October 21st, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
How a New Generation is Taking the Reins of American Leadership
In the twentieth century Richard Weaver famously taught that “ideas have consequences.”
He turned this thought into a book and eventually a philosophy, one which entered the general culture as the idea that “words mean things.”
Together these two concepts informed a society dominated and run by the Baby Boomers–those born between 1946 and 1964.
As we transition to a society run by the Latch-key or X Generation, born between 1964 and 1984, a new dominating viewpoint is gaining control.
As usual, most of media, academia and government have not yet fully caught on or understood the influence of the coming shift.
A powerful way to understand the rise of a new thought-generation is the OSA, or Over-Stated Acquiescent. This occurs where a person communicates agreement with what is being said by overstating the point.
Today’s OSAs include, “I know, right?” “Oh yeah, good point,” and “uber- ” [fill-in-the-blank].
These OSAs are sarcastic and manage to communicate irony and skepticism even as they convey assent.
This is a major shift from the past two generations, whose OSAs were nearly all positive, optimistic, guileless, and straightforward: “Groovy,” “Cool,” “Far Out,” “Rad,” “Awesome,” and so on.
Note that these older-generation OSA’s expressed a positive view of the future, a general sense that the world is good and getting better, and a naïve and infectious happiness of youth.
In contrast, the rising generation’s post-9/11 OSA’s are edgy–waiting for the other shoe to drop on our society, and just trying to get by until it does.
The older OSA’s come from a generation raised by parents, a cohesive high-school community and mostly homogenous values, while the new OSA’s express a society raised by television, factionalized and competing cliques, and conflicting diversity.
The old OSA’s were popularized by older youth (16-19) who wanted to hang on to carefree adolescence into their twenties and even thirties, where the new OSA’s reflect a younger group (10-13) who grew up too fast and were sophisticated before puberty and involved in adult issues and relationships by ages 14-16.
If you doubt how much OSA’s can teach us about generational psyches and therefore the future, consider their counterpart: the Under-Stated Denial (USDs).
The new USDs are once again ironic, skeptical, grown-up-too-fast, cosmopolitan, and sarcastic: “Not so much,” “A Little Bit,” “Shut Up!” and “-ish.”
Each is nuanced, meaning that none of these actually mean what they say. In the new language, words still mean things–but not exactly.
“Shut up,” here doesn’t mean to stop talking, but rather “totally!” Likewise, “A little bit” actually means, “Yes, a lot!” The older generation would have said, “duh!” instead of “A little bit.”
And “Not so much” would be translated by older generations as, “Of course not, stupid. How ridiculous! Isn’t this obvious? Come on, use your brain. For heaven’s sakes!”
The old generation of USDs was predictable, straightforward and obvious. “No way!” “No,” “Never,” “Negative,” “Not very much,” and other USD’s left little room for doubt as to their meaning.
In fact, they were more “stated” than “understated.” In contrast, the new USD’s are ripe with non-verbal meanings. The old way was to say what you mean, and even say it more strongly than you mean it.
The new way is to say what you don’t mean in a way that means what you mean–kind of.
If this is confusing, welcome to the future.
A: “So, do you like him?”
B: “So, do you like him?”
“A little bit.”
These actually mean the same thing: the responder is smitten! But only “A” says so. In fact, “B” actually seems to say the opposite.
C: “Did you have fun on your date?”
“It was cool.”
D: “Did you have fun on your date?”
Again, C and D mean basically the same thing: “The date was okay, nothing great, but not terrible.”
But “cool” leans positive, just like the Boomer generation as a whole, while “ish” tends negative, glass-half-empty, like Generation X.
“Cool” means “I’m glad I went and I’d go out with him again,” while “ish” communicates the opposite.
Note that it is the expressions a generation uses in its adult years, not its youth, that carry the most weight, since language mirrors (and even, to some extent, defines) internal thoughts.
It is adult generations that wield real — as opposed to symbolic — power in businesses, governments and other major societal institutions.
So, while Gen X may have used older-style OSA’s and USD’s in its youth (“cool,” “awesome,” etc.), in adulthood it is now firmly planted in the new language used by its children (“I know, right?” “not so much,” “a little bit,” etc.). Its future will most likely follow the new model.
Interesting sidebar: it is not an anomaly that some of these phrases come from the growing Latino culture.
Business, Government, & Societal Applications
The ramifications for business, relationships, career and government are numerous.
For one, a society run by Boomers is willing to keep trying the old ways while Generation Xers won’t persist on a path they don’t trust or consider faulty.
Once Xers think something won’t work, they switch to something new. And where Boomers believe in the principles of the past and hesitate to try unproven policies, Xers are quick to try new things even when the risks are high.
The old model valued clarity, optimism and idealism, and supported progress toward the ideal–whether your ideal was Woodstock or Reagan.
In contrast, the new values are multi-layered, complex, nuanced.
They resonate with a cosmopolitan mix of pragmatic and symbolic, like American Idol or Obama. Things must be real and extremely symbolic at the same time.
In this new model, Republicans and Democrats are fake and lacking in symbolic sway, while Tea Parties and Obama are reality television and big-time icons combined.
Rush Limbaugh and Joe Biden are the old–straightforward, pushy, dogmatic, proletarian–while Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow are the new: complex, many-layered, broadly-read, cosmo, iconic. It’s George Strait and The Rolling Stones versus Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.
The old says what it means, the new sparks the imagination.
At first blush, it may appear that the old model is fundamentally conservative–preserving values, honoring the past–while the new is wildly liberal–risking new options, and open to untried possibilities.
But that’s the view from the “words mean things” side of the fence.
On a deeper level, where things (all things, not just words mean things, the new OSA’s and USD’s signal a breath of life into the stagnant and unproductive war of words between the two major political parties and, more importantly, the two warring economic classes in our society.
We are increasingly a class society, split between uber-haves and the rest of us.
While the new “say what you don’t mean” generation may not appear to accept any of the wisdom of past generations, the opposite is actually true.
The older generations emphasized saying what you mean, and in doing so split into two rigid camps roughly understood as conservative and liberal.
These two camps then set out to beat each other in every walk of life, from the pulpit to the campus and from the big screen to the White House.
One major casualty in this battle was many of the best principles and ideas from the past. Indeed, both sides promoted their own version of what the greatest thinkers of history said, so that by the 2000’s both Democrats and Republicans could claim to be promoting Jeffersonian principles of American freedom.
Ultra-conservatives and liberal extremists carry around quotes from Plato, Jefferson, the Federalist, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Churchill and others–many taken largely out of context, each supporting some current pet viewpoint.
Both sides de-emphasized the need to go read Plato, Jefferson, the Federalist or others in depth and in total.
As a result, the great freedom principles and ideals of the past were forgotten, touted by all, and followed by none. This is the actual legacy of much that calls itself conservatism or progressivism.
Do our modern traditions preserve the best principles of the past? Not so much. (Translation for Boomers: “Not at all. And that really stinks!”)
Do they simultaneously claim the authority of the great ideas and patently fail to understand them? A little bit. (Translation for Boomers: “Totally. How ridiculous!”)
Is conservatism even conservative any more, and is progressivism even progressive? -ish. (Translation for Boomers: “A little, but not really. What’s wrong with these people, anyway?”)
That said, there is much to be learned from the new destiny of language caused by the rise of Gen X.
While the obvious change is an openness to the new, even if it is untried and risky, there is a simultaneous return to the wisdom of the past.
More and more people, whatever their political or religious views, are returning to the old classics. And they are reading them in full, in depth. They are talking about them, blogging about them, and thinking about them.
As a result, they are getting a dose of quality thinking in a modern setting.
Something very interesting is coming out of this return to the great books and ideas. Conservatives are learning real conservatism and progressives are understanding real liberalism.
The potential of this renaissance is staggering. It turns out the problem of the great ideological divide was less conservatism vs. liberalism and more a reliance on superficiality.
Conservative and also progressive societies can both be greatly free, but shallow-thinking and poorly-educated societies cannot. They always deteriorate into less-than-free countries.
Indeed, when one actually reads Washington or Adams or Jefferson or the Federalist, it becomes clear that the American founders and framers were truly uber-conservative and uber-progressive.
They didn’t pick either side, but rather pulled the best conservative and also the best progressive principles and applied them all.
For example, when I first attended major home school conventions in the early 1990s there was a generally accepted viewpoint–shared by liberal hippies and right-wing evangelicals and seemingly everyone in between–that the American founders were against government-funded public schools and for privatized, parent-run schools.
In my youth, I had been taught a different view: That the founders established government-run public schools as the bastion of American strength.
When I read the collected writings of Jefferson, all twenty volumes, for the first time, I was shocked to read what he actually said about schools.
The first time I read the collected works of Washington and Adams, my surprise deepened and my views changed.
It turns out that both modern perspectives were shallow.
What the founders actually wanted was a flourishing educational environment with numerous public and private options all offering the deepest quality of education.
The founders described mentoring, the vital role of the greatest books and other works of mankind, and numerous educational ideals.
Their grasp of principles was broad, and their suggested innovations numerous. They believed in promoting the best conservative successes of the past and initiating progressive innovations to continually improve learning.
I had a similar experience as I read the original writings of the greats on numerous topics, from the Constitution to international relations to economics, and so on.
Depth always trumps shallow, and indeed many current debates between shallow conservatism and shallow liberalism are simply a problem caused by shallow understanding–when depth is added, many of these debates disappear altogether, and the rest have some actual chance of productive discourse that leads to improvement and change.
Shallow isn’t Education
The job-training focus of schooling since 1941 has, despite its admitted positives, had the negative effect of promoting shallow leadership and citizenship education.
The internet age has continued this downward trend to the extent that people have turned from books to e-surfing as a replacement for deep, quality education.
This applies to both formal youth schooling and informal, on-going adult learning.
A nation of free citizens is always a nation of adults continually learning at a deep level and thinking about new ideas in a continual national debate about the truly important things.
When only a small percentage of the adult population is engaged in this debate, freedom quickly declines, as the views and desires of the dependent masses are at odds with the principles of freedom.
In our day, the spread of the internet has significantly increased the number and percentage of the population that is actively involved in the national dialogue.
What is less obvious, but even more profound, is that we are also witnessing a growth in the number of people reading, studying and thinking about the great classics–not just limited quotes in textbooks, but in the original and complete form.
This is a huge victory for freedom, though the consequences won’t likely be fully understood for many decades.
E: “Did Generation X get trained for jobs?
“A little bit.”
(Translation for Boomers: “Absolutely! If anything, it got more than enough. And, at the same time, other types of quality education suffered greatly.”)
F: “Did Generation X get a truly quality education for life and leadership?”
“Not so much.”
(Translation for Boomers: “Not at all. What a tragedy!”)
G: “Is Generation X prepared for the mantle of leadership now falling on its shoulders?”
(Translation for Boomers: “Not really. But it’s coming anyway, so we’ll do our best. But it sucks that we weren’t educated for leadership in the first place!”)
H: “Look, Gen X isn’t any better than the Boomers and will have just as many problems.”
“I know, right?”
(Translation for Boomers: “Of course it will. In the meantime, let’s smile and make the best of it. In fact, let’s be happy about it. We might as well. Life stinks sometimes, but there is a lot of good too. Stop taking everything so seriously or you’ll die of ulcers.”)
I: “If Gen X doesn’t grow up and get serious, things will get a lot worse.”
“Oh yeah, good point.”
(Translation for Boomers: “No they won’t! Relax. I mean, yes, technically you are right. Real problems require real solutions. But stop over-stating it. Of course we’ll have to get serious. Of course we have to grow up. But in all your serious, grown-up leadership, you still managed to mess up the world a lot. Yes, you did some good things too. Thank you for those. Really, thank you. But our biggest problem with you is that you did everything with a frown on your face. We’ll deal with the real world in serious and grown-up ways, but don’t expect us to scowl our way through life. We prefer to smile, to laugh, to enjoy the journey–however difficult it may be.”)
A Boomer/Gen X Dialogue
I recently had a talk with a Boomer-age mentor who helped me a lot in my youth.
He commented on my latest book, and while he agreed with the conclusions two things baffled him.
First, why did I say, “God, or the Universe, whichever is most comfortable for you…” instead of just “God”?
Second, why did I say, “Whatever your politics, conservative or liberal or moderate or whatever, if you support freedom then we are on the same side…”?
I found myself as baffled as he was. Why wouldn’t I be inclusive instead of divisive?
I asked if my words made it sound like I don’t believe in God.
“Not at all,” he said. “But, it’s…squishy.”
“Squishy?” I asked. “I believe in God. I made that clear in the book, right?”
“So, do you want me to go a step further and say that everyone who doesn’t believe in God is wrong and shouldn’t work with me on promoting freedom? Do you actually believe that?”
“Well, no,” he said. “But you should just say it like it is.”
“Okay,” I said, “here is how it is. If those who believe in God and freedom keep fighting against those who believe in freedom but not God, then will freedom win or lose?”
He just looked at me
“Or if conservatives, liberals, libertarians, environmentalists, moderates and independents who believe in freedom keep fighting against each other, does freedom gain or lose?”
He was shaking his head, so I tried a different tact.
“Is freedom losing so much ground because we’ve failed to show the evils of the other side or because we’ve failed to get more people to stand up for freedom? Which is more important?”
“Getting more to stand for freedom. That’s the whole point,” he said.
“Does freedom need more allies or less?” I asked.
“More. A lot more.”
“Do your allies have to agree with you on everything, or just on supporting freedom?”
“Well, I guess just on supporting freedom.”
“So why do you want me to argue with them on everything else? I mean, if freedom wins, we can all argue for the rest of our lives about everything from religion to politics to the Lakers. But if freedom loses, none of us will be able to stand for what we believe. I am proud of my friends who stand up for their beliefs that are different than mine. I want my grandchildren to live in a nation where all religions and political views and ideas can still believe what they want and express it openly and argue with each other. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, “But it is possible to be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”
“True. It is also possible to be so closed that you make enemies of real friends.”
He pondered that, and began nodding his head.
“I can see that,” he agreed.
“Let me ask you a question,” I paused. “Is the need to attack different views actually part of your religion? Or part of your political ideals?”
“Actually,” he said after a few seconds, “my religion teaches just the opposite. For that matter, so do my political principles.”
He thought for a minute and I remained quiet. “It’s just that politics has been this way for so long, so much argument, cutting down the other side, getting them before they get you.”
I responded, “I know, right? But I have so many friends, really close friends, people I love and deeply respect, who disagree with me on religion or politics. But I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t really care about freedom. I just want all those who stand for freedom to at least try to work together.”
I later had an almost identical conversation (though the labels were different) with a woman who, by her account, had been raised a socialist in Brooklyn in the 1950s.
She spoke fondly of socialist summer camps as a youth and of being called a “pinko” when she went to college.
In the end, as I listened to her for over an hour, she was no socialist at all. She believed in the principles of freedom, despised government over-reach, and saw Washington D.C.’s excesses, regulations, high taxes and interventions in the economy as the great evil.
Her name for all this big-government domination was “capitalism.”
While many may disagree about the labels, she believed in freedom and deeply yearned to see the end of big-government growth.
I’m so glad I really listened to her instead of jumping to conclusions when she first called herself a “socialist.”
Once I understood what really mattered to her, I really enjoyed sharing what I thought about the current battle for freedom.
After she listened to me for a long time, she agreed that her labels were faulty and that we had a lot more in common than in disagreement.
In the end, part of the Boomer generation’s way of doing things was to divide, label and battle. This system picked a side, gave positive names to its own side and negative labels to the other side, and went to war.
In this model, few people ever crossed the aisle or admitted good in the other side (or bad from its own side).
It put people in one camp or the other. “If you aren’t with us, you’re against us” was the operating motto.
There were many positives in this system, and perhaps coming as it did after the Hitler era it was necessary.
But this generation still runs Washington and much of the media and academia.
A new model is rising, however, with a different language and a different destiny. As the Xers increase their influence, the debate will likely be more sarcastic, ironic and complex.
This may turn off those who want politics and societal debates to be loving and kindly.
Others may be frustrated by the impact of Reality TV-style politics, and its ironic blend of reality with symbolism.
Put simply, presidential politics will likely be more and more like high school elections–too often all about appearance and popularity.
But the dialogues of the future will inject more humor and a relaxed attitude. They won’t take the political parties or candidates so seriously.
Freedom will be the serious issue, and policy, but not so much the candidates and parties.
They’ll elect Presidents like High School Prom Queens, but they’ll watch everyday government policy like Madison or Franklin.
They’ll care less about who is in the office and a lot more about what the officeholders actually do.
In a significant way, that’s a step in the right direction. And more importantly, Gen X politics is increasingly more participative–meaning that more citizens are closely involved in elections and also in everyday governance.
This is a huge step forward. Above all, the citizenry itself is slowly and consistently increasing its depth.
More regular people are reading the old classics in detail, thinking about the greatest ideas of mankind and comparing them to our modern institutions and leaders.
The old model was run by fewer, straightforwardly-involved but shallowly-engaged citizens. The future model appears to be developing toward more citizens involved and also more who are deeply engaged in the classics and great ideas.
The biggest criticism of the Xers–their skepticism–turns to a positive when applied to citizenship. Because they are skeptical they keep a closer eye on politics, stay more involved, and are less swayed by the next politician promising a grand program.
They are still second-in-command to the “Big Program” Boomers, but their day is coming.
If you want a citizenry that simply votes and then leaves everything else to Washington, you will be disappointed. The generation of “Awesome!” is being slowly replaced by a generation of uber-citizens.
If the trend continues, future Americans will be more like the American founding generation than any citizenry in nearly two centuries.
If this continues, the future of freedom is significantly brighter.
Or, to put it succinctly: “America’s future?”
“I know, right?”
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.