Fourth Turning's Neil Howe: Why Millennials Aren't So Unique

Authored by Marianne Brunet via,

The conventional wisdom is that Millennials are a generation with unique needs and buying habits, but Neil Howe says that they are very similar to the Greatest Generation.

Howe, who coined the term “Millennial,” says that both generations are highly risk-averse, a characteristic brought on by their shared parenting environment.

In a talk last week, Howe explained how we can use generational patterns and historical economic trends to better understand the future of the global economy.

He also cautioned investors about the impact global aging trends will have on future economic development and financial market conditions.

Howe spoke on November 2 at a National Association for Business Economics luncheon in Boston.

He is an authority on social change in America, and an acclaimed bestselling author. He is also a leading researcher at Hedgeye Risk Management and a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

How aging populations will impact the fiscal future

Howe has spent his career researching demography within the context of economic history. But in his talk last week, he revealed that he recently shifted his focus to a new area of study.

“Political demography is a whole new budding field,” Howe said. “And it will never go away, not for the rest of our lifetimes.”

According to Howe, “Political demography is premised on the fact that in the next century, we are going to see a greater divergence of demographic trajectories, more than we’ve ever seen before in human history.”

This divergence is based on two global aging trends.

On the one hand, “there are places in the world today whose demographics are essentially the same as in pre-modern times,” Howe said. “These are high-mortality, high-fertility societies – I’m talking about a lot of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.”

“And then you have other areas of the world with extreme low-fertility and low morality societies,” Howe explained.

“Look at South Korea,” Howe said. “According to the United Nations constant-fertility scenario, by the year 2035 there will be more people turning age 90 every year than being born every year.”

“We’ve never in human history seen this situation amongst different societies around the world,” according to Howe.

This divergence will undoubtedly drive significant changes in the future global economic landscape. “What are the implications for the direction of capital flows? What are the implications for labor productivity and competitiveness?” Howe asked.

He urged economists to consider societies whose working-age population is shrinking. “Every year their normal growth is declining faster than their normal productivity is growing,” he said. “Which means that even in a ‘normal’ non-recession year, they have negative GDP growth.”

“What’s the impact on investment, savings and competitiveness?” Howe asked rhetorically.

Howe theorized that one possible response to a decline in economic growth driven by shrinking population is for nations to become much more anti-competitive.

He predicted that nations “will actually move towards cartelizing market and carving them up, rather than competing.”

As a historical example of this sociological response to a loss in competitiveness, Howe pointed to the 1930s, “a decade of cartels and measures to keep productive institutions going.”

Howe highlighted one concern in particular – the future global standing of developed nations with demographic concerns.

“There’s a lot there, not just in terms of its impact on the economy, but demography’s impact on geopolitics,” Howe said.


“What happens to societies whose populations are declining every year versus those that are rising? Does this impact geopolitics and does it have to do with the rise and fall of empires?”

Circling back to the example of the 1930s, Howe highlighted that declines in the competitiveness of certain nations has marked historic global shifts. He explained that Britain, which had been a super-power on the international stage, experienced a dramatic shift in its economic and geopolitical standing culminating in World War II.

Part of Howe’s research has focused on measuring risk and publishing aging vulnerability indices. This tool can be used to consider “the affordability and sustainability of pension funds around the world,” according to Howe.

“In the late 1990s, one of our big stories was on Australia,” he said. “Australia always got ‘first place’ because it has the mandatory superannuation fund,” he explained, “a required defined-contribution plan, which is fueling tremendous savings in Australia.”

“Perhaps not coincidentally, Australia is the only country that has had no recession over the last 25 years,” Howe said with a smirk.

How generations impact economic development

Howe focused his presentation on how population growth rates will drive change in the global economy. However, he also spoke about another demographic factor that will significantly impact the future of international markets – generational shifts.

According to Howe, to consider the future of the global economy, we also need to understand “differences in how generations think and the strengths they bring to political power.”

Howe’s research has focused on the archetypal differences between generations, and what they bring to the table.

“What we found was that each generation looks at the world differently even though they experience many of the same events, because of course they had a different location in history.”

Howe used Boomers and their parents to explain this in a real-world context. “We had Woodstock, they had D-day,” Howe said.

Boomers prided themselves on how different they were from than parents. “They were building battleships, while we were discovering ourselves,” he added comically.

They prided themselves on having differing perspectives, but Boomers eventually went on to occupy the same societal roles as their parents, just at different points in history and with different views.

“Looking generationally at social change allows you to see into the future in a way that a lot of people don’t appreciate,” according to Howe.

“No one applies this perspective,” according to Howe.

“For instance, if I go into a consumer retail company that sells cosmetics to people in their forties and ask them about their future market,” Howe said, “They will tell me: ‘I know everything about 40-year olds, we know everything about them, we studied 40-year olds throughout history and we just extrapolate that forward’.”

But Howe argues this is the wrong approach. “I would look at today’s 20- and 30-year olds instead,” Howe said.

With this approach as a basis for his analysis, Howe went on to discuss the future of the American economy.

Howe explained that we can use the traits of generations to understand how they will lead when they occupy influential societal roles. According to Howe, we can understand the traits of Millennials as a generation by examining the impact their parents had on them during their formative years.

For instance, according to Howe, because Millennials were sheltered by their parents they are now very risk-averse.

Are Millennials like the G.I. Generation?

In his research, Howe found that there are predictable cycles when generational personalities oppose their immediate predecessors, but share significant traits with groups they may never meet.

That is, although both Millennials and Boomers don’t share traits with their parents, they do resemble other previous generations.

“When people ask me to draw parallels like ‘what decade does this last decade most resemble?’” Howe said, “I tell them the 30s.”

According to Howe, we can predict trends about the future of the Millennial generation by examining the G.I. generation (also known as The Greatest Generation), which is made up of people born between 1900 and the mid-1920s.

Both the Millennial and G.I. generations grew up with similar parenting and similar historical conditions, according to Howe.

In terms of social and cultural similarities, “One of the trends we saw in the 1930s was declining fertility, a rise in multi-generational households, a decline in home ownership and a decline in youth violence,” according to Howe.

He urged economists to compare that to today’s environment and Millennial behavior.

“I would argue that in the last 10 years we have seen a personal turning away in risk-taking,” Howe said. “If you look at 200 youth-risk indicators the CDC keeps, almost all of them are hugely down.”

According to Howe, this is because “their parents assured them from the time they were born they were special, that they’re precious to the world, and that they should take care of themselves.”

“This is why this generation does not take risks,” Howe argued, “Why they’re not starting business, why they think stocks are really dangerous things.”

He went on to explain how this risk-averse mentality emerged for both the G.I. and Millennial generations from an economic perspective.

“Both the current generation and the G.I. generation grew in the shadow of a massive financial crisis,” Howe explained.


“Both have been characterized by a disappointing employment of labor and capital, low standard of living gains, low productivity growth, negative real interest rates, the failure of monetary policy and competitive devaluation.”

Looking forward, Howe inferred, much like the G.I.’s, Millennials will have to deal with a great conflict, but theirs will be a culture war.


Laowei Gweilo SWRichmond Wed, 11/08/2017 - 20:45 Permalink

shocker .... a generation that became adults and started careers during a massive global financial crisis are as conservative and poor as the last generation that became adults and started careers during a massive global financial crisisthere's a lot of ways millenials are idiots, but I think a lot of it stems from depression and lack of ambition/hope, and the need to find modern (read: tech) coping mechanisms

In reply to by SWRichmond

DipshitMiddleC… Laowei Gweilo Wed, 11/08/2017 - 21:40 Permalink

im a millenial its super hard for an average guy to get a job and have a relationship with a decent woman these days. you need to be putting in 110% effort just to maintain the semblance of what was once "middle class" boomers are out of touch assholes who were born on 3rd base. i fucking hate all of you mother fuckers and i hope your pensions get eaten by the koch bro's   

In reply to by Laowei Gweilo

Oldwood DipshitMiddleC… Wed, 11/08/2017 - 22:40 Permalink

Where did you ever get the idea that it was easy for boomers?Married three times and still wondering if I did the right thing.Worked all kinds of shit jobs until I gave up and became permanently self employeed/ unemployed for forty years....and still question if I did the right thing. My best friend growing up worked in strip mining for the first ten years of his working life after delivering pizzas...until they shut down. For the last forty years he has worked as a mechanic in a candy box factory. Obviously winning. In my life I have personally known very few true success stories and most still alive are still working.Grow a pair and man up. It's tough out there for most everyone. Everyday you set bitching about how it ain't your fault is another day falling further behind. Don't ever think you don't have to compete. Progressives tell you that because they don't want to compete with YOU.

In reply to by DipshitMiddleC…

inhibi Oldwood Thu, 11/09/2017 - 10:48 Permalink

Oh lets make a list shall we?1. No competition: in college, in HS, in the world at large...just no competition. Dollar was super strong, you could live like a king in any country. Instead you voted in perhaps the worst series of presidents America has ever seen.2. Housing/realstate wasn't inflated by low interest rates and overseas investments (you could actually own a home out of college)3. Tons of jobs: your parents (millenials grandparents) hadnt offshored all of it like you assholes did4. No bar to entry: no environmental guidelines, no insane taxes, certificates, etc needed to open a business or hire employees5. Low taxes, no mandatory healthcare insurance6. Actually pension plans for the working man7. Wages actually increased durng your lifetime8. You went through many successive booms: silicon era, housing, .net. Yet you complained about the bust everytime (which is funny: more millionaries were made in the 80's and 90's than any other time in US history)9. Globally, America was decades ahead. Now? I go to Hong Kong, it looks nicer. Europe too. You guys spent nothing on infrastructure, instead you let the military industrial complez and big pharma suck America dry. 10. Bank/credit was ez, debt was low. How many 20 year olds did you know with $70k in debt? That's right, absolutely none Regardless, American BBs will go down in history as the most entitled, lazy, self-serving generation that began and continued the slow rot of the empire. Bashing on Millenials only shows how dumb you actually are: they are you children, your progeny. Nuf said.

In reply to by Oldwood

Laowei Gweilo DipshitMiddleC… Wed, 11/08/2017 - 22:47 Permalink

pretty much. every milennial I know that's a hipster idiot or social media idiot or overconcerned with activism politics -- is also rent poor and student loan poorthey seem resigned to 'never getting ahead' or the 'house and a family' American dream, and being poorer than their parents.and, when you give up on getting ahead, you look for distractions, excuses, self-medication (political, emotional, social, or otherwise), or quick emotional highs ('Likes' on social media, 'dings' in games, a sense of moral supremacy, or instant gratitude socializing or commercialism). a little bit of economic optimism does wooooonders for getting your priorities straight

In reply to by DipshitMiddleC…

inhibi Laowei Gweilo Thu, 11/09/2017 - 10:53 Permalink

Then you dont know many. The ones I know are doing back breaking work (60/70 hour weeks) and doing the job of 4 people since you idiots fired everyone and never rehired them back (part of the PE rampage that has happened in the last 2 decades).Oh and they are doing it for a measly 70-80k/year. Then you act like we should be thankful for the job.No wonder China is projected to bypass America. Nothing is done here, only services and finance (which can be done by a computer).Whenever I hear a BB bash a Millenial, all I think of is the irony. Then I also think of how you did nothing while the middle class collapsed. You guys took a lot of shit up the ass, and did nothing, then complained about how its your childrens fault. Laughable really.

In reply to by Laowei Gweilo

W.M. Worry DipshitMiddleC… Wed, 11/08/2017 - 23:02 Permalink

Well, you certainly spell like one. I worked fairly hard jobs all my life, long haul trucking, plumbing, home building.  Those jobs are going begging now. I'm 66 and building a house right now in the 34 degree sleet, I work after dark if there's a good moon. Fortunately I built and paid for 5 houses that millennials are now  paying me a nice sum to live in.  If they quit texting long enough they could probably build their own damn houses.

In reply to by DipshitMiddleC…

Endgame Napoleon Stuck on Zero Thu, 11/09/2017 - 09:39 Permalink

Didn’t Al Gore write a book, striking the same parallel between Millennials and the WWII generation? No one ever mentions the Gen X. We must echo less lofty generations. Gen Xers did not even pretend to be saving the world via mostly just consumerism. I do not see much difference between the way many Xers were raised and the way the Millennials I babysat for were raised, other than more verbal cheerleading by parents of Millennials who tend to be less critical of their kids and more awards in school for Millennials than for the Gen Xers. The helicopter-parent thing was in place well before the Millennials, as was that Dr. Spock notion of “letting the kids develop” into the unique creatures that they are.

In reply to by Stuck on Zero

Miffed Microbi… Oldwood Wed, 11/08/2017 - 22:27 Permalink

Whoa, what's with all the Debbie downer diatribe? Hell, I made a mess of my life for the first half, scrubbed off some krappy karma during the second and now I'm hoping to be be a house slave instead of a field worker slave next time around.

Hey, watch Life of Brian and you'll feel a lot better. Always look on the bright side of life...


In reply to by Oldwood

Ms. Erable nmewn Wed, 11/08/2017 - 19:19 Permalink

Millenitard snowflakes don't start businesses because they're too lazy to work their asses off to make better lives for themselves - and they're waiting for .gov to give everything to them for nothing.And they don't take risks because they might melt if their hands get dirty, or if they find something they learned about how the world works in indoctrination camp (i.e., school) just isn't true.

In reply to by nmewn

nmewn Ms. Erable Wed, 11/08/2017 - 19:37 Permalink

Yeah, can't blame em for their upbringing, everyone gets a trophy for just showing gotta say, worked like a damned dog, sun up to sun down (and after). I've worked piece-work rate and hourly in the same week/month. Sometimes (being young) I got zero sleep before I did it all again the next day after partying all night. I never left a nickel on the sidewalk (so to speak) if they were paying for it I was grabbing all I could get.They found out real quick it was better paying me by the hour because "by the piece" I had two months of "weekly wages" built up in four months and the supervisors looking at the invoices were freaking out on the accountants, thinking the contractual timeline wasn't going to be met and therefore the contract firm would be work was already done, just not invoiced, I wasn't going to pay the higher income tax rate, why bill $5,000 a week when you can bill $1,150 and stay under? And so it goes ;-)

In reply to by Ms. Erable

Sparkey Ms. Erable Wed, 11/08/2017 - 21:36 Permalink

Hello Ms. Maple, you said; "Millenitard snowflakes don't start businesses because they're too lazy to work their asses off to make better lives for themselves - and they're waiting for .gov to give everything to them for nothing." I say, you are blaming the victim, people become the people they have been conditioned to be, these folks have been conditioned for failure and there are a lot more following them, the parents don't, in many cases, do the heavy lifting conditioning, but they do affirm it, the impetus comes from the social engineering embeded in all mass culture and school curriculums, the parents can't resist the program because; many don't realize it exists and also they don't have enough confidence in their own judgement to challenge the societal norms!

In reply to by Ms. Erable

Endgame Napoleon Ms. Erable Thu, 11/09/2017 - 10:09 Permalink

Millennials don’t start businesses because it requires a [capital investment] that they don’t have, even when working in states at “full employment” with a $19k per capita income. You get a stellar per capita income like that when people are mostly working part-time, low-wage, temporary and churn jobs.

$19k: That is a moms-basement-dwelling income.

Or, if Millennials work half as many hours at the same low wage, staying below the earned-income limit for welfare and pumping out kids out-of-wedlock, they can pursue the Bill Clinton Welfare Reform Act of 1996 Economic Growth Plan, getting free rent, free groceries, monthly cash assistance and a child tax credit of between $3,337 and $6,269.

Those mommas could start a micro business on one year’s tax-time, sex-and-reproduction reward check from the US Treasury Department, especially since their major household bills, like apartment rent, are also paid by taxpayers for sex and reproduction. But many choose to treat their latest boyfriend to a Florida trip, using their “child” tax credit to finance the trip, and adding a few tattoos to their armes with the extra pay-per-birth cash.

The better way for women to get some business start-up capital is also via womb productivity, but more Xers and Boomers than Millennials use this method.

This business financing method requires marriage. Due to the pay-per-birth pot-pourri of welfare and taxfare, marriage rates are way down. Out-of-wedlock births are at 62%, lessening the number of womb-productivity-based, home-equity business financing.

I have seen numerous mommas who used the equity in homes they got through divorce to finance businesses. They got the homes because they got custody of kids, not that all of these businesses succeeded.

For instance, if you take out a loan for a franchise business, using the house you got in a divorce due to womb productivity as collateral, you need to really hump it at work, cold calling relentlessly and urging your employees to do the same, rather than choosing employees based mostly on shared momma empathy and indulging backscratching absenteeism for those who say they leave work constantly for kids’ activities. To pay the business loan back and turn a profit, it is best not to instruct employees to spend a lot of time doing craft activities with your kids or posting baby show-off pics on FB.

In reply to by Ms. Erable

JuliaS adolphz Thu, 11/09/2017 - 00:01 Permalink

You know the problem? Greatest generation bankers - rich. Baby boomer bankers - rich. Millenial bankers - rich.The concept of race and demographics applies to small folk. They're the ones going though ups and downs. The Fed, meanwhile, is doing just fine, getting richer every day, rain or shine, stupid or smart. We're waging resource wars, Mad-Maxing against eachother and they're laughing from their Wall Street penthouses.Millenials, just like the generation before them and the generation before that think banks and govt are on their side, or at least a neutral entity that doesn't stand in the way of them achieving life's goals. I love how all of these trends, age, pensions etc - none of it mentions groups seemingly insulated from reality, reaping rewards. We contemplate whether 1 kid will put us underwater, or whether an extra car fill up will leave no food on the table.Meanwhile, "they" the world class citizens of the banking cartel - they live wherever they want, eat whatever they want, fuck whomever they want, figuratively and literally, and they reproduce like the Rockefellers and Rothchild's. We're supposed to be preparing to sarcifice our retirements to rescue theirs. We're supposed to put up, stay out of their way and fight amongst eachother.Millenials will be making the same mistake as every other generation - following their uninformed or misinformed passion. They'll overestimate their influence in the areas where it makes no difference and underestimate their potential impact in places where they coud've made a dent.They'll prioritize feel-good impulses over retional thinking. They won't ruin the world. It is already ruined. They'll just have to cope - unable and unwilling to see what it would take to turn the ship around. They'll age, just like the rest of us, and as they get old, they'll flip-flop on all of their commitments and become the "wiser" generation, blaming the next crop for being idiots and not understanding what life is really about."Getting high on synthetic drugs, in a VR helmet behind a wheel of a self driving car?! Oh, you kids!" they'll say "Back in my days things were simple. We went outside and did productive things, like finding disease cures by dumping a bucket of icy water over ourselves on camera, or that time we saved the world from Pokemon infestation with our cell phones!"

In reply to by adolphz

Endgame Napoleon totenkopf88 Thu, 11/09/2017 - 10:22 Permalink

Please, the WWII generation got their glory by turning out massive warships at a rate of speed never seen before in the world, cranking out multiple, massive warships in a matter of days once we entered the war to rescue Western Europe and Japan from fascism. After providing significant help in winning the biggest war the world had ever seen, albeit the Russians also deserve major credit for that victory, the USA—unlike Russia—pulled out of all of the countries it conquered, restoring their land despite their horrible behavior in some cases, and even helping former enemies to develop strong economies. The Americans who won that war had just emerged from a lengthy period of miserable Depression, where many weathered dust bowls and bread lines. Greatest Generation for sure. The Millennials have not yet DONE anything comparable to put them in that category.

In reply to by totenkopf88

NoDebt Wed, 11/08/2017 - 18:33 Permalink

I'm either the world's youngest baby boomer or the world's oldest Gen X'er.  I don't know what that means but I'm pretty sure I'm fucked.  If millennials are the generation that's going to take care of me when I'm old I'll just have that "Logan's Run" option, please, thank you.