The pseudoscience that prepared America for Steve Bannon’s apocalyptic message

Millennials, amirite?
Millennials, amirite?
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s White House strategist, has been getting a lot of credit in Washington for the apocalyptic ideology dominating the new administration.

The former alt-right media impresario, hobbyist film financier, and Goldman Sachs banker isn’t shy about sharing his ideas. And, because his boss is so incoherent, members of the media have often looked to Bannon’s worldview as a guide for the current administration.

His views revolve around several key themes that can be explored at some length, but briefly summarized: American society is at a turning point in history and facing social collapse thanks to a decadent generation that has forgotten the values that made America great. Only by re-embracing white, Christian nationalism can the US regain its pioneering chutzpah. He even made a film on the topic, called Generation Zero

Less widely known are the two pop historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who have helped inspire Bannon’s worldview. Strauss and Howe have written a series of books outlining their theories, beginning with Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, published in 1991.

Strauss and Howe were hardly the first to think about society in generational terms. Humans have tracked generations since time immemorial. But the explosion of demographic data in the 20th century gave new ammunition to anyone studying social change over time. Researchers noticed, for example, that the post-World War II economic boom in the US coincided with a surge in new births—and the Baby Boom generation was coined.

What Strauss and Howe added in their work was a comprehensive theory of generational repetition: US history moves in 80-year cycles, with generations moving through 20-year periods of influence called turnings. The cycles have highs and lows interspersed with major crises in history like the American revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Each of the four generations embody fundamental characteristics, and these characteristics repeat themselves throughout history. Our current cycle calls for a major, defining crisis that will take place, well, any moment now.

Scientists who actually study social change find the work of Strauss and Howe dubious.

“Social/demographic  historians would agree that one can distinguish ‘generations’… but would be skeptical of ideas like cycles or radical disjunctures or character types,” says Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who noted that the variation between generations is distinctive “in only a statistical sense, usually percentage points different one way or another.”

The lack of scientific support for this idea hasn’t stopped it from influencing Bannon, or from influencing you. Even as the media characterizes this generational teleology as kooky (“The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors,” “Bannon’s Views Can Be Traced to a Book That Warns, ‘Winter Is Coming’“) they usually fail to mention that these ideas are widely prevalent in mainstream media, advertising, and popular culture.

Strauss and Howe, you see, didn’t just help invent Steve Bannon. They invented millennials. And society’s obsession with that kind of generational pseudoscience has actually made it easier for Americans to believe in Bannon’s prophecies of doom.

The end times approach

The two writers coined the term “millennial” in 1987, years before many millennials were actually born. They attached the term to a cohort they define as being born between 1982 and 2002. When their book Generations came out in 1992, it included a future ethnography of this new generation. Their insistence that millennials are special has been an important point for the authors, and the subject of several of their books, including Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation and Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.

According to their theory of generational repetition, millennials will be a “heroic” generation, the modern analogues of the Greatest or GI Generation that came of age during World War II. Approximately 80 years later, millennials are destined to face a similar political and economic crisis, inherited from the poor management of their progenitors. No doubt the writers also enjoyed the parallels between their new generation, which looks forward to an epoch defining crisis, and the original Christian millenarianist movements, which looked forward to the end of the world.

Sociologists do recognize a “distinctive consciousness” that can be used to identify a generation’s worldview, centered on an influential historical event that occurred during their youth. For example, the mass mobilization in World War II and the experience of the Great Depression are believed to have left lasting marks on members of the GI generation. But saying that generations can share an identity is very different than saying they share a destiny.

Most generational labels are applied after the fact—”Generation X” didn’t have a name until 1991, when the oldest members were already 26. Thanks to Strauss and Howe, however, millennials have had to grow up with their label, actively trying to justify, or deny, an identity based on a crisis that had yet to occur. What could it be? Strauss and Howe have been trying to find a ”Fourth Turning” to define the generation for some time now. (Previous turnings featured the American Revolution, World War II, and the Great Depression.) Just like financiers predicting hyper-inflation in the US, they are quite sure the event is always just around the corner.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, Strauss was publicly quoted wondering if perhaps the act of mass terror would prove to be the defining moment for millennials. But as traumatic as the attacks were to those who experienced them, the wars that followed were unique largely in how little they touched the lives of most Americans. The share of the population directly involved in those conflicts was much smaller compared to the days of mass conscription.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Strauss and Howe quickly bumped up the start date of their Fourth Turning to this far more catastrophic and widely shared experience. This is also the date that Bannon uses in his film. And yet this crisis, too, didn’t quite live up to expectations: Policymakers acted far more wisely than they did during the Great Depression. Catastrophe was avoided, and though the resulting recession hurt millennials’ financial hopes in ways we are still understanding, it did not have the same impact as the crisis of the 1930s.

Perhaps the defining experience of the millennial generation is relative economic stagnation and inequality. But even that oft-heard word, inequality, is a reminder of how heterogenous millennials are: The experience of a college-educated 25-year-old is very different from one with a high-school education. Not surprisingly, this most racially diverse of American cohorts is likely to have the most diversity of experiences.

Not that Howe is giving up. (Strauss passed away in 2009.) With the rise of Trump, he is still expecting an appropriately destructive global conflict that will lay the groundwork for the delayed millennial rise, happily concluding that “the cycle of history keeps turning, inexorably.”

Hunting for the millennial identity

The singling out of millennials as somehow special has led to an obsession by the media and marketers with this group’s influence and activities, as well as a corresponding “these-kids-today” backlash against their supposed values.

The barrage of hot takes debating whether this group of 80 million people is lazy, entitled, self-obsessed, generous or community-spirited has become such a cliché that programmers made a jokey browser tool that automatically changes appearances of the term online to “snake people.” In the last decade, the New York Times has published 2,648 stories featuring the word, while the Washington Post has run more than 3,000, according to a Lexis search. There is a millennial whoop, a millennial pink and, of course, a millennial egg, and a list of everything that millennials have killed, from napkins to movie theaters.

Strauss and Howe have also infiltrated the advertising world; take for an example, a marketing webinar entitled “Millennials: The New Age Heroes,” presented by venerable advertising firm Ogilvy in 2015. But here, too, the limits of Howe and Strauss’s theories are evident. How can such a diverse generation be categorically defined?

“It’s a million dollar question that you’re asking,” Adam Tucker, the president Ogilvy’s New York agency says. “I can tell you only two weeks ago, I was having a challenging discussion with a client, who we just received a brief targeting millennials [from]. My point to them was it’s just in this year alone maybe the tenth brief I’ve seen from a client focusing on millennials. It’s only helpful to us as a starting point in understanding an audience.”

Tucker, who started his career in advertising in 1993, didn’t worry about generations then. He was focused on the 25-54 year olds that could be reached on television. Today, as the cohort called millennials begins aging into their earning prime (the median millennial is 25), and the channels advertisers use to communicate become more fragmented than ever, Ogilvy’s clients are looking to reach this generation in a way that didn’t appear necessary for mass-market Baby Boomers and was barely attempted with Gen X.

This is easier said than done, as Pepsi’s disastrous attempt to co-opt youth politics in a recent advertisement demonstrates. Tucker urges his clients to get more specific than just the “millennial” audience—another way of looking for the same kind of context sociologists describe as critical to understanding how humans experience and conceptualize their lives. (That’s the impulse behind emerging popular distinctions between “old” and “young” millennials.) Indeed, the same fragmented media market that challenges Ogilvy’s branding efforts also challenges the idea that a generation can be understood with one big idea.

This has yet to stop anyone from trying.

The millennial cannot be falsified

The malleability of Strauss and Howe’s predictions says a good deal about the logic of these theories: The millennial generation is heroic because it will face the cataclysm of a Fourth Turning, and the Fourth Turning will be a cataclysm because it comes about 80 years after the last one. There’s more faith than reason at work here.

“Most scientists don’t use the terms ‘boomer,’ ‘ex-er,’ and I don’t as well,” Glen Elder, a University of North Carolina sociologist who is a pioneer in the field of life cycle studies, wrote in an e-mail. He makes a distinction between “generations” and “birth cohort.” Birth cohorts “locate people in history,” while “generations are used to refer to a population born in a historical era, they generally cover a broad span of time—in doing so, they lose precision regarding historical influences.”

Elder illustrates the challenges in assuming a homogenous view of generations by citing research into the Greatest Generation that helped define the field. He tracked individuals born in California over 40 years in order to assess how the Great Depression affected them. The results show major differences within fairly small time spans: Children born in 1920 or 1921 and those born seven or eight years later had very different experiences, as did boys and girls. In contrast, Strauss and Howe consider the entire group to be part of the same “GI” generation.

Social scientists have hunted for “age changes that are universal or nearly universal across time and place,” akin to what Strauss and Howe describe. Discovering some universal rhythm to history would revolutionize our understanding of human society. But researchers consistently find more difference than similarity, between and among generations.

Howe and Strauss are undeterred by these criticisms and indeed by modern methods.

“We reject the deep premise of modern Western historians that social time is either linear (continuous progress or decline) or chaotic (too complex to reveal any direction),” Howe argues in a recent defense of his theories. “Instead we adopt the insight of nearly all traditional societies: that social time is a recurring cycle in which events become meaningful only to the extent that they are what philosopher Mircea Eliade calls ‘reenactments.’ In cyclical space, once you strip away the extraneous accidents and technology, you are left with only a limited number of social moods, which tend to recur in a fixed order.”

To borrow a phrase, they argue that time is a flat circle.

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

For his part, Bannon stresses that he does not seek a crisis; he is merely prepared for one. Perhaps he sees the prediction of crumbling institutions as a way to justify his efforts to tear them down. The apocalyptic mood of Trump’s presidency, from his “American Carnage” inaugural address to his praise of global autocrats, fits with Strauss and Howe’s predictions of inevitable disaster, presumably ending when millennials mobilize to spark a new civic blossoming.

But millennials themselves, as we have noted, are far more dividedA youthful cohort of 18-29 year-olds—some, but not all, millennial voters—backed Hillary Clinton with 55% of their votes. On the other hand, 37% of that cohort backed Trump, with 8% preferring a third-party candidate. Hence the problem with generalizations about generations.

Ironically, over-confidence about the immutability of young people’s political views likely helped push Trump and Bannon into the White House. But if just a few hundred thousand Americans had voted differently and changed the result of this historically tight race, you can count on one thing: Howe would still be predicting disaster for president Clinton and a millennial utopia to follow.

Given its lack of analytical value, shedding the idea of a homogenous millennial destiny might help society better handle whatever volatility it encounters next. Rather than putting our faith in assumptions that can’t be proved, it might be better to recognize the wide range of millennial experiences don’t lend themselves to a single interpretation. If it’s crazy to believe a crisis is coming simply because one came 80 years before, maybe it’s crazy to pretend that we can generalize about millennials to our benefit.

As the sociologist Elder and a co-author, Linda George of Duke University, write, “cohort differences are only one window to the life course—and how it changes over time. In many ways, cohort analysis provides a view of the ‘forest’ of life course patterns; but it is intra-cohort variability that allows us to see the ‘trees.'”

Yet there is one unique factor about the millions of Americans dubbed millennials.

“[Millennials] have been the most written about generation of any generation, in terms of media and culture and their impact,” Tucker, the Ogilvy president, says. In his view, however, all this attention hasn’t resulted in the empowerment, energy or heroism predicted by the generational theorists.

Instead, he says it made them anxious—which is supposed to be Gen X’s problem. Ogilvy hired psychoanalysts and ethnographic researchers in an effort to understand young people and the perception that millennials seek an ”amazing set of life experiences.” However, their researchers found that millennials’ search was “fueled by high degrees of anxiety and a bit of insecurity…because they’ve grown up with social media, they feel high degrees of pressure to compete against their peers.”

And, thanks to Strauss and Howe, to save the world.