Skip to main content

My mother informed me during my annual July 4 visit to her house that I’m getting more gray hair.  Thanks for that information, Mom.  I can do things such as exercise and stretch to keep my body in a youngish condition but I’ve never heard of anything not fake that keeps non-silver hair growing from my melon like a chia pet.

As I’ve gotten older I have taken a much greater interest in history to determine cause and effect.  While figures never lie and liars never figure, or something to that affect, I think I can look at data and objectively and draw sound conclusions.  This is what we as engineers and as P.E.s better dang well be doing.

Last week I watched an interesting webinar on leveraging the millennial generation.  These people like all my nieces and nephews were born between 1980 and last year.  Before getting into this, what does this generation talk have to do with EE?  Everything.  People set policy and the differences in generations will affect what happens to EE policy, and energy policy for that matter.

Notice:  This rant includes generalities and may not fit YOUR upbringing.

The generations of nearly all people on the planet are summarized as follows, with their years of birth in parentheses:  greatest (1901-1924), silent (1925-1945), boomer (1946-1964), X (1965-1980ish), millennial (1980-2000s).

My parents were born in 1928 and 1934.  When we Gen-Xers and boomers wax about walking uphill five miles in two feet of snow each way to school and back as a metaphor for our parents’ stories, it is actually sort of a stick in their eye.  Why?  Because people born between 1900 and 1940 lived through hellish times that makes latter generations look like a bunch of whining cry babies.  We have no idea what a bad economy is compared to the great depression, which greatly deepened (Hoover) and drug on for a decade (FDR) due to untimely awful policy but I’ll leave it at that.  It ended with the unbelievable calamity of WWII with 50 million killed and the “grand finale”, incineration of two large cities.  This would be unfathomable today.

I have read in multiple sources, primarily from boomers themselves that the boomers are responsible for the financial mess we are in.  Having gone through hell on earth, their parents wanted a completely different life for their children and so they worked their butts off for their kids.  The result was possibly the first generation of spoiled brats defined by Woodstock.  At the same time, they had a legitimate gripe about lack of decent environmental policies.  When the pollution on a river starts afire as the Cuyahoga did, something needs fixing.  Also, the “great society” by LBJ was hatched in the 1960s as this generation came of age.

Gen-Xers were raised by the silent generation, which if you ask me was the last miserly generation.  They saved and worked hard.  Their careers came to a close at the end of one of the greatest economic expansions ever (I wonder why).  Gen-Xers came of age during the material girl 1980s and epitomized by The Breakfast Club – “Don’t mess with the bull, young man.  You’ll get the horns.”  Ours was the last generation of corporal punishment.  My mother used the wooden spoon.  The ultimate punishment in school was the principal’s board (a piece of wood used for whacking the behinds of kids who deserved it).  That’s my generation’s uphill-both-ways story.  Again, this is unfathomable today.  The guy would be behind bars for the rest of his life.

Gen-xers are more motivated by profit (greedier in one word), but I would say more pragmatic and less likely to put up with guff.  We got the board and the wooden spoon, man.  We played cream the carrier, which was kind of like rugby but it was everybody against the kid trying to cross the goal line with the ball.  We supervised ourselves and made our own rules.  Any wonder we’re more competitive than millennials raised on no-score, everybody-wins T-ball?

We played kickball on concrete with unpadded five inch vertical steel pipes as “bases”.  I recall in second or third grade, Mike Arp was running for “first base” when the “pitcher” threw him out just in time by throwing at his legs.  His feet got tangled up and he went head first into the concrete-planted steel pipe.  If you put a softball in a bucket of water, the emerging part would be the lump on his forehead.  We laid him out on a table inside.  Nurse?  Are you kidding me?  We didn’t even have a sofa for sick kids to rest on.

Millennials never experienced life without cell phones, laptop computers, or cable TV.  They were on the run all the time with soccer, basketball, little league, hockey, dancing, gymnastics, you name it.  My nieces and nephews are perfect petri dishes of this lifestyle.  Many were raised by helicopter parents that hovered over their kids constantly.  This is one characteristic that does not fit my brother’s kids.  “Where’s Isaac?” (6-7 years old at the time)  “He’s with Bruce.”  “No.  I saw him arrive and Isaac wasn’t with him.”  “Maybe he’s playing on the highway with friends.”  “No.  His friends are playing darts with Buck Knives over there.”  Turns out he was left at home alone.  This is practically normal for them.

So where does this leave us?  The boomers are on the way out.  They just started retiring a year or two ago.  Gen-Xers I would say are managing most of the energy programs and evaluations and beginning to influence policy.  Policy, although I can’t say so as much with energy, but in general is controlled by old bats that should have retired thirty years ago.  Like Carl Levin.  He’s been in congress since Detroit (the city) was actually still growing and that ended in about 1950.

I would say boomers and millennials are considerably more risk averse than gen-xers.  Consider what the greatest generation gave us: the great society safety nets – Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, this, that, and the other.  Their offspring, the boomers, were the first generation of helicopter parents, helping their kids prepare for college entrance exams, writing essays to get into preferred universities and so on.  This is what the webinar guy was telling us.

The safety nets don’t only apply to people.  In 2008-2009, OMG, the world would end if we didn’t take over the auto companies or stop AIG from going under.  No.  The auto companies could have kept going under normal Chapter 11 proceedings and things would have worked out in orderly fashion as they should with bondholders first in line to get their money out as they should have.  Structural changes would have been more significant for longer term vitality but mismanagement (bad behavior) was rewarded by government bailout.  And if anything is too big to fail, split it up, Ma Bell style.  (Millenials – this happened before you were born and is the reason long distance phone calls are virtually, if not entirely free today.)

The combination of environmentalist hippy boomers, greedy gen-xers, and do-gooder millennials is fertile ground for EE at this time.  However, my fear for the long term is – I guess fear itself.  We are becoming so incredibly risk averse we are going to strangle ourselves with protection.  Consider I grew up with leaded gasoline, used as a catalyst and octane booster and it was spewed into the air for breathing by 12 mpg iron tanks, also known as the family sedan.  As mentioned in a previous rant today’s parents and media went bonkers over lead tainted toys from China, which I am not an advocate of but good grief the stuff is encapsulated in the material.  We were huffin and puffin air borne lead and we could still tie our shoes and even go on to get college degrees.  No seat belts.  No air bags.  No bike helmets.  No training wheels.  No kiddy car seats.  No kiddy pool.  Having these things now is all good – cost effective, makes sense – but we should have declared victory and quit after these things became the norm.  Things are getting crazy out of hand – no doubt our litigious tort system is contributing to the insanity.

Risk mitigation like insurance policies or “guarantees” cost money.  Unjustified risk avoidance costs a fortune in lost opportunity.  Rewarding poor risk taking and bad behavior is even worse.  Punishing sound risk-taking by taking more earned reward (profit) to pay for stupid risk taking is the worst.

Risk taking is necessary to advance society.  Advancing society is necessary for growing energy demand.  Growing energy demand is necessary for EE programs.  Period.


Don’t look now, but it appears that President Clinton agrees with my blather from last week regarding our uncompetitive business-tax climate, and in particular, note the General Electric quip.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

More posts by Jeff Ihnen

Leave a Reply