Historian, Author Neil Howe Addresses UMW Graduates, May 12

The man who coined the term “Millennial Generation” spoke today across a generational divide. Historian and best-selling author Neil Howe, University of Mary Washington’s 2012 commencement speaker, talked about the vast differences between the robed graduates and their parents.

Author and historian Neil Howe delivers UMW Commencement Address

“All of you Boomer and Generation X parents are essentially unlike your children – and were not the same even when you were kids,” said Howe in his address to more than 5,000 graduates, family members, friends and faculty, gathered on Ball Circle for the 101st annual commencement. “And you Millennial Generation graduates are essentially unlike your parents – and will not become like them as you grow older.”

The distinctions between the graduates and their parents are striking.

“Believe it or not, parents, your kids have never known that America, Chicago, and Kansas are the names of rock bands, not just places,” said Howe, a recognized authority on global aging. “Ever notice the blank stares when you tell them “roll up the window,” or “turn the channel,” or “dial a number”. . . For as long as Millennials can remember, NATO has been looking for a mission, China has been peacefully rising, Brazil has been building shopping malls, and Boomers Bill O’Reilly and David Letterman have been hating on each other in front of millions.”

The differences go much deeper, Howe said.

“You Millennials grew up in an era of rising parental protection – never having known a time without bicycle helmets, electric plug covers, Amber Alerts, and 15 different ways to be buckled into the minivan. We, the parents, grew up in an era of declining parental protection: Our moms and dads told us, ‘we don’t care where you go so long as you’re home for dinner’ – and as for seatbelts, we were told if there’s an accident to just put up our hands like this.  As kids, we never saw a ‘Baby on Board’ sticker.  ‘Baby Overboard’ would have been more appropriate.”

Today’s graduates have been raised to feel very special, trusting their counselors and support groups with smart phones that keeping them feeling good about the world.

“We, the parents, knew we weren’t very special, didn’t trust anyone to advise us, and thought staying away from counselors was a sign of resilience. When you came to college, there were long orientations and immersions – and many of your parents clutched teddy bears and wept.  When we came to college, we jumped out of the car and tried to grab our suitcases before our parents sped off.”

Today’s graduates were raised to be team players, immersed in community service, group projects and a multitude of clubs, Howe said. Digital technology and smart phones keep them connected to their friends and the world.

“We, the parents, were a lot more into competition, rebellion, and defying the mainstream. We didn’t ‘friend’ each other. Our generation invented the ‘personal’ computer.  Personal, as in mine and not yours, and certainly not part of the corporate mainframe our own parents bequeathed to us. Growing up, our biggest fear was that Big Brother might someday install cameras in our rooms. Our biggest joy was hearing Steve Jobs announce that ‘1984 won’t be like 1984.’ And now our biggest surprise is to see our own kids connect with each other by installing their own cameras in their own rooms!”

Yet, Howe told the graduates, their generation possesses a surprisingly conventional outlook on life.

“Surveys show that as you grow older you wish to become good citizens, good neighbors, well-rounded people who start families. Violent youth crime, teen pregnancy and teen smoking have recently experienced dramatic declines,” Howe said. “And for that, we congratulate you.”

Most startling, he said, the disparity in values that traditionally separates youth from their parents has virtually disappeared.

“You watch the same movies as your parents, buy the same brand-name clothing, talk over personal problems with them – and, yes, feel just fine about moving back in with them.  When I travel around the country, I often ask people today in their 40s or 50s how many songs on their iPod overlap with what’s on their kids’ iPods.  Typical answer: 30 or 40 percent.  Let me tell you: Back in my days on campus (later known as ‘the days of rage’), we did not have iPods, but if we had, the overlap would have been absolutely zero. Everything about our youth culture was intentionally hostile and disrespectful of our parents. That was the whole idea.”

Howe said that generational differences do not mean that one is better than the other.

“There is no such thing as a good or bad generation. Every generation is what it has to be – given the environment it encounters when it enters the world. And history shows that whatever collective personality that generation brings with it is usually what society needs at the time. As such, youth generations tend to correct for excesses of the midlife generations in power; and they tend to refill the social role being vacated by the elder generations who are disappearing.”

In fact, said Howe, the Millennial Generation is correcting for the excesses of Boomers and Gen-Xers who run society today.

“I need not remind you what those excesses are: Leadership gridlock, refusal to compromise, rampant individualism, the tearing down of traditions, scorched-earth culture wars, and a pathological distrust of all institutions,” Howe said.

The Millennial Generation is resurrecting many of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation.’

“Like the Millennials, the G.I.s grew up as protected children and quickly turned into optimistic, consensus-minded team-players who saved our nation – in the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s – from turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time.”

Renowned composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents, said Howe. It’s happening again with this Millennial generation, he said, and that notion should make parents proud.

“They aren’t like you, but they are what America now needs,” Howe said of the Millennials. “They don’t complain about the dark storm clouds looming over their fiscal, economic and geopolitical future; they try to stay positive. They don’t want to bring the system down; they’re doing what they can to make it work again. They worry about you a lot. And they want to come together and build something big and lasting, something that will win your praise.  Beneath their tolerant, optimistic, networking and risk-averse exterior lie attitudes and habits that may prove vital for our country’s healing and for our country’s future.”

Howe cautioned graduates that no one can predict what challenges they will face, and neither does anyone expect them to become America’s next Greatest Generation.

“But someday you can say you heard it from me: That is their destiny, to rescue this country from the mess to which we, the older generations, have contributed… perhaps a bit too much more than we intended—to become a great generation.”

 News release prepared by: Marty Morrison

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.