Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Xers Can't Just Quit

Neil Howe's Lifecourse Blog has recently been pointing out items in the blogosphere that seem to be predicting the end of our world. Check out:

Death of 'Soul of Capitalism', where Paul B. Farrell of Marketwatch details 20 reasons why America has lost its soul and its collapse is now inevitable. Or:

American Pie and the Seasons of History, where Jim Quinn of The Burning Platform shows how our unavoidable downfall is eeriely foretold in the lyrics of Don McLean's cryptic classic, American Pie.

Like Howe, I've also been stumbling into more items that seem to be carrying the same water, most recently The US in GM, where Tom Davenport on the Harvard Business Publishing blog sees the same bitter demise for the United States that has befallen General Motors, and for many of the same reasons.

What's going on here? Howe says it's all part of something he calls The Fourth Turning, one of four natural and cyclical periods of history, driven by the interconnected waxing and waning of his four generational archtypes--Artists, Prophets, Nomads and Heroes. In The Fourth Turning:

A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.

According to Howe, this has happened again and again in world history. We are now entering just the latest incarnation, where the old Artists are disappearing (Silents), Prophets are entering elderhood (Boomers), Nomads are entering midlife (Xers), Heroes are entering young adulthood (Millennials), and a new generation of Artists are being born (a generation, as yet, unnamed).

Essentially, the Boomers are freaking out because their world is changing in ways they don't understand, and rather than try to make sense of it, they're throwing up their hands and saying we're all doomed. In many ways, it reminds me of something I heard several Silents and Boomers say upon the election of Barack Obama--that they didn't feel like they were living in the same country they had grown up in.

A few of my recent posts (here and here) have dealt with the speculative issue of Xers "quitting"--giving up trying to lead organizations constructed out of Boomer building blocks and striking out on their own to create new organizations with a decidedly Xer vibe. But reading all this doom and gloom from the Boomers has me wondering if it isn't the Boomers who will be "quitting", leaving the Xers and the following generations behind to reassemble those blocks in better functioning ways.

As a point of comparison, check out these two items, which seem to deal with the same "fourth turning" issue, but from a distinctly Xer perspective.

The first is from Seth Godin, who sees opportunity in this world of crumbling institutions. The establishment doesn't like it when it can no longer tell who is and who isn't a journalist, or an entrepreneur, but Godin does.

The second is from Steven DeMaio, the blogger who inspired me to write my first post about Xers quitting. He describes the new era we're entering as one of permanent uncertainty, and has advice for how to deal with it.

The reaction of most people has been to ignore these realities, as they can be depressing to contemplate. A smaller but substantial number of folks are overreacting; I know several educated professionals, for example, who are buying guns, hoarding antibiotics, or stockpiling gold coins. I find both types of responses--denial on the one hand, paranoia on the other--to be chilling. But instead of merely dismissing them as immoderate, I'd rather figure out a way to bring both sides toward the middle.

The extreme responses of inaction and paranoia cannot be moderated for more than a very short time by frequent use of the word "hope" and calmly delivered advice not to panic, important as those elements are. A more practical approach is to acknowledge plainly and openly that crisis is here to stay and that living with it day in and day out need not feel like doom. The responsibility for initiating such conversations belongs, in part, to leaders in government, business, and elsewhere, but it also belongs to average folks--both are navigating these rough waters.

I agree. And who is more likely to start those conversations? The Boomers who see the sky falling on their heads, or the Xers whose job it will necessarily be to pick up the pieces and create some new constellations?


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