The White House recently released a report where they labeled the youngest generation the “Homeland Generation”. A storm of speculations hit the internet soon after. How could the U.S. government choose such a paranoid and xenophobic-sounding epithet? Was this a creepy joke? Some claimed the White House took the name out of thin air. Others accused the government of deliberately spreading shivers of Orwellian terror. Others again implied the White House had blindly copied the Showtime political series with the same name. A little research would have informed them the generational moniker predates the TV-series called Homeland by almost a decade!
In post-Snowden America, it is not surprising that such a name would strike a nerve. But the White House’s intents are probably as misunderstood as the generational categories themselves. So before the Twitterati runs amok with conspiracy theories, let’s explore some plausible reasons for why the White House made the name choice they made.
“The Homeland Generation” is based on over 400 years of generational progression.
Terrorism-paranoia might have had something to do with it, but these sentiments were derived entirely from the grassroot soon after the 9/11 terrorist attack. The designation started showing up in a discussion group among the devoted readers of Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, the historians who coined the name “Millennials”. It was concocted in response to the strong feeling that terrorism had brought on a nascent era that would kick off a new generational zeitgeist, but wasn’t necessarily meant to be a final deal. However, for those of us who are studying this emerging generation and their future, Homelander is a useful placeholder name that helps us address them properly while we wait for something better. Strauss and Howe’s generational theory is not without critics, but it might be the most thoroughly examined of our time. Furthermore, the White House probably decided to use a label associated with their names because of the report these best-selling authors already have established in Washington. Al Gore bought a copy of their first book to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it “an intellectual tour de force.”
Generational Cut-offs in Response to Crisis
Most generational categories presume the current youth cohort was born as early as 1995, a cut-off point which is rarely explained. In contrast, Strauss and Howe posited that a generational shift occurs when a new historic event kicks off a new social mood. The mood-changing events that caused a generational shift did not occur until the mid-2000s, a decade glum enough to catapult us into a crisis era.
The Homeland Generation, now at the cusp of adolescence, is growing up with no memory of life before terrorism, before soccer moms became security moms, and before the recession’s new financial realities evoked more humble and somber attitudes toward money. Ironically, the Homeland generation is the first to experience homelessness rates rivaling those of bygone times. We have to look back to the 1930s depression years to detect a level of income inequality as high as it is today. To this generation the American Dream is a pipe dream and the idea of “upward mobility” an illusion that will be viewed through the lens of vintage nostalgia. Several generations feel the effects, but only the Homelanders grow up in a time after the terror, after the crash and after our trust in the institutions supposed to keep us happy were shattered. From Occupy to Piketty, we are sobering up to the grim realities of a post-meritocratic era, the grueling truth that our children’s economic prospects might not be as determined by their willingness to work hard as by their kin, privilege or chance.
48 percent of Americans are poor or low-income. That’s almost half of all Americans. These are real problems and will not go away by “trimming the fat”. One possible upside is if this new “impoverished normal” relieves some of the social pressures to display material excesses through consumption. And we do actually see the stigma around frugality is reducing among kids today. Polls find younger generations to be more financially realistic than older Millennials. Gone are the days of easy credit and sub-prime financed McMansions. Instead we get multigenerational households and multifamily dwellings. Gone are gas guzzling Hummers and cars as status symbols. Instead we unveil a new generation of parents who may opt to use the subway or partake in car-sharing networks. And while rich kids celebrate more extravagant birthdays than ever, a new crop of children, sensitized to world problems, often find meaning in hosting charity parties where they ask for philanthropic donations in lieu of birthday presents. Shopping malls, which Joan Didion in 1979 described as “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes” are slowly turning into empty shells of suburban blight. In its place, a new consumer culture emerges which touts to elevate the human relationship in material exchanges through “the collaborative economy”. Are we returning from a long era of what sociologists called Gesellschaft (modern society) back to the pre-industrial Gemeinschaft (traditional community)? While two decade old trophy kids see their dreams compromised, are we now raising a more grounded, socially connected generation, lending a second meaning to the term ‘homeland’ – or at least ‘home’?
The Strauss – Howe theory has been called a grand theory. It is not without empirical problems. Psychographic data from centuries past are hard to find, and it is difficult to test their hypothesis. Yet some of the generational shifts may be detected in artistic epochs. Some argue that generational categories are arbitrarily chosen and claim the authors shape generations to fit their models and not vice versa. While using the model to establish rigid lines of causation could be problematic, the model is very useful for seeking better intergenerational understanding and recognize the vantage points of people of different age locations.
But for all its alleged problems, Strauss’ and Howe’s generational theory is far more solidly founded on academic research than those of competing marketing firms. When removed from social theory, generational nicknames have an odd tendency to be launched right in time for the release of a new gadget, new report or a new TED talk. Human babies are not expected to live up to their names, something baby Lucifer and little Havoc will be pleased to learn. But generations are different. Naming them before we learn their true character traits is tantamount to labeling a piece of art that has not yet been completed. Nonetheless, creative wordsmiths will continue to weld new monikers; at least until this young generation one day decides to brand itself. The last few years at least half a dozen nicknames from Generation Z, to iGeneration, Plurals, Posts or Wii Generation have attempted to describe these kids. Smiling from the covers of marketing reports and white papers, these tiny ‘consumers’ are now so rich in aliases and marketing lingo, yet so poorly understood as a cohort of dimensions, idiosyncrasies and personalities that go deeper than the glossy stock photos that illustrate them. I believe this lack of scope in the underlying research is why these name suggestions seem so myopic, so industry-specific and even anachronistic. Generational emblems run the risk of becoming naïve predictions if the trends and forecasts giving logic to them fizzle out. For example, the name iGeneration presumes tomorrow’s youngsters will espouse a continued infatuation with the Apple brand. But we already know that kids’ loyalty to Apple is wavering. Besides suggesting greater ethnic diversity, “Generation Plural” is vague. Diversity and tolerance are not generation-specific, but linearly growing trends, so it’s hard to see how today’s generation of “plurals” are conceptually different from future generations of “plurals”.
Homeland generation might sound absurd, creepy or dumb. But it’s not the government’s responsibility to give the next generation a sexy name. Nor should the next generation have to live up to generational labels that sound more like catchy jingles than the gloomy realities that affect them in their formative years. And those formative years are now.