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Category: Crisis Era

Crisis as opportunity

Crisis as opportunity

I posted more frequently than usual the last couple of months, but then sort of stalled out. I’ve got some more generations posts planned, but I have been much too busy, at work and at home, to finish them up. So here’s a quick post with some thoughts about work.

Since the year began we have been involved in a massive undertaking to transfer about a dozen years of historical data to a group of data scientists modeling credit risk. It’s a big chunk of work that leverages my skills with ETL and database. Don’t ask me what the modelers are doing exactly, they are all way more educated than I am.

This leads me to think on how I have been employed in the financial sector for my last few gigs. First I worked for a mortgage services organization, basically at ground zero of the housing crash, for a company that purported to be the good guys helping struggling homeowners who were delinquent on their bills. Then I worked for an investment firm, on a project that modeled counterparty risk. And now for a consumer bank.

In both cases where I’ve worked with risk modeling, it is financial institutions directly responding to the GFC, and the implication of what another debt crisis could do. The response is both voluntary and imposed by government regulation – that is, institutions are complying with regulation, but also pursuing their own risk mitigation strategies. The Global Financial Crisis was a Big Chill for the financial sector.

A lot of money is being spent on all this analysis and reporting. It is basically overhead from the perspective of financial companies. Is it really going to do any good? I would say the answer is a clear maybe. Still, it hardly makes sense not to incur the cost. It is better to attempt some oversight, however uncertain its benefit, than none at all.

And for me, and others of my ilk, it’s clearly a great opportunity. All that regulatory overhead is paying my bills. It is part of the story where my life has only gotten better since the crisis started. So I guess I should be looking forward to the current administration’s trade wars destroying the global economy. Who knows what opportunities that will bring?

The Hashtag Queen

The Hashtag Queen

Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.

The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.

Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.

In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.

The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.

In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.

On Millennial Burnout

On Millennial Burnout

My last post was inspired by a meme that was about Gen-X in that Gen-X was absent from a graphical depiction of generations. The graphic was actually titled ‘Are Millennials the “Burnout Generation?”‘ and referred to a recent BuzzFeed article by Anne Helen Petersen – in other words, it’s really a meme about Millennials. The article in question is very well written and well worth the long read. Here are some thoughts on it.

The Millennial generation is known for the sheltered way in which it was raised, with heavily scheduled lives, hovering always-involved parents, and pressure to achieve. From this childhood mode of life they graduated into an adult world that was already occupied by Boomers and Gen-Xers, and arranged to suit the more individualistic lifestyle of those older generations. The transition has been jarring for Millennials, which shows in the struggle they have with becoming self-determined, or as they put it, “adulting.”

Boomers and Gen-Xers might wonder what the problem is. After all, we’ve been living like this for decades. Yes, life is complicated and often inefficient. So just deal with it like everybody else does. But expecting Millennials to play along might be unreasonable on the part of older generations.

Perhaps, without the structure and guidance they were used to growing up, young adult Millennials feel unmoored. They are now supposed to find their own purpose in life, but instead many are wondering what is the point. It seems like a whole lot of effort for little reward. Millennial “burnout” may simply refer to a rejection of the frenetic hyperindividualism of the past and a yearning for a simpler way of life.

In that sense, burnout may just be the first step in a transition to a new social era. An era that is no longer focused on self-fulfillment, but grounded in a higher collective purpose. There will be less to do, but what there is to do will have more meaning, more value. Change is in the air.

The invisible mid-lifers

The invisible mid-lifers

Recently there was a meme going around that showed the living generations and their birth years, but with Generation X conspicuously absent. The responses from my generation came fast and thick, loaded with the expected amount of snark and ironic detachment.

The meme was circulating around the same time that Saturday Night Live aired a sketch called Millennial Millions – a parody game show in which Millennials had to withstand obnoxious, narcissistic Baby Boomers for a chance to win the same entitlements the Boomers already enjoyed – like health care, or a job. My generation was there in the form of the game show host, who had this memorable line: “I’m Gen-X, I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn.”

My generation has always had an instinct to keep to itself, to take advantage of opportunity when it presents itself, but otherwise stay in the background. It’s because of the hands-off way we were raised in the 1960s and 70s, a time of cultural upheaval when children were not a social priority. We learned to depend on ourselves, not to trust social institutions or the wisdom of our elders. And we’ve carried that attitude forward into mid-life, perhaps to our detriment.

Is Generation X really on the sidelines of life, ignored and forgotten? Let’s took a look at the impact we have had in different spheres of life. We can also look at some of the best known Gen-Xers for insight.

As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, Generation X comprises everyone in their late 30s through late 50s. These are the prime years of life – we are at the peak of our careers, growing in responsibility and taking over leadership roles. The culture may decry Boomers living too long and keeping good jobs away from Millennials, but it is really Gen-Xers occupying all those managerial positions. It’s Gen-Xers who have driven the digital transformation of the economy, and the remarkable productivity gains which have given us our prosperous commercial age.

The most successful Gen-Xers in business, particularly in the dot.com world, have been greatly influential in forging the modern zeitgeist. But only a few are really prominent, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Tesla founder Elon Musk. Other founder-CEOs are responsible for much of the background of modern life, but aren’t as well known – Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. The iconic Internet startup-CEO is a Millennial, Mark Zuckerberg. And no highly successful Gen-X entrepreneur has the stature of the two great Boomer godfathers of the digital age – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

In politics, the influence of Generation X is also rarely noted, though we are integral to one of the remarkable political stories of the century – the rise to power of the Republican party. Gen-Xers were the most likely to embrace the Reagan Revolution in the “greed is good” 1980s, with its philosophy of deregulation and elevation of the free market. Like Michael J. Fox in Family Ties, we turned away from the hippie past to embrace a new era focused on the business of making money. Prominent Gen-Xers in politics today are mostly Republican, furthering that agenda. It’s as though left-leaning Gen-Xers are just not interested in getting involved.

In the 2016 presidential election the two Gen-Xers who made it the furthest in the primaries were Republicans Ted Cruz and Mark Rubio. With the subsequent Republican takeover of the government, it seemed that unfettered individualism had triumphed. This may be mostly a Boomer accomplishment, but it is one in which the Gen-X go-it-alone ethos has been complicit.

Since 2018, the tide has started to turn against Republican dominance. If a progressive wave does sweep away the current regime, if the Presidential administration does collapse from its corruption, Gen-Xers who hitched themselves to the Republican success story will find themselves sidelined. But Gen-Xers on the Democrat side aren’t likely to become prominent as a result. The political narrative of Democratic regeneracy is focused on the needs of the young generation, and the up-and-coming Democrat who is making the biggest waves today is a Millennial.

Media and entertainment is perhaps where Generation X enjoys the most eminence. A look at the highest paid film stars shows a lot of Gen-X faces. Gen-X has always been obsessed with pop culture, and now that we are in the peak of life, it’s like Gen-X content creators are finally getting the chance to realize the imaginative visions of their youth, aided by all the advances in computing and audiovisual technology. It’s no wonder so many of the franchises of our childhood years are springing to life in movie and television form. Gen-X also brings a bit of a dark touch; as I put it in an earlier post, we are in a large part responsible for a new film noir age.

As for the more serious side of media, Generation X has had less luck supplanting previous generations of journalists and news reporters. Part of the problem is that we peaked at the same time that “fake news” became a thing, and that the public stopped trusting traditional media. The great Gen-X opinion shapers are actually the sarcastic, fake news types, like Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert. It’s like not taking anything seriously has been our great contribution to the culture.

In family life, it’s Generation X whose live-and-let-live attitude has given us the diversity of the Modern Family, up-ending traditional family values. Not that Gen-Xers don’t support family – we are fiercely loyal and dedicated to those we love. After a childhood during a social era of family disintegration, we seek in mid-life to rediscover family life. We also are the ones who introduced work-life balance, turning away from the workaholic careerism of the Boomer generation. For us, for the most part, work is a necessity for survival, not a calling.

The main way in which the influence of Gen-X on family life is commonly regarded, if not acknowledged as a Gen-X trend, is in the rise of overprotective parenting – a reaction to the underprotective parenting of our childhood. A common kind of meme in social media feeds is one extolling the good old days of laxer parenting, and boasting about how a mid-lifer (70s or 80s kid) got along just fine without all the child protective rules and regulations of today. The irony is that a Gen-X parent might post such a meme, and might enjoy such a meme, but is unlikely to actually change parenting styles.

This high level look at Generation X shows how our ethos of individualism and self-determination has influenced our contributions to society. On the one hand, our productivity and innovation have helped sustain the great economic boom of the post-war period. Our tolerance and open-mindedness have helped to give us a society that is more diverse and full of opportunities for all than that of the past.

On the other hand, our avoidance of group participation – even denial of its value – hampers society’s ability to find solutions where collective action is required. This means long standing problems such as wealth inequality and the lack of affordable healthcare and education remain unsolved. As time marches on, Generation X has to be careful not to let its instinct for non-participation cause it to be fully sidelined, should a progressive or quasi-socialist regime supported by younger generations rise to power.

Gen-Xers still have many peak years of life left in which to make our contribution to history. In the transformative years that lie ahead, our generation may well produce new leaders from unexpected places. As the old order dies and a new one takes its place, we may find ourselves in positions of unprecedented power – and surprise the world with what we do with it. The story of Generation X is not over yet.

Generations in the Age of the Social

Generations in the Age of the Social

I joined Facebook in 2008, the first year of the current Crisis Era. I was really just jumping on a bandwagon – everyone around me was joining and I wanted to be a part of it. It was an early example of FOMO, I suppose. I soon found myself reconnecting with people from my past – from high school and college – distant in time and place from where my life was then. Facebook became a place of gathering. It also became a place to assess my life, as I saw how the careers and family lives of my peers had progressed compared to mine.

Eventually I reconnected in physical space with some friends, and renewed relationships. It was as though – assisted by social media – my life folded back on itself and began again from a past point. I wonder if others of my generation have had the same experience  – a chance to revisit the past and reorient oneself towards the future. Like social media is our hot tub time machine.

I wonder if the experience of social media has been different for other generations. Some Boomers I know have embraced social media wholeheartedly, and post far more than I do. For them the smartphone age represents an even greater technological leap from their childhood  than my generation experienced. Millennials, on the other hand, have joined social media at a younger age than Generation X – in young adulthood rather than midlife – but they still remember a time when it did not exist.

The one generation that stands out as fully immersed in “the social” is the Homeland generation, the first of whom were born in 2005. Their entire lives are documented on social media, from the first ultrasound images in the womb to the latest back to school snapshot standing outside of the family home. They are the true superstars of social media.

I still post regularly on Facebook, using it as a kind of diary to keep track of my life. It is fun to revisit the year and see all the places I have checked in, and my patterns of work and play. It’s also a joy to watch people I know from different times and places in my life come together in a discussion in the comments section of one of my posts.

Lately I’ve taken to Twitter as well to attempt to promote my blog and my thinking. Dare I call myself an “influencer”? Of course not – that is pure vanity. I know a hamster with more followers than I have.

We’ve been in the age of the social for a good decade now. I’m curious about how the experience has been different for people encountering it at different stages of their lives. If you’d care to share your experience in the comments below, please do.

The Memorial At The Site Of The Shooting Where Route 100 Meets Route 202

The Memorial At The Site Of The Shooting Where Route 100 Meets Route 202

On the drive from my BFF’s home to my apartment in West Chester, Pennsylvania, I come down Route 100 South to where it merges into Route 202 South. Just before the merge there is a chokepoint where the two lanes of Route 100 converge into one, and the lead up to this point is so long that vehicles often race one another to the first place position. This can get messy when traffic is heavy.

There’s something about being behind the wheel of a vehicle that can bring out the worst in people. Part of it is anonymity – when you are driving you are unable to see the other drivers, to look them in the eye. It is the same phenomenon that turns people into jerks on the Internet. Part of it is the way being in a vehicle insulates you from the reality of your situation and the danger you are in. It can’t be worth all the energy and risk put into aggressive driving to save a few seconds or jockey for position, but people do it anyway, as though unaware that the real stakes are not their status but their very lives. This is all covered in a fascinating and illuminating book called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do which I recommend to anybody.

In July 2017 two vehicles met at the convergence point on Route 100 South and in the ensuing struggle to merge a tragedy unfolded. One of the drivers shot a handgun into the other driver’s car, killing her. The details of the case read like an awful convergence of today’s troubling social issues, an absurd outcome of our exaltation of individual rights, an ominous sign of the undercurrent of conflict beneath our civil society. Or it could just be the story of one person making a very poor choice.

At the site of the shooting there is a roadside memorial. The choice of the sign – HATE HAS NO PLACE HERE – aligns the message in the current political environment. It’s as if to say: please stop killing us.

There is some consolation, I suppose, in knowing that authorities have placed highway signs in honor of the victim. Just a few weeks ago, the perpetrator pleaded guilty in court to third-degree murder, and will receive his sentence by the beginning of next year.

This is Amish Country

This is Amish Country

My BFF lives in central Pennsylvania, amidst lovely rolling farmland in Amish country. It’s quite beautiful to drive through. Occasionally you will have to slow down for a horse and buggy.

The Amish in the United States are an interesting group, because they represent how it is possible for a social group to retain an older moral code and still remain a part of modern society. They keep to their ways, and we moderns go to their stores to buy their furniture and food (both of excellent quality).

But we are not completely insulated apart from one another. The Amish do vote, as this road sign from Amish PAC reminds us. Amish PAC is really just a former Amishman who gets out the vote without using either the Internet or television. The sign is on route 23 near the border of Berks and Lancaster counties.

 

Generation X at the Turning Point

Generation X at the Turning Point

Let’s take that list of what to expect of the living generations in the current social era – the Crisis Era in Strauss & Howe terms – and look at the expectations for my generation, Generation X. My generation is in mid-life now, between the ages of 36 and 57, in the phase of life where we will reach the peak of our career achievement and financial earnings. Having already sorted ourselves into winners and losers in the Unraveling Era, and then weathered the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, for many us this peak won’t amount to much. Many of us will be lucky if we can retire with even a modicum of comfort.

A tiny minority of us have become the wildly successful and wealthy techno-utopians who have reformatted the economy. The billionaires at the very top of the heap even have their own space programs. But most of us are just muddling along, without a grand plan, as we have all of our lives. Despite economic recovery, we are anxious about what disruptions will come in the remaining few decades that we will be able to earn a living. We haven’t all been materially ruined – yet – but the Crisis Era is not over, and our President has decided to start a Trade War (insert eye roll emoji here).

It is plain that Generation X is ambivalent about the emerging new order. On social media we confront the current political crisis with posts that range in tenor from mocking to incredulous to anguished. It is unclear where we are headed, so ambivalence is perhaps inevitable. What is clear is that the old Culture Wars of the previous era have come to a head – and while some of us have picked our faction, many of us remain on the sidelines.

Gen X may be overshadowed by older generations, which have retained power at the highest echelons of government. For the most part we are ignored in the media, obsessed as it is with the generation that came after us. But we’ve quietly taken over managerial leadership positions in both the private and public sectors, where we can make a difference behind the scenes. Our generation’s archetype is known for its pragmatism and resolve in solving the issues of the Crisis Era, and with the unfolding future comes our chance to live up to the expectation.

The Spotlight on Millennials

The Spotlight on Millennials

I’m going to return to looking at the list of patterns to expect for the living generations in the current social era, the Crisis Era in Strauss & Howe terms, picking up where I left off a few months back.

Let’s look at the remaining items on the list of predictions about the Millennial generation – that Millennials will heroically rise to political challenge, that they will develop a sense of generational community, and that they will benefit from a new focus on the young-adult world. For evidence, I will simply consider the kinds of news stories that have been prevalent on social media and the web in the past decade. So let’s start with the last item on the list.

In the Millennial generation’s childhood era, which began way back in the 1980s, children benefited from a new focus on child-rearing. A wave of social change in the direction of increased child protection came in the form of mandatory safety rules, zero tolerance policies, and laws named after child victims (for example, Megan’s Law). I wrote about this on my old blog nearly twenty years ago.

Now that we are in the Millennial young adulthood era, the impetus for social change has shifted to the adult sphere of life. Political change may be stymied by partisanship, but a wave of social movements has risen in response to long-standing problems. These problems were tolerated when they affected previous generations – but no more.

A prominent example which can be thought of as zero tolerance policies reaching the workplace is the Me Too movement and its effects. This took off last year as a viral social media hashtag when a prominent Hollywood producer was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment. Since then, a flood of accusations has led to the downfall of many men in high places. Sexual harassment in the workplace has long been covered up by HR departments and endured by female employees, but in the Millennial era this may not be possible, or desirable, any more.

A less politically charged example is the new concern over reducing concussions to football players in the National Football League. The research into the problem began in the Gen-X era, but it was only ten years ago that the U.S. Congress compelled the NFL to act.  An enormous settlement was agreed upon, which has benefited retired Gen-X players, but only after they sustained the injuries in the first place. For Millennials, a protocol is coming into place to reduce the prevalence of injuries in the first place.

Not that there isn’t a politically charged example connected to the NFL, by which I mean the Black Lives Matter movement. Football players kneeling during the national anthem are in solidarity with this movement, protesting police shootings of unarmed young black men. Though rates of violence have been declining for a generation, police killings still disproportionately affect minorities. In the past this may have been a topic for moralistic commentary in academia and the arts, but today it is the focus of a stubbornly persistent and controversial activist movement.

Another famous movement that seems to have come and gone is Occupy Wall Street, which protested income inequality and the corruption in government and finance that was brought into stark relief by the financial crisis and bailouts in 2008. The protests on the street may have ended, but they continue in the online world. On today’s Internet feeds there are endless posts about the difficulties faced today by Millennials trying to get by in the current economy – the burden of student debt, the impossibility of surviving on minimum wage, the need to delay life events like home buying or marriage until financial stability is achieved.

All of these difficulties were faced by previous generations, but now that Millennials face them there is a greater sense of urgency. Will these problems be addressed by drastic measure while Millennials are still young adults? Will student debt be discharged, and higher education be payed for by taxpayers, like primary and secondary education? Will the minimum wage be raised significantly?

This ties into the first item on the list of what to expect from Millennials – that they will heroically rise to political challenge. There is less evidence of this. Youth voting rates have increased slightly since their nadir in the Gen-X era, but have not come anywhere close to that of the great era of civic participation of the mid-twentieth century. Older generations still have a lock on government, which partisanship has rendered contentious and barely functioning. But time favors the young generation, and they will eventually make their voices heard.

All that is discussed above connects to the remaining item on the list – that Millennials will develop a sense of generational community. Just that fact the their generation’s name – originally coined by Strauss & Howe as part of an academic theory – has become a household word, and that news about them has become so prominent, shows how they are in the forefront of social awareness. Everyone is familiar, for example, with stories about how they are reshaping the economy. With the spotlight shining on them, it is hard to imagine this generation doesn’t have a strong self-awareness. If they can combine that awareness with an enforceable political consensus, they could reshape our society, and truly bring about a Millennial era.

The Millennial Counter Argument

The Millennial Counter Argument

Since the streaming video era began, a new kind of content from the Millennial generation has become prevalent. It consists of episodes of commentary that dissects cultural phenomena, common sense knowledge or received history to get at hidden or unrepresented truth.

A famous example is Adam Ruins Everything, which began as a series on the CollegeHumor web site and then became a television show on truTV. An example you may have seen on Facebook is Racist History. Other examples abound on YouTube, in the form of named channels such as Counter Arguments, CaptainDisillusion, Knowing Better, Loose Canon by Lindsay Ellis (though I think she might have dropped that name), and Hilarious Helmet History from the web site Cracked (which itself fits this description).

With Spock-like logic and more than a little snark, the Millennial creatives who produce this content challenge assumptions and rewrite the narrative of conventional wisdom. Unsentimental and hyperrational, they seek to shine a cold, hard light on reality and reveal stark facts, repudiating the hysterics and oversaturation with meaning that characterize the Boomer outlook.

It’s like they seek to jettison all of the histrionic cultural baggage of the Boomer era, and rebuild a world based on reason and accuracy, in keeping with that Millennial mantra, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Here is a great example of what I mean: