America's recovery from its Fourth Turning crisis, which I discussed last week, will rely heavily on the energy and ideas of a rising younger generation. Because of this, it was with particular fascination that I read the details of Don Imus's 30-year career and his sudden and spectacular fall from public favor last month. The Imus story embodies something of extraordinary significance that (of course) went unnoticed by the mainstream media, which chose instead to focus on the issue of race. While race was no doubt significant, looming even larger is evidence of a profound generational shift in the making. The nascent contours of a new generation's ideals can be seen sprouting and taking root - ideals which could soon eclipse the current 'me-first' Boomer culture that has dominated America for the past 40+ years.
The Millennial Generation (aka Generation Y), born between 1982 - 2003, is the largest generation since the Boom generation, and its eldest members are just beginning to come of age. Generational scholars Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of The Fourth Turning (1997) and Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000), give us some insight into the changes that lie ahead.
The Millennial Generation's sheer size gives it the power to challenge the current cultural norms and remake society in a way that the smaller, transitional Generation X (of which I am a member) was never able to do. According to Strauss and Howe, Millennials will rebel against the current culture in ways heretofore unimaginable to us today. They are destined to establish themselves as the anti-Boomers, remaking society into something as unrecognizable to aging Boomers as the 1960's were to their parents.
This is why the demise, not just of Imus - but the ideals he stands for - can be seen as the opening blow in a larger generational shift. Look at it this way: The crotchety, foul mouthed 66-year old Boomer-favorite Imus, long immune from criticism by his Boomer audience, was brought down by an idealistic, hard working 26-year old Millennial activist, Ryan Chiachiere. Ryan is one of several young activists who spend their days wading through hours of radio and cable shows for Media Matters for America. After isolating the offensive Imus clip, he spread the word using his generation's homegrown technology - YouTube. This lead to the first calls for Imus's ouster by young (black) journalists.
According to Strauss and Howe, overprotective "do as I say, not as I do" Boomer parents have done an excellent job of teaching their children manners, as well as the virtues of patience, tolerance, and respect - enforced by a strict ZTP (that's zero tolerance policy for those not up on the lingo). This new crop of earnest, self-confident, polite kids has apparently taken these lessons to heart. The takedown of Imus can be viewed as their enforcement of a "time out" for the foul-mouthed radio star - their way of telling the older generation that this kind of behavior is simply not okay.
The significance of this likely permanent"time out" for Imus seems to be that a major cultural shift is once again in the air. In the same way that Bob Dylan foresaw the rising cultural power of a new generation in 1964 with his classic premonition "The Times They Are A Changin'," today a new generation is once again on the rise.
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
In spite of Imus's advanced age, he remained as crude, tasteless, and insulting as someone who managed to escape ever learning proper manners. In spite of that - or perhaps because of it - he was a favorite among the Boomer power elite of senators, congressmen, journalists and authors. Why? He had something they coveted: Power and influence. Newsweek tells us:
[Imus] goaded the journalists and politicians who begged to appear on his show, belittling them as "fat losers" and "baldheaded weasels" or worse, and asking, with mock solemnity, for their analysis of the presidential "erection." He once called Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, a regular on the show, a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy."
Uggh. No wonder I never listened. But in spite of his base offensiveness:
[Imus's] show became an influential salon for the politically connected. Powerful people tuned in to hear what other powerful people would say. For a certain segment of status-obsessed journalists, being called names by Imus was better than not being called at all...
"I wanted to be where the action was on my beat," says Newsweek's Howard Fineman, an Imus regular. "The show, however unsavory it could be, was one of those places. I thought, or perhaps only imagined, that being on the show gave me more clout on the beat. But I rationalized my appearances by pointing to other prominent journalists and politicians who did it, too," he says. "I was eager to sell books, and I liked being in the in crowd."
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
American Culture is Boomer Culture
When I was 19 years old, I lived for an extended period of time in Japan and came to realize for the first time that there is such a thing as "American culture." When you're born here and live your whole life here, it is nearly impossible to discern - much like a fish unaware of the water it lives in. Without a contrasting reference, that which is familiar becomes nearly invisible. In the same way, I had a similar epiphany reading Millennials Rising: What we commonly think of as "American culture" simply reflects Boomer cultural values that have been dominant for the past 40 years. But things weren't always this way, nor will they always be this way in the future.
In many ways, Imus encapsulates American Boomer culture: Anything goes, as long as it 1) makes money, and 2) is good for 'me.' Imus's long running show epitomizes this fact. His same offensive, racist, homophobic shtick had been working well for him for the past 30 years. Guests were willing to take the fame, glory and money and simply look away when it came to the ugly parts. Offensive as his "nappy headed ho" comment is - and offensive it is: the etymology of the word 'ho' is whore - it was just par for the course for Imus.
This time however - suddenly - something had changed. It certainly wasn't Imus - he was as unchanging as ever. The change was the stirring of a new social mood, spawned by the culture of a rising generation. Newsweek again:
[Imus] inadvertently unleashed years of pent-up anger about his racial, ethnic, misogynist and homophobic antics. Suddenly some of America's largest media companies and most important corporate advertisers were confronted with the fact that they had been complicit in the rise and reign of a purveyor of ugly stereotypes. Mainstream figures and institutions that had chosen to compartmentalize the Imus kingdom-enjoying the salon while overlooking the slurs-realized they could no longer have it both ways.
But why now? In Chapter Three, The Coming Millennial Revolution, Strauss & Howe note that hardly anyone ever anticipates generational changes, and like Imus, are usually blind-sided as a result. Imus honestly didn't know what hit him. He didn't know he'd said anything wrong, because for thirty years, under the cultural norms defined by the current generation, it wasn't wrong. So-called "conservatives" like Pat Buchanan and "liberals" like John Kerry share one thing in common. They still don't think there was anything particularly wrong with Don Imus or his show. In their minds, he was just joking around like we all do.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
I realize that the generational aspect is not the whole story - many people wanted to see Imus gone for a long time, and for a number of reasons. But the generational aspect is part of the story that has so far been ignored. What the whole Imus event hints at is that Boomer culture is starting to wane. Millennials are infiltrating the culture with a fresh set of attitudes. A different article in the same issue of Newsweek notes that as Imus becomes history, Steve Harvey, a younger, African-American comedian is on the rise in morning radio:
He and his studio gang talk about race ... but with nonabrasive humor and upbeat music. They dispense advice on subjects ranging from love (be faithful) to barbecuing in the front yard (don't). "He's not a shock jock," says his syndicator, Martin Melius of Premiere Radio Networks. "He wants to be inspirational and positive, not divisive." (Emphasis mine)
People always seem to expect the future to be a linear extension of the present, but this is never the case in history. All generations rebel against the prevailing attitudes of the society in which they come of age and reshape the cultural norms. Each new generation, according to Strauss & Howe:
solves the problem facing the prior youth generation (Generation X), whose style has become dysfunctional in the new era;
corrects for the behavioral excess it perceives in the current midlife generation (Boomers);
and fills the social role being vacated by the departing eldest generation (GI Generation)
The current Millennial Generation, they say:
will correct for what today's teens perceive are the excesses of middle-aged Boomers - the narcissism, impatience, iconoclasm, and constant focus on talk (usually argument) over action.
Interesting that Newsweek's Boomer Fineman asserts that, "America was built on argument. Arguing is what we are." According to Strauss & Howe, it would be more appropriate for him to say "Arguing is what Boomers are."
In other words, the new kids are growing up to be anti-Boomers, the same way that Boomers themselves rebelled against their own parents and grew up to be anti-conformists. The Millennials should grow to fill the social role of the departing GI generation - the likes of Joe Dimaggio (died 1999) (Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…), Ronald Reagan (2004) and Jimmy Stewart (1997). Can you imagine any of those gentlemen going on Imus's radio show to suffer the kind of disrespectful abuse that Imus meted out, just to sell their book or promote their movie? Certainly not the Jimmy Stewart I know! I can almost hear him now: Now you just wait one minute here, you Mr. - Mr. Imus! I don't want to hear any more of this - this kind of disrespectful talk. I don't need you or your kind to sell any lousy movies for me. Goodbye!
Boomers Don't Believe It
Oh, yes - I can already hear the smirks from Boomers out in cyberspace, echoing Lee Iaccoca's recent comments: "I'd love to [leave it to the younger generation], as soon as I can pry them away from their iPods for five seconds and get them to pay attention." I've heard as much from Boomer parents. Aren't these the kids, after all, who are watching their own brand of offensive TV programs and listening to music with offensive lyrics?
Adults blame the current crop of kids for their own offensive media, but it is "the 30-year olds who write it, the 50-year olds who produce it, [and] the 70-year olds whose portfolio's profit from it!" Today's youth culture is filled with words and images that are offensive to most adults, but the adults producing it sure like the money they make from it! The big surprise is that - according to the research by Strauss and Howe - the majority of kids find it offensive, too. They go along with it is because for the time being, they have to. They're just kids, after all.
But their turn is coming.
Strauss and Howe go to great lengths to take on widespread misconceptions about the rising generation. They note that prior to the defining event of the Kennedy Assassination in 1963, Boomer kids were mindlessly watching Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in surfer movies, giving every indication that they would accept their parent's conformist world 'as is' and "merge seamlessly into the world of tract houses, corporate jobs, and stay-at-home moms." No one at the time came to the logical conclusion that they would reject it all and rebel against the status quo, just as no one now expects the current Millennial generation to complain much (what is there to complain about - they have everything!) or amount to much more than super consumers, just like their parents.
But simply trying to make a linear extrapolation of their current lives of iPods, manga, video games, internet chat and YouTube misunderstands a fundamental, recurring characteristic about all generations: They rebel. They all do, and they always do. What seems to be lost on the critics of the Millennials is that - for the time being - the kids are simply reflecting the cultural images and social mood created by their elders. How they rebel is likely to be the defining story of the next several decades.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'
Revolution in the Air
Howe and Strauss assure us that the kids are smarter than most people give them credit for, and that they see through the hypocrisy and the double standards of the adult world quite clearly. When they're ready, they'll reshape the world into one that is more in line with their own - not their parents - values, much to the bewilderment of their elders. This coming of age will most likely occur against the backdrop of the Fourth Turning crisis that the authors have discussed previously, perfectly setting the stage for the re-imagining of America.
According to Strauss & Howe:
Per the experience of earlier generations, the coming of age of the Millennial Generation is likely to take place in the midst of a profound shift in America's social mood, a shift that will match and reflect the new generation's personna. For Millennials, this shift will focus on the needs of the community more than the individual, so it is likely to induce large-scale institutional change. Thus, the word rebellion is not entirely appropriate. The word revolution might better catch the spirit of what lies ahead.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.