The generation game

by John Quiggin on August 17, 2012

The issue of generational politics came up in the discussion of my grandfather clause post, so I thought I would republish what I immodestly regard as the definitive refutation of the entire genre of “generation game” writing. I wrote it in 2000, so it’s now the better part of a generation old, but as far as I can see, nothing I’ve written needs to be changed[1]. But, doubtless, the CT commentary team will find much that needs to be changed, or should never have been written, so have at it.

One of the standard ploys in journalism, marketing and political commentary is the generation game. The basic idea is to label a generation ‘X’ or ‘Y’, then dissect its attitudes, culture, and relationship with other generations. The most famous generation, of course, is that of the Baby Boomers, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, and their most enduring contribution to the generation gap is the ‘Generation Gap’ between children and their parents.

The generation game is played with particular vigour in cultural commentary, but its reach seems to be extending all the time. No US Presidential election would now be complete without voluminous commentary on the generational backgrounds of the contenders. There is even a branch of economics called generational accounting, which is supposed to show whether one generation is subsidising another through the tax and welfare system.

At first sight, discussion of this kind can carry with it an air of fresh insight, but most of it stales rapidly. Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups Ð the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

Most of the time, age effects are more important than cohort effects. The primary schoolers of the 1960s were very like the primary schoolers of today and, of course, totally different from the middle-aged parents they have become. The grandparents of today are more like their own grandparents than the bodgies and widgies they may have been in the 1950s.

The same applies to the standard rhetoric that one age group applies to another. For example, Mark Davis in Ganglands quotes various baby-boomer pundits denouncing the younger generation as ‘slackers’ and dole bludgers’. In the 1970s, precisely the same thing was being said about the younger members of the boomer cohort, then in their late teens and early twenties. In turn, much of the prejudice about dole bludgers was derived from the mixture of horror and envy which greeted members of the first wave of baby boomers, the hippies of the 1960s, with their rejection of the work ethic and indulgence in sex and drugs.

Age-group posturing of this kind changes in response to changing social circumstances, but only very slowly. As far as the role of younger age-groups is concerned, nothing much has changed since the discovery, or invention, of the teenager in the 1950s. The discovery resulted primarily from the arrival of near-universal high-school education, which suddenly created a uniform mass experience, with an associated set of common rituals.

The discovery of the teenage generation was rapidly followed by the ‘teenager problem’ and then the ‘generation gap’. The archetypal cultural statement of the ‘teenager problem’ is the film Blackboard Jungle which launched the first great Rock’n’Roll hit, Rock Around the Clock. The movie has all the usual clichés, and the then-mandatory happy ending in which enlightened adult authority is restored. The defining moment is the scene where the teenage delinquents smash a teacher’s treasured collection of records from the swing era. The idea that each generation should have its own musical style, incomprehensible and repellent to older generations, has never been put more simply and brutally. Although it has gradually been stripped of any subversive content, the same idea dominates the music industry today, with products targeted at every demographic from preteens to golden oldies.

At the other end of the age scale, the increase in life expectancy has gradually weakened the hold of age-specific categories. Fifty years ago, few people could expect to live past eighty, and anyone over sixty was considered old. People aged between forty and sixty were middle-aged in the literal sense of being in the middle of their adult life. Today, hardly anyone between forty and sixty admits to being middle-aged. Middle age, if it exists at all, seems to commence in the late fifties, while government-sponsored advertising campaigns tell us that no-one is ‘old’, merely ‘older’. A recent Harris Poll conducted for the National Council on Aging found that almost half the people between 65 and 69 now consider themselves middle-aged. So do one-third of people in their 70s. But these changes have taken place over many decades. The parents of the Baby Boomers were already taking umbrage back in the 1960s when their children referred to them as ‘middle-aged and middle-class’.

Once we strip out the more-or-less constant social distinctions associated with membership of a given age-group, the idea that we can say much about any particular cohort becomes far more dubious. In fact, cohort effects are only of much importance between the ages of 16 and about 25. The experience of childhood is dominated by family and school, and, while both families and schools have changed since the 1950s, the rate of change from one decade to the next has been quite slow.

On the other hand, by the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their live courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences. The differences between men and women, rich and poor, workers and bosses, married and single, parents and nonparents count for much more than the commonality that comes from sharing a date on a birth certificate.

For the crucial decade from 16 to 25, however, common experiences related to growing up at a particular time can be very important. Whether the labour market is in a boom or a slump when you finish school can make a big difference to your subsequent career. For males, an even more important question is whether the years of military age coincide with a major war. Peacetime and wartime generations, or boom and slump generations, can be very different.

Vietnam was the perfect generational war. It was big enough that it required mass conscription of unenfranchised 18-year-olds (the lottery element and the deferment system only enhanced the unfairness of this), but small enough that it required no economic sacrifice from the adult electorate who voted for it. Still less was there any hint of centralised direction of labour or a general system of conscription for the entire male military-age population, as had been applied during World War II.

The generation gap was only heightened by the fact that the war took place during the last decade of an unprecedented (and subsequently unrivalled) 25-year boom. In times of high unemployment, there is a steady supply of young men willing to put on a uniform in return for a steady wage and full board, but few in the 1960s saw fighting the Vietcong as an appealing employment option. Even among those who went willingly, there was a sense of exploitation that has been reflected in the subsequent political rhetoric of Vietnam veterans, which is radically different from that of the older-generation RSL.

At least for males then, there is something in the idea of a ‘Vietnam generation’. But the facile identification of this group with the ‘baby boomers’ is quite misleading. Demographically, the baby boom began in 1946 and petered out in the early 1960s, so that the beginnings of the baby boom and the Vietnam generation coincided. Economically and culturally, however, the Vietnam generation have a lot more in common with the ‘baby bust’ cohort, born during and just before World War II, than with baby boomers born after 1954.

Economically, the crucial dividing point was the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of economic management in 1972, quickly followed by the oil shock of 1973. Those who entered the labour market before 1973 were faced with an abundance of jobs and easy access to career paths. They were mostly unaffected by the crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, which bore disproportionately on the young, that is, on the cohorts born between the late 1950s and the early 1970s.

It was not until the recession we had to have, from 1989 to 1992, and the waves of downsizing in the 1990s, that the end of postwar prosperity really hit the Vietnam generation and the baby bust cohort. Although the focus of policy attention remained firmly on youth unemployment, the real story of the 1990s was the disappearance of jobs for workers over 50, and particularly for men over 50. The employment rate for this group has fallen from nearly 100 per cent during the postwar boom to around 50 per cent today.[2]

The cultural affinity between the Vietnam generation and the baby bust cohort is equally strong. In fact, most of the cultural icons of the Vietnam generation were actually born before 1945. Obvious examples are the Beatles and Rolling Stones, not to mention James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Throughout the 1960s, rock music was made by the children of the baby bust, who were in the fortunate position of having the largest audience in history. Other members of the baby bust cohort took the chance to establish themselves as the social and political voice of youth, a position which they then sought to maintain well into middle age.

The era of rock music as a generational statement ran from the mid-1950s to about 1970. The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and the breakup of the Beatles are commonly taken to symbolise the end of the rock revolution. In fact, though, every decade has its rock martyrs from Buddy Holly in the 1950s to Kurt Cobain in the 1990s. What mattered more than the occasional deaths and breakups was the survival of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and other megabands. Having started out as teenage rebels (sometimes with judicious adjustments to their official ages) these 1960s icons maintained their position at the top of the rock world as they went from their 30s into their 40s and 50s. The days when popular music belonged to the young were over, and the music industry was back in the saddle.

By the 1970s, when the later baby-boomers were in their teenage years, countercultural events like Woodstock had been replaced by the mass-market stadium rock of bands like Grand Funk Railroad The postures of youthful revolt persisted, but they were now merely marketing statements directed at one among many market niches. Middle-aged viewers of the Olympics are given the nostalgic opportunity to remember when they hoped to die before they got old, even as the same slogan is offered to their teenage children.

A combination of circumstances in the late 1950s and the 1960s created a generational moment for those who were young in that blissful false dawn. For that brief moment, the distinction between the young and the old seemed fundamentally important. Generational cliches took root and have become part of our culture, but they have outlived their usefulness. The winners and losers in a world of globalisation, attacks on the welfare state and resurgent market forces cannot be neatly parcelled into age groups, however often commentators on both sides of the debate attempt it.

fn1. One update is needed – the late baby boomers I distinguish from the Vietnam Generation have now been quasi-officially named Generation Jones
fn2. References in this para are to Australian experience, which differed slightly from that in other countries.

{ 149 comments }

1

Andrae 08.17.12 at 7:13 am

I have always thought that cohorts are best defined by pivotal events that shaped the world they first knew. Another cohort distinction I have always made, is between those old enough to have “grown up” during the Nuclear-Winter/M.A.D. period of the cold-war, but not old enough to really remember anytime before that. Assuming this means they were between 5-12 yrs old, within the period between deployment of SLBC-MIRV’s ~1972 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this cohort is those born between ~1967 and ~1977. This “Generation X” grew up being told from an early age that they would never have the chance to be adults because the world would end first. Much of what the boomer commentariat seem to find puzzling about this cohort is readily explained by considering this. In a very real sense this cohort grew up in a society that claimed it was going to kill them before they had a chance to come of age. The varied reactions to this cease to be quite so puzzling when considered in this light.

2

reason 08.17.12 at 7:25 am

John,
This reads pretty well to me. Not quite sure what the point is though. Why not just condemn “generationalism” as we do any attempt to stick a label (often meant to be derogatory) on a large and diverse group of people.

3

Metatone 08.17.12 at 8:15 am

In today’s Europe at least, we seem to be breeding a big cohort effect – youth unemployment around 50% in Spain seems like it would…

4

Phil 08.17.12 at 9:54 am

What mattered more than the occasional deaths and breakups was the survival of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and other megabands. Having started out as teenage rebels (sometimes with judicious adjustments to their official ages) these 1960s icons maintained their position at the top of the rock world as they went from their 30s into their 40s and 50s.

By the 1970s, when the later baby-boomers were in their teenage years, countercultural events like Woodstock had been replaced by the mass-market stadium rock of bands like Grand Funk Railroad

What you missed here is the punk caesura. For a while, around about 1978-9, the market for soft rock & prog rock went through the floor; acts like ELP and Peter Frampton went from solid cultural dominance to niche status in a matter of months. For a while it really did look as if punk had changed everything; only the most adaptable of the old rockers – Bowie, Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson – were going to survive with any kind of credibility, and even they were never going to be as cool again. Speculatively, we read the process back into rock history – there’d been a big clear-out of pre-hippie acts in 1967-8, surely, to say nothing of the original rock’n’roll revolution in 1957 – and waited eagerly to see what 1987 would bring.

Then the music industry regrouped, and the rest we know. Everything would always be the same again.

5

aepxc 08.17.12 at 10:11 am

I think this understates the importance of the cohort effect. Age determines how solid (or how flexible) one’s perspectives are. Generations determine the experiences that defined the foundations for those perspectives. It’s a question of what you know vs. how certain you are in your knowledge (including the option of being sure that everything is relative and you can never know anything but that).

One’s degree of certitude is certainly easily seen in one’s preferences and one’s actions. But the things that one is certain about have a less explicit but more wide-reaching impact.

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John Quiggin 08.17.12 at 10:11 am

@Phil I absolutely agree. I was a huge fan of punk, for precisely the reasons you give. I lived in Canberra at the time, and there was a Trotskyite (ISO) punk band called Correct Line, who were brilliantly appallingly bad in musical terms, but perfect in punk terms. And “everything would always be the same” wins the thread.

7

Watson Ladd 08.17.12 at 11:41 am

@Phil: I disagree. The music industry was after the mid 70’s unable to effectively dominate the way people listened to music as it was before then. College radio stations, live performances, and the lower cost of production all made it easier to sell music, and today one only needs to make an mp3 to sell it. Payola was also banned for a period of time.

As evidence notice how the top bands sell fewer and fewer records as a percentage of all records sold. More and more music is listened to, but from a much more diverse array of bands. Electronica is one example of this, as is the continued viability of Jazz.

@Andrae: Wrong dates! Nuclear annihilation was a major threat of the 1950’s. The late 70’s moment was a much more optimistic one. Major hollywood movies about nuclear annihilation have not been made since then. Duck and cover was long over by 1970. Instead we had new cultural fears predicated on survival. The green movement makes no sense if nuclear war is a possibility at any moment.

8

Barry Freed 08.17.12 at 12:15 pm

aepxc I think this understates the importance of the cohort effect. Age determines how solid (or how flexible) one’s perspectives are. Generations determine the experiences that defined the foundations for those perspectives.

You’re misunderstanding JQ here. As he points out age also determines experiences: getting ones’ first job, major promotion, children, grandchildren, retirement, etc.

Watson, you could not be more wrong. I was born in 1965 (and appalled to find out that some consider me in Gen Jones!). Nuclear annihilation was a major fear of my generation when we were young. And while it’s true we didn’t “duck and cover” as portrayed in that 50s civil defense film, we did have air raid drills in elementary school where we would file out into the hallway, face the wall, get on our knees and elbows, tuck our heads in and cover them with our hands. Scared the shit out of me. This fear was omnipresent – I don’t know anyone my age who didn’t routinely have nightmares about nuclear war – and massively increased when Reagan took office (“We begin bombing in five minutes” ha ha ha).
As for films, please see The Day After, Threads, WarGames, all from the early 80s. And post apocalyptic film was a well developed genre by then: A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max, etc.

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Barry Freed 08.17.12 at 12:21 pm

Also 1982 was the publication date of Jonathan Schell’s best seller “The Fate of the Earth” which mainstreamed the terrifying concept of Nuclear Winter.

10

Chris 08.17.12 at 12:26 pm

Any conversation on generations is incomplete without discussing what a hash the Baby Boomers have made of the generational compact that linked our society together. By making promises and engaging funding obligations that will be impossible to fulfill, they have placed my generation in a highly tenuous situation. They could have not made the promises or they could have chosen to spend public money more wisely and maybe even raise taxes. But they did neither. They’ve tried fad after fad with education but haven’t managed to improve schools or the environmental factors necessary for true education to thrive. They told us to go to college and get an education and encouraged us to take out ridiculously large loans because “it was worth it”. And yet how many of us are unemployed or underemployed?

At the same time the number of retirement homes exploded, responding to their demand to not have to take care of their parents. They patched it up a bit with Medicare, but that’s about the extent of their obligation to the elderly who have gone before.

Forget fears and music and other arbitrary cultural identifiers. The American generation raised after World War II is the most narcissistic and egotistical in the history of the world.

11

Hidden Heart 08.17.12 at 1:04 pm

I was also born in 1965, and agree with Barry. “The late 70’s moment was a much more optimistic one.” is as thoroughly disconnected from any reality I’m familiar with as most of Watson’s comments. The only people in my cohort who seemed to genuinely feel no sense of impending doom on multiple fronts were the ones buying into their parents’ fundamentalist religiosity, increasingly fanatical right-wing politics [1], or both.

1: Southern California of that era was ahead of some unpleasant national trends. We’d already had Howard Jarvis and his Proposition 13, and the state was suffering the damage. We had James Dobson as an established figure before his racism drove him out of the state to whiter climes. And, of course, we had the Orange County Republicanism that helped push Reagan and so many other hatemongers along.

12

JW Mason 08.17.12 at 1:06 pm

This all seems exactly right to me. I am going to simply replace my own similar but less well worked out thoughts on the subject, with this post.

An interesting implication is that generations are not of equal length and also not exhaustive. Not everyone’s in one. Very distinct, life-changing widely shared events occur rarely and irregularly. If there was one in your 16-25 window, that’s your generation. If not, you aren’t a member of any particular generation. Or at least, less prominent defying events mean less well-defined generations.

Wars are the obvious generation-making events, as JQ says. The Depression presumably one. I like to think of the generation of “1968” the way Spain had its generation of 1898. I don’t think there’s been anything close to that in recent decades. Though in Europe, at least, it’s possible a generation-making event is happening now.

I doubt this way of looking at things will catch on. Our culture prefers as riptide categories, for whatever reason.

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JW Mason 08.17.12 at 1:09 pm

“as riptide” should be ascriptive, of course. And categories should be classifications, tho that’s a failure of word choice rather than spellcheck.

14

Uncle Kvetch 08.17.12 at 1:17 pm

The late 70’s moment was a much more optimistic one.

Jesu Christe. You really, truly, honestly don’t know anything about anything, do you?

(Sorry for that, John…but come on. Every. Single. Thread.)

15

David Moles 08.17.12 at 1:55 pm

You’re not sorry, Kvetch.

16

Watson Ladd 08.17.12 at 1:58 pm

In the 1950’s and 1960’s there was the Berlin crisis, the Korean war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and no mechanisms for coexistence. The Doomsday Clock advanced during the 1950’s due to superpower problems: during the 1970’s its advance was driven by peripheral countries. I do not think the US and Russia were going to go to war over Kashmir. The Reagan escalation may have made things more unstable: I doubt it because the status quo had largely solidified and become acceptable to both sides. Proxy war was not going to escalate at that point, and Russia was not going to start a war, with US conventional forces at parity with Russian forces in Europe towards the end of that decade.

As for optimism: the economic situation of the 1980’s is as JQ pointed out very different for different people. Certainly the glam rock and Madonna performances, with their array of wealth, signify a social difference from the image of the prog rock band as operators of their instruments. I’ve got no idea what the difference is (escapist fantasy in the 1980’s vs. enlightened rationality in the 1960’s) but it has something to do with society.

17

m drago 08.17.12 at 2:01 pm

It is a pleasure to read something intelligent on this issue; an anecdote: a widow of a WWII veteran once said to me, “The greatest generation? Ha! We were no different from anyone else.”

18

OCS 08.17.12 at 2:17 pm

I’m surprised to see so many people taking exception to Watson’s comments on the dating of the fear of nuclear annihilation. I was born in 1962, and my sense was that the feeling of the inevitability of a nuclear war had faded by the time I was in school, replaced with an anxious hopefulness that we could probably avoid it.

There was a lot of anti-nuclear sentiment, pressure for disarmament, etc. — my friends staged anti-nuc “die ins” at university. But I associate the extreme pessimism with a slightly earlier time — I have the image of a crewcut guy in a jacket and skinny tie, parked with his poodle-skirted date, pleading, “Come on, baby, we could both be dead tomorrow!” By the time I was a teen, no one was using that line.

No one was building their own bomb shelters, and the fading civil defense signs on public buildings seemed like a holdover from an earlier generation. We did have disaster drills in school where we crouched in the hallways. But I grew up in tornado alley, so we figured it was just for that.

19

Uncle Kvetch 08.17.12 at 2:32 pm

No one was building their own bomb shelters, and the fading civil defense signs on public buildings seemed like a holdover from an earlier generation.

OCS, I was born in 1964. I agree with you that the concept of fallout shelters had become somewhat quaint by the late ’70s, but for a very different reason, in my opinion: the notion of “surviving” a nuclear war — or of anyone wanting to survive one — was itself somewhat quaint. I distinctly remember many a dorm-room bull session in the ’80s revolving around the theme of “If it has to happen, please God let me be at ground zero.”

And having a president at the time who “joked” about “outlawing Russia forever” didn’t exactly help put minds at ease.

20

JanieM 08.17.12 at 2:45 pm

Another cohort distinction I have always made, is between those old enough to have “grown up” during the Nuclear-Winter/M.A.D. period of the cold-war, but not old enough to really remember anytime before that. Assuming this means they were between 5-12 yrs old, within the period between deployment of SLBC-MIRV’s ~1972 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this cohort is those born between ~1967 and ~1977. This “Generation X” grew up being told from an early age that they would never have the chance to be adults because the world would end first.

This describes me and my age-mates to a T, and I was born in 1950, so I don’t think identifying “those born between ~1967 and ~1977″ as special in this regard makes much sense.

The fear that we were all going to die in a nuclear war was a primary shaping force in my childhood. The first thing I remember reading on my own (this is not to say that it *was* the first thing, but the fact that it’s the one I remember is the point) was a terrifying Civil Defense pamphlet that outlined the effects of exposure to radiation from a bomb. That would have been in the mid-fifties; I’m sure my parents never meant me to see it, or realized I could already read well enough to take it in. I have a vivid memory of thinking, on the day JFK was killed (I was 13), that now it was coming: that cold hard fear in my belly that we were all going to die shortly.

So yes — playing the game of dividing people up into generational groupings may be a fun intellectual pastime, but it doesn’t make much sense when you look at it more closely. All the nasty generalizing about “boomers” drives me crazy for that reason; hiding amongst the hippies when I was in college there were still people who wanted to be in ROTC, and conversely nowadays, there are “boomers” in the Tea Party and “boomers” who think the Occupy movement is just a drop in the bucket of what we really need to be doing.

21

Ragweed 08.17.12 at 2:47 pm

@WL – the type of fear and the type of threat was different. Things may have stabilized, but the fear that something would trigger a world-ending nuclear war ran high, at least among youth at the time. The notion of MAD and nuclear winter really sunk in – we were aware that the world could effectively end even if “we” won, even if not a single US or allied city was nuked. And the fear was not only that the Soviets might attack – among liberal high-school students the fear was that Regan would start a nuclear war, not Breshnev. It was not until the late 1980s and the Gorbachav era that the fear of nuclear war really subsided. But there was an ebb and flow – the 70s were more optimistic with Nixon going to China and all of that, the 80s less so.

I suspect though that this also highlights the role of age differences vs generational ones. To a middle-aged follower of foreign policy, the 80s seem much less threatening than the early 1960s*. To a 16-year old watching The Day After and learning about nuclear winter, things seem very different.

*I have also read stories of older academics in the 1960s pooh-poohing the Cuban Missile crisis, during the middle of it, as nothing but idle posturing, so maybe the age factor is more important.

22

bianca steele 08.17.12 at 3:12 pm

Those born around 1965 or so (I was born in 1966) are the right age to have been living with their parents when draft registration was reinstated, so it seems possible that there was more anxiety about Cold War global politics than there had been a few years earlier.

23

Kenny Easwaran 08.17.12 at 3:20 pm

As far as the role of younger age-groups is concerned, nothing much has changed since the discovery, or invention, of the teenager in the 1950s.

Is that right? Certainly over the last decade reporters have often discussed “tweens” as a new and important category (especially for girls), but since I don’t have much interaction with 10-12 year olds, I don’t know if there’s actually anything new going on there. Were there pop stars specifically targeting this age group before Miley Cyrus/the Olson twins?

24

Omega Centauri 08.17.12 at 4:24 pm

The era of Nuclear angst, really ran from the early fifties to the late 80’s, so it took in more than one of what we call “generations”, but which are more accurately described as cohorts. Maybe the experienec of the younger cohorts of this era was a bit different, my cohort (b1952) had already lived -and I think moslty discounted this fear by the time the younger cohort was experiencing it. Perhaps the differing attitude of the next older cohort makes the experience different.

What we haven’t discussed here is whether there is a political seachange coming, as older cohorts die off, and younger (presumably more liberal) ones get the vote. For all the talk about demography being the future, I have serious doubts, the aging of each cohort affects its attitudes. We thought the baby boomers would usher in an era of liberalism -yet many are now tea-partiers.

25

Ragweed 08.17.12 at 4:42 pm

I think Josh Mason really hits on a key point about the whole notion of generational differences – it matters more what events happen. There were huge differences between the experience of the depression and WWII and the period of post-war prosperity in the US on many levels. There was not only the contrast between the scarcity and rationing of the earlier era and the rampant consumerism that followed, but also cultural factors like the swith from Rosie the Riveter to the 1950s housewife. The social upheaval of the 1960s-early 70s was also a major shift – the Vietnam war was not just a generational war for the men who faced getting drafted, it was also a major crisis of trust in government.

But since the late 70s we haven’t had the same kind of dramatic cultural shifts. The end of the cold war and 9/11 are significant, but there is little difference except in scale between the wars of the 80s and the wars of the last decade (imperial wars fought in far-away places against technologically less-advanced enemies using non-conventional tactics, by a relatively small proportion of the population who “volunteered”). Even 9/11, though it differed in scale, had a certain continuity with the terrorist attacks of the 1980s. There is a lot of economic continuity over that period as well – greater instability and job insecurity, growing inequality, women largely in workforce, etc. There really hasn’t been a remarkable generation-defining event since the end of the Vietnam war.

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Josh G. 08.17.12 at 5:00 pm

Omega Centauri: “What we haven’t discussed here is whether there is a political seachange coming, as older cohorts die off, and younger (presumably more liberal) ones get the vote. For all the talk about demography being the future, I have serious doubts, the aging of each cohort affects its attitudes.

Not really – this is largely an urban legend (often found accompanied with a fake Winston Churchill quote). Rather, people tend to form their political views relatively early in adulthood and change them only slightly as they age. And in many cases, those changes are actually in a liberal direction. These political views are often formed in large part by the zeitgeist of the era.

Omega Centauri: “We thought the baby boomers would usher in an era of liberalism yet many are now teapartiers.

The Baby Boomers were never really as liberal or monolithic a group as media portrayals indicate. They were always about evenly divided between Democratic/liberal and Republican/conservative views, and this continues to be the case. What you are probably thinking of as “baby boomers” in the Tea Party context is actually in large part a previous cohort, the Silent Generation (born 1925-1945). This is the “keep your government hands off my Medicare” crowd. Too young to fight in WWII, too old for Vietnam. With the exception of early childhood (where some of them went through the Depression), they basically lived a charmed life, entering the job market when wages were skyrocketing far faster than inflation, even for workers with only a high school diploma. And if they did want to go to college, it was usually cheap or free. They bought houses when they were dirt cheap and interest rates were low, and got to sell them at far higher prices once they moved into their empty-nest phase. But, like most people, they convinced themselves that their success was all their own doing (nothing to do with the New Deal and Keynesianism!) As soon as they were done with the universities, they voted to de-fund them for the next generation. They gladly accepted two-tier labor deals that would screw over younger workers. They voted for Ronald Reagan. They outsourced jobs and jacked up credential requirements, forcing their successors to work harder for lower pay than they ever had. No wonder the Republicans think they can pull their “over-55″ switcheroo with Medicare; the Silent Generation has been willing to sell out their children and grandchildren every other step of the way.
Of course I am generalizing here, but if you want to blame one generation, don’t blame the boomers or the Greatest Generation, blame the in-between group that basically got to have their cake, eat it too, and then make damn sure no one else could get a bite.

27

Ragweed 08.17.12 at 5:05 pm

No one was building their own bomb shelters, and the fading civil defense signs on public buildings seemed like a holdover from an earlier generation.

That was a big difference in the response and perception of what nuclear war would be. In the 1950s there were duck-and-cover drills and bomb shelters, which had, implicit within it, the idea that a nuclear war was something survivable. In the 1980s, the idea of planning for the outcome of nuclear war seemed ludicrous (remember the ridicule heaped on the postal change of address cards after the 1982 hearings?) because it was understood that it was unwinnable. In the ’80s, you prayed you didn’t survive a nuclear war.

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jafd 08.17.12 at 5:09 pm

Two minor points:

Generations (ISBN 0-688-11912-3) (1991), the book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, is perhaps the outstanding work of nomothetic history by Americans in the past half-century, although that may not be saying much. Worth a read, IMHO.

Music – I remember walking through a college campus one recent September, hearing a song from my college days playing, wondering what my reaction would have been if I’d heard a 1928-vintage recording coming from the frat-house window in my freshman year.

Partial explanation is that, roughly by 1965, the technology of magnetic-tape recording reached ‘good-enough’ level, such that most popular music recorded earlier _sounds_ ‘dated’, but good stuf from the Beatles onward is still ‘on the playlists’

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JW Mason 08.17.12 at 5:12 pm

since the late 70s we haven’t had the same kind of dramatic cultural shifts. The end of the cold war and 9/11 are significant, but there is little difference except in scale between the wars of the 80s and the wars of the last decade (imperial wars fought in far-away places against technologically less-advanced enemies using non-conventional tactics, by a relatively small proportion of the population who “volunteered”). Even 9/11, though it differed in scale, had a certain continuity with the terrorist attacks of the 1980s. There is a lot of economic continuity over that period as well – greater instability and job insecurity, growing inequality, women largely in workforce, etc. There really hasn’t been a remarkable generation-defining event since the end of the Vietnam war.

Exactly.

I wonder how this generations stuff plays out in places like China, where there have been so many more epoch-making events. Maybe people there have more important things to worry about.

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Anarcissie 08.17.12 at 5:24 pm

I think there was one significant ‘generation gap’, caused by the various disruptions and excitements of World War 2. First, for several years, daddy was not home to beat the kids, mommy was in the factory, terrific and terrifying events were happening, and the children that were born and passed their early years in this environment (‘War Babies’ in ad biz/pop soc lingo) were unusually rebellious (for instance, Bob Dylan and Mario Savio.) Secondly, the big war and its horrors inspired a lot of reproduction once it was over, and we got the Baby Boom under conditions of weakened patriarchal authority and dull, cautious conservatism. As the first War Babies hit adulthood, in the early 1960s, they started making trouble, which attracted younger people and offered political opportunities to activists, producing a definite gap or jump in popular culture. Of course, this led to a kind of marketing and commerce, which enshrined the notion of a ‘generation’ as a selling tool even though the sacred gap is now long in the past. That is, the notion of a succession of highly distinct generations (or cohorts, if you like) is an artifact of media and advertising, whose first job is to sell themselves, not a reflection of anything more substantial. The last distinct act of the Boomers seems to have been to elect Ronald Reagan and his ‘new morning in America’, which set us on a pretty steady downhill path already contemplated in the 1970s. I don’t see any significant gaps or jumps since the first famous one.

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Josh G. 08.17.12 at 5:33 pm

Anarcissie: “ The last distinct act of the Boomers seems to have been to elect Ronald Reagan and his ‘new morning in America’, which set us on a pretty steady downhill path already contemplated in the 1970s.

Reagan was elected by the Silent Generation, not the boomers. This is the same group that spearheaded the “tax revolt” in California and later nationwide, and that today forms the Fox News demographic and the backbone of the Tea Party. Yet everyone seems to insist that they’re “boomers” even though they very clearly are not, either demographically or culturally.

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bob mcmanus 08.17.12 at 5:53 pm

28: First time voters and 20 somethings* voted for Reagan more than the boomers, which has consistently been the most liberal loyal Democratic cohort in the last century.

*Like Obama

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Salient 08.17.12 at 5:53 pm

On the other hand, by the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their live courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences.

Ok, except I’d guess that substantial changes in received entitlements between generations, create substantial rifts in cohorts’ understanding of privileges vs. rights. Sure that’s exogenous and kind of circular, it could account for a substantial plurality of the negative stuff self-proclaimed representatives of cohort A mention in their complaints about cohort B (more about the Overton window of the cohort, in a privileges vs rights kind of way, who seems to be acting ‘entitled’ and who doesn’t).

Like, after WW II, men flooded into university on GI funds, literally half the college-attending population, paying very little out of pocket. Even those who didn’t go to college understood that pretty much anyone could, from an affordability perspective. Taking out huge loans to pay for school was not the norm. Folks from that cohort seem less likely to understand why so many ‘irresponsible’ college students are taking out loans to pay for university education, and seem more likely to conclude this is a case of rampant bad decision-making, because anyone they envision doing something like that during their college years really would have been irresponsibly making a bad decision. That’s an emotive assessment, it’s implicitly cohort-dependent because it’s explicitly policy-dependent, and even once someone discovers that public funding has dramatically changed, it’s natural for the feeling of it to stick with you in some vague irrepressible way. It still kind of feels like they’re being sort of irresponsible, maybe they just shouldn’t be going to college…

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bianca steele 08.17.12 at 6:13 pm

If you were white and working class and in high school in the 1950s, and you were reasonably studious, you were told you could go to college if you were exceptional. Lots of “good kids” did not go to college. In the 1970s or 1980s, you were told you would go to college unless you hung out with the wrong crowd and as a result didn’t do your homework (except that you were also told that you would go to a state school at best, regardless of your grades and SATs, because they weren’t giving scholarships to white kids anymore). That is a big difference, but not obviously gender-related.

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Hidden Heart 08.17.12 at 6:17 pm

Kenny: Tween-oriented acts have been around a long time. Menudo’s first album came out in 1977. The Jackson 5, I see, started in 1964, and music of similar sorts was established enough to seem a good thing for filler on Scooby Doo and more prominently in Josie and the Pussiecats and such. I think of Menudo first because I was 12 when they showed up and it felt like they were aiming at my classmates’ younger sisters.

Apropos of this thread, I recently heard something fascinating from a World of Warcraft guildmate who’s in college. They just discovered the work of J.G. Ballard, and they felt it really spoke strongly to them. The sense of social collapse not through single disaster but through complete exhaustion of possibilities…that’s their big fear, that we are well beyond the hope of renewing enough of the things that need renewing. Their doomsday isn’t a sigle big boom but the clang and crunch of machinery grinding to a halt all over. That’s a burden of futility I can sympathize with very well, and I suspect that it’s fairly widespread.

I tend to feel that talk of there being less big change in recent decades rises out of ignorance out of how younger people live, but I don’t think I can make a coherent argument for it yet. I’m thinking about it. Ubiquitous computing and mobile telephony have changed a lot, in ways that us older folks may well miss. Throw that together with decline in service expectations, rising unavoidable costs shifted down from the 1% onto everyone else, the cumulative burden of social ossification, and more, and it was significant even before our current great depression. I remember the frustration I felt so often in the ’90s about hearing about boom times while relatives, friends, and I would spend months and years trying to find a job, and that’s only gotten worse.

But there’s a connecting piece to an actual argument about this that I don’t seem to have in mind yet. I just know that my younger friends’ lives seem to be fucked up in ways that my cohorts’ lives very seldom were.

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Substance McGravitas 08.17.12 at 6:54 pm

The Jackson 5, I see, started in 1964, and music of similar sorts was established enough to seem a good thing for filler on Scooby Doo and more prominently in Josie and the Pussiecats and such.

There was a Jackson 5 cartoon, and an Osmonds cartoon. The De Franco Family were on a lot of Saturday morning kiddie shows I think… Tiger Beat was founded in 1965.

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Ragweed 08.17.12 at 7:00 pm

” Ubiquitous computing and mobile telephony have changed a lot, in ways that us older folks may well miss.”

I think it depends on where you were in the various cohorts. There are big differences in scale between an i-pad and a TRS80, but a great deal of continuity – in the mid 80s, we could easily imagine a day where you had a pocket computer that could access the world. Also, 40-somethings these days text and spend enormous time on facebook (and academic blogs).

Throw that together with decline in service expectations, rising unavoidable costs shifted down from the 1% onto everyone else, the cumulative burden of social ossification, and more, and it was significant even before our current great depression. I remember the frustration I felt so often in the ‘90s about hearing about boom times while relatives, friends, and I would spend months and years trying to find a job, and that’s only gotten worse.

I think that is the continuity – that has been true since the 82 recession. There are ebbs and flows in the economy, but one consistant feature is that you can’t count on a job, and can’t count on a better standard of living than your parents. Even in the economic boom times, there was a greater sense of insecurity (in the dot.com era it was even codified as an ideology – in the “new economy” you were supposed to avoid seeking job security which was seen as a sign of ossification).

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Anarcissie 08.17.12 at 7:18 pm

Josh G. 08.17.12 at 5:33 pm:
‘… Reagan was elected by the Silent Generation, not the boomers. This is the same group that spearheaded the “tax revolt” in California and later nationwide, and that today forms the Fox News demographic and the backbone of the Tea Party. …’

Back in the day, the ‘Silent Generation’ were supposed to be the people who were born in the late 1920s or the 1930s and whose war was the Korean War. I don’t know if that’s who you’re talking about. These people would be in their 80s for the Tea Party, which doesn’t accord with the pictures I’ve seen. I don’t know about Fox News. I’ve heard that the median age of a Fox News fan is 66, which is pretty Boomerish, but I have no idea where the figure came from or how reliable it is.

As for Reagan, the demographic analyses I’ve been able to uncover in a not too diligent search indicate that Boomers voted more strongly for Reagan than any other cohort, although older cohorts were pretty close. In 1980, those 30-44 at the time of the election voted for Reagan 54-37, with the remainder going mostly to Anderson. This tranche also was the most populous (31% of the population) so it looks pretty significant.

What makes me associate Reagan particularly with the Boomers is the combination of vacuous utopianism, religiosity, and feckless individualism in his campaign, which, it seems to me and others (Mark Lilla, for example), descend pretty directly from the cultural politics of the Sixties, in of course a fairly diluted and sterilized form.

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JW Mason 08.17.12 at 7:23 pm

Stepping back a bit, it’s interesting how strong a hold the idea of ever-accelerating change has. it seems to me that if you look at the past two centuries, the last 30 or 40 years really has to stand out as a period of exceptional continuity & stability. Politically and socially, the three or four decades before World War I might look similarly stable, at least in the rich countries, but there was a genuinely technological revolution going on then, whereas recent decades pretty unambiguously show the slowest technological change of any comparable period since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. (Just look at the lack of any progress in fundamental physics since the formulation of the Standard Model in the 1970s.) Even the feminist revolution — the only really transformational change of recent times — was in some ways just consolidating the progress of the early 20th century that had been temporarily reversed.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the difference between the present and the recent past is smaller now than it’s been at any point since the 18th century. I don’t know why so many people insist that things are changing faster than ever.

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novakant 08.17.12 at 7:37 pm

I take it we’re talking exclusively about the US here, since e.g. the fall of the Berlin wall was of course the major event in the lives of many people in central and eastern Europe.

That said, I think the major difference between the generation X/Y and the boomers has been the declining power of grand narratives.

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Matt McIrvin 08.17.12 at 7:47 pm

I read this years ago and liked it, but I’m not sure it’s really a debunking of the generation game so much as a clarification of how to apply it correctly. The point about the WWII baby-busters having a lot in common with boomers is well-taken (you’re talking about my parents there).

I suspect that the civil-rights movement in the US, and the transformation of overt racism into a taboo, will turn out to have been another major generational division. I’m a member of essentially the earliest cohort of people to have lived entirely after the major legal reforms.

I’ve often thought that one of the most important effects in American politics is that the events that define your political hangups happen in young adulthood, but, if you live in the US, you’re most likely to vote as a retiree. It creates a strange, smeared-out 40- to0 60-year lag, which neatly explains why we are still somehow fighting the cultural battles of the Sixties in the 21st century.

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Josh G. 08.17.12 at 7:50 pm

Anarcissie: “Back in the day, the ‘Silent Generation’ were supposed to be the people who were born in the late 1920s or the 1930s and whose war was the Korean War. I don’t know if that’s who you’re talking about.

I am basing my classification on Wikipedia’s definition, which is that the Silent Generation consists of people born between 1925 and 1945. Other sites give slightly different definitions; some say 1927-1945 (which would exclude anyone old enough to fight in WWII), others say 1925-1942. Even though there might be some quibbling about the years at each end, this group still holds up well as a discrete cohort. Yes, some of these people were of age to fight in Korea (though far from all: that war ended in 1953, so anyone born after 1935 was too young to have ever seen action there). According to Pew Research, the Silent Generation “has held relatively conservative views on social issues and the role of government for most of their lives”, and this has intensified in recent years.

Anarcissie: “ These people would be in their 80s for the Tea Party, which doesn’t accord with the pictures I’ve seen. I don’t know about Fox News. I’ve heard that the median age of a Fox News fan is 66, which is pretty Boomerish, but I have no idea where the figure came from or how reliable it is.

The youngest members of the Silent Generation would be 66 years old now, the oldest of them 83. The average Fox News viewer is 65 years old. For Rush Limbaugh, it’s 67, and for Bill O’Reilly the median viewer age is 71. Yes, there is some overlap with the older Boomers, but to a large extent that is an illusion because the Boomers’ demographic group is so much larger – even if there are a higher proportion of Silents, you’ll still see quite a few Boomers there. But it is the Silents who are the hard-core conservative base, with the most retrograde views of all. And they’re not being replaced.

Anarcissie: “As for Reagan, the demographic analyses I’ve been able to uncover in a not too diligent search indicate that Boomers voted more strongly for Reagan than any other cohort, although older cohorts were pretty close. In 1980, those 30-44 at the time of the election voted for Reagan 54-37, with the remainder going mostly to Anderson. This tranche also was the most populous (31% of the population) so it looks pretty significant.

I saw the same numbers you did, but again, that’s not Boomers for the most part, it’s Silents. Members of the Silent Generation would have been age 35 to 55 for the 1980 election. The polling results (scroll down to “Voter demographics) don’t break down exactly along these lines, but as you note, the 30-44 age bracket voted heavily for Reagan. Younger voters (18-21) were the only group to go for Carter (44% Carter, 43% Reagan, 11% Anderson), with those in the 22-29 age bracket tied. (And keep in mind this was in a really bad election for Democrats overall, with pretty much everyone seriously disappointed in Carter in some way.) The Greatest Generation doesn’t get off the hook, either, with the 45-59 age group (some Silents, mostly Greatests) going 55-39 for Reagan, and those 60 and older going for Reagan by a slightly smaller margin.

But one thing is clear from all the data: the newer cohorts tend to be more liberal, and it’s not just because they are currently young (as noted above, Silents were *always* conservative). One odd exception, from Pew’s poll (and this contradicts my anecdotal observations) is that older Boomers tend more Democratic than younger Boomers. But boomers are less conservative than Silents by a significant margin; Generation X is more liberal than boomers; and Millennials are the most liberal and community-minded of all. This is why the Republicans are so obsessed with suppressing voter turnout. It is literally the last gasp of a dying ideology. They have no future.

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John Quiggin 08.17.12 at 7:50 pm

@JWM There’s an unusual combination of spectacularly rapid change in communications and computing with near-stasis in most other things. One aspect of stasis is grim adherence to Tofflerian cliches about the pace of change that were old even when Future Shock came out.

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Matt McIrvin 08.17.12 at 7:59 pm

Is it unusual, or is this kind of mismatch the norm? It makes sense that a particular technology would go through a sort of logistic S-curve progression, with an early exponential phase and a later plateau once the practically feasible stuff has been done. But there’s no particular reason that different technologies will do this at the same time unless they feed directly into one another.

It seems to me that science fiction is the way it is because, when the genre was solidifying, transportation was going through an exponential boom. But it hit the logistic shoulder sometime around 1970.

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John Quiggin 08.17.12 at 7:59 pm

Since I just rescued it from moderation, let me point to Chris @10 as an archetypal presentation of the kind of generational cliches I’m talking about here.

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Matt McIrvin 08.17.12 at 8:05 pm

About Gen-Xer fear of nuclear war: I strongly suspect that in the 1980s, that particular fear was politically compartmentalized. I was a liberal nerdy son of US Democrats, I read Carl Sagan and Douglas Hofstadter and supported Walter Mondale, and I was scared out of my mind of nuclear war. But many people my age say the notion barely impinged on their consciousness at all.

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Substance McGravitas 08.17.12 at 8:19 pm

The Day After was on US TV in 1983 when I was in my teens and it had spectacular ratings…I wonder what the audience breakdown was? I was a news junkie/science-fiction fan so I think my fears of war were somewhere between “present” and “absurd” but there was a big big audience for end-of-the-world calamities. Fears of nuclear holocaust were a positive boon for the crazier televangelists. I think I remember Jack van Impe sitting in front of a mushroom-cloud graphic.

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Matt McIrvin 08.17.12 at 8:22 pm

Also, concerning scientific change, I wouldn’t make too much of the relative stasis in fundamental physics. Fundamental physics is kind of unusual, as sciences go.

Compare with astronomy, which has had mind-boggling progress over the past 20-30 years (to the extent that the best evidence for fundamental physics beyond the Standard Model actually comes not from physics experiments but from astronomy), or all the things new computing technology has enabled in biology.

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Maggie 08.17.12 at 8:51 pm

Any number of interesting things about a given age cohort can be true without their necessarily voting a conscious generational interest. You could write about these interesting facts all day and all night without touching the question of generational self-consciousness or self-identification, which is essential to gauging how much generations really matter politically. Remember, when this came up on the other thread we were specifically discussing whether the Republicans could successfully get generations to turn on each other politically. That might not exactly require a high tide of generational self-consciousness akin to the late ’60s, but it certainly couldn’t be pulled off on a purely unconscious/coincidental basis either. (For example what proportion of “Generation Jones” do you think have even heard the term, let alone identify with it?)

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Bruce Wilder 08.17.12 at 9:33 pm

JW Mason: “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the difference between the present and the recent past is smaller now than it’s been at any point since the 18th century. I don’t know why so many people insist that things are changing faster than ever.”

Maybe because they are. One difference is that we are destroying things, more than building them. If you use novelties as your milestones, the crescendo of the Second Industrial Revolution from the 1880s to the 1920s will seem to have kept a much faster pace. For our time, to measure the pace of change, you need to tally what is disappearing.

And, related to that difference is that we are past the end of a system, past the end of the system created during the Great Depression and World War II. We understand everything in the categories and metaphors of that by-gone era. If the cast of your play is dead, their character development may indeed seem stunted.

Just to take a cultural example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, with its related feminism and gay liberation, have moved with astonishing speed. It is true that feminism’s liberal political agenda dates back at least to the emergence of abolitionism, after the Great Reform Bill, Victoria and the abolition of the international slave trade. Respect that time-scale, and the sudden collapse of female castes in employment since 1980, is a remarkably rapid change, the acceptance of homosexuality a galloping change.

JQ correctly notes the rapid advances in computing and communication, but wrongly asserts stasis in everything else. There can be no stasis in everything else, in the circumstances. If the form of things has been retained at all, it is illusion. Cellphones are telephones; email is postal mail by another route. Meanwhile, one vast apparatus after another is collapsing. And, in front of us, the massive task of changing completely the energy basis of our whole industrial economy, while coping with ecological catastrophe.

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John Quiggin 08.17.12 at 9:52 pm

As Matt M says, the obvious example of stasis (and, in important respects, retrogression) is transport. In the 1960s and 1970s we had rockets to the moon, and were looking forward to routine space travel with the Shuttle. The jumbo jet and Concorde capped decades of stunning advances in air travel since Kittyhawk. The (wheel-driven) land speed record was set in 1964, in the state where I lived at the time.

If anyone in 1970 had predicted the developments in transport as of today, no-one would have believed them

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Bruce Wilder 08.17.12 at 10:09 pm

Yes, people project change into progress, drawing trendlines with a straightedge, and, sooner or later, are mistaken. It doesn’t work that way.

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JanieM 08.17.12 at 10:38 pm

Just to take a cultural example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, with its related feminism and gay liberation, have moved with astonishing speed…. the acceptance of homosexuality a galloping change.

No kidding. As a gay person who grew up not even knowing there was such a thing, I find it hard to hold the two thoughts in my mind at the same time: how the world was when I was young, and how it is now.

Next to the sexual revolution I would set the monkey wrench of HIV, which sent the process of change into a whole different direction.

Anecdotal, but as the last person I know to get a cell phone (about 2005), even so I can barely remember what life was like before we had them. They’ve totally changed the way my kids’ generation thinks about connectedness, planning ahead, all kinds of things.

Finally, it’s interesting that there has been very little mention in this thread of changes in life expectancy, infant mortality, and medical care.

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JanieM 08.17.12 at 10:39 pm

They’ve totally changed the way my kids’ generation thinks about connectedness, planning ahead, all kinds of things.

That isn’t stated very clearly. What I mean is that my kids and their friends think about connectedness and planning ahead in a way that is completely foreign to me.

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Chris Bertram 08.17.12 at 10:40 pm

There’s a lot of country-specific divergence that’s relevant here. Phil (UK-based) correctly mentions punk and Watson Ladd counters with some dull irrelevant US-centric generalizations about college radio stations.

If you entered the UK job market after the IMF loan and for about 10 years thereafter (into the Thatcher period) you and your generation were marked by that and British punk and post-punk were the cultural analogues which weren’t at all generated by the music business (but ran counter to it).

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Omega Centauri 08.17.12 at 10:49 pm

Its drifting off topic discussing the rate of technological adavance. But fir a a very clear to me of reality versus expectations, wath 2001 a Space Odessy. The expectation of advances in space technology were stunning, we haven’t done even 1% of it. Yet aside from its mental breakdown, the computer tech displayed in the movie is frankly abyssmal.

And clearly we are starting to run into the issues brought up by The Limits to Growth at an accellererating rate. Until a few years ago it was easy to dismiss it, now it seems like its going to hit us like a ton of bricks.

Not all tech advances were for the better. Think of the sophistication of psychological marketting techniques -especially as they’ve been deployed by bigmonied interests with their own agendas to promote.I don’t share Josh’s optimism that todays reactionary Republicanism is a dying breed. They’ve largely succeeded in creating an environment where the side with the most billionaires has a huge advantage, and that means they can have political success far beyond the polling results of their policies.

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LFC 08.17.12 at 11:02 pm

I agree with the basic argument of the OP (if not with every single statement in it). As generalizations go, the observation in the OP that it mattered whether one entered the labor market during or after “the golden age” as it has been called (i.e., before or after c.1973) seems entirely defensible to me.

On a narrower point: career-wise in the US, things were more difficult for those with academic or professional aspirations who were born in the mid-late 50s (or after) than for those born in the decades just before that (at least, if we restrict this temporal comparison to white males, an admittedly important caveat). The grad and professional schools got much more crowded, getting into the most prestigious ones became much more difficult, etc. That has only intensified, if anything, in the years since, ISTM.

P.s.: jafd’s praise of Strauss/Howe @28 is more than a “minor point,” because S/H are very much doing what the OP is arguing against. Several years ago I bought a Strauss/Howe book (not Generations but The Fourth Turning). I dipped into it but couldn’t bring myself to read it. I just react against these generational schema as overly simplistic, no matter how many qualifications are attached.

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Watson Ladd 08.17.12 at 11:05 pm

Chris, London Calling sold two million copies for CBS Records. Complaining about “the big record companies” ruining music is misplaced: they will sell any music that will make them money, just like they sold rock in the 1960’s, and gangsta rap in the early 90’s. There was nothing about punk that prevented its commercialization and obsolescence.

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Hidden Heart 08.17.12 at 11:08 pm

Bruce Wilder@50 nails the element I couldn’t nail down earlier: the speed with which so much good is being taken away from most of us.

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Substance McGravitas 08.17.12 at 11:20 pm

Complaining about “the big record companies” ruining music is misplaced: they will sell any music that will make them money

No, they will sell you what they have, and what they have is dependent on the decisions of managers. That is why payola existed. This remains a good read and Tommy Mottola remains a music executive.

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Uncle Kvetch 08.17.12 at 11:21 pm

As Matt M says, the obvious example of stasis (and, in important respects, retrogression) is transport.

We were promised jetpacks.

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Ragweed 08.17.12 at 11:26 pm

I have thought recently that we will look back on this era of computer technology and compare it to certain aspects of the technology of ancient Rome or Greece. Just as Hero of Alexandria did amazing work with pneumatics, but could think of no use for it other than the make impressive temple displays – because if you wanted work done, you got slaves to do it, and really impressive temple displays (doors opening “magically” when the alter fire was lit) helped keep the slaves in line. So today we have such impressive ability to process information, and most of it is used to track every users keystroke for marketing purposes.

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sam b 08.17.12 at 11:33 pm

I don’t feel like there’s any generational camraderie or shared set of beliefs amongst my age cohort (early-mid 80s) at all. The only real difference I notice from older cohorts is that our expectations of employers are lower. Very few care about their employer or believe their employer has their interests at heart. I find the younger generation (born early 90s) to be much more open-minded, enthusiastic and progressive than my own. I mean, they find genuine homophobia a baffling concept and (the ones who think about it) have no ingrained fealty to capitalism despite growing up in a hyper-consumerist age. They are totally keen to consider alternatives.

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Curmudgeon 08.17.12 at 11:54 pm

Transport has been improving, technologically, even though we don’t have jetpacks or supersonic passenger aircraft. Specific fuel use (fuel used per tonne/km) has gone down considerably even as speeds have remained the same. The exterior differences between a 1960s aircraft and a 1990s aircraft are visually minor, and their top speeds are comparable, but the latter uses a lot less oil per passenger km.

Of course, the average passenger or airline employee doesn’t see any of this as progress because the benefits accrue exclusively to airline management. Passengers see shrinking seat sizes, declining service, and abusive staff. Employees see wage cuts, pension theft, and passengers who are hostile because they have been pushed to the breaking point. Management gets to walk away with everyone else’s money even as their companies go bankrupt. There is progress, but the benefits are being skimmed off by a class of rentiers.

I think this small story is the story of progress since the 1980s in microcosm: human technological capabilities have expanded the scope of what’s possible to the point that the average standard of living is rising but none of the benefits reach individuals as anything beyond trinkets. Progress for the median person now consists of getting technological glass beads–such as iDevices and LCD TVs–while the full benefits of technological advancement accrue to the already wealthy and the definition of basic human dignity is being repeatedly redefined downward towards serfdom.

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Watson Ladd 08.18.12 at 1:55 am

Substance, have you ever been unable to find a particular kind of music because no record company had it to sell? Your argument amounts to most people have tastes made maleable by the radio and would be happier if they listened to other music. This might have been believable in the 1950s. It’s not believable when many of the records the majors were selling were recorded in independent studios on tape, mastered by the bands themselves, and pressed by independent contractors. And today, when the price of entry into the music market is being able to make an mp3, it’s completely ridiculous.

Generationally we can see something similar to the evolution of television. My parents lived in a time where all there was on TV was one of three channels. Everyone knows where Mayberry is. But today that kind of culture has fragmented. This might be a legitimate generational difference.

JQ: Cars have gotten safer, and crashes that just 10 years ago would leave a driver in the morgue have become survivable. Plane tickets have dropped massively in price, and the rise of cheap point-to-point buses in the US has made travel sans automobile in the Northeast megalopolis believable. The US still doesn’t have high speed train service, but that will change with SF/LA links in planning stage and Washington to Boston already in service, but awaiting improvements. The death of the Concorde imposed by high fuel prices doesn’t change the basic pattern of lower transport costs globally, and greater access to high speed travel. I don’t believe transport has stagnated?

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Substance McGravitas 08.18.12 at 2:00 am

Substance, have you ever been unable to find a particular kind of music because no record company had it to sell?

Yes. Here you go.

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Matt McIrvin 08.18.12 at 2:13 am

The history of transportation since 1970 hasn’t been stasis, but nor is it the kind of wild explosion that was going on for the decades before then, when we went from horse and buggy to interstate highways and moon rockets. It’s hard-won incremental progress that arises from a thousand small improvements in design, management, standardization and information technology, building on the basic outlines that had already been established.

Containerized shipping began right around 1970. That’s a huge thing, but it’s the kind of thing that happens in an era of consolidation, and that most people also don’t see directly.

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Matt McIrvin 08.18.12 at 2:15 am

…I stand corrected: it was well-established by 1970, but global standards were established then. Which I guess makes my point all the more strongly.

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John Quiggin 08.18.12 at 2:40 am

@MM #67 Agreed. I was overstating my point a bit, but the shift from qualitative to incremental progress is still very noticeable, especially given that until 1970, transport technology had been seen as the definitive marker of progress (Steam Age, Jet Age, Space Age etc).

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Lee A. Arnold 08.18.12 at 2:46 am

Materials technology is in an innovation-explosion. I think that this, crossed over with biotech, nanotech, genomics and computation is going to cause a technological change more rapid and profound than almost any other. We are going to be semicyborgs in perfect health. You won’t be a generation, baby, you will be a Model.

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Bruce Wilder 08.18.12 at 4:14 am

We are in the process of almost completely displacing the incandescent lightbulb with flourescents and LEDs: a completely new technology. That’s qualitatively as big a change as that wrought by Edison (and Swan, and Tesla, etc.), in one of the signature events of the Second Industrial Revolution. I don’t know what it means that we are not likely to notice their equivalence in the pace of change.

The steamships of the 19th century have no representatives in the 21st — in the course of the 20th, welded steel hulls displaced riveted plate and turbines and diesels replaced reciprocating steam, not to mention container shipping. The whole technology has been reinvented a couple of times over.

The cellphone + internet (IP packets) completely displaces the switched network, copper-wire telephony system invented by A.G. Bell, T. Edison and Elisha Gray — a bigger change, over a vaster swath of the earth, accomplished in a fraction of the time. And, it has carried away, such diverse economic entities as map publishers, record stores, travel agents and, maybe soon, the postal service.

I find the kind of astrological readings, which Strauss and Howe have done in “characterizing” generations to be so much b.s., but I do think rapid economic change, even if seems to go undernoticed, does introduce remarkable differences in reference points, for orienting the worldviews of successive generations. My parents would have had opinions about longshoremen and industrial unions. Thanks to containerization and other changes, I doubt that my grandchildren have any idea what a longshoreman was, and only a vague idea what an industrial union might have been. Containerization has made the Panama Canal into a curiosity, without much political importance. It helped prepare New Orleans for de-population.

Does anyone in high school today know what a newspaper was, socially and politically? Watson Ladd talks of “record companies”. Really? That’s another technology that’s been reinvented several times since Edison first recorded sound on wax cylinders, and the music industry was Tin Pan Alley. The Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards show takes place, is now the Dolby Theatre — they haven’t even changed the web address yet, but there you go — care to explain what Kodak was? The Academy Awards, in its early years, were given out at the Shriner’s Auditorium; care to explain what a Shriner was?

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John Quiggin 08.18.12 at 5:36 am

Bruce, as I’ve said, I agree regarding the Internet, but I can’t make sense of your claim about lightbulbs. How can replacing one kind of light-bulb (cheap, but energy-inefficient) with a dearer but more energy efficient alternative be regarded as a qualitative change comparable to replacing oil lamps with electric light.

More generally, take a look at your household appliances (except those associated with IT and comms). In my case at least (and with the exception of my vacuum robot) they are the same as when I first set up house in the 1970s, with a few incremental improvements. Now compare the 1970s to the 1930s and the 1930s to the 1890s.

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John Quiggin 08.18.12 at 5:37 am

BTW, apologies for diverting my own thread, but it seems (amazingly) that we are in nearly unanimous agreement on the silly and pernicious nature of the generation game.

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ChrisTS 08.18.12 at 7:02 am

Re #71:

Umm, my college students certainly know what newspapers *are*, even if most read [most of] their papers online. And, like JQ, I cannot understand how a move from one kind of lightbulb to another is any sort of sea change.

Of course, I could be simply suffering from insomnia.

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ChrisTS 08.18.12 at 7:03 am

P.S. Where I am it is 3:00 am -hence the insomnia reference.

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AGM 08.18.12 at 10:47 am

JQ @ 72, ChrisTS @ 74,

That’s the issue. Yes, LED’s are a source of photons in the visible range, same as oil lamps and incandescent light bulbs.

But no, the difference is qualitatively equal or greater. Whale oil and incandescence are something you can figure out, over time, by fiddling and tinkering and engineering. LEDs required people to discover quantum physics, conceive of how to apply it to charges in a semiconductor, then run it through a lab, then engineer it to commercial usability, then continue engineering it for use in e.g., car headlamps, DVD players, light bulb replacement, laser pointers, optical communications links, medical and scientific imaging sensors, etc, all in say, 50-70 years. It is a sea change of monumental proportions, because LEDs are much more than just a better light bulb.

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JanieM 08.18.12 at 2:00 pm

AGM’s is a fascinating point that I would have known nothing about. In the context of this discussion, it illustrates that how “big” a “change” is can be framed in a variety of ways that don’t all measure the “amount” of change in the same way. I’m sure there are lots of such ways, but the two that seem most relevant here are: 1) how much effort/cost/knowledge/time it took to bring the change about; and 2) how much it changes the lives of end users who know nothing whatsoever about 1).

In terms of the relationship of the end-user to the technology, “lightbulbs” of any kind seem to me to be pretty much indistinguishable from each other, and both seem about equally different from oil lamps.

But I don’t know how representative that set of comparisons is. Maybe modern TVs are as different from the TVs of my 50s childhood as LEDs are from incandescent bulbs in terms of the change in technology behind them, but how does that change compare to the transition from no-TV-at-all to having TV?

Then there are mobile phones, which seem to present yet another kind of dynamic. Unlike my grandparents, who lived through the transition from no-phone-at-all to having phones, I have to make a big effort of imagination to have a feel for what life must have been like without them, the rhythm of communication and social life in particular. (Do we ever read War and Peace or Middlemarch and think gee, how different this whole plot would have been if they had had phones…or cell phones…?)

But as I’ve said before, the transition from phones hitched to the kitchen wall to phones in everyone’s pocket seems massive in terms of how many of our habits, assumptions, and expectations have changed because of the change in technology. And this is totally without regard to how easy or hard it might have been to develop the technology. Most end-users don’t know and couldn’t care less.

What about computers? First computers, then computers and the internet, then wireless internet practically everywhere, then smart phones. Maps, then Google maps, then GPS. … ?? Air travel taking off (no pun intended) once technology allowed real-time reservation systems?

And what about (the first medical advance that comes to mind) readily available cataract surgery?

Some of these transitions changed things for end users far more than others, and changed how we all function far more than others, and I don’t think that tracks with how complex the technology is or how difficult it was to develop it.

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JP Stormcrow 08.18.12 at 2:12 pm

It is a sea change of monumental proportions, because LEDs are much more than just a better light bulb.

This will sound s bit harsh, but in the context of this discussion I find this and the similar arguments above pretty insane. When you flip a switch and a light comes on, no one cares what happens behind the walls–oops, the same thing is happening behind the walls–no one really cares what the technology in the bulb is, no one cares about the pyramid of physics, engineering and technology it took to produce it; IT’S LIGHT! I can see! A newly-wired house a hundred years ago that through some miracle had LED bulbs rather than incandescent would have the same living characteristics except for … better light bulbs.

I agree that the litany of technological progress behind the scenes is impressive. I think it is all part and parcel of the early stages of a massive change that is likely to lead in time to something like Lee Arnold’s semicyborgs. There are a number of applications that have come out of the mix of technology mentioned which have already had significant impact on our lives (as mentioned above, communications/computing/medical treatment), but lighting is not one.

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JP Stormcrow 08.18.12 at 2:14 pm

Upon posting, I see JanieM has made a point similar to mine but in a nice, constructive way.

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JanieM 08.18.12 at 2:27 pm

And then I’m going to turn around on myself and say that while it’s fun to think about all that technology-and-change stuff, the really important stuff has already been mentioned by several commenters, and it isn’t that; in fact it turns the technology into just another mechanism for what’s “really” going on:

Bruce W @50 or so: Meanwhile, one vast apparatus after another is collapsing. And, in front of us, the massive task of changing completely the energy basis of our whole industrial economy, while coping with ecological catastrophe.

Omega Centauri @56: Not all tech advances were for the better. Think of the sophistication of psychological marketting techniques -especially as they’ve been deployed by bigmonied interests with their own agendas to promote.I don’t share Josh’s optimism that todays reactionary Republicanism is a dying breed. They’ve largely succeeded in creating an environment where the side with the most billionaires has a huge advantage, and that means they can have political success far beyond the polling results of their policies.

Hidden Heart @59: Bruce Wilder@50 nails the element I couldn’t nail down earlier: the speed with which so much good is being taken away from most of us.

We (“we” — almost all of us) are being slowly and mostly invisibly turned into channels for the funneling of money to an ever smaller number of people. No aspect of life is safe from a process of commercialization that allows someone to skim money off the rest of us. It’s not just technologically dazzling trinkets, it’s clean water, seed stock, etc. etc. See, e.g., for-profit colleges, which Doonesbury has been skewering for the past two weeks.

But I don’t have to tell anyone here about this process.

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Frobisher 08.18.12 at 2:33 pm

Generational characterizations are exercises in conflation. Depending on the source, there are 62 to 78 million boomers. There’s room for a lot of variation in there. Hippies made great copy and had visual impact. But I suspect that they were far outnumbered by Boomer Republicans and ordinary working stiffs.

The real question is, what’s the purpose of making contrived distinctions between generations?

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JW Mason 08.18.12 at 7:02 pm

astronomy, which has had mind-boggling progress over the past 20-30 years

See, this is the sort of thing that people are constantly saying, but is just completely wrong if you take a few minutes to think about it.

Yes, it is amazing cool that it’s now possible to measure wind speeds on extrasolar planets.. But no one can seriously think that progress in astronomy in recent decades is anything but trivial compared with comparable periods in the previous 100 years.

Think about it: Between the mid 19th century and mid 20th century, basically everything taht we know about the large scale structure of the univverse was discovered. When Lord Kelvin claculated a maximum age of the Sun on the order of 100 years in the 1860s (on the grounds that its only possible heat source was the gravitational energy from its formation), that was the best science of the time. Nothing was known of the composition of stars, of the age or large-scale structure of the universe, the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way, the life cycle of stars, the structure of space-time, etc. Does anything discovered in the past 30 years compare with any of that? I don’t think so. If you took a standard account of the large-scale structure of the universe from 1900 and compared it with one from 1950, almost everything would have to be fundamentally revised. What important claims from a popular astronomy book from, say, 1975 wouldn’t still be accepted as basically true today?

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Josh G. 08.18.12 at 7:04 pm

JW Mason: “What important claims from a popular astronomy book from, say, 1975 wouldn’t still be accepted as basically true today?

That Pluto is a planet?

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JW Mason 08.18.12 at 7:48 pm

Yeah, that would be about the biggest one. Which really makes my point.

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Hidden Heart 08.18.12 at 7:55 pm

I remember vividly the shock at the news of the “hot Jupiter” category of extrasolar planet. Yes, there were some predictions of such things back to the ’50s, but for the overwhelming majority of astronomers this was that-shouldn’t-happen territory.

In general, astronomy since the ’70s has gone through a change comparable to going from knowing just one type of ecosystem – temperate deciduous forest, say – to learning about tundra and hot and cool rainforests and swamps and evergreen forests and steppes and prairies and mountains and volcanic rift ecologies and cold seeps.

Josh, Pluto is a planet. It’s a dwarf planet, large but representative of a population of things orbiting the sun that’s distinct in a bunch of ways from the population of larger things also orbiting. It’s not even the largest member of the population currently known to us; that’s Eris. And this is another example of the kind of change I mean. Pluto hasn’t stopped being itself, but we see it now in a different context, and so it means something else to us.

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Bruce Wilder 08.18.12 at 7:58 pm

JanieM — Outstanding comments! Thank you.

Tying this “diversion” back to the OP:

While, as I said earlier, the ascribing of “character” to successive generations, in a generational version of astrology, is clearly silly, I do think there’s something to be said for political and economic anacyclosis — long cycles tied to generational change, the dynamics of economic, political and institutional development, and related to the experiences and mythologies, which grip generations.

It is hard to understand the British responses in the 1930s to German descent into fascism and re-armament, without reference to the shared disillusion of the generations, which had experienced the preceding World War, and told themselves certain stories about that (ranging from anti-nationalist pacifism to stab-in-the-back), and it is also hard to understand the American and Western response to communist expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, without the shared experience of the Kennedy-Nixon generation in the fruits of appeasement. The experience, and the myths used to explain that experience (and there were always a range of such ideas, some of them opposed in a static dialectic, which divided people into political tribes — a sometimes important detail) were very powerful.

It seems to me that for the baby boomers (and their children), the experience of technological change, and expectations about technological change, are important mythologies, affecting our political dynamic. For someone like Paul Krugman (or myself), science fiction, moon landings, and novelties like color television or electric toothbrushes or various kitchen appliances, actually did contribute to a mythology of “progress”. And, it is interesting to me, that for someone, like Tyler Cowen, it can seem plausible to suggest that we are living though a period, now, of technological stagnation (when, objectively, that’s not true).

It is certainly true that by comparison to the linear projections of a 1960s optimist, things have not progressed quite as one might have hoped. That’s hardly evidence, though, for the hypothesis of technological stagnation.

JP Stormcrow: “When you flip a switch and a light comes on, no one cares what happens behind the walls . . .”

My great grandparents went to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where the daily miracle was the lighting of the entire exposition area, by Westinghouse’s A/C current. It was a deathblow to Edison’s D/C system. My great grandparents’ home, at the time, had gas light, and the first attempt to wire the house for electric light was accomplished, by threading wire through the pipes and replacing the existing fixtures; so the change, initially, seemed small enough. Harvey Hubbell’s plug-in-socket system and the ubiquitous porcelain base, pull-chain light socket followed very quickly, though. The Edison system of electric utilities, aided by the formation of General Electric in 1892, were not much inhibited by the switch to A/C, and went on to drive expansion of the New Economy of the 1920s. It was the changes in expected returns on electric generation and distribution investments, which was the “real” microfoundation of the stock market crash of 1929. Political struggles over public power generation projects, and schemes for rural electrification had great prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. The passing of generations had something to do with the ability of Milton Friedman to spin out tales in the 1960s, deprecating the achievements of the Tennessee Valley Authority, as part of his project of laying the ideological groundwork for dismantling the New Deal.

In one sense, “no one cares”, but in another, people do care, but the focus of their care changes. The Tea Party, believe it or not, has actually been quite exercised lately about energy efficiency regulations, which are effectively aiding the obsolescence of the incandescent lightbulb, by eliminating the higher wattage (aka most inefficient) bulbs. The imminent demise of the Postal Service is a real political issue, tied both to technological change and to the financialization of the economy (See JanieM @ 80, 2:27 pm).

The anxieties engendered by a very rapid rate of change, rendered invisible in some mythic frameworks (“where’s my flying car?”), are a very real part of our politics. There’s a lot of stress associated with this stuff. That the Kodachrome film that recorded my childhood is no more, is trivial on one level, but mystifying on another. People still go to the drugstore to have their prints “developed”, when there is no development. The iMusic store has been gradually raising the price of a song from a standard $0.99 toward $1.29; that’s basically the same order-of-magnitude price, as existed, when that price was financing a vast infrastructure of brick-and-mortar recording studios and vinyl or CD disc manufacturing and stores and radio stations, etc., distributing and promoting and all the rest. It’s a fair indication of how large has grown the rentier interest, that the price has not fallen to a $0.10 or less; acknowledging, also, that a vast grey market infrastructure also exists, where the price is $0.00, contributing to the general anxiety associated with the sense of living in a society amid an institutional structure, which is deeply corrupted. This intuitive sense of deep corruption feeds back into the Right’s criticism of “entitlements”.

If you are part of the generation, which came to political consciousness during or after Reagan, I think your credulousness takes an entirely different shape. I have no idea, what young people today are doing with the whole college-at-the-price-of-life-long-debt-peonage thing. That’s a development, which has come along with such rapidity, that its full implications are largely lost on generations, like mine, when a college education was, basically, a gift.

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JW Mason 08.18.12 at 8:02 pm

One difference is that we are destroying things, more than building them. If you use novelties as your milestones, the crescendo of the Second Industrial Revolution from the 1880s to the 1920s will seem to have kept a much faster pace. For our time, to measure the pace of change, you need to tally what is disappearing.

This is an interesting point. I admit I hadn’t thought of it that way, and you may be right — if we had a long series on the extinction rate of species, say (or languages), the present might well stand out as exceptional. I think this is really distinct from social change in the sense that we’ve been talking about here, tho.

we are past the end of a system, past the end of the system created during the Great Depression and World War II.

Disagree. By the standards of 1775-1950, the post WWII political and economic order has been extremely persistent & stable, at least in the core.

Just to take a cultural example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, with its related feminism and gay liberation, have moved with astonishing speed. It is true that feminism’s liberal political agenda dates back at least to the emergence of abolitionism, after the Great Reform Bill, Victoria and the abolition of the international slave trade. Respect that time-scale, and the sudden collapse of female castes in employment since 1980, is a remarkably rapid change, the acceptance of homosexuality a galloping change.

Here I agree. Interestingly, both Eric Hobsbawm and David Frum say the same thing — that the only really revolutionary changes of recent times have been in sexuality and the sexual division of labor. Although, I think even this may get exaggerated a bit because we take immediately preceding period as the baseline, when really it represented a regress from progress already made in the early 20th century.

JQ correctly notes the rapid advances in computing and communication, but wrongly asserts stasis in everything else. There can be no stasis in everything else, in the circumstances.

Why can’t there be?

And, in front of us, the massive task of changing completely the energy basis of our whole industrial economy, while coping with ecological catastrophe.

Agree — but this is a statement about what’s likely to happen in the future, not what is happening now.

We are in the process of almost completely displacing the incandescent lightbulb with flourescents and LEDs: a completely new technology. That’s qualitatively as big a change as that wrought by Edison (and Swan, and Tesla, etc.)

Like JQ, I find this assertion baffling.

The cellphone + internet (IP packets) completely displaces the switched network, copper-wire telephony system invented by A.G. Bell, T. Edison and Elisha Gray—a bigger change, over a vaster swath of the earth, accomplished in a fraction of the time.

We all agree there has been a revolution in communication technologies. But I don’t think that’s enough to change the fact that, compared with previous half-centuries, the past 50 years has been one of relative technological and social stasis.

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JW Mason 08.18.12 at 8:10 pm

It’s a dwarf planet, large but representative of a population of things orbiting the sun that’s distinct in a bunch of ways from the population of larger things also orbiting. It’s not even the largest member of the population currently known to us; that’s Eris. And this is another example of the kind of change I mean.

But the question isn’t just, is this a change, or is this a big change? It’s, is this a big change compared with changes in the past. Yes, we know about a new class of Kuiper Belt objects now. But compare that with discovery of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud in the first place.

I’m repeating myself here and will desist.

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Bruce Wilder 08.18.12 at 8:38 pm

“Why can’t there be?”

General equilibrium. Walras. One market fails to clear, and, by recursion, it all falls apart. Everything depends on everything else. And, more to the point, computation and communication is at the core of technology as an economic phenomenon — it is not some peripheral element, isolated from the rest, like, say the invention of glass making in the classical Roman period. The modeling and control of every production process is affected, and, consequently, every institutional structure built around those production processes is vulnerable to re-structuring. And, they are being re-structured, very rapidly. Michigan and Ohio. Hello!?

This revolution is bigger and broader in its impacts than Watt’s steam engine. Watt’s invention affected the expectations of educated people more than it did the reality of everyday life. By the time his patents expired around 1800, I doubt there were 500 such engines in existence. By some standards 1775-1950 was very rapid, but in actual scale, often not-so-much; that scale has been building and building, and continued building after 1950. Huge areas of the earth are now affected by very rapid diffusion, amid a population which has doubled over the last 50 years of so-called stasis. That doubling was an absolute increase in human population dwarfing any previous increase, on a planet not getting any bigger.

“I find this assertion baffling.”

I realize that. And, I am trying, as much as anything else, to draw attention to that bafflement. My point is to notice your bafflement. Your bafflement is revealing (and revealing, regarding generational experience and views).

I am not trying to disabuse you of your bafflement, or of your idea that the world has been static in some respects. I do suggest that you think in terms of trying to measure your idea against reality. That’s all I’m suggesting in drawing a correspondence between Edison’s lightbulb and LED lighting; turn your subjective impression into an “objective” measurement, and see how your perception changes. There are ways that LED lighting is a bigger, faster change, quantitatively and qualitatively.

” this is a statement about what’s likely to happen in the future, not what is happening now.”

I think it is very much something that is happening now, and has been happening now, for sometime. We might not fully realize it, but that’s what makes this interesting from the standpoint of generational change of expectations and experience. Humans do seem to love a crisis.

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Hidden Heart 08.18.12 at 8:39 pm

I am counter-baffled at people not getting Bruce’s points, so let me try to draw out one implication.

I grew up in a household with a TV (then two TVs), phone, stove, and so on, and insofar as I live in a home that still has these things, some parts of my life haven’t changed much at all. In others, a lot. My father, like many men who were veterans of World War II, could fix a great many things in and around the house. He could adjust hoses and belts, rewire, and so on and on. None of his children have anything like that much control over the things we live among, not because we’re disinterested, but because none of us have the tools or knowledge to work on industrial-scale integrated circuits and the like.

Our relationships with our things is similar in a lot of ways to what it was when we were growing up…as long as they work. But when they break, or when we wish to adjust them to our particular wishes, we’re screwed. The choices of others elsewhere took away a whole category of ethical options from us. And among my younger friends, there is literally no concept of “major repair” for a very large fraction of the devices, furnishings, etc. they use every day. They live in a world where you can’t lash a lot of things together in a kludgy way and struggle on, you can only get things working just about perfectly or failed dead. It’d surprise me if this has no consequences for which political lies they fall for more easily than I do, and which they see through and resist better than I do.

Or here’s another one, that will start off sounding purely aesthetic but isn’t. Many of my younger friends have never been in new construction in a public or commercial place that has really good ceilings. They live with big barns that have the ductwork, light fixtures, etc hanging openly or with shoddy suspended ceilings. I think this has some costs to them.

First, there’s the physical stress of vibrations and the like, and exposure to bugs and their detritus, dust, and so on. Very likely there are a bunch of carcinogens over their heads all the time in these places, but since there’s no push to prevent cancer comparable to the push to cure it, we generally can’t know.

Second, the aesthetic deprivation has a socio-political consequence. They are likely to see beautiful ceilings (and walls, and ornamentation, and such) only in old buildings. Some of them aren’t really interested in any of that when they’re in such places. Some like it and wish it were still done, and are vulnerable to decline narratives about which new/outside element is responsible for no longer letting the powers that be properly decorate their chosen places. (In reality, of course, it’s the powers that be not giving a shit, but it takes young observers some time to fully get that.)

All these things add up.

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JP Stormcrow 08.18.12 at 9:17 pm

I dunno Hidden heart, I think you’ve just given us the comparative equivalent of “Pluto isn’t a planet.”

All these things add up.

Let’s take my one great-grandfather for instance (admittedly long-lived): 1870 -1971.

So, skyscrapers, electricity, movies, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, atomic weapons, television, jets, computers, rockets, the Moon. All of those things really added up.

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Cranky Observer 08.18.12 at 9:51 pm

=== Bruce Wilder at 8:38: “And, more to the point, computation and communication is at the core of technology as an economic phenomenon—it is not some peripheral element, isolated from the rest, like, say the invention of glass making in the classical Roman period. The modeling and control of every production process is affected, and, consequently, every institutional structure built around those production processes is vulnerable to re-structuring. And, they are being re-structured, very rapidly. Michigan and Ohio. Hello!?” ===

I dunno, Bruce. On the one had, having introduced the Internet and what followed from it to several manufacturing organizations in the 1990-2005 period I understand what you are referring to.

OTHO, my last three jobs have seen me engaged in building, modifying, or maintaining the sort of data-transform-data systems that any data processing guy from 1965 would understand perfectly well – because all those wonderful, on-line, realtime-view-of-the-business systems we installed from 1995-2005 now need increasing amounts of intermediation and glue to hold them together. Turns out when you make every machine on the Earth intelligent and give it the ability to talk directly to every other machine – to speed up the process and “make it more efficient” – the end results is the old exponential communication paths diagram/problem. Worked great when some were doing it to a limited extent, but now that everyone and everything is doing it and demanding instant results available on the web site /right now/ it doesn’t seem to be working so well.

There’s also a limit to how much data and information human beings can process and use, and IMHO we passed that limit around 1998 and are now into a counterproductive region. Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and Excel were productivity enhancers (if used correctly); Excel 2007 with the ability to handle 1 million rows not so much. Similarly I have yet to see an organization whose productivity was actually enhanced by the Blackberry; while we peck away to one another real engineers and real machinists in the PRC are doing actual work and taking our future livelihoods away from us.

Cranky

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tomslee 08.18.12 at 10:00 pm

I’m roughly with JWM on this, especially the “all these things add up” lists.

There may be ways that “LED lighting is a bigger, faster change, quantitatively and qualitatively” but, unless I’m missing something, impact on the lives of the populace is not one of them. The lightbulb meant about four or five extra hours of daily light, and I don’t see anything to compare with that.

I suspect part of the disagreement comes from the fact that, from a “daily impact” point of view, technology surely has pretty rapid diminishing returns. I’m sure there are orders of magnitude more R&D being put into the next generation of cars (materials, design, internal electronics, new braking systems, self-guidance, etc etc) than was put into the first few generations, but the impact of that R&D is to move us more comfortably, more efficiently, more pleasingly — it’s small beer compared to the ability to drive from town to town. That’s not to diss any automobile engineers on the thread, of course, we’re just higher up the Maslow hierarchy of needs when it comes to transport. And surely the important axis is impact, not sophistication.

As an aside: is this the first time (since the dark ages?) when new technologies have been abandoned? I’m thinking of humans on the moon, and maybe soon faster-than-sound commercial flight. Are there precedents?

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Akshay 08.18.12 at 10:00 pm

I think one major generational change in Western countries has been the decline in racism among the young, probably due to the collapse of the colonial empires. Let me give an example. A while ago, there was a poll here Holland of the form “Could a person from minority X be a suitable Prime Minister?” (forgot the exact Dutch wording, but you get the gist, it was a proxy measure of prejudice). Happily, if you are white, you hardly have to worry if you are Christian or atheist, straight or gay, male or female. Approval ratings would be above 80%, for society as a whole. For ethnic minorities the picture was mixed, intolerance higher and rising monotonously with age. While there is no cut off point, no cohort which is substantially more racist than the next, I found the views of over-65’s genuinely striking: I pretty much expected overwhelming disapproval of muslim Prime Ministers, large disapproval of black Prime Ministers, but the fact that a small majority of over 65-s would even reject a Jewish Prime Minister was a big surprise. I thought anti-Semitism was pretty much dead in the broader society, but apparently it is still enjoying retirement. A majority of under-18’s by contrast, would be happy with a Prime Minister from any minority; they are the only age group in Dutch society of which a small majority can imagine voting for a Muslim Prime Minister.

So, while we are stereotyping generations, I would say that from an anti-racist standpoint, the older they are, the worse they are.

Speaking of bad generations, does anyone understand the background of the Europeans who caused WWI, bolshevism, fascism and WWII? This might just be the result of age old traditions of imperialism, war and atrocity meeting modern technology, but there seems to be some total madness in the water, affecting people born between 1850 – 1890. (Of course, nearly causing nuclear holocaust or being in the process of global ecocide is insane too, but the second-half-of-the-nineteenth century cohort seems special)

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Akshay 08.18.12 at 10:19 pm

The science and technology subthread might suggest an answer to my question: Many Europeans born between 1850 – 1890 suffered Future Shock. But I don’t see the psychodynamics which would then lead to joyfully sending of your young to the trenches.

For Science, ISTM that most of what we would now call “The Scientific World-View” was created between, say, the Origin of Species and the Structure of DNA, or between Maxwell’s Electrodynamics and Quantum Electrodynamics. That was something which struck me in college. You learn in school that the Scientific Revolution had to do with Newton, but compared to ca. 1860 – ca. 1950 that’s nothing. Since then, we have massively elaborated on the Scientific World view, without remaking it. With the exception of computers, something similar seems to be happening to technology: the paradigm is set and for now, we are just massively refining it. I don’t think this technological puzzle-solving phase is going to last forever though. If our civilisation survives long enough, biotech looks certain to disrupt life as we know it.

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Alex 08.18.12 at 10:31 pm

If anyone in 1970 had predicted the developments in transport as of today, no-one would have believed them

I disagree – Boeing was working on the 737 and 747 and Airbus had just been set up. Preiictors assumed Concorde was the future, but a lot of people were building the one that turned up.

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Alex 08.18.12 at 10:35 pm

Also, my answer to “is science speeding up or slowing down?” is “what are your prejudices?” If you’re a physicist, and you don’t work in materials science or high energy particle colliders, it’s slowing down. If you hate computers, nothing has happened since 1950. If you’re a plane nut and don’t like logistics, nothing has happened since 1976.

If you’re an astronomer and exoplanets are your thing, nothing happened until last week or thereabouts. If you’re a molecular biologist or a cognitive neuroscientist, well.

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Josh G. 08.18.12 at 10:39 pm

Akshay: “Speaking of bad generations, does anyone understand the background of the Europeans who caused WWI, bolshevism, fascism and WWII? This might just be the result of age old traditions of imperialism, war and atrocity meeting modern technology, but there seems to be some total madness in the water, affecting people born between 1850 – 1890.

I don’t think this generation of Europeans was any worse than the ones that immediately preceded it. Europe spent most of the 19th century committing genocidal atrocities abroad, and the first part of the 20th century committing many of the same atrocities at home. The location may have changed, but the underlying actions did not. The World Wars, fascism, and Leninism/Stalinism were the imperialist chickens coming home to roost. Note how Hitler justified his aggressive wars and genocides by claiming that the victims were non-white, and thus implicitly “lesser breeds without the law” who could be treated any way that white Europeans wanted.
(Of course, 19th-century Americans were not much better than Europeans, what with slavery, the genocide of the Native Americans, the various unprovoked thefts of territory from Mexico, and the Civil War.)
People can’t seem to let go of the idea that the 19th century was somehow more “civilized” a time than 1914-1945, and lots of popular histories put forth this notion, but that’s only true if you are only counting white people.

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JP Stormcrow 08.18.12 at 10:45 pm

Alex@95: Given the beginning part of that comment and JQ’s stated positions on the progress subthread, I’m pretty dang sure that he was alluding to the lack of progress since then as being what would have been hard to predict.

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Watson Ladd 08.18.12 at 10:52 pm

Josh G: Reconstruction much? US blacks lost ground from the end of Reconstruction onwards, and in many ways the civil rights movement was only restoring what the situation as of 1866 was in many Southern states.

One of the big differences is probably the loss of radical politics: 1973 marks the end of the New Left, and nothing really replaces it.

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Cranky Observer 08.18.12 at 10:52 pm

<blockquote

=== === If anyone in 1970 had predicted the developments in transport as of today, no-one would have believed them === ===

=== I disagree – Boeing was working on the 737 and 747 and Airbus had just been set up. Preiictors assumed Concorde was the future, but a lot of people were building the one that turned up. ===

I think the point was that as of 1970 it was not-unreasonably expected that by 2000 the entire developed world would have networks of safe, reliable 200 mph (325 kph) trains ; 100 mph (160 kph) cars – most likely self-driving; backed up by supersonic transports (and possibly hypersonic or sub-0rbital for the antipodes). Space travel expectations were a little less realistic, but certainly routine access to earth orbit and the moon for military and high-value commercial uses seemed within reach. Gravity-tube trains through the Earth’s crust were unlikely but not thought of as impossible. [2]

None of that has come to pass. [2]

Cranky

fn1 Harry Harrison’s much unappreciated _Tunnel Through the Deeps_
fn2 Although the North American freight rail network has become vastly more efficient.

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maidhc 08.18.12 at 10:54 pm

We have had a young guy (mid-twenties) working on our house. He likes to listen to music on his phone while he works.

The other morning he was listening to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, a song that is nearly 50 years old.

Very few people in the 1960s would have chosen to listen to the popular music of 50 years earlier. Even the old fogies didn’t go back much further than the Swing Era.

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PJW 08.18.12 at 11:06 pm

My dad was born in 1936 and picked corn by hand in the 1940s and 1950s on his father’s 400-acre Iowa farm. Winter would set in before they could get the crop picked. The farms here are huge now and massive GPS-guided combines roll over thousands of acres a day harvesting the crop in the fall. One reason my dad went to college was to escape the intense manual labor required in farming but notes he might have stayed on the farm if they’d had the equipment of today. Used to be all the farms had fences because every grain farmer raised livestock. Those days are long gone as well.

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William Timberman 08.18.12 at 11:36 pm

I think Bruce has the better sense of the real mechanisms behind what we used to think of as progress. To me it looks as though we’ve blinded ourselves to the pace of change by freezing the cognitive categories we use to interpret it, in some cases — see the Tea Party’s politics, or Wolfgang Schäuble’s economics — by means of an effort of the will verging on the hysterical.

This won’t do. It won’t do at all. I don’t know whether we’re approaching a wall, or a cliff, but it’s clear enough that we need a new way of thinking about our situation, one that reformulates the comfortable categories we imagine to be permanent, and applies those reformulations while we still can. Can we do that as fast as we’ve adopted cloud computing, or finance capitalism? Probably not, but the need to get on with it ASAP isn’t really a matter of opinion any longer.

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djr 08.18.12 at 11:47 pm

Being able to feed 7 billion people vs one quarter of that number only a lifetime ago?

Yes, there’s a lot of consolidation and incremental progress gone in to that… but that’s quite some consolidation and incremental progress.

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LFC 08.19.12 at 1:24 am

both Eric Hobsbawm and David Frum say the same thing—that the only really revolutionary changes of recent times have been in sexuality and the sexual division of labor.

Hobsbawm, ‘The Age of Extremes’, p.289: “The most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of [the twentieth] century…is the death of the peasantry” [in the 'advanced' capitalist countries, he means].

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JW Mason 08.19.12 at 2:07 am

Huh. I was recalling that from the Age of Extremes, but it’s a while since I read it. Maybe I misremembered. Will try to find the passage I was thinking of…

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Curmudgeon 08.19.12 at 2:32 am

The most dramatic and far reaching change of the 21st century, in the advanced capitalist countries, will be the reconstruction of a modernized peasantry with neo-liberal characteristics.

Tributary economic systems designed to enrich rentiers are perhaps the most stable social relations in the history of large scale social organization. The trend away from peasantry in the 20th century will prove to have been an aberration. What is happening now in terms of declining living standards, rising inequality, and the revocation of political voice for the 99% is a reversion to the mean of the trend of history.

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Substance McGravitas 08.19.12 at 3:03 am

The thing about a peasantry is that it was relatively distributed. Now people are in cities. It’s interesting that the US states that seem to WANT to be peasantry are relatively rural.

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drm 08.19.12 at 3:57 am

Uncle Kvetch @ 61:
The jetpack you were promised is available from a company in New Zealand: http://martinjetpack.com/

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Watson Ladd 08.19.12 at 4:37 am

The thing about a peasantry is it makes things that get stolen from it. Today’s poverty is experience by those who are locked out of the world of production. The ancient regime knew not unemployment. Long term rise in unemployment is probably a trend worth remarking on: it definitely shapes a lot of the ways people view work.

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Curmudgeon 08.19.12 at 6:36 am

@Watson Ladd:

Looking at rising spread between labor share of income and productivity it’s fair to say that the re-emerging peasantry is making things that are being stolen from it.

The new peasant will not have his/her crops taken at swordpoint. He/she will instead have no choice but to work for rentier-managers who will refuse to pay him/her anything more than a shrinking fraction of the increasing marginal value of his/her labor while other rentiers employ advancements in the technologies of control to extract as much of his/her wage as possible. What is being stolen from him/her is the marginal value of his/her labor (in the first case) and the value of his self-determination (in the second case).

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Norwegian Guy 08.19.12 at 10:10 am

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know the context, but you could be reading to much into the word “peasantry”. My guess is that he just meant “farmers”, or “share of the working population in the primary industries”, which did decline substantively between 1950 and 2000. Not that it hasn’t continued to decline since then, and the decline was probably larger from 1900 to 1950.

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Bruce Wilder 08.19.12 at 8:35 pm

Akshay: “Speaking of bad generations, does anyone understand the background of the Europeans who caused WWI, bolshevism, fascism and WWII? . . . Many Europeans born between 1850 – 1890 suffered Future Shock. But I don’t see the psychodynamics which would then lead to joyfully sending of[f] your young to the trenches.”

European civilization has its origins in the fusion of Vikings and Franks in Normandy and Anjou in the 9th and 10th centuries. A marauding class of heavily armed warriors adopts the motte and bailey castle as its “technology”, for an economics of pillage and extraction from the peasantry. There’s no stable equilibrium for such a destructive political order, but it settles onto a dynamic path, using law to legitimate its seizures in its core territory, while expanding outward in crusades and conquests. William the Conqueror creates in England a garrison state, dominated by a small landed “aristocracy” of bandits and gangsters, speaking a foreign language; within a century, Henry II is legitimating the royal house and building a legalistic system, confirming both the monarchy and the ruling class, as hereditary; a bit over 300 years after the Conquest, Henry Bolingbroke is willing to address his subjects in English, and distinct nation-states are beginning to emerge in what evolves from a dispute within the common class of Norman-French lords into a Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Four hundred years after the conquest, Henry Tudor puts an end to the “bastard feudalism” of the Wars of the Roses, and begins running the state like a profit-making business, expanding the ranks of the titled nobility by an order of magnitude; his son, seizes the lands of the monasteries and churches — no longer needed as a buffer against the predations of a nobility now pacified at home — and creates a landed gentry. Meanwhile, the feudal ruling classes of Europe have discovered a New World, Africa and Asia, and begin a process of world conquest, well-suited to their inherited role as a military caste, in uneasy alliance with a mercantile bourgeoisie.

The old, international and familial feudal order’s reactionary traditionalism and authoritarian stupidity does sometimes conflict with the aspirations of the new, urban bourgeois’ ambitions for a rationalized nation-state dedicated to commerce. A series of internal European conflicts begins, with the seventy year Dutch Revolt against the Hapsburgs, followed by the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the often revolutionary Napoleonic conquest of Europe, all of which have as a theme the overthrow of the feudal order and its hereditary ruling class. But, the hereditary ruling class of landed aristocrats manages, against the odds, to win the Napoleonic Wars, and to establish for itself a Concert of Europe, and a kind of truce with the commercial interests of the industrial revolution. The emerging bougeouis nation-states of Europe will support the creation of Empires as playthings for their feudal overlords, and at least some semi-enlightened overlords will endorse liberal reform to satisfy the leading capitalists and the middle classes, that social and economic progress is in prospect.

Hereditary, landed aristocracy condemns most of Europe to government — particularly military and imperial government — by greedy, vicious, incompetent and frequently irrational fools, who frustrate efforts at liberal reform and exclude most of the population from participation in political affairs. The repeal of the Corn Laws in Britain, against the opposition of the landed aristocrats, who benefit from tariffs on imported wheat, is only accomplished against the background of a million Irish peasants starving to death, while their lords export grain; the rising German middle classes won’t fare as well, in their struggles for bread, against their Junker overlords. Leopold’s rape of the Congo, in the finest feudal tradition of trading blood for treasure, will eventually embarrass the Belgians, but the Czar will never feel embarrassed by his Cossacks.

World War I looks, on the surface perhaps, like an international conflict between industrialized nation-states, but it was, in fact, a consequence of years of jockeying in “The Great Game” between feudal Empires, led by hereditary aristocrats of a military caste, who, simply, had no idea what an “industrialized” war would look like, how to conduct such a war, or even what purpose of war, might rationally be achieved. The irrational corruption of the Italian elite before the War is simply indescribable. The French military’s resistance to rationality was as well-revealed in the Dreyfus Affair, as in their arrival on the front in bright blue and red uniforms and their anachronistic adoption of Frederick the Great’s motto: “l’audace l’audace toujours l’audace”. The Germans, Russians and Austrians had developed plans to mobilize mass armies, but not the means to control them, once set into motion. Many seemed to think the war a grand occasion to put on a fancy uniform and ride a horse!

The First World War brought that feudal aristocracy and its Empires down. The incompetence of the generals and the wastage of lives did what 70 years of socialist and anarchist rhetoric had failed to do, and made revolution. (Ironically, the Russian Revolution, alone, managed to remake the Russian Empire, in the end.)

The aftermath, the institutional rubble, across much of Europe, left many people feeling unmoored, and many governments, like that of Weimar Germany, lacking legitimacy, amid ideological conflicts, which were so broad and deep as to be incommensurable. Fascism was the irrational counterpart of super-rationalized communism in this boiling soup, while the centrists and liberals offered only a palsied, passionless muddling through; fascism sought social and psychological security for population lost in collapse of a thousand-year order, in whatever references it could cobble together, from half-remembered slogans, traditions, rituals and loyalties. War had been the central ritual and function of the political order of Europe for a millenium; World War II was just the compulsive re-enactment of a bad habit.

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Matt McIrvin 08.19.12 at 11:55 pm

What important claims from a popular astronomy book from, say, 1975 wouldn’t still be accepted as basically true today?

Much of the chapter on cosmology, for one. In 1975 cosmology was still “the search for two numbers” and everyone was using the no-cosmological-constant Friedman-Robertson-Walker framework, according to which everything was essentially dependent on the overall matter density. If the density was subcritical the universe would expand forever, ever-decelerating but never stopping; if it was supercritical the universe would collapse to a Big Crunch someday. Dark matter was already pretty much the mystery that it is today, but the cosmological constant (the simplest form of what we now call dark energy) was Einstein’s Greatest Blunder. Big Bang nucleosynthesis was a great success but nobody had the slightest clue what might have come before that.

Most theoretical treatments of solar-system formation tried to produce solar systems that looked like ours. That’s completely out the window. Solar systems that look like ours turn out not to be the norm at all.

The satellites of the outer planets were terra incognita. I admit that’s not “widely accepted facts overturned” but there weren’t facts to overturn.

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Martin Bento 08.20.12 at 1:50 am

Way back in comment 10 and on the original topic, Chris engaged is some of the boomer-bashing which is so poisonous to the political discourse. It doesn’t matter that much whether “generations” are actually significant sources of character. If people believe in “generations”, then they exist as a political fact.

And I want to underline what Josh G. pointed out, the boomers did not elect Ronald Reagan, they were, in fact, the only cohort that did not go for him. T he myth of “the boomers gave us Reagan” is usually argued with a basis similar to that Anarcisse used: elementary arithmetic error. Anarcissie elaborations are also confused. Boomer culture was “individualistic” is seeking maximum freedom of personal behavior; Reagan was anti-individualistic in this sense. In fact, Reagan was the original hippy-basher, building his career and threatening to provide the protesters with the bloodbath he wanted. A woman recent wrote a history of the war on drugs, treating it as a war on black people. I saw her on MSNBC proclaiming it a mystery that said war actually predated the crack epidemic she regards as its pretext. That is because the hippies have been elided from this history. The original target was white boomer dope-growers, especially in Humboldt county. And equating boomer utopianism and religiousity with anything in Reagan philosophy is possible only if you define those terms so generally that they can;t mean anything as specific political markers. Reagan was the reaction of the older generations against the boomers. \

As for Chris comment, let’s look at some facts that may be relevant:

1) Medicare came into effect in 1966, the year the world’s oldest boomer turned 21. That means that boomers have been paying into it their entire working lives to support older generations that had not.
2) The high deficit course we are on, and the neoliberal policies that have created much of our problems, were created by Reagan and the Congresses of the early 80s. Few boomers there. Mr. World’s Oldest Boomer turned 40 in 1985, and very few Congressmen are ever below 40.
3) In the early 80s, Reagan and Greenspan increased social security taxes to fund the boomer retirement, which was a problem visible decades off. Since these taxes were hitting the boomers early in their careers, and continued throughout, this was a class, not generational, redistribution.
4) The boomers took political power in the 90s and produced 3 of the 6 budget surpluses the US has seen since WW2.
5) As JQ notes above, one of the worst problems of a downturn is that it has a permanent effect on the population that is trying to start their careers during it. This is one of the great problems of the millennials now: they are coming of age during the worst economic period since WW2, and one can expect a permanent effect on their life prospects. The second worst period after WW2 was the 1970s. The bad times really got rolling in 1973, when the boomers were 14-28 years old; just about the same age as the millennials now.
6) Following a trend that started in the 1970s, the elderly have had for some time now a larger share of the national wealth than ever before. If the boomers are so disrespectful to their elders, and so solely responsible for everything that has happened, how can this be?
7) As for the growth of nursing homes, this is because our capacity to extend life increasingly exceeds our capacity to extend good health. Go to a nursing home, and ask how equipped you would be to care at home for most of the denizens. I have experience caring for the elderly and it is no joke. Those bedpans have to be changed 24 hours a day. You say you have a job to go to? Quit it. My spam says you can make lots of money at home though.
There are other respects in which the boomers did have it quite good. College was basically free for them. It cost Gen X something, and is costing the millennials a lot. Many of them got to buy homes while they were still cheap, before housing price inflation flew past general inflation starting in the early 80s. So did the generations before them, however, and boomer homes were often of new innovative forms like mobile homes and condos, which were just getting going in the 50s and 60s.

It is not boomers who have screwed the younger generation, it is Republicans, to an extent conservative Democrats, and to an extent changing circumstances.

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JanieM 08.20.12 at 3:32 am

Martin Bento: that’s great stuff. Thanks.

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Josh G. 08.20.12 at 6:24 am

Martin Bento: “This is one of the great problems of the millennials now: they are coming of age during the worst economic period since WW2, and one can expect a permanent effect on their life prospects.

Indeed this is true. It shouldn’t be surprising that Millennials are more skeptical of capitalism than older generations, since the Invisible Hand has basically been bitch-slapping them for their entire lives. It will be interesting to see how American politics changes when “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. Millennials have little reason to want to preserve the status quo, and seem to be largely immune to the appeals to racism and religious fanaticism that the Republican leadership currently uses to short-circuit the brains of older whites.

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John Quiggin 08.20.12 at 6:38 am

What JanieM said

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Martin Bento 08.20.12 at 8:00 am

Janie, John, thank you very much.

Josh, what will be interesting to me is whether they generate better ways of thinking about socialism and capitalism.

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James 08.20.12 at 1:39 pm

Martin Bento @116

1) No one fully funds their own Medicare. The average recipient receives around $150,000 more in benefits than they pay in. This number is increasing. The knock on the boomers is that if this continues, 30% of the population will be consuming a majority of all federal resources.
2) The earliest incident of deficit spending in the US was the Louisiana Purchase. In general if they can pass it, US politicians will run a deficit.
3) It was Republican Reagan (President) and Democrat O’Neil (Speaker of the House) who increased social security taxes. This is regarded as a successful bi-partisan solution to fund the cost of social security when the boomers retire.
4) Generation X created the budgit surplus not the boomers. It was Generation X that built the internet products that created the internet boom responsible for the economic boom. Add in that without the money borrowed from the increase social security taxes in item #3 there would not be a surplus at all.

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Cahokia 08.20.12 at 1:53 pm

Today is 20th anniv. of the Mexican Default. I read two articles on the era and was shocked at how prescient the tale is. So much of the focus recently has been on the past hot money crisis in Japan, I hadn’t heard much correlation of hot money and the Latin American debt crises . The more obvious lesson might be the troubled proscription doled out from the IMF and lack of moral hazard applied to the culprit, the banks.

“Mexico owed over $50 billion, 90% to foreign private creditors – primarily US, Japanese and British banks. These banks had gone on a lending binge during the 1970s using the profits oil exporting countries had deposited with them from the oil spike. American overspending, notably on the Vietnam War, was recycled as debt to the rest of the world and, to help this, controls on international movements of money were dismantled.”
http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/economics/2012/08/thirty-years-mexicos-default-greece-must-break-sadistic-debt-spiral

“For Mexico read Greece. For American, British and Japanese banks recycling the 1970s windfall profits of oil producers to sub-prime Latin American governments read US and European banks pumping out cheap credit to sub-prime mortgage holders.”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/aug/19/eurozone-latin-america-debt-crisis-1980

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mds 08.20.12 at 3:39 pm

Josh G. @ 118:

It will be interesting to see how American politics changes when “socialism” is no longer a dirty word.

For at least two censuses now, Republicans have either managed to seize control of state governments when it most mattered, or gleefully abandoned recent precedent and re-gerrymandered in between censuses. Inventing more ways to suppress the Democratic vote is now standard operating procedure in numerous states. Sociopathic billionaires are legally free to spend unlimited money to influence elections. At the moment, Mitt Romney has an approximately 1-in-3 chance of becoming President, and the odds are even better that both houses of Congress will be under Republican control regardless. The relentless GOP promotion of far-right reactionary hacks to the federal bench, while Democratic presidents appoint moderate-to-conservative jurists or have their picks blocked indefinitely, means that redress through the courts will be ever harder to come by (See, e.g., the federal judge who has declared that a Colorado heating and cooling company would have its religious liberty intolerably infringed upon by the birth control coverage mandate.). And Representative Todd Akin remains a likely 2013 occupant of a US Senate seat. So right now, I’m hoping there’s still an American politics that doesn’t resemble a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, and The Road, never mind one in which more liberal / skeptical millenials have any say whatsoever.

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rf 08.20.12 at 3:57 pm

@Cahokia

Interesting. There was a conference on in London recently on this topic (scroll down to ‘Learning from Latin America: Debt crises, debt rescues and when and why they work’ from the link below and there are a series of papers attached – Bertola and Ocampo go over the territory of your links in more detail – nb I know nothing on the Latin American debt crisis etc so apologies if this treading over old ground)

http://americas.sas.ac.uk/events/videos-podcasts-and-papers/

I know this is of topic so I won’t say anymore on it!

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LFC 08.20.12 at 6:30 pm

Bruce Wilder, in 114 above, thinks WW1 was a war between feudal [sic] empires. Lenin, iirc, thought it was a war between capitalist empires. Both positions ignore a lot, including the (loony) ideas about war as glorious, healthy, regenerative, redemptive, etc. held by many (not all, of course, but many) in the European educated elites of the time. (See e.g. R.N. Stromberg, Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914). I have to admire Wilder’s confident attempt to write the entire history of Europe from the 9th century to WW2 in a blog comment, though I think the it-was-all-the-fault-of-the-horrible-hereditary-feudal-military-caste line is a bit simplistic. (Also, I thought the slogan attributed by BW to Frederick the Great was Danton’s, but never mind. Maybe the latter borrowed it.)

Yes, very off topic. Sorry.

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JP Stormcrow 08.20.12 at 6:45 pm

Not off topic at all ; I read him as saying it was all the fault of the nonamillenials. Talk about a narcissistic and egotistical generation!

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LFC 08.20.12 at 7:23 pm

@126
:)

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Martin Bento 08.20.12 at 8:11 pm

James, I was responding to Chris argument that the boomers did wrong by the previous generations. As for the growth in Medicare spending, the obvious solution is to bring medical expenses in the US in line with other industrial democracies by either socializing it directly or implementing single payer for all, something of that sort. All of these approaches produce documentably much better results per cost than the US approach. Medicare is more efficient than private insurance, and the Veteran’s Administration, straight-up socialized medicine, is more efficient than Medicare. So the problem is not Medicare, and if your proposed solution is any form of abolishing, limiting, or privatizing Medicare, you are advocating making the problem worse. The result will be one or both of 1) making health care costs an even greater share of GDP, just not paid by the government, but that is not what you are claiming to be concerned about and 2) producing worse outcomes, which would amount in effect to the famous “death panels”, choosing to let some people die, or empowering the market to so choose.

The reason I co-credited Greenspan with the SS tax increase is that he headed the commission that designed the plan. I don’t think anything hinges on this.

The key technologies that enabled the boom of the 90s came from boomers. These include: the Internet itself, the personal computer, computer networks generally, the original killer apps of email, usenet, and the Web, graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, digitized media, digitized media manipulation, computer games, and computerized 3D animation, In 20 years, the boomers took us from 1970: IBM mainframes running programs written in brain-dead languages like COBOL and RPG that you programmed by punching holes in cards, to 1990: personal computers everywhere, networked if desired, with graphical interfaces (all Macs, Amigas, and Atari’s; PCs were transitioning), the Internet in place and available to the public (through things like the Well), email, online social interaction (usenet, bulletin boards), 3D animated films (though not yet major productions), computer games, pretty much all the materials of what we have now. I think that is much more impressive technically than the progress since, despite the fact that vastly more capital has gone into the industry in the last 20 years than the 20 before. The last 20 years have been chiefly refinement and monetization of the innovations of the preceding 20.

It’s true that Gen X did most of the implementation, and therefore made most of the money – for itself (though only a small group) and for the tax man. And implementation is not nothing. But once all these pieces are in place, how much genius does it take to transfer commonplace institutions like bookstores, auctions, and stock brokerages to the new medium?Yet that’s Amazon, ebay, and etrade – some of the biggest success stories of the 90s.

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Steve Sailer 08.20.12 at 10:52 pm

Racial speculation deleted. Please, nothing further from you on any of my threads – JQ

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Bruce Wilder 08.20.12 at 10:59 pm

@126
;)

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Barry 08.21.12 at 12:57 am

John, can we invite Steve over for a BBQ?

I’ll bring ten gallons of sauce :)

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Nine 08.21.12 at 5:18 am

I gotta admit to being really curious about what it was Steve Sailor@129 said … damn!

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John Quiggin 08.21.12 at 6:20 am

@Nine I won’t link, but you can easily find his blog. It’s all much the same stuff

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Kevin Brewer 08.21.12 at 2:52 pm

I was born in the first wave of boomers. The key event as far as I can remember was the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb in 1952. I lived almost as far as it possible to get from America and Russia without living in New Zealand- we didn’t have electricity or telephones, our cars had been built before the war, our wirelesses were powered by 10 kilo battery packs- but and I remember discussion about it quite clearly. The heavy hand of doom hasn’t lifted since. You can see the difference between the early boomers and the later ones in my family, because of improvement in my younger siblings’ nutrition meant they grew taller, had better teeth and are all long sighted even now, which I think is an important and ignored factor. But they are not smarter. I was the first of my family to go to University-in my mid 20s-and had a work history more like the Gen Jones., and it never occurred to me until I read some of the comments that the reason I am poor is because I mixed up my generations. I would have thought Norwegian Guy knew what a peasant was, given they existed in the economy of his home country until after WWII. Maybe he is a city person and isn’t aware that there is a class of small farmers who make a living off a few acres and a couple animals and subsidies from his taxes. As for Bruce Wilder’s history of Europe from 900 AD, I would make the point that England was the best administered state in Europe in 1066, that’s why William the Bastard could employ Anglo-Saxon officials to conduct the Domesday census. For an aggressive and militant class the Normans survived about 100 years in England, and the administrative capabilities of the state were relatively unaffected by the interlude. This administrative competence was something I suspect the Romano-Britons preserved of the old Roman Empire against the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. The key to the rise of the West is the Royal Navy, another example of British administrative genius, guaranteed sea trade routes were open for all against almost all interlopers. Trade and Empire flourished, to the good of all. British and American power was based on trade, mainly centred on Britain, who invested vast sums in the Americas. The interwar period (WWI to WWII) was a period of pacifism and power politics. To harp on my theme the Royal Navy became a shell of its old self during the disarmament years following WWI, at US insistence, as the US built up its fleet, with no will to use it. It took Pearl Harbour to bring the US actively into WWII-a counterfactual history of no Pearl is interesting to contemplate- more than two years after Europe went up, and it is only about ten years ago that Britain paid off the last of her Lend Lease debts, to the last penny. And for James I believe it was on Reagan’s watch the US went from net lender to the world to net borrower from the world. As far as I can see no surpluses since, although Clinton got close. The glitch was a couple of v. expensive wars since Clinton’s presidency: one a war to satisfy a President’s vanity, the other, current, a war of more importance. But I suppose it is possible to rewrite the history of the Vietnam war as that of a President’s vanity too. Perhaps that is the problem, we don’t have any moral wars any more, or rather, wars for a higher purpose than poking your tongue out at your Dad who fluffed his war.

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James 08.21.12 at 8:31 pm

Martin Bento

For US healthcare I favor implementing the Dutch / German solution to providing health insurance. It requires the least amount of overhaul, and there is already a US model with energy/water utilities. I disagree that any change will significantly reduce US healthcare costs because of the US health service model intentionally does not contain spending limits based dollar per year of life gained (EG death panels). This is the major source of cost control used in other countries health spending models. Example, NHS spending is limited to ~35,000 per expected year of life gained (likely off on the dollar value). I am not even certain that US health providers could legally make such a determination based on cost. The voting public has also been taught that they pay 100% of Medicare costs via the payroll taxes. This is why both conservative and liberal voters view this as a paid for program and see no reason to limit spending.

The increasing cost of Medicare, coupled with the increasing cost of social security mean that the boomers could be consuming around 50% of all Federal revenue by 2030. It is this increase in the total consumption by one generation that drives the wedge between the boomers and the other generations. The following generations will have to cut expected benefits (school, housing, etc.) to pay for the boomer retirement. A lot of potential division depends how one views the current use of social security tax money as general revenue funds. Some might view it as the boomers spending their retirement money before they retire.

One can always go back to an earlier precursor technology and claim that that inventor was responsible for everything that followed. Authors and professors never share the glory of the title space with the people they reference in the footnotes. I see no reason why GenX engineers and computer programmers should be required to do so.

Kevin @134
Once Europe and Asia recovered from WWII, it was natural that total US economic dominance would give way to a global economy. Even so, the US remains both a lender and borrower to the world. The strange vagaries of the system results in a situation that while the US borrows from China, it also ends up giving them financial aid. The wars are defiantly sapping the strength of the US. However it is hard to see how a negative effective borrowing rate means that the US is actually a net borrowing. If people want to pay you to take their money…
.

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Matt 08.21.12 at 9:04 pm

Global oil production per capita peaked in 1978 or 1979.

Global population growth peaked (in absolute number of persons) in 1989.

Global urbanization passed 50% in 2008.

In 2012 China will emit about as much CO2 as the USA and EU-27 combined. Its per-capita emissions are now higher than those of Italy or France.

If the last 40 years look static maybe it’s because the observers’ immediate surroundings aren’t where the changes are happening.

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Martin Bento 08.22.12 at 12:21 am

James,so you do favor death panels. Fair enough. But Medicare is still not at the root of the problem, and boomers are only asking for what they were promised and what they supplied to the generations before them.

If funding general revenues from ss taxes is spending the boomers’ retirement, it is not only boomers doing that spending, but the taxes were raised specifically to pay for boomers. Since much of that money has gone to wealth redistribution upwards, that is a bill owed by the rich. The surpluses of the 90s also existed because taxes were raised by boomers during peak boomer earning years.

I claim that technological progress in software technologies that directly affect most people’s lives progressed more from 1970 to 1990, and that the growth since 1990 was chiefly refinement and monetization of existing technologies. Saying “there are always precursor technologies” is not even the rudiments of a response to this. After all, it is certainly possible for technologies to progress more in earlier than in later periods,- there are many technologies that have stopped developing at all – so this sort of categorical ruling-out empirically fails. You have to get in the weeds and look at what technology the boomers were given and what they did, vs. Gen X. It is not an impossible question, but it is addressing a contingent fact of history, and therefore cannot be addressed by reference to some general principle like “there are always precursor technologies”. One has to get down to specifics.

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Martin Bento 08.22.12 at 12:40 am

As for 2030, progress in medical technology is proceeding so rapidly, it is to impossible to say where costs will land up that far out, and it will partly depend on whether we are willing to relax IP standards. Teleomere repair, for example, has already reversed aging in laboratory rats genetically predisposed to rapid aging. This could change the whole nature of the equation, drastically reducing the health care needs of the aged, while also making retirement even less viable.

In any case, the millennials are a generation comparable in size to the boomers, so the ratio of workers to retired will improve again after worsening for a while. Meanwhile, if the basic dynamics do not change, we will have the same issue with millennial retirement.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.22.12 at 8:27 am

It is horrible to see what is happening to the Millennials in the UK. They are getting the rough end of the policy of rampant unemployment in combined with keeping the ‘safety net’ as uncomfortable as feasible while subsidising the wage bill with tax credits and housing benefit. The latter in particular is now being squeezed further as part of the hydraulics of ‘job creation’, and misrepresented as only for the scrounging dole scum. (In the usual way, outlying cases of unemployed families whose rent bill has gone through the roof are presented as though typical exemplars, just as ‘super hod’ in the 80s and now the cream of other countries’ young unattached and enterprising migrants are presented as showing what everyone could and should be doing.)

The really heartrending thing to see is that they don’t know what is happening to them. You hear them on the radio being interviewed by some Oxbridge-educated BBC presenter, asking them what they are doing to ‘find work’. They are going out every day from their parents’ house or their damp bought-to-let bedsits in the hope of being in the right place at the right time to elbow their way into one of the vacancies that do come up, jumping through the DWP’s hoops, entering their appeals against the target-driven decision that they are not looking for work hard enough, going on their ‘job hunt’ training to teach them all how to get to the front of the queue.

And their bafflement is palpable as they repeat what ‘everyone knows’ – that the jobs are out there; you just have to keep on trying; it’s up to them to show willing; they probably could and should be trying harder; they’re hoping to get some unpaid work experience; it is hard to stay positive but they realise the world doesn’t owe them a living. There is something wrong, but they don’t know what, and the only explanation on offer is that it’s them.

And now the Economic State of Emergency provides a blanket justification for smashing the welfare state. The priority must be to ‘deal with the deficit’ (not that this actually being done anyway; a continued ‘crisis’ and recession is a feature not a bug, since it prolongs the emergency). This is assumed as truth by everyone in the domestic media, and eagerly acknowledged as obvious (and a precondition of being treated seriously) by everyone they interview; the term ‘Deficit Denier’ has worked so well it’s made itself redundant. (Not that Cameron really counts as a boomer: his class interests and outlook are invariant in their essentials across, I dunno, 50 generations or something.)

In the supermarket just the other day, a boy of around 20 operating the checkout was sharing a moaning session with the customer in front of me, about the evident understaffing and the fact that the kid had been called into work at short notice.

As he applied his wetware to my own groceries, I said ‘it makes you wonder why the idea of unions is so unpopular; that would sort you out’. I received a blank look that I took to signify the expected mild hostility to such an unhinged outburst of preachy leftism. This guy was brought up in Blair’s Britain, with his only information about politics probably being snippets of pub-conversation fodder gleaned by his dad from Sun editorials, and perhaps the odd bit of pseudo-debate glimped through that tiny electronic Overton window in the corner of the sitting room.

A couple more beeps though, and he responded; ‘you were saying about unions.’ “Yes, cos otherwise it’s everyone against everyone else and there’s nothing you can do about it”, I crammed into the remaining seconds of interaction, with an added apologetic take-it-or-leave-it shrug of resignation. History does not record his internal reaction, but I got a ‘see ya mate’ from him.

I’m pretty sure that if I’d had the temerity to start inflicting my weirdo opinions on someone in his position only a few years ago, the response would be about the same as if I’d denounced him as a willing slave of lizard overlords. So maybe there’s some glimmer of hope.

I should also point out that I’m thinking here of the south of England, and that in Wales and the North there is still some tradition of leftist politics; as of course in Scotland, whose parliamentary seats will be a great loss if the nationalists get their way.

re: boomers. I don’t see any profit in recrimination, and as <a href="http://crookedtimber.org/2012/08/11/the-grandfather-clause-repost/#comment-425286"before, I don’t suppose that all boomers are the same (the 60s were not all that swinging for quite a large section of the population, for example), nor that the sins of the greasy pole climbers and filthy lucre grabbers among them should be visited upon all their peers without discrimination.

I do though have some sympathy with the position taken by, for example, Francis Beckett (don’t know if ‘blew it’ is an intentional Easy Rider reference). In any case, it’s at least a devil’s advocate position – though some of it may be a bit UK-specific I think.

One fairly typical aspect of 60s progressives’ betrayal of subsequent generations might be in their attitude to the unemployment mentioned above. The idea that anyone (and – important extension – everyone) can get a decent job if they want one was IIUC largely true in the 60s, and those who ended up firmly ensconced in safe careers before the party ended do I think tend not to exhibit the modicum of imaginative empathy required to fully appreciate the plight of this generation (though this probably applies to some intervening cohorts too).

—–

Josh G’s poll results don’t provide very firm grounds for optimism about the US situation though: 18-29s may be significantly more pro ‘socialism’ than anti, but they are evenly split on capitalism, and OWS supporters are 52:39 against the S-word! The Occupy movements were in a position of trying to reinvent left politics from first principles, when the only shared first principles they have to hand are rooted in neoliberal ideology. There is some hope among non-‘whites’, as one might expect.

One really big problem is ‘Libertarianism’ – contra those around here who like to moan about discussion of it, and ‘normative political philosophy’ in general, as though the latter were not at the least a prime source of rhetorical tropes which trickle down into very real propaganda wars.

Positive reactions to this term followed the same general profile as those to ‘socialism’ – more support among the younger – but had a greater magnitude across the board. (One may object that the poll fails to resolve the ambiguity in the term, but the trouble is that reality too exhibits much the same kind of failure, with Libertarianism as hard-right proprietarianism being routinely (and intentionally) conflated with libertarianism as economically-neutral support for personal liberty. To some extent this is a bait-and-switch manoeuvre, but it also has the obvious effect of altering substantive opinion through positive association.)

Also, no great newsflash, but this piece about the Kochs is relevant in several ways.

(+ Martin Bento – The boomers took political power in the 90s and produced 3 of the 6 budget surpluses the US has seen since WW2 – is this necessarily a particularly good thing?)

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Martin Bento 08.22.12 at 9:31 am

Tim, at the time, I think it was probably good, but regardless, I was responding to Chris charge that boomers had bankrupted the nation with their profligacy. As for those well-established in careers before times got hard, here in the US unemployment started getting bad in 73. The oldest boomers were 28 then, so I don;t think that’s the majority. A lot of attacks on boomers, like that of Anarcissie above, seem to rely on arithmetic confusion about who exactly we’re talking about. As for Beckett, a lot of his charges seem similar to the vague ones made against boomers here, but they don’t stand up very well here, largely because they rely on the premise that boomers are the ones who created all this conservatism, which is not what the exit polls show, especially not in the 80s and 90s ( they’ve gotten a bit more conservative lately). Was it different in Britain? DId Thatcher get more boomer than silent votes?

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Barry 08.22.12 at 3:34 pm

One fairly typical aspect of 60s progressives’ betrayal of subsequent generations “

You know, if I saw people actually *back this sh*t* up, I’d be sympathetic. (as opposed to assuming that everybody from that time went from Woodstock to Wall St, or that the odd celebrity shifting from hard left to hard right meant anything).

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YoohooCthulhu 08.22.12 at 5:12 pm

Great, great post. But I wonder if it’s worth distinguishing multiple different types of generational commentary.

One, as you said, seeks to define a generation in terms of common behavior and shibboleths. And I think there’s a strong argument for saying that this sort of attempt is largely futile in recent years as lifestyles just diverge so dramatically among older people.

Another type of generational commentary, however, seeks to define a generation in terms of a particular way of viewing the world and issues–and I think there’s a less solid argument for invalidating this sort of commentary. There’s a very solid divide in how political issues–particularly terms like “communism” and “social welfare”–are viewed by different generations, and I think this is a clear function of a common set of world events/concerns of their early adulthood.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.22.12 at 5:53 pm

Did Thatcher get more boomer than silent votes?

They gave her more votes than they did Labour, many more on the crucial 1983 khaki election which allowed the neoliberal Cons to consolidate power, and they continued to disfavour Lab until it was superseded by the Blair (boomer) generation in ’97.

The most convenient set of stats I can find quickly to demonstrate that is here. It could be inaccurate but I very much doubt it, and it looks right from what I recall.

Barry – well you’ve ignored the raft of qualifications on which that particular incautiously stated phrase floats, including those in the previous remark which points out that this generation suffers from the high standards it set itself (and irritates by maintaining an inaccurate self-image based on the idea that they did live up to them). And your use of ‘everybody’ is a particularly clear case of caveat-blindness.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.22.12 at 5:55 pm

until it was superseded -> until it had finally been entirely superseded

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John Quiggin 08.23.12 at 1:25 am

@Tim Looking at your data, the 25-34 age group were the least supportive of Thatcher in 1983, voting 40 per cent Tory and 29 per cent for each of Labour and Libdem. Some key points here
(a) The fact that the FPTP system gave Thatcher a big majority doesn’t mean she ever had majority public support
(b) The differences between generations are trivial compared to the divisions within them, which was the main point of my post.
(c) Claims like “this generation suffers from the high standards it set itself” are just nonsensical. In what possible sense can millions of disparate people with no organized representation of any kind “set themselves standards”?

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Martin Bento 08.23.12 at 4:45 am

Tim, I think the fair benchmark to measure boomer support of Thatcher would be relative to other generations, not absolute support. I also agree that holding the boomers to a higher standard because of the standards set in their youth would be a reason for other generations to avoid youthful radicalism, least they set a moral standard they could not later live up to.

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Barry 08.23.12 at 1:25 pm

JQ, Tim just decided to prove my point. And if statements are highly qualified, then there’s not much left (e.g., the classic media use of ‘some people say…’).

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Tim Wilkinson 08.23.12 at 2:59 pm

JQ: c – Yes, the summary used ‘generation’ instead of repeating that I had started out talking about a certain segment, 60s progressives/radicals (as in the earlier comment the link to which – http://crookedtimber.org/2012/08/11/the-grandfather-clause-repost/#comment-425286 – I messed up above.

b – yes, but (an ad hominem, since I readily agree I should not have accepted the invitation to slide into talking about whole generations) I would guess that the same could be said for height differences between generations, say; that does not make them unreal.

a – indeed, and basically the data is nowhere near being detailed enough to identify who voted against labour incumbents or for conservative ones (in marginal seats, and all the other peculiarities that need to be thrashed out in disproportional systems); nor even to identify boomers very effectively; still less to pick out the cohorts, and yet even less the particular demographic, I had been talking about. Not only that, but it’s not electoral behaviour – defections to the SDP, say – that’s the complaint made by Beckett – rather, it’s behaviour as politicians and union officials.

Barry – yes, there is not much left, or rather there wasn’t supposed to be much, certainly in population terms, to start with.

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Norwegian Guy 08.23.12 at 8:24 pm

Kevin Brewer @134:

I’m not a city boy, and I know that crofters etc. once made up a significant part of the rural populations of Northern Europe. But AFAIK the numerical decline of this class in most advanced capitalist economies happened in the first half of the 20th century (or to some extent even earlier), not the second half as the Hobsbawm quote suggested.

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