If one reckons the basic boundaries of the Millennial generation to be 1981-2000, then we are now nearly 8 years into the birth years of the post-Millennial generation. How might this new cohort be different from their well-publicized older peers?
Strauss and Howe's methodology offers one possibility. According to their theory of the procession of generations, a Civic cohort like the Millennials is usually followed by a generation they call "Adaptive." Adaptives are late-bloomers, growing up in the shadow of their assertive and accomplished elders. Their historical role is to institutionalize the material innovations of Civics and correct some of the excesses and rigidity of the Civics' approach to social order. Adaptives in their youth have historically been leaders in the crusades for social justice (earlier iterations of this generational type were the abolitionists, the Progressives, and the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s); in later life, they tend to prefer compromise over confrontation as a leadership style, and are usually swept aside by the crusading, spiritually-aware Idealists (like the Baby Boomers) coming up behind them.
Earlier this month, when I spoke at an insurance conference in Phoenix, I heard a lot of concern from the (mostly Boomer) crowd about the gaps in learning they've seen, even among well-educated Millennials. My standard retort is that this is probably something that will swing back in coming years. Adaptives historically take learning and literature more seriously than Civics, frequently taking a more overtly intellectual and satirical approach. Harvey Kurtzman, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon and John Updike were all members of the most recent Adaptive generation, the Silents, born 1925-1945. It is not too early to start looking for clues about these kinds of tendencies in the cohort now in early childhood.
The factor that gives Adaptives their defining qualities and their generational coherence is their historical experience in youth. Typically born to Reactive parents (Lost Generation, GenX) who provide them with plenty of attention in compensation for the more "hands-off" style of their own upbringing, they grow up amid economic turbulence (the Depression of 1873, the Great Depression), where they internalize habits of thrift and caution. They observe the flamboyant, assertive manner of their next-elders and initially tend toward conformity. Their frustrations and discontents only bubble to the surface relatively late, in their early to mid-20s, and linger into adulthood.
The other critical defining quality of Adaptives? Their earliest experiences of American government occurred under the leadership of bold, transformational figures. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson took the young country in a new direction, the oldest of the new Adaptives was in their early teen years. In 1865, the future Progressive generation had just been born. In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office in the depths of the Great Depression, the oldest Silents were just 7, just as today's New Adapatives will be in the first hours of the new Obama administration.