Age, Period, Flim Flam

January 19, 2010 at 5:14 am 2 comments

| Gabriel |

A few months ago, The Chronicle had a very interesting article on generation gurus, who claim insight into the “millenials,” or as actual social scientists boringly call them, “the 1980s and 1990s birth cohorts.” Lots of organizations, including college admissions boards, are really interested in these gurus’ advice on how to understand the kids these days. (Which reminds me of the obnoxious creative team of Smitty and Kurt, who were brought on to Sterling Cooper to sell Martinson’s coffee to the Pepsi generation).

I remember way back when I was in high school reading a long-form magazine article (The Atlantic?) on Howe and Strauss and I thought it was a great theory, in part because some of the details seemed like they were (or ought to be) true and in part because the generational dialectic struck me as plausible. Basically they say that idealistic generations are followed by cynics who in turn are followed by pragmatic workhorses who are in turn followed by idealists, with the mechanism being that each generation reacts against its parents’ excesses. According to this schema, the reason I grew up listening to Nirvana was as a reaction to the “All you need is love” stuff of the boomers.

When I got all growed up and actually started dealing with, you know, systematic data, I was more than a little disappointed that while cohort change is not always linear, it is basically monotonic and it is definitely not cyclical or dialectical. I’m primarily an orgs guy rather than a people guy, but I’ve still done some moderately extensive age/period/cohort stuff with the GSS and SPPA and on everything I looked at (mostly social attitudes and cultural consumption), there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever for the Howe and Strauss dialectic. So for instance, if you look at strong preference for opera and classical you first have to limit the data to BA or higher education (less educated people don’t like this music regardless of cohort) and then you see a clear trend that the music is popular with educated people born before 1950 and unpopular with educated people born after 1950. There is no distinction between “boomers” and “gen X” in the data, and in fact older boomers are still into high culture. The only issue that I’m aware of that even vaguely approximates the Howe and Strauss model is abortion attitudes, but a) the cohort effects on abortion attitudes are weak and b) the effects of cohort on other sex/reproduction opinions, like gay marriage, are monotonic.

So given that the empirical evidence for these ideas is so weak, why are college administrators, marketers, etc, so into it? I think the answer has to be that it was facially plausible and more importantly that it was pretty clear. A money quote from the article is:

Amid this complexity, the Millennials message was not only comforting but empowering. “It tickled our ears,” says Palmer H. Muntz, director of admissions and an enrollment-management consultant at Lincoln Christian University, in Illinois. “It packaged today’s youth in a way that we really wanted to see them. It gave us a formula for understanding them.”

This is reminiscent of the argument that John Campbell gave for explaining the popularity of supply side economics. His argument is basically that the idea gained popularity not because it had especially powerful theory or empirics behind it, but because it was comprehensible and gave a tractable guide to action. In theory, Lafferism is contingent on the important question of where the current tax regime lies relative to the curve’s maximum, but in practice this contingency was elided and people took it to mean “always cut taxes.” That is the appeal of the idea was not so much that we had good reasons to think it reflected reality (or more specifically, that it was applicable to current circumstances), but because it clearly prescribed action — and I think it’s worth adding, actions that were desirable in a free lunch kind of way. In the same way, if you read Howe and Strauss, they are relentlessly positive about the millennials, portraying them as a dialectically-generated reproduction of the go-getters who first stormed the beaches of Normandy and then nested into Levittown. Victory, affluence, swing music, what’s not to love about these kids?

You can see similar wishful thinking in the eagerness of municipal officials to throw consulting contracts at Richard Florida. Florida’s basic shtick is that if Methenburg, PA wants to develop they should just rezone old warehouses and put up a sign reading “Methenburg Arts District,” this will attract artists, who in turn will attract engineers, who in turn will turn Methenburg into the next Silicon Valley. I always imagine after Florida gives his powerpoint, the city councilmen or county selectmen are enthusiastically coming up with ideas about how to be “cool” like Murray Hewitt on Flight of the Conchords. It sounds like a perfect plan: Methenburg get to be “cool,” we get development, and it doesn’t require either making expenditures or forgoing revenues to any appreciable extent.

If only it were true.

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2 Comments

  • 1. Jay Livingston  |  January 19, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    It’s cognitively convenient to reduce an entire cohort to a few simple generalizations rather than to realize the diversity that they exhibit on any of those dimensions. At my university, the president, in her opening day speech two years ago, went on at length about the characteristics of these millenials. At the time, all I could think was that while these generalizations might apply to many students in the US, they did not apply so well to most students at this university.

    As for Lafferism, it’s appeal lies in the specific policies it promotes. Who doesn’t want lower taxes? A diet book that claimed you could lose weight by eating cheeseburgers and milkshakes would be popular, but not because it was easy to understand and provided a guide to action.

  • 2. Noah  |  January 20, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Jay, I think policies like Lafferism or the cheeseburger diet have both appeals, and that’s why they work. They’re easy to understand, give a guide to action, and that action suggests short term satisfaction. We could imagine a diet book saying just eat salad wouldn’t sell as well, even if it’s easy to understand and gives a clear guide to action, because eating nothing but salad doesn’t seem fun.


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