August 19, 2012

Back on Blogger

Over the last few months, I've spent a fair amount of time working writing on Tumblr rather than on the Metaphorical Web Blogspot. Why? It was a somewhat easier interface to work with, and I had found it worked reasonably well for a number of projects. However, I've also noticed that it's difficult to see if there's any traffic on the site, and I've noticed that overall Tumblr is gaining a reputation as being rather sleazy in terms of the type of content that gets posted. 

Consequently, I've transferred a number of posts back over to the Metaphorical Web site, and expect to continue here moving forward. I'm also planning on writing at least one new blog post a week every Sunday, to post Monday morning. Because I want to keep topics somewhat separated, I'll actually have two this time around - this and the one to follow shortly afterwards.

Metaphorical Web has, regardless of the hosting site, been a playground for my non-technical ideas - thoughts on politics, the economy, major issues that the world faces - resource constraints, climate change, political extremism, economic collapse, generally light-hearted topics like that. Most of my technical talks will continue on, so if you're looking for those here, you may want to check out that site instead.

Kurzweil Cities and Kunstlervilles, Revisited

Pessimistic Optimism in the Near Term Future
The future is a fascinating place, yet lately it seems like we’ve reached a rather disturbing fork in the road. On one side is the techno-fetishist fantasies of Ray Kurzweil, computer pioneer and auteur of the Singularity concept, in which by 2040, the world will reach a point where everything goes hyperbolic and the distinction between humans and machines gets lost forever. The utopian world that he inhabits is one in which the compound interest derived from Moore’s Law reaches a stage where technology is all pervasive, where we are all completely interconnected, and we hit an event horizon beyond which are febrile flesh and blood brains of today seem incapable of imaging or envisioning. We ARE the network.
Take the other road, however, and the world begins to get disturbingly scary in a different way. In this future we’ve hit the peak resource wall - oil is declining everywhere, the society that’s so utterly dependent upon that oil collapses into a either anarchy or post-modern pioneer society, where being a blacksmith is a good profession, we’re hitching those carbon composite cars to the horses to get anywhere, and the technological boom will fade away as power distribution systems disintegrate. It’s not a bad life, if you like living like the Amish.
In an earlier article (one sadly no longer on the web) I called these two destinations Kurzweil Cities and Kunstlervilles. They seem to represent the two extremes of our love/hate relationship with the technological society, the one transcendent but based upon some fairly absurd assumptions, the other bleak and dark, the expulsion from the rather dubious garden of the petroleum driven Eden. Curiously there are in many ways more people who seem to long for the seeming dystopia of the Kunstlervilles, the neo-Ludites who spend their evenings stocking away supplies awaiting the fall of civilization while blogging this fact to their technologically connected friends and cohorts.
Yet for all of that I cannot help but wonder if perhaps the fork in the road is itself largely an illusion. My gut feel - my intuition, it you will - is that societies are remarkably more resilient than we assume, even if characteristics of those societies change dramatically over time. Personally, I believe that the current cultural edifice of wealthy robber barons (read - the Financial, Military, Petroleum based superindustry and their chief investors) will collapse within the next decade.
Why? Because overall they are all too reliant not only upon hydrocarbons but even a certain grade of those hydrocarbons, namely those in and around the higher end of the “-ane” group - high octane groups. Electricity generation can be accomplished readily with other means, but the conversion of the American fleet of cars, trucks and aircraft can’t be - and the disruption this is already bringing is forcing major societal changes.
Automobile ownership of those between the age of 16-35 is the lowest it’s ever been, and the number of people in this age group who do not even own a driver’s license as a percentage of population is the highest ever. Some of that is due to the explosion in mobile devices - in addition to reducing the need to “get together” to interact, such devices also make it far easier to share cars and to coordinate schedules with other transit options. Some of it is due to the fact that this group has fewer job opportunities, but when those opportunities do arise, many of them can be done without the need to spend an hour on the road for eight hours of time wasting meetings and another hour on the way back home.
But there’s another reason as well. These kids aren’t stupid, and they aren’t as vested into the system of lies and self-deceptions that their Boomer managers and grandparents are. It makes sense to them to keep their expenses low, and a car is a major expense. Put another way, a car has gone from being a luxury, to being a necessity, to increasingly being a luxury again, and one with less and less desirability … especially if you opt out of the corporate model of life.
The same thing applies to the financial system, and with it the military. The US Military has many missions, and it is unfair to categorize all of them as negative. However, a great deal of military policy is ultimately geared towards the protection of oil supply chains globally. The financial sector has gained the primacy it has largely because militaries are expensive - the budget for the Dept. of Defense dwarfs every other department in the Federal Government. Much of this budget has been suborned by military contractors such as Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and others for advanced weapon systems that are, for the most part, designed for “conventional” warfare, only faster, with more muscle, and a greater “boom” factor. 
However, the writing is on the wall even there. President Obama has “ended” the US military involvement in Irag, though there are still tens of thousands of contractors, and while it is a slower, and more complicated process, will, if he serves through November 2012, likely see military troops come home from Afghanistan by the summer of 2014. A trillion dollars worth of cuts loom in 2013, and the military will take the brunt of that (and likely much of that brunt will be born by the contractors whose programs get cut). Romney is self-destructing - I put the chance that a new nominee will emerge from the GOP convention as approaching 50% at this point (with about ten weeks to “sell” that nominee to the public), so the reality is that with neither the billions spent on such systems nor the billions in fees generated by servicing the loans for this, neither the military nor financial sectors will survive without radically diminishing their influence.
One of the central tenants of the post-abundance movement is that we’ll go through a radical crash as the systems seize up, and that crash could end civilization as we know it. Yes, of course. But what about civilization as we don’t know it.
Here’s a question to ask yourself: Today, if you had to give up your car or your access to the Internet, which would you choose?
I suspect that most people born before 1960 would answer that they would far rather keep their cars. Those born after most assuredly would answer that they would far rather give up their car. The Internet means communication, accessibility, entertainment. Today, with the Internet, I can order food (from restaurants or grocery stores), furnishings and equipment delivered, can find and do work, can order finished products or raw goods, can stay informed, can promote what I do, can communicate with friends, family and customers, can education myself and my children, can engage in politics and even societal functions.
The car, on the other hand, is primarily a means for getting you to work, for meetings or for transporting goods. It serves a secondary purpose, that of a status symbol, though again that status symbol comes at no small expense (which is, I suppose, part of the rationale for it being a status symbol). In most cases, it is inextricably tied to the type of society that is car-bound - malls, fast food restaurants, millions of miles of highways, centralized offices, gas stations, supermarkets, big box stores, and so forth. What this means in practice is that this generation begins to gain affluence, all of these businesses that have built their business model on the car will also effectively collapse. Less travel, less need for having fast food restaurants at every highway intersection and in every shopping complex, stagnation and eventually decline of their parent companies. And if you believe the future is bright for such companies, take a look at their sales figures in the last five years.
Yet the infrastructure won’t completely collapse. Delivery becomes a bigger concern. Snow Crash’s Neil Stephenson clearly understood that - home delivery clearly becomes an integral part of the business model. Here, ironically, the second major disruptive aspect of the mobile web revolution takes place. Colby Cosh of McLean Magazine wrote what should be a must-read for anyone looking for what the future will bring: Artisan Chocolate and Social Revolution. In it he highlights a phenomenon that has been given names like the neoVictorian Aesthetic and the Second Arts and Crafts Era. The notion is that mass production will not suddenly cease - it is actually a remarkably efficient use of energy to create necessary goods and services, even though if carried through to its logical conclusion it also tends to eliminate almost everyone in the workforce.
What Cosh argues is that this is giving rise not just to “mass customization” but rather “artisanal” products. Artisanal products and services are those that are customized to a specific audience or customer base. His argument is that the chocolates that the team in question make likely end up using the same base products as large manufacturers, but that because they can hand-create their chocolates to individual needs - a party or celebration, a gift, specialized items for artisanal restaurants - it is in fact this customization that provides the added value.
Another good example, one that I love, is the Steampunk laptop. Steampunk of course, epitomizes the neoVictorian sensibilities of William Morris, but the fascinating thing is that most of these laptops were originally created as works of art, but they proved to be so popular that the artist ended up going full time into creating such specialized laptops. Internally, the laptop is similar to countless others, but it is the customization, and the time and talent involved in doing so, that makes this aspect so popular.
The Kickstart project is yet another example of this phenomenon. Kickstart makes it possible to raise small private capital from small investors in order to get a book, magazine, or production funded. The investors may share in some of the profits or receive product in compensation, but the key point here is that the investors in question aren’t billion dollar funds looking to get a high yield return on their money (indeed, these kind of opportunities are drying up), but are instead investments made to see small, manageable products and services be created that don’t have a high enough profit margin to be attractive to the moneyed interests but that nonetheless fulfill a need or want. Significantly, this is actually one of the most benign forms of capitalism out there, because it serves to create a community of interest.
On the services side, you’re beginning to see the emergence of itinerant service professionals - people who will come to your house to cut your hair, give you a manicure, instruct your children (or yourself), and so forth. Why? Both because service people bill by the customer, in general, and the customers are drying up. Transportation costs shifts to the provider rather than the customer - I think that’s going to increasingly be the rule moving forward as the Millennials age. You may in fact see the rise of doctors doing housecalls, a practice that became unfeasible primarily because of the distances involved in the suburban era. 
And in many respects, that brings me back full circle to the question of which road will be taken.  Artisanal customizations is dependent upon mass production to get started, but over time, I think it will increasingly dominate as the underlying forces that currently favor mass-production will fail one by one. Long term I think that the strength of regional economies in the US and Canada will ultimately outweigh the national economy. Artisanal development is an interim step there, and one that may very well be required in order to push aside the rubric of a hundred years of mega-corporate oligarchical controls over everything from employment to zoning to the intrinsic shape of cities.
In time, as supply chains begin to collapse, the scope of the artisans’ efforts will increase even as their effective reach diminishes (because of transportation costs and subsequent reduction of raw materials). Cities become more concentrated and more autonomous even as their suburban neighborhoods begin to crumble, leaving an annulus that will  ultimately revert back to wilderness with towns emerging towards the periphery where distances to the city become unfeasibly far but where the town has a reason for being (a port, a crossroads, an agricultural center, etc.). The artisans may at that end up becoming the new mercantilists, but it will take a while for that cycle to repeat to the extent that it has become today (largely dependent upon energy profiles).
The Internet will be a part of this - people will fight for their ability to stay connected even as the automobile era ends. Most than likely, what you’ll end up seeing is the rise of regional internet authorities in the same way that you have regional power authorities, beholden to their customer base directly but regulated by the regional governments. The regional authorities would keep the primary lines connected as much as possible, even though I suspect that at least at some time during the next several decades, the bandwidth available over the systems will decline overall for a number of years before turning around. 
The Kunstlervillagers are right in thinking that society will become very unstable for a while. Where I break from them is the idea that we’re heading back to a wild-west type society as it was 150 years ago. I think that ours society will be different, not so much regressed as reforged, and that for a few generations yet, these unborn children will challenge us by going in directions that may seem completely foreign to us, but that will work for them. The only real unanswered question is whether they will look upon out time as a golden age or as an object lesson?

Artists vs. Engineers: Millennials (and Virtuals) in the Workforce

Further thoughts on the coming generations.
A recent post about Millennials in the workforce was as notable for what it didn’t say about that generation (from the perspective of a Boomer)  as for what it did. Indeed, to me it highlighted the fact that the Boomers really, really do not understand the Millennials, just as they didn’t understand the GenXers after them. This is perhaps not surprising - the Internet and the resulting explosive connectivity changed the very language of business, and to a great degree that difference can be summed up in the aphorism “If the Boomers are the ME generation, the Millennials are the US generation.”
First, the motivations that drive Millennials are VERY different from the ones that drove Boomers, and in a number of ways are different from thoset that drive GenXers. First and foremost, there’s a lot of pent-up anger out there in the Millennial generation towards corporations in general. When the Boomers came of age, most corporations consciously or unconsciously emulated the command and control structures of the military, because the young men that fathered those boomers had come right out of World War II, and had brought back with them not only GI Plan schooling but a very clear idea about how large organizations should be structured, which served well as the United States became the primary supplier of goods to the world in the aftermath of the destruction of WWII. The Boomers entered universities that had a similar command and control structure, and while there may have been protests and the like, once Boomers entered into the corporate world they took to it like a duck to water. 

For the GI generation, the idea of being employed for life at the same corporation you started with in the mail room to the time you finally retired was pretty much a given. For the Boomer generation, ascent was in 8-10 year arcs with different corporations, each arc providing you with counter experiences to your previous job, until ultimately you ended up as senior management with the job you finally retired from. For GenXers, you were more likely to be a freelancer or consultant, in between speculative startups. Job segments were shorter and riskier, you could make a lot of money, but job security was always an iffy thing, and not surprisingly, ours is much more of an engineering generation than the Boomers ever were. As we enter into the end game of our own careers, we’re looking at uncertain futures (retirement? huh?) and typically are ending up as senior academics, heads of consultancies, researchers, senior engineers and systems architects. 

The Millennials grew up with the Internet, and are easily the most connected generation ever. Their notion of corporations are informed by Google and Facebook, not General Electric - relatively small and autonomous working groups under a larger umbrella group, team oriented but with small, spatially-disparate teammates that communicate largely via electronic means, as often as not outside cubicle walls. They have a far greater job mobility, and the distinction between employment and unemployment are far fuzzier. The corporation that they work for is less important than the team they work, and the distinction between employee and contractor - so significant to the power games of the Boomers - is pretty much meaningless to the Millennials. Money is a motivation - especially in these times - but for the most part it’s not at the top of list of motivations, but simply a reflection of the fact that to stay connected they need to have the tools to do so, and need to have a place to sleep at night. Ironically, one benefit that this generation has is that they are likely to be great savers, because not only do they have the object lesson of the Greater Recession, but beyond improving their communication gear they really do not have a big need for materialistic possessions per se. 

To Millennials, the Boomers are hopelessly materialistic, not because of any reflection of their moral failings (indeed, Millennials consider most Boomers to be sanctimonious) but because materialism does not translate well to mobility. Sales of mobile homes are actually increasing among this generation, even with the high cost of gasoline, because a lot of Millennials are accustomed to going to where the work is (or at least where a steady internet connection can be found) and see physical homes as liabilities. Millennials are also getting married much later in life, are having kids much later, and are having fewer of them (if they decide to have any at all). Marriage itself is increasingly seen as optional, and both of these have a huge impact upon business, as it means again that one of the biggest factors that tend to stabilize a person’s career is the presence of a family. 

This means that Millennials view employers as clients to be serviced rather than overarching structures that provide long term meaningful careers. They are loyal to a fault, but they are loyal to their circle, not to any large institution. They distrust marketing and corporate spin, find the political games and infighting in large organizations, and yet are more inclined to act by creating temporary alliances between different groups to provide a united front to meet a crisis than they are by trying to subsume those same groups.
This is one of the reasons why the dominant innovation of the Millennials thus far is the Flash attack, in which action tends to percolate quietly in the background, often well below the current mainstream, then suddenly overwhelm the media with a seemingly large and monolithic front. Boomers are used to campaigns, much like military planners preparing for the next battle. Millennials are more like guerrilla fighters - snipers coming out of nowhere then disappearing into the background. This agility is both a strength and a weakness - it can get things done very quickly, but sustained action becomes problematic, and this tends to manifest in business focus as well. Millennials are the ADHD generation - they tend to be easily distracted from long term goals by immediate needs or crises, and consequently can get bored when projects extend beyond a certain window.
Of course, the flip-side to that is that Millennials also tend to be very innovative, especially with regard to social innovation. They are reinventing “media”, moving it far outside the box that their parents envisioned, seeing news, entertainment and education as all effectively just part of a single broad digital experience. The iconic image of the world for Boomers was the Mercator project map of the world, for GenXers is “The Big Blue Marble” and for Millennials is Google Earth. Carrying this point further, Google Earth is the world as entertainment - it is fundamentally interactive, is contributed to by a large community providing different layers of information, is generally not formally curated, combines temporality, geophysical location, images, media files and hyperlinks, and more importantly turns everything we know about geography “applications” on its ear. Millennials are not working out of the box, they are creating their own tessaracts and throwing the idea of box out altogether.
Most Millennials are also remarkably optimistic about the future. Unlike the GenXers, who for the most part have had to deal with the disintegrating remnants of the concept of “job” that came from the Boomers, Millennials are redefining the very concept, and are doing so in ways that are increasingly moving away from the institutional view. A job is something that you do for a couple of months to perhaps a couple of years, wrap it up and move on to the next job (or perhaps jobs). More and more of that work is virtual - Boomers generally have shied away from telecommuting, as their focus has always been the office. GenXers began to embrace it, but  the generation itself tends to be more introverted than their (highly) extroverted parents so working in a solitary fashion with the occasional interactions with work was more natural to them. Millennials are like their grandparents - highly extroverted and social as a rule - but overall so tuned into the connectivity of the web that their socialization (both personal and business) tends to take place on that medium in preference even to physical interaction. Ironically, this means that commercial real estate is going to stay depressed for a long time, even as “business” picks up, because as the Millennials increasingly become the dominant workers, the need for dedicated business spaces for people will diminish dramatically.
And what of the generation after, the Virtuals? They will likely share some of the characteristics of Millennials (certainly the connectivity aspect), but will also tend towards introversion (this cycling of extroversion and introversion seems to be a generational characteristic), and all that implies. At the moment, the leading edge of the Virtuals is 12-13 years of age, so it is difficult to generalize, but there are several intriguing signs. Test scores for Virtuals in mathematics and science have been going up in comparison to those of Millennials (which went down in those areas when measure at the same age), and interest in those fields is rising.
The Virtuals generally have a higher number of Aspergers and high functioning Autism than the Millennials did per capita, which usually manifests as social retardation but higher focus or intensity in specific areas. They are not as media driven, and ironically they are more inclined to play strategic games and build applications than communicate with their peers over computer or smart tablet environments. They are more avid readers, however, and tend more towards non-fiction or speculative fiction than their Millennial brethren did. If SMS and social media were the iconic symbols of the Millennials, for the Virtuals it’s tablets, and likely virtual glasses as they start rolling out towards the end of 2012 and into 2013. Their world will be immersive - the web will simply be an overlay on everyday life, and everything in that world will have information and context. “Traditional” academia will also be crumbling pretty dramatically by this point, and it is likely that the Virtuals will far more likely be self-educated and auto-didactically skilled - education will be unable to keep up with the disruptive changes and challenge to its authority that the coming era of Big Data augers, and while Virtuals will be considerably more knowledgeable (and potentially skilled) in specific areas than any previous generation, they will largely be building the edifices which would nominally be educating them. 
As a generation, they will be entering the workforce at a time when there will be massive upheavals in the corporate and political world as Millennials become the prime shapers of social policy and direction. Indeed in many respects they will be the primary agents by which these radical reforms are actually implemented (just as GenXers built the web that was largely envisioned by Boomers). The office of the future (circa 2030) will be notable primarily for being non-existent. Businesses will still exist, but retail will be a far reduced shadow of itself (and malls will likely end up being repurposed as work hotels where spaces get rented out as needed, if they don’t get torn down outright). Big box stores will become fulfillment centers for online retailers from grocers to clothiers to automobiles. Work will be done by ad hoc groups working distributed, with perhaps half of those working from home. Manufacturing will shift to mass cottage industries (pay very close attention to 3d printers), and zoning will have to take into account the rise of new residential/light industry sectors.
Note that I suspect this will be the case perhaps even more if we are in a diminishing resource environment. Short of a complete catabolic societal collapse, which is possible but unlikely, what will more far more likely happen is that society will adapt to a mode where driving an hour each way to work every day will become prohibitive, where work will likely be either immediately local or will be far enough away that travel on a regular basis to it is not feasible (it’s also worth noting that the Millennials are the first generation since the 1930s in which driving does not play a prominent role, and this will carry through in their approach towards work … if they have to drive any significant distance to get to it, they won’t be interested in taking the job).
On the other hand, this is also a generation where marriage occurs late and child rearing occurs later if at all, and this means that the Millennials will be far more likely to hop - migrating from one city to another to take on a job for a certain period of time, then moving to the next city. Ironically, this mode doesn’t necessarily involve a car - the Millennials will tend to travel very light (a tablet, a couple of changes of clothes and toiletries), will travel by train or bus, and will rent a car as needed rather than own one outright. They are also growing up distrusting big business and big government simultaneously, and this means that they will tend to be very conservative both in their spending and saving.
Finally, Millennials are already defined by the cohesiveness of their extended networks as compared to older generations. This is a generation of specialty convention goers, and many of their closest relationships will be shaped by common interest rather than by geography. From an outsider’s perspective they may appear somewhat childish, but these conventions serve much the same purpose as bars did to an older generation - a place to meet others and establish new relationships (romantic and otherwise). This generation is also less likely to do hard drugs or become alcoholic than previous generations did (as demographic trends seem to be proving out).
The combination of living light (which places a far lower demand on finances than maintaining a house, car, furnishings, and so forth) and demand for mobility means that work will tend towards transient relationships as well - it simply will not play as big a role in the lives of Millennials compared with their social life. (They also will tend to stay “in the nest” far longer than preceding generations.) That doesn’t mean that they will be beggars - that same mobility will translate into a penchant for saving rather than spending, and when they do finally “settle down” towards the end of their 30s, they will likely be far better off than the preceding GenXers at that age. 
It’s hard to say what the longer term characteristics of the Virtuals will be - the oldest is now twelve, but there are a few indications. Expect Virtuals to be home-bodies - they will establish nests, workshops, and other bases of operation fairly early, will likely not be anywhere near as transient as Millennials, and may be somewhat more materialistically inclined. They will see Millennials as flighty and somewhat inconsequential, too hung up on media and rather spoiled. As children, they will have grown up during fairly harsh times, and as such Virtuals will likely also be thrifty, but in different ways than the Millennials - they will be inclined towards saving as a defense against potential downtimes vs. saving as a consequence of a light living style. The Millennials will envision the social foundation for the century, the Virtuals will be ones to lay down the infrastructure to support that - the artists vs. the engineers.

Technology and Generations

A couple of days ago I came across a story talking about how NASA was interested in helping to interest the next generation of students in science and technology careers (the so-called STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields). It’s been one of the greater mysteries in technical circles about what caused such a massive fall-off in the number of people pursuing technical degrees in the early 2000s as compared to the 1990s, and most of the obvious explanations (the tech recession in 2000 for instance) have always seemed rather facile to me. I actually think the reason is deeper, and if I’m right then this may in fact be the perfect time for policy makers to be investing in STEM related educational programs.
Recently, I had a chance to thoroughly read the classic work The Fourth Turning, by Strauss and Howe. For those not familiar with their theories, the core idea is that there is a societal cycle called a saeculum (from which we derive words like secular) that roughly spans 80-90 years. Each saeculum consists of four generations, each of which tend to have similar values, motivations and philosophies, and each of which interact with the other generations in a clear and distinct pattern. As each generation moves through the various stages of life (youth, adulthood, middle age, senescance) each of which tend to be 18-20 years of length as well, they also tend to have very different concerns, expectations and desires. As prior and succeeding generations are also moving along those same stages but offset, this means that there are distinct configurations that describe the psycho-social characteristics of these generations. 
I believe that the current drought in STEM interest (except in certain very specific areas) may actually be generationally driven, and both points to the likely characteristics of the incoming generations and gives a road map that educators and policy makers should pay attention to closely.
A good reference point to show this is to look closely at the Baby Boomers and how they ended up shaping both business and society. The Boomer generation (born from 1943 to 1961, using what I think is a realistic ethical rather than demograph division), for the most part, were not engineers or scientists, though there were several notable engineers and scientists in that generation. It was the GI generation that built the space program, created the first computers, built much of the highway and electrical infrastructure of the country. The Boomers were marketers, managers and salesmen. They were the corporate warriors, and as they moved into the workforce, the engineering ethos of the previous generation was replaced with the marketing ethos of this one.
The GenXers (born from 1962 to 1981), on the other hand, were engineers of sorts, but their playground was not space, but computer technology and biotech. They did the bulk of the programming, designing, engineering and analysis work of the Internet and of the Biotech revolution. What’s interesting is that as the Boomers retire and the GenXers begin to replace them on the other side of the generational gap, the focus of management, of education, and of policy is going to shift increasingly towards problem solving - not “How do we make the most money doing this?” but “How do we solve the problems we’re facing in the most efficient and elegant manner we can?”
I’d argue that this represents a radical shift in thinking in society. It’s hard for a 60 year old C-level manager who’s uppermost thought during the day is “How can we improve the share price of our company?” to understand the motivations of a 42 year old senior engineer who’s looking at finding the optimal solution to building a software system. More significantly, when that 42 year old becomes the 60 year old CEO of the company nearly two decades later, her motivation is not enhancing share price, but building the software products that meet the greatest needs of their customers, with shareholder value far lower on the priority chain. The company structures will be different, the valuation systems will be different, EVERYTHING will be different. They will be focused on SOLVING PROBLEMS.
The Millennials (1982 to 2000), on the other hand, are media people. They grew up in the silver age of Social Media. The Internet had reached a point of complexity that it could start supporting a number of different kinds of media, and the communication aspects of the Internet are far more important to them than the technical aspects. For many of them, there was never a time where the Internet didn’t exist. The oldest of the Millennials are now out of college, they are intensely anti-marketing (this is the generation under which media deconstruction hit its high point) and they are highly genre savvy. This is the generation that will a hundred years from now be seen as the artistic giants of the twenty first century.
However, it is the next generation, what I call the Virtuals (born 2000-2018) that will be the bringers of the next wave of technical innovation (outside the media space). This is a generation that will have high capacity gene sequencers, big data cloud infrastructures and semantically aware computer systems, mobile sensor networks, near-earth commercial space travel, LEDs and memsistors and high voltage solar “fabric” and all the things that are emerging largely from the work of the GenXers (who are now going into research rather than management) before most of them are out of high school.
The oldest Virtual at this point, is twelve years old and is in sixth grade. The youngest will not be born for another six years. The Virtuals are not like the Millennials. I have two children - one born in 1993, the other born in 2000. The elder of the two is a classical Millennial - she’s into cosplay, animation, computer graphics and computer games, and social media. She’s entering college in media arts, and I fully anticipate that she’ll find herself very much caught up in a world where creatives are very much in demand and where the rules of society are rewritten daily. She’s a social deconstructionist.
My youngest was born in 2000, and she is what I believe many Virtuals will be like. She’s more literal than her sister, was programming game levels by the time she was seven (and taught herself how to read off the Internet), and is rather scarily good at finding the information that she needs to educate herself. She’s a technical synthesist. She has trouble with school though, because school doesn’t work the way she thinks - she can find information, but she’s having trouble learning strategies for synthesizing that information. Of course, the schools themselves haven’t really caught up with this fact - they’re just starting to come to grips with the fact that the Millennials exist in a world that is global, is more engrossing than school, and is mediated by networks - and many of those Millennials have already graduated.
As not so much of a diversion here, I think education is a critical part of any society, but I rather despair at the educational system in the US. The content of it is designed by values-conscious Boomers determined to put a stamp of morality and jingoistic patriotism (while minimizing the importance of science in many parts of the country), implemented by technical GenXers who chafe under this system and despairing about the Millennials who all seem like ADHD candidates permanently wired to their smart phones and who for the most part are more interested in video games and cosplay than in IMPORTANT THINGS (even as they themselves wonder whether what they’re teaching is worth anything). And of course, STEM (science, technical, engineering and mathematics) courses of study have seen a massive drop in participation. We’re becoming a nation of gamers and idiots.
Except I’m not so sure that’s really the case. The Millennials are the counter-stroke generation to the Boomers - interested in art and literature, philosophy and media, architecture and music. They are communicators first and foremost, but they really have in the aggregate comparatively little interest in the technical except as it relates to these areas.
The Virtuals, on the other hand, will be technical synthesists. The GenXers have built the scaffolding and infrastructure that the Millennials use for communication and social bonding, but they have also built the scaffolding and very early infrastructure for the Virtuals to build on in combining bio-engineering with information management, for building and designing specialized energy aggregators and generators, and for integrating all of these together into a cohesive technical superstructure of applications (one that reengineers the human body all the way up to the height of the human noosphere). They will in fact be the ones that rebuild the technical underpinnings of society, quite possibly as the world that the Boomers built finally collapses under its own weight.
The GenXers started entering into college (the start of adulthood) in 1982 and its noteworthy that the number of students graduating in STEM technologies started picking up dramatically by 1986. It hit its peak in 1995, four years after the GenXer population peaked (and four years after they entered college). By 1999, even though the tech field was still hot, STEM graduates were declining again. Where were the (now) Millennials going? New media, gaming, communications, web design, graphics, as well as a noticeable pick up in theatre arts, writing, photographer and similar fields. Certainly the technologies were now coming online to make this field attractive, but its worth noting that the place they weren’t going into - not just STEM (except for technology related to the communications revolution) or medicine but also law, finance, business or even the more humdrum aspects of marketing and sales, in places where, ironically, the tools and technologies were just as well developed.
The Millennials are now coming out of college - they hit their peak in 2009 and there’s some evidence to indicate that the number of graduates in the media arts arena is leveling off, consistent with a graduation peak of about 2013. It’s also worth noting that most generations have somewhat different characteristics pre- and post- peaks. Pre-peak generations have shadows of the previous generation that colors their attitudes and beliefs. Post-peak get “premonitions” of the next generation, sharing more and more of their values. At the cusp points between generations, you often end up with people who are generalists, not necessarily strong in any one generation but often being renaissance characters that don’t easily fit into any generation.
If, as I suspect, the Virtuals end up being technological synthesists (as opposed to the GenXer’s role as technological analysts), then 2013 will also mark the trough of STEM graduates, and the trend should turn around. However, their focus is going to shift - alt-energy vs. geologist engineers and chemists, distributed AI construction (possibly with robots and telepresence) vs. business applications, life-form engineers vs. geneticists and oncologists. As a generation they will be very utilitarian and focused compared to the previous generation (whom they will consider as being rather frivolous and perhaps overly indulged). The mid-point in the trend will occur around 2022 with the generation peaking in 2031 in terms of STEM graduates.
Of course, this also brings up an interesting conundrum. The Millennials are for the most part community oriented, though that community is defined virtually rather than physically. This means that their optimal learning style (all other things being equal) is one where learning takes place via interactions with their peers, and social awareness is considered of greater value than technical competence. There, the principle role of the teacher is very much that of the mediator and director, shaping the conversations towards the completion of communal projects. 
Virtuals, on the other hand, are already showing that they respond best to autodydactic approaches to learning, where they learn by doing, research what they need when they need it, and generally find traditional teaching methodologies to be confusing at best and counterproductive at worst. As it turns out, this is in fact the best way to learn science, where the role of the teacher is primarily that of advisor rather than authority. The students also tend to gravitate to an apprenticeship model, where you have a master with a limited number of apprentices and sojourners (the pairing of a GenXer with one or more Virtual is a particularly effective combination), especially as the GenXers will be entering Senescence at this stage in their own lives, when their principle role is to be teachers and advisors rather than decision makers.
There’s been a pendulum swing towards anti-intellectualism that seems to be reaching its peak in the US, but we may in fact be near the end of the pendulum swing. The Boomers entered into the period of senescence starting around 2000 (these things tend to be fuzzy +/-3 three years), and the Boomers have generally been the generation of the salesman. In conjunction with senescence this has meant that the Boomers have been focused on physical and financial security, mortality, maximization of financial assets. They also have tended to push conformance to the status quo, which, given the demographic size of the group, has generally meant THEIR status quo, and in old age this has tended to result in dogmatic uniformity, ideological rigidity and a move towards centralization.
By 2009, the peak of the Boomer generation entered senescence (and out of a decision making capacity). By 2018, the Boomers will be completely within senescence, with the GenXers fully invested in the decision-making “Middle Aged” bracket. Since societal direction tends to be determined largely by this bracket, this again hints at society beginning to shift towards more pragmatism, more focus on problem solving rather than profit maximization, and more of a need for (and respect of) scientists and technicians. Just as with the rise of STEM graduates, society itself is beginning to move back towards a mode where the problem solvers, rather than the empire builders, are coming to the fore. Personally, it couldn’t happen soon enough.
One final note. The one area where I break with Strauss and Howe is in their designations of saecular titles. In the fourth turning (the one we’re in now, extending from 2000-2018 +/- a few years) the Millennials are “Heroes” while the virtuals are Artists. I believe that a perhaps more accurate way of thinking is to see Millennials in this phase as Social Deconstructionists (with the Boomers being Social Constructionists, promoting the status quo and GenXers being Technical Constructionists, building technical infrastructure). This means that Virtuals would be Technical Deconstructionists - they will be the mix and match generation, crossing technical disciplines, questioning the technical status quo.
Deconstructionism in literary terms is the process of identifying literary tropes (cultural assumptions), and deconstructing them in an attempt to understand how they work, why they work and how they can then be reconstructed to more closely model the world. Technical construction effectively builds on existing infrastructure to create new works, while technical deconstruction is the process of re-examining those core assumptions, discipline boundaries and underlying physical constraints and create whole new directions with them. The OWS movement is fueled largely by early cycle Millennials (just as the Tea Party is primarily made up of early cycle Boomers). GenXers largely were tool builders, Virtuals will be tool users.
Okay, THIS is the final note and a pet peeve. GenXers have generally gotten a bad rap compared to the Boomers - introverted to the Boomers extroversion, indifferent to material success compared to the Boomers’ avid capitalistic streak, perceptive and slow to make judgements or decisions compared to the Boomer’s decisive leadership and charisma, pragmatists to the Boomers’ idealism. Yet it was the GenXers who were mostly responsible for the creation of the web, probably the single most important invention of the last century. The Internet was initially a construct of the GI generation, while the web was conceived by a late cycle boomer (Tim Berners Lee, born in that incredible technical banner year of 1955, the same year that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born), and implemented for the most part by GenXers (Marc Andreesen, Linus Torvalds, Dan Connolly, Roy Fielding, many others).