University of Mary Washington's 2012 commencement speaker Neil Howe told graduates Saturday morning that no one knows what challenges they will face, but it will be their destiny to rescue this country from the mess to which older generations have contributed.
Howe, an author who has written extensively on the personalities of different generations, is also the founding partner of the consulting firm LifeCourse Association. His articles on global aging, fiscal policies and migration have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Howe called the graduates the "Millennial Generation" and said parents should be proud of this new generation that is about to embark into the real world.
"They aren't like you, but they are what America now needs," he said. "They don't complain about the dark storm clouds looming over their fiscal, economic and geopolitical future; they try to stay positive. They don't want to bring the system down; they're doing what they can to make it work again. They worry about you a lot, and they want to come together and build something big and lasting, something that will win your praise."
He used humor to relay a serious message of how each generation—from the G.I.'s, Baby Boomers and the Generation Xers—have their own distinct differences, and how the Millennials are about to change the course of the world.
"So, how exactly are you different? Well, start with the obvious—pop culture. Believe it or not, parents, your kids have never known that America, Chicago and Kansas are the names of rock bands, not just places," he said. "Or what about technology? Ever notice the blank stares when you tell them to roll up the window or turn the channel or dial a number?"
The Millennials were raised in a culture of Amber Alerts, bike helmets and elaborate child seats in the minivans, he said. Their parents grew up in an era of less parental protection.
"You Millennials were raised to be special—very special—and trust your counselors, support groups and smart drugs to keep you feeling pretty good about the world, like a Sims character in just the right setting," Howe said. "We, the parents, knew we weren't very special, didn't trust anyone to advise us and thought staying away from counselors was a sign of toughness."
Howe said he doesn't think any one generation was better than the other; they developed into what they had to be based on the environment they grew up in. History has shown that whatever a generation becomes, it turns out to be exactly what the world needed at that time. He compared the Millennials to the G.I. Generation known as the "greatest generation" because they also grew up as protected children, yet became positive, optimistic team players who saved the nation.
"As such, youth generations tend to correct for excesses of the midlife generations in power, and they tend to refill the social role being vacated by the elder generation who are disappearing," he said.
Without knowing what the future holds, Howe predicted that the Millennials will do great things for this country.
"No one knows what the challenges the Millennial Generation may eventually be asked to bear," Howe said. "And hardly anyone expects them to become America's next 'greatest generation.' But someday you can say you heard it from me: That is their destiny, to rescue this country from the mess to which we, the older generations, have contributed—perhaps a bit too much more than we have ever wanted— and in so doing, to become a great generation, indeed."