War of ideas will end when boomers exitPublished 8:35am Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Column: Pothole Prairie
Why is it that for the past 15 to 20 years contentiousness in American politics has been on the rise? Why is it that compromise is out and intransigence is in?
Why have we witnessed government shutdowns and state and federal brinkmanship? Why do our elected leaders stage grand fights over what in the past were just ordinary government functions, such as Congress raising the federal debt ceiling or the state Legislature distributing local government aid?
Why is it that everything in politics these days is about sticking to ideological callings and not about getting the work done?
It’s a generational thing.
The baby boomers have been contentious since they were teens and young adults in the 1960s, and they will remain that way into old age.
So if you wonder whether all this madness is going to come to an end sometime soon, don’t bet on it. The madness will continue for another 15 or 20 years while boomers remain in politics in large numbers. When Generation X and the Millennials take over in numbers, the U.S. political scene will mellow.
It is widely recognized that the baby boomers are about presentation and posture, while Generation X is more about getting the work done. A boomer might be dressed nicely and at work during the designated hours, whether much work is accomplished or not. Gen X’ers typically don’t care so much about the suit and tie and designated hours and care more about getting the task done and done well.
“Git ’er done!” came from a Gen X member, Larry the Cable Guy.
For example, organizers of business conventions know these traits. Boomers like motivational speakers. Gen X’ers want speakers who provide information that can’t be found in books or online. Boomers like ideas. Gen X’ers like information. Boomers are about values. Gen X’ers are about pragmatism.
So the boomers have been in a war over ideas since the protests of the 1960s. It’s the primary trait of their generation.
A headline in the New York Times on June 3 read, “War of Ideas on U.S. Budget Overshadows Job Struggle.” The story forecasts how instead of doing an immediate fix of raising the debt ceiling, the leaders in Congress will wage a wide battle over spending, jobless benefits, stimulus and what not and leaders are beginning to form their stances, rather than directly address jobs.
That story’s forecast came true. For anyone who knows generational traits, it was an easy prediction to make.
The blog The Gen X Files cited the story. Blog author Dave Sohigan commented as follows:
“I think we are still early on in the Fourth Turning so this sort of bickering can still hold sway. The boomers would still rather debate ideology than simply get things done. Contrast that with Generation X (born 1961-1981) leaders like Paul Ryan or Barack Obama who seem to be more focused on just coming up with a solution that will allow us to survive. I am not saying I agree with either Ryan or Obama or their proposals, but there is an interesting difference in the pragmatism you see from X’ers in leadership vs. the boomers. The leaders mentioned in the story are boomers — and one Silent (born 1925-1942) — who are willing to argue and debate endlessly.”
He provides a pie chart of the leaders in the 112th Congress. Boomers make up 60.7 percent. Generation X 23.8 percent. Silent 14.9 percent, and other 0.7 percent.
So you probably wondered about that term “Fourth Turning.” This is the theory that America turns over in generational traits every four generations. It was developed by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe and first explained in the 1991 book “Generations.” The 1997 book “The Fourth Turning” expands the theory on the four generational types and recurring mood eras of the country.
It’s all very fascinating. The Wikipedia entry (I know, I know, it’s Wikipedia) expains the generational turnover theory. “These include the upbeat, team-playing G.I.s (born 1901-1924), the indecisive Silent, the values-obsessed Boomers, the pragmatic 13ers (Gen X), and the new coming-of-age generation of upbeat, team-playing, Millennials.”
That’s why I conclude that once the baby boomers are no longer in charge pragmatic Gen X’ers and the team-playing Millennials will have to clean up the mess the boomers made fighting over ideas. It’s just a matter of time.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.