today’s young people are more inclined to seek out authority, reason, order, family, and faith than were their predecessor generations. If some of those factors seem to conflict with one another, so be it. This generation constitutes the largest group of young people since the Baby Boomers, and American society will increasingly find itself accommodating their wishes. The Millennial culture will be theirs to a great degree, and if you want to know where your immediate future lies, you could do much worse than to ask a young person today.

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