How Millennials Will Change the World
“The leadership of the millennial generation is the only option for a clean break from the postmodern world.” — Metamodern Leadership (2017)
James Surwillo’s Metamodern Leadership is a vital source in the nascent canon of explicit metamodern non-fiction literature. In my view, Surwillo’s central contribution to the discourse of metamodernism is the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, although it is only covered in one chapter of the book, and is imperfect. This concept has not been introduced in any other metamodernism sources (although it has been explored at length in general) and it seems to be a pivotal component of a proper definition of metamodernism. In this sense, metamodernism is the historical period that millennials have come of age in (2000-) and thus it will also reflect the dominant millennial worldview in this time of crisis. For a background on the general concept, see Beyond Metamodernism.
For context, the above chart is but one visualization of many of the Strauss-Howe Generational theory. Out of four phases in the 80 year cycle called a “Saeculum” (based on a human lifespan), we are currently in a time of “Crisis.” You can see the Millennials growing up in the bottom right, and in an updated chart the Homeland cohort (born after 2000) would be closely following. We are ascending from weak families, cynical culture, failing institutions, and complex worldviews to necessarily improving these conditions. Moving to simpler worldviews will be a function of abstracting them into something more clear, not by reducing them to parochialism.
Surwillo is not the only writer on metamodern leadership. A brief article on it from 2016 written by Anna Montgomery predates his work. I will note a few things, but mostly focus on Surwillo’s book. According to her interpretation, metamodern leadership can include performance art that engages the audience. The leader empowers its workers and facilitates co-creation. It also becomes an exercise in self awareness for the leader. Creativity and innovation are also increasingly important to organizations and new leadership capitalizes on that. She writes, “A metamodern leader, therefor, has a bigger toolbox available to help create positive work environments.” These insights complement Surwillo’s analysis.
I’ve organized this article in the following sections: Millennial Meta-Movement, Who Leads the Leaders?, From Specialization to Generalization, Renaissance Redux, Critical Reflections, and Generating Change.
If metamodernism is millenial, it is no coincidence then that Surwillo, myself, the gentlemen over at Metamoderna (Hanzi Freinacht), the Dutch School theorists of metamodernism (van den Akker, Vermeulen, Gibbons), Luke Turner and Shia Labeouf and their artsy cohort, and other emerging metamodernists are all roughly in our mid-30s, on the early cusp of the Millennial Generation (“Generation Y” (or as I am sometimes more inclined, ‘Why’?)). Seth Abramson is a little over the threshold, but close enough. Many more across the millennial demographic are participating too. We are creating it. These metamodern trends are particularly salient to us, although they will come to be meaningful for everyone.
Metamodern qualities are not limited to the metamodern period. It is a timeless consciousness that we are beginning to tap into. In 2014, Alexandra Dumitrescu and Gary Forrester suggested that Martin Luther King potentially had metamodern sensibilities. Naturally, we must finish what he started and keep going.
The turn of the 21st century and the decade that followed marked the birth of a new age and the awakening of a generation to the stark complexities and contradictions of globalization before us. The mantle of leadership is falling squarely on the millennial generation, who need to understand metamodernism as they rise through positions of leadership left open by baby-boomers. This has been very difficult as many baby-boomers refuse to retire, and many are also resistant to the emergence of fresh ideas, let alone ‘metamodern’ discourse. Now is the time, says Surwillo, for a renewal of John Dewey’s “practical idealism”; “aligning what is right with what is possible.” (p. 10).
The book opens with a critique of the proliferation of the leadership industry. It is an aging baby-boomer business model of leadership, awash in “thought leaders” who refine and exercise its core values, for better or worse. This approach has come to dominate all aspects of organization and management, to maximize “success” and efficiency in terms of profits (over people). According to Surwillo, the problem with conventional leadership is taking the past successes and basing future standards on them. This merely perpetuates the status-quo, which goes against the grain of the millennial worldview.
When it comes to intellectual leadership, this critique resonates deeply with me. Contemporary leadership is pathological. Just look at the CBC parody talk “‘Thought Leader’ gives talk that will inspire your thoughts,” Benjamin Bratton’s anti-TED TEDx talk, or Onion Talks. These videos mock the mainstream leadership paradigm because they can, and because a new more-enlightened view is emerging.
You might say we are at ‘peak leadership,’ where charisma is the most heightened aspect at the expense of integrity. Where the most ruthless and shameless conman of American infamy actually became President Trump. Where Jordan Peterson is hailed as a ‘leading intellectual of the west’ by some major news outlets, but is easily taken apart by myself (and again) and other millenials as “the intellectual we deserve” (cf. Nathan J. Robinson) for our anti-intellectual post-truth era. We can further demystify Peterson by pointing out the forces of his creation, being on the cusp of Boomer and Gen X, both Prophet and Nomad in archetype. This leadership trend can only reverse at this point. Metamodern Leadership can help us understand the new paradigm emerging, and how one can and should (or shouldn’t) lead in it. We strive to usher the peaceful exit of the current pathological leadership.
Who Leads the Leaders?
As the book cover illustrates, Surwillo chooses the double-faced “Janus” of Roman mythology as the symbol for metamodern leadership. It is the ability to look back and contemplate history with wisdom, but also look forward with youthful responsibility and prescience. The simultaneous looking forward and back is like the metaxy (oscillation) between modernism and postmodernism, but beyond them as well. With this metamodern outlook facilitated by technological omniscience, our generation can finally begin to understand how “the grand narratives of the past can solve the great problems of the future.” (p. 16).
These generational maps expressing the theory can condense a deep shapshot of cultural history, potentially serving as a moral compass to guide us into the future. While baby-boomers are looking back and destroying our inheritance, millennials are heroically looking back and forward, understanding the inevitable change that has to take place. We are the saviours of this Saeculum.
“In 1776, the civic-minded spirit rose up against the British oppression in unison. Eighty years later, the next civic generation defeated the evils of slavery, and eighty years after that, the civic-minded GI generation overcame the Great Depression and defeated fascism around the world. Now, another eighty years beyond the Depression, we find ourselves at another crossroads. This time, there may not be one clear threat to overcome but a series of obstacles to tackle that require the civic spirit… So we look to Generation Y as the leaders of a new civic generation.” — p. 74, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
Surwillo also helps lead the fight against millennial stereotypes of entitlement, laziness, and the like. While there may be some general truth to a critique of youth, it misdirects away from the generation that is actually at fault; the baby-boomers. And they can’t expect us to bail them out and save the planet if we aren’t granted control of the resources to do so. As Surwillo aptly puts it;
“The generation mostly casting aspersions has let all of this happen since they have reached adulthood. Their economic livelihood… rests with the success of the generation they attack and which they have never invested any meaningful possibilites of an economic future.” — p. 13, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
So, the current political gridlock is a product of generational conflict as much as anything, and metamodernism is the worldview to peacefully supplant the establishment, making it an ancien regime. But this conflict also highlights how we all get swept up in the spirit of the times. The boomers came of age under the threat of nuclear holocaust, so for most of them their political instincts were nested in a cultural context of global military competition, not any kind of sustainability or cosmopolitanism, as ours is.
A more or less static concept of leadership dates back to antiquity, but the “multidisciplinary masters” of the metamodern era are the first to challenge it’s assumptions. Because the boomer worldview was already established before the early foundations of metamodernism, it is difficult for them to entertain. Thus, metamodernism is not easily accessible to the current leadership of “the powers that be,” but rest assured that it has arrived and will become apparent. (p. 14)
Generation Z will inherit the “High” period after we solve the “Crisis.” Assuming we put in place new institutions and norms amenable to peaceful and prosperous 21st century, the life of these “digital natives” of Gen Z (or Homeland Generation) “will be defined as basking in the glory of incredible technologies and economies that the millennials will create,” (p. 76), and are creating in Silicon Valley. Knowing this will enable us to more effectively lead them as well towards that mutually beneficial outcome. And no doubt, what we dream up and decide metamodernism means now, will matter throughout the 21st century and greatly influence the entire next Saeculum.
The Strauss and Howe book Generations goes back 15 generations in American history, and they claim it’s only been 500 generations since the dawn of civilization. In the case of America especially, you get a sense of the momentum behind this process. The chronology also helps us contextualize and oscillate between the modern and postmodern.
From Specialization to Generalization
“Consilience of knowledge yielded to increased specialization.” — p. 42, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
Increasing specialization has also been a touchstone of 20th century career trajectories but the world now demands generalization, a broad base of knowledge, in line with pragmatist teachings. Surwillo argues that our generation has to reach deep to grasp interdisciplinary truths in order to achieve seemingly impossible innovation. We have omniscience through technology, but are very much drowning in the information glut rather than having clear answers. The signal-to-noise ratio is incredibly poor, and it’s the unique metamodern task of millennial “synthesizers” to turn it around.
“Progress in the 1970s was a postmodern issue, which turned conservatively to skills-based learning and efficiency. Progress today is more in the realm of the grand narrative of human progress and wisdom rather than the artificial manipulation of momentary economics.” — p. 13, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
This generalization and increasing the signal-to-noise ratio are very explicitly part of the mission of The Abs-Tract Organization. General theories (nomothetic) are typically applied in the natural sciences, whereas specific theorizing (ideographic) is used predominantly in the social sciences and humanities, where subjectivity and context are huge confounding variables. We attempt to invert this norm and strive for nomothetic ‘grand theories’ in the social sciences. The nomothetic approach is necessary in order to think long-term and big-picture about society, and metamodernism signals a re-integration of grand theory in this way. And I would argue that Generational Theory is a nomothetic approach.
The trend of over-specialization has led to the ignoring of anomalies in the incumbent paradigm. This ignorance is reinforced through various mechanisms of denial. The lack of broad intellectual foundations make possible novel forms of fundamentalism too, where someone can be highly educated in one area and completely ideological or sociopathic in another, without any sense of cognitive dissonance. Over-specialization and lack of common sense is why the intellectual discourse is so diluted with opinion and political partisanship. “Experts” (partisan pundits especially) are increasingly bereft when it comes to understanding crises, let alone resolving them.
In the more general time span of the 20th century, philosophy has largely been abandoned and relegated to an academic discipline, eschewed as a viable way of life or system of values. This is the essence of Surwillo’s first chapter, Genealogy and Ethics. After Greek and Roman stoicism planted the seeds of virtuous living based on knowledge and reason, it shortly thereafter died and wasn’t revived until the European periods of Renaissance and Enlightenment. Even then, philosophy didn’t once again become actionable until American Pragmatism came along in the 19th century. Philosophy continued to go through various expressions, from systems theory to rock and roll, but would also be further fragmented by postmodernism uncovering truth only in the “spaces in between.” (p. 29).
While the period of postmodernism was mostly a criticism of modernism and call for reformism, it was in part also a forgetting of some of the greatest epistemic and humanistic insights of the modern era, dating back to the scientific revolution. The world couldn’t seem to have it both ways; it was locked in social paradox. Postmodernism was properly borne out of the nihilism of the definitive end of the modern era, which was the total inversion of enlightenment values that brought us two world wars as a result. So naturally, postmodernism was a period of intense skepticism and critique, marinating in Cold War paranoia no less, but has now run its course. As Surwillo states of the postmodern clash;
“The grand ideas of truth, identity, freedom, justice, and humanity imploded into the subjective concerns such as of postcolonization, feminism, civil rights, and gay rights. The great western liberal tradition of progress stuttered over the micronarratives of identity.” — p. 32, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
Surwillo sounds glib here, but it does highlight the friction between the espoused ideals of progress, the real world shortfall, and the impotence of academic critique. The problem, in my view, is that the critique of postmodernism was not permitted to succeed in its emancipatory role. It was neutralized by an increasingly abstract society and systemic-conspiracy. The culture wars have instead coagulated and brought us a modern day Caligula in Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, it is time for the competing narratives of modernity and postmodernity to conjoin and tell a new meta-narrative of metamodernism. Surwillo notes that by the end of the 20th century, many terms and perspectives contended for naming of the obvious dramatic paradigm shift, such as digimodernism or post-postmodernism. I think we both believe that they’ll all flow into the inevitable term metamodernism, which was coined back as far as 1975 as a trend in literature.
Although the book is well written, it can be somewhat hard to read; there is no discernible narrative and the text frequently jumps around through different time periods and different thinkers. But this is perhaps why Surwillo describes it as an “anthology,” as each chapter provides a macro- perspective of major conceptual themes. Leadership in this context is predicated on the “melding of all the virtues of human knowledge.” (p. 16). Synthesizing modernism and postmodernism into metamodernism is no small task, and Surwillo humbly tries to set the stage for millennial leaders to do so.
Another shortcoming is that the book is predominantly a white and Western account of history, but at least it is an accurate and self-conscious one at that. To be sure, this is also a major flaw of Generational Theory too. It only records the dominant generations, at the expense of the slave and native genealogies that are equally important. Much more could have been said about the paths of destruction “progress” has forged across the world. Without modifications and refinements, Generational Theory itself would not qualify as metamodern analysis.
What I think is one of the major postmodern insights via deconstruction, let alone the prospects for metamodern reconstruction, is that human history is largely corrupted by its own authors. History is erased (note the burning of the Library of Alexandria, or other knowledge suppression), manufactured (through indoctrination and ‘official history’), but most importantly is filtered through the paradigms of its authors. Metamodernism demands that we know history, but also understand its speculative and conspiratorial origins, hence Surwillo’s (and Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s) emphasis on genealogy. Studying history is meaningless if it doesn’t inform the present moment. Metamodernism paradoxically asks us to reinvent progress while not romanticizing or whitewashing it’s past incarnations.
I would have found the book more mind-blowing had I not already been aware and versed in much of Surwillo’s sources (although not nearly as deep as him it seems). The book doesn’t claim to develop metamodern theory but I think it does implictly, if not only for the link of Generational Theory. Further, I fully agree with the premise that it is very foundational for metamodern leadership to behold such a synthetic view of the liberal arts, intellectual history, and generational change. This was the big take-away for me. Part 1 of the book is eight chapters providing just this kind of summary of how we got here as a world society, laying out a “philosophical framework” for our generation to make change with.
Part 2 is centred around the seven values that will change the world, simplified as seven P’s: Each its own chapter framed through two major themes, Art and Ego (participation), Social Theory and Cooperation (partnership), Psychology and Motivation (personalization), Philosophy and Education (pedagogy), Ecology and Capitalism (purpose), Mythology and Leadership (power shift), and Globalization and Democracy (planetary shift). But you have to read it to know what each of these really means, as the word is merely a stand-in for a set of ideas. In his introduction, Surwillo summarizes each value as such:
- Participation: “a new understanding of ownership and accountability”
- Partnership: “a way to reorganize existing social structures”
- Personalization: “psychological findings of motivation”
- Pedagogy: “the shift necessary in education and learning”
- Purpose: “a new way to understand the next iteration of capitalism”
- Power Shift: the role of myth in transformation and leadership
- Planetary Shift: “next evolution of human connectedness and consciousness”
In Participation, art and ego intersect to encourage leaders to be themselves, to draw on our unique postmaterialist experience, while taking entrepreneurial risk. Shia Labouf’s meme message “DO IT!” might be the appropriate tagline for this chapter. In Partnership, the value is to undestand how social theory and cooperation relate and to seize new social media technologies to optimize community power through networks. You can’t do it alone, though sometimes it feels as if we have no choice.
In Personalization, the value is in reshaping psychology and motivation through the radical restructuring of organizations, both to highlight happiness and well-being, as well as pursue higher aims. We could read this as an striving for an existential turn in corporate social responsibility. The value of Pegagogy is essentially the power of knowledge, nurtured in the fusion of philosophy and education. The skills of problem solving and critical thinking are indispensible to us throughout the ages.
The value of Purpose is found in understanding the conflict between ecology and capitalism. Here, the existential turn is expressed more explicitly, urging corporations to adhere to a Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm. This chapter stresses transcendent purpose, in line with a much higher ethics. The sixth value is a Power Shift based on mythology and leadership. The ancient wisdom of archetypes and myths will always inform our deepest dreams and quests, but the real shift is in inverting the stereotypes; be a generalist, not a specialist, be a catalyst, not a strong-man, master the independent problems, not the dependent ones.
Planetary Shift is the final value for metamodern leadership. It requires understanding of complexity, which Surwillo frames in terms of globalization and democracy. Globalization 1.0, according to Thomas Freidman, was 1492, the ‘discovery’ of America. 2.0 was the start of the Industrial Revolution, which lasted 200 years. Freidman’s Globalization 3.0 is then metamodern in its portrayal of Janus on a global scale, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. We now have a more geocentric identity, and “[a] new wave of cosmopolitanism is accessible,” writes Surwillo.
Each chapter buttresses these values with ample evidence from throughout history. The seven values provide a broad template for the individual to fill in with their personal strengths. The key is understanding where we need to lead to, and only a genealogical approach to history provides this, offered throughout the book. More specifically, a map of metamodern theory may be necessary too.
It also occurred to me while reading that metamodern leadership might be a bit anti-leadership, or seem like an oxymoron, and indeed the book affirms a stoic “leading from behind” rather than the traditional ego-centric visionary type. This resonates with my own approach to leadership through The Abs-Tract Organization, as a social experiment, research project, and nascent think tank, as well as in the meta-fictional arc in the satirical film The Abs•Tract.
In my view, a true model of metamodern leadership would thus start by aligning with and presenting the truth (or at least couching it in humor). It would effectively seize attention to coordinate effort towards only what is right and necessary, and very little else. Metamodern leadership would be harnessing the collective intelligence of the system, steered by the general will of enlightened masses, perhaps even symbolically navigated by a philosopher-king or queen. It would empower everyone under its influence to be their own leader and participate in positive value-creation systems.
But the notion of leadership also begs the question, ‘how should we follow?’ One could write a whole other book on ‘metamodern following,’ and it would have to be a very critical epistemology of how we choose role models and how we behave in groups. But I can tell you that my coming upon metamodern ideas has been by truly following no one except the trail of philosophical bread crumbs left by the greatest thinkers and changemakers.
To return to the central point, I think the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory is Surwillo’s great addition to metamodern leadership. Generational Theory posits a sort of determinism of history based on generational waves and cultural change. There are many other macro-history theories as well. We are all shaped by the times that we live in, perhaps much more than we realize. Generational theory should be seen as an alternative system of periodization that in our generation happens to dovetail with metamodern periodization and timing.
In a NY Times review of The Fourth Turning, the third book by Strauss and Howe, Michael Lind asserted that it is borderline pseudoscience, but this could be read as merely a conservative reaction to very ambitious social theory. His central grounds for dismissing it? That its cyclical and not linear. This is absurd, as there are certainly cyclical patterns in time/ nature, as well as linear. Obviously the earth is round, but it is also perceptibly flat when you are standing on it.
General criticism against it may also come from the fact that it is more nomothetic than ideographic (more general theory than specific), and/or more qualitative than quantitative, and thus appears less scientifically rigorous; the opposite charge of scientism. It just depends how you look at it; it’s best to take Generational Theory, and theories like it as a heuristic, a guideline. Written in 1997, Lind mocked their predictions for the new millennium, but as we have seen their model has been validated by the unfolding of history. As Surwillo writes of The Fourth Turning;
“According to their projected timeline, this [catastrophic] event occurred somewhere between around 2005. Their arbitrary date happened to lie halfway between the dual crisis of September 11, 2001, and the Great Recession beginning in 2008.” — p. 69, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
Strauss and Howe even explicitly suggest that hi-jacking of an airliner could be involved in the major crisis. But this is nowhere near as eerie as the writers of The Lone Gunman (and The X-Files) actually coming up with a storyline about flying jets into the World Trade Center, before 9/11 happened, as I discussed in The Metamodern Mythology of The X-Files.
And let’s not forget the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of US neo-imperialism as part of the crises, which are still spreading fallout in the Middle East. Or the anomalous mega- event of Hurricane Katrina. At any rate, the themes of their predictions were incredibly prescient, and our job is to use the theory to take control of our destiny. Anticipating skeptics, Surwillo adds;
“There is nothing metaphysical about realizing that we live in self-contained cycles brought about by those that have come before us. We will, in turn, very predictably react in a certain manner, and the cycle will continue.” — p. 69, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017(Video) Introduction to Metamodern Leadership 4
For a more recent update on the “Fourth Turning” and our current “Crisis,” listen to Generational theorist Neil Howe himself (April 1, 2017). He has some powerful advice for emerging leaders in these times. As we near the end of this current long Saeculum, especially as it is narrated to us by scholars, it can ease the process of changing with the times.
So we would be wise to embrace Generational Theory, even if just as a heuristic, because it works. It collates large data sets and reflects uncomfortable truths about our own mass agency and cultural trajectory. But like anything, it can be easily misinterpreted and abused. For example, Steven Bannon is a proponent of Generational Theory and uses it to distort history and advance his agenda in Generation Zero. He blames culture, not capitalism, for our economic crisis. Go figure. See Neil Howe on Steve Bannon, Trump and the Possibility of an American Civil War.
At any rate, good luck trying to dispel the massive chart below as unscientific. It was assembled by Peter von Stackelberg, and appears to sync up with Strauss and Howe’s work or at least be a complement to it. As you look through it’s copious detail, I implore you to imagine adding two bold vertical lines on it. One around 1960, demarcating postmodernism from the modernism before it. The other around 2000, signalling the transition into the metamodern era. Periodization is what we make of it, and we can start to envision whole new infographics like this one but oriented around metamodernism as the organizing the principle. Of course it is never perfectly clear cut — you could conceive of metamodern inception at 1975 and then 2000–2010 as a brief period of “post-postmodernism” and metamodernism on a steady ascent after that. This is the eternal post of our two-faced Janus.
Are you still there? If you didn’t get lost in that graphic, this is the kind of complexity millennials are primed to face and resolve. The 21st century poses a unique break from the past in our technological omnipotence, increasing ontological certainty about science and history, and global interdependency of the human species. With all that we have learned from history, we must now change in accordance with the truths revealed in metamodernism. And if you agree with my thoughts and actions on metamodern leadership, then follow me and co-create.
In some sense that Surwillo grasps, metamodernism may represent the ultimate pragmatic philosophy that has always existed and we have been searching for throughout history. His closing words of the book inspire that we — millennials — keep rising to the occasion;
“The twenty-first century arrived amid a digital world of exponential progress. Simultaneously, a generation of candor and stealth works within the contructs of a natural system reminiscent of the stoic ideal, which leads from behind. The value system is complete yet ill-defined as it waits for a world qualified to adhere to its new enlightenment.” — p. 302, Metamodern Leadership, Surwillo, 2017
The Abs-Tract Organization is a meta- think tank for solving the meta-problem, highlighting the utility of abstraction as a critical perspective and knowledge representation framework.
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Metamodernism integrates diverse spontaneity and creativity with science and technology to improve organizational performance. Scholarship calls on leaders to facilitate symbiotic relationships, a model that allows the burden of leadership to be shared by all.
Postmodern leaders are bold, cooperative, creative, and enjoy developing their teams. They value the contributions all team members make toward positive outcomes. Postmodern Values.
Metamodernism refers to a broad range of developments in art, culture, society, philosophy, as a historigraphical between-ness that appears after and gestures beyond postmodernism, and at the same time attempt to meaningfully render emerging periodized post-postmodernism coherent.