An opinion piece in the Washington Post touches on generational that might be of interest to the recent discussions around here about scientific generations. Author Neil Howe asks “Who is the Real ‘Dumbest Generation’?”. [h/t: Bora]
It is the prerogative of every generation of graybeards to look down the age ladder and accuse today’s young of sloth, greed, selfishness — and stupidity.
the underlying question is worth pursuing: If the data are objectively assessed, which age-slice of today’s working-age adults really does deserve to be called the dumbest generation?
The answer may surprise you.
It doesn’t surprise Your Humble Narrator one bit.
…it’s Americans in their 40s, especially their late 40s — those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. They straddle the boundary line between last-wave boomers and first-wave Generation Xers.
First, let us get our terms straight. Howe wants to call these folks early Xers and he’s totally full of crap on that. I see over on the Wikipedia entry for the Baby Boomers that there’s been some internecine strife amongst the Boomers.
Originally, everyone born during the 1946-1964 boom in births was considered part of the Baby Boom Generation, but over time, many experts have come to believe that two separate cultural generations were born during this period. The most common name used for the younger generation born then is Generation Jones. Many influential experts and publications now use the term Generation Jones, and the victory of Barack Obama, born in 1961, in November 2008 significantly increased the awareness of Generation Jones, with many experts pointing to Obama as the first Generation Jones President
The Wikipedia for Generation X is not much more helpful, detailing a number salad of possible birth years.
It takes no genius to imagine that the definition of generation slides depending on the point the author is trying to make and the generational affiliation of the author. It might be interesting to see just who is doing all the slicing and dicing on the Boomer definition. It is my belief that all this generational schism nonsense is coming from that more responsible parts of the Baby Boom generation trying to distance themselves from the less responsible parts. Nice Try! Sorry but the bad and the good don’t cleanly distinguish on year of birth within the generation from what I can tell.
Me? I’m an originalist and consider the Baby Boom to be the 1946-1964 birth year cohorts. Period. I’m consequently comfortable placing the start of the Gen X generation with the 1965 birth year. Think of it this way, as actual, you know, generations. To be a genuine Boomer you had to have been born in 1946 at the earliest, everybody is comfortable with postWWII as the start because it is part of the definition of the “post war baby boom”. Taking eighteen years of age as a handy reference point, we find ourselves in 1964. Why eighteen? Well, I think of that as a reasonable start to most general demographic data on the sharp uptick in women’s reproductive success. You have to get down to 15 year old mothers to capture the 1961 timepoint. The idea that teen moms were huge contributors just for this selected time slice is idiotic and not backed by any demographic trends that I’ve seen.
This graphic on the total number of registered US births is one I located at Political Calculations. These data made a bit of a splash a year or so ago when it was observed in an AP piece that the total number of US births had finally exceeded the 1961 peak, you may recall a similar graph from those newspaper accounts.
I think the trends make a pretty good supporting argument for my position that the cutoff for the Baby Boom should be 1964.
This brings me to a graph I posted previously on the age demographics of the NIH research grant PI pool. In the 2002-2003 interval the Boomers were in the 38-56 year old bracket (the so-called later 1961-1964 Boomers were about 38-42). In 1981, the very front of this wave was just turning 36. So if you look across time you can see that the huge demographic bubble associated with the Baby Boomers is a very large part of the career numbers related to new investigators from the Generation X, a much smaller segment of the US population.
This PDF is available from the National Academies
Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical
Research Committee on Bridges to Independence: Identifying Opportunities for and Challenges to Fostering Independence of Young Investigators in the Life Sciences, National Research Council
ISBN: 0-309-54964-7, 138 pages, 6 x 9, (2005)
Yay, Gen X. The smallest generation because the actual Boomers put off reproduction into their thirties, selfishly (from a certain perspective) aided by advances in reproductive choice/freedom and sustained by their DINK/YUPpie lifestyles. Squeezed by this demographic bubble on the career ladder, leading to delays in entrance and progression (more grad school, more “training”, longer postdocs, fewer hard money jobs, etc in the science / academic setting). Preparing to be squeezed from below by the more numerous off-spring of Boomer Gen Y. (And, as a political aside facing the prospect of being left with a nice pile of debt in the GenX’s most productive and well-paid adult years because of the Boomer’s proclivity for spending money and reducing taxes on themselves during their well-paid adult years.) What fun.
In some senses this analysis can be taken as excuse making for the dismal experience of Gen X scientists as they’ve tried to eke out careers in the mold set by the Boomers and the prior generation of scientists. Some of this is just pure demographics. Still, I think my usual points about how those in power tend to make decisions and structure the world in ways that are good for themselves are still valid. The demographics give Boomers disproportional power to distort things.
The solution is obvious. Gen X scientists who do manage to grab a lever of power now and again need to provide some balance. Similarly, they need to prepare themselves for the coming vacuum as Boomer scientists retire in a (slow and painful) wave. We are just moving into the meat of our careers at a time of life when the Boomer scientists were starting to seize the reins of actual power- usually after a decade or more of peak scientific production. We need to be ready, Gen Xers. Ready to take more administrative and powerful roles over science even before we exhibit the same experimental chops as the prior generation. There are fewer of us to go around so we need to do more. We can not afford to hope that those scientist with the right stuff will just blunder into the right places when the time comes.
Take an interest in your local Centers and other Big Mechs- you may need to take one over or launch new ones for the health of your department. Get to know your Program Officers and other NIH people. Make your lateral connections and vertical connections within your field and outside of your narrow interests! Take an active role within your academic societies. Call your CongressCritter.
Oh, and getting back to the Neil Howe piece, his point was that the late Boomers are stupid and uneducated. He even gives some evidence. Here’s a teaser, go read:
On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
…The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort … Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort
Americans born from 1958 to 1962 have the highest share that has never completed high school among all age brackets between 25 and 60. They also have the lowest share with a four-year college degree among all age brackets between 30 and 60, and they’re tied for lowest in graduate degrees.
Once early Xers entered the labor force in the 1980s…the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop. Around the same time, economists began to worry about the stagnation of median income and the decline of household assets among Americans in their 20s. Today, they’re worrying about the economic stagnation of Americans in their 40s.
Compared with earlier- or later-born students at the same age, these kids were assigned less homework, watched more TV and took more drugs.
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Interesting post DM.
As a 1966 GenXer I particularly cherish being part of the baby-bust generation. While I was all angry in grad school and “Cobain-ing” in the early 90s thinking that those boomer fuckers would NEVER retire, I spent the next 7-8 years working on weaseling on these the lazy boomers to make myself indispensable and them dependent. It was really the only way into the faculty ranks in the mid 90s.
Now I am about to take a chairmanship at a Big 10 medical school in July, (new department, empty, ready for recruits). I am ready to sieze the reigns of power and fill it with my genX and genY brethren and demonstrate to the boomers that you cant just run animals through a maze, do a t-test and call it neuroscience, damnit!!!
As Conan the Barbarian says, “There are only three things in life, to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.”
Dr. Feelgood, in this day and age, we make both women and men lament. (If the Big 10 school you’re at is Wisconsin, perhaps I may run into you, depending on whether you show up much at neuroscience department seminars.)
What is the role of Gen Y? I (20 years old) and my fellow members of the scientific community who range in age from 18 to 24 are in the training stages; I’m getting my PhD in about seven years. Presumably Generation Y will be taking over the meat of the assistant and associate professor ranks, while the oldest Baby Boomers start dying and Generation X fills chairmanships, directorships, and full professorships.
DrugMonkey, huh? Cool blog. I also read that Howe op-ed in WashPo today. I am proud to be part of Generation Jones, and am pretty offended by Howe’s years of trying to undermine our long-lost generation (the problem is that Howe’s theory doesn’t allow for the fact that most generational experts now view generations as shorter than the traditional 20 years which Howe’s theories depend on).
If you have a chance, read the comments responding to this op-ed today; I was happy to see lots of people defending Generation Jones. Here’s one of my favorite comments, from
In the wars of survival, each generation does its best to succeed. Given existing conditions at each generation’s time, they were (are/will be) more or less successful in achieving their goal of power and control, since survival is the strongest and the most selfish purpose of life. Thus, The baby boomers did their best at it and GenX are doing theirs. I am sure that GenY will have the same sounding whines about GenX that the latter has about the baby boomers. The only difference between the generations is the loudness of the whining. The WWII generation should be the standard of the lowest on the loudness whining scale, followed by the baby boomers and GenX, which set the standard for the loudest whining. I just have a feeling that GenY will set a new standard for loudness, surpassing their GenX mentors.
I have a feeling there was an implied ‘Get off my lawn’ in that post.
I’ve read some of your comments, and while they make many good points, they also, I think, are rather unfairly denigrating of those of us who are not, say, 55 or older. Please do not forget our contributions. No, we cannot push older investigators out, but in the next decade, whether you like it or not, you will be making more room for us, whether by death or retirement. There has to be sufficient granting of grants to younger investigators to make sure our community remains stable.
Neil Howe, author of the Washington Post opinion piece, may think my generation is stupid. But at least I can read a graph.
Howe says: “On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
This information is reported in NAEP long-term trend reports. The next one will be issued in Spring of 2009. The last was issued in 2004, and is available here:
In chapter 2, page 10 of that report (page 30 in the PDF), there is a graph showing reading scores from 1971-2004. More graphs follow. On page 17, chapter 2 (page 37 of the PDF), there is a graph showing math scores 1973-2004.
Go look at them and see if you agree with Howe.
Or, if you are of some generation too lazy to look stuff up and make up your own mind, let me summarize the NAEP data: There is no obvious trend or low point or high point at all in the reading graph. There is a general trend upward in the math scores. If one really stretches one’s imagination, you could twist one number out of 30 in the graph to suggest that 17-year-olds born in 1965 scored lowest. But tracing that cohort backwards in the same graph shows no convincing dip. And that same cohort had among the highest scores in reading. Basically, Howe’s description of the NAEP scores is not only inaccurate, but represents a wild over-interpretation of the data in any case.
Perhaps Howe learned journalism writing for a more gullible generation?
An aside to DM:
As blogger, you have an obligation to minimally fact-check shit you propagate.
As scientist, I should think it would be second nature.
(As an asshole, it was my duty to point these things out.)
why the “slow and painful” descriptor of the boomer retirement wave? i’m curious.
my boomer boss talks optimistically of the opportunities that will open for the younger folks with the boomer retirement wave- that a period of opportunity will open up that has not really been available for people several years older than i am.
also, i’m a very early gen-y (second half of my 20s) and have been “selfishly” putting off having kids myself. i understand the boomers are generally described as the selfish live-for-the-now generation, but since when is delaying having children selfish in and of itself? i see plenty of gen-x’ers and gen-y’ers like myself doing the same thing.
When I was an undergrad, seven years ago, I read Howe’s Millenials Rising. His propensity to cast Boomers and Gen Xers as lazy, ill-raised, or navel-gazing drifters who create messes that the Perfect Millenials have to clean up annoys me. No, it makes me angry. He seems to think “individualism” ultimately means a lack of civic-mindedness (whatever lip-service he intermittently pays to it), and that the “advancement” of civilization depends on Hero Generations who like conformity and who take wholly orthodox routes into their respective professions.
Of course the bad and the good don’t cleanly distinguish from year of birth. “Generations” aren’t even fucking analytical units. And, incidentally, Howe and his co-author decide in their 2000 publication that the Millenial Generation upper boundary is 2002; given that his Millenials derive their civic-mindedness from their childhoods of relative peace and plenty, that doesn’t account for 9-11, specifically the effect 9-11 had on us Last of the Gen Xers. We’re not exactly old, with our destinies set in stone!
Crap. Sorry I didn’t close my link right.
Oh not this tripe again…
Look, if you’re convinced that ‘kids today just get lazier and lazier’ *cough*UncleSol*cough* then the impetus is on you to get of your bum and get to KNOW HARDER-WORKING YOUNG PEOPLE.
Similarly, if you’re mad at the boomers it’s cause you’re focusing on the yuppies instead of the yippies. Easy solution: KNOW BETTER OLD PEOPLE.
Tribes that are based on circumstances that have nothing to do with the “content of one’s character” (e.g. age) are, like, so trite. *rolls eyes*
You obviously need to meet more boomers becca. The very Root of illness and Wrongness my young friend.
Argh. I got so incensed that I got ahead of myself in my own comment (#9)!
In Millenials Rising, Howe characterizes both Boomers and Gen Xers as “individualists”. (He defines Gen Xers as those born between 1960 and 1982, thereby making both me and Britney Spears members of Gen X.) He then argues that “individualists”, while appreciable (the way art objects are), lack the coherence and the cooperative spirit required to organize for the betterment of society. For example, he associates individualism with the disintegration of two-parent families, he decides this is necessarily bad, and then he decides that people whose worldviews aren’t formed by traditional parenting can’t really figure out how to work together. These people also tend to ignorance and hopelessness, and they further undermine society by abusing drugs and sticking to shit jobs (the way individualists apparently do).
Throughout history, Howe continues, positive civic change has been wrought by generations of conformists. The Millenial Generation (which he refuses to call Gen Y), comprised of people born in 1982-2002, is one of these “Hero Generations”. Heroes don’t dither around, feeling sorry for or “finding” themselves. From teenhood onward, they judge everything right away, with non-explicit criteria generated by consensus, and get stuff done.
At one point, the book features a cartoon in which a Boomer holds a sign that reads “Question Authority”, an Xer holds a sign that reads “Question Questions” and an exasperated Millenial holds “ENOUGH QUESTIONS”. Enough questions?! But Howe is comfortable with his either/or proposition.
Howe also posits that times of relative peace and plenty foster this desirable conformity that expresses itself as civic-mindedness. Millenials grew up with family-friendly governmental policies, economic boom and insignificant international conflicts. Unlike the dirty crazy hippies and the angsty grungeheads, they don’t have any reason to be unhappy. They have no unhappiness to take out on society. Conversely, they’d rather champion it.
I brought up 9-11 because of this last argument. Evidence as anecdotal as much of Howe’s suggests that after 9-11, many privileged thirty-something and twenty-something Gen Xers changed from “self-centered” (e.g., publicists, artists) to civic-minded or “selfless” careers. (That’s what pre-med post-baccalaureate programs are for! 🙂 Moreover, Millenials born in the late eighties and nineties have now known an upbringing in a cultural atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that I did not endure during my teenhood. Will all this tumult dissuade them from helping their neighbor? Or do we get to subdivide Howe’s original Gen Y now, and ignore this question?
Two other examples of Howe’s Hero Generations are the Glorious Generation (1648-1673) and the GI Generation (1901-1924). Incidentally, Howe makes a weak attempt to apply his scheme to the whole world, not just the West.
And now Howe’s degenerated to “forty-somethings are stupid and lazy”. This degree of subjectivity may have its uses, but it’s not bloody science.
P.S. I really did read this book seven years ago, so sorry if I didn’t write with sufficient detail.
I am just playing the role that I have chosen to play here. It helps in exposing several bloggers and commenters who tend to stereotype other commenters. As to your place in science, you do not have to worry about me; I’m already in retirement. As to the contributions of young investigators, I’ll be the first one to acknowledge them and sing their praises. Luckily, they, for obveious reasons, do not whine. Until last year, I met them in many scientific meetings, nationally and internationally, I have leaned much from them, I still review their manuscripts and grant proposals and I am impressed.
This whole thing of categorizing scientists by age to determine how much mileage is left on them and when they should be placed in the junk yard to create more space for the new, more sophisticated, full of energy new engines, is foolish. If we to use the analogy of the older vehicle and the new one, look what happened to all these big, fancy, sophisticated SUVs. They are the ones who are forced to retire today.
A scientist should only be judged by her science, not by the number of years she is among the top in her field. Most older scientists know when to say “I’m out!” There will always be deadwoods (their numbers are getting smaller and smaller over the past 20 years) just as there will always be fraudsters that will manage to lie their way to the top or those who with mediocre science still know how to get the biggest buck.
All’s I know is, Obama is a member of these late boomers aka Gen Jones or whatever, and there are no flies on him. Nor is he an obvious product of whiny boomerism mentality (although that could be for a lot of reasons besides age.) So if this is what the Stupids look like, please MORE OF THEM.
geez Juni, and I could figure out this guy was out to lunch based on one column….that’s pretty funny stuff though! ‘Hero Generations’! hahahaha.
DrJ&MrsH, the idea that Obama is representative of ANY generation or grouping is laughable. He is a fairly unique individual.
Dave: Clearly you do not understand blogging if you think that I have an “obligation” for anything at all. And you have a generation-typical problem with reading comprehension if you think I am endorsing Howe.
leigh@#8: slow because the boomers extend across a large span of birth years. also because it is a generation typical trait to cling to their jobs and not retire at the earliest opportunity to florida and arizona like the prior generation or two. the current economic crisis, brought about by their selfish political proclivities, is going to push back quite a number of retirements by several years as well. slow and painful my friend.
Dave: Clearly you do not understand blogging if you think that I have an “obligation” for anything at all.
I can accept that I don’t understand blogging. In turn, you must then accept that you don’t understand your audience (which includes me). I started reading your blog for the interesting and generally informative content. I’d hate to think you were an unreliable source of information.
And you have a generation-typical problem with reading comprehension if you think I am endorsing Howe.
I did not assume you endorsed Howe’s conclusions. But you gave his essay credibility by treating the assertions as reasonable, when it might have been more useful to fact-check what he wrote, or at the very least not to waste our time by propagating misinformation.
Seriously: the blogosphere is contaminated enough by drivel from people who do nothing but uncritically surf the net and expect us to be interested in their uninformed and uncritical opinion. You can do better (This is a compliment, by the way)
Seeing as this blog is called DRUG Monkey, I feel compelled to propose why my generation Jones (I was born in 1962) got those low SAT scores. The first reason is that we did not study. The Kaplan SAT books and other such preparations had not yet been invented–or at least were not used by many.
But the most important reason was the drugs. My middle-class suburban high school was full of Quaaludes, RedBud, and Jack Daniels. I’m not making excuses, or recalling that time with great nostalgia. But those are the facts. I took the SAT with a hangover, and I took by GRE stoned. Those Baby boomers brag about the decadence of the 60s. But the reality is that the hard-core decadent period for the majority was the mid-late 70s. The rock stars were doing the heavy drugs in 1968–but in 1978, it was the suburban stoners, listening to Led Zep and Skynyrd.
Personally, except for the music, I never related to the Boomer generation to which I am supposed to belong. By contrast, Obama’s a guy a can relate to. Watch out Gen Xers: now is our time, if only briefly. You belittle us at your own risk.
and drug use is not prevalent for later generations? initiation of marijuana use fell a lot in the 80s but came back up in the 90s, especially the mid to late 90s (ie, when the early gen-y’ers like me were in high school).
Dave- sometimes it’s interesting to discuss ideas we don’t always agree with. Your opinion that this post would not belong in a “DM’s greatest hits” is duly noted. Moving on…
S. Rivlin- stop being reasonable, it kills the image.
DM, are we sure the economy will push mostly in that direction?
Evil economy (+corporate merger) -> my Mother’s company cutting wages by 10% -> my parents realizing it now pays them $50/month for her to retire (and collect social security + pension, which, *knock wood*, has not yet been cut)
Major Manufacturer of Beloved American Product in my town has been laying people off, but whenever it was feasible for them they opted to buy out people’s retirements.
Granted, I’d guess scientists would be more likely to cling to their jobs than most…
I never liked the GI Generation. Despite facing the lightest fighting of WW2, they crowned themselves the Greatest Generation and helped distort popular views about the war. They think that occupying a few islands and cruising through France made them kings of the world. The real sacrifices and heroism came from the people of Eastern Europe, trapped between two genocidal empires.
Wasn’t it one of the Silent Generation that coined the term “Greatest Generation” for the so-called GI Generation? Ie, Tom Brokaw, b. 1940. GI Generation was born from 1909-1924 according to the above graphic.
I don’t know from this “generational” shit, but I do know that having delusional washed-up fuckwits like Rivlin who see “fraudsters” and “liars” everywhere reviewing manuscripts and grant applications is a serious problem.
“They think that occupying a few islands and cruising through France made them kings of the world.”
Yeah, I heard on the grape vine that Normandy was a real cake walk. Nary a Nazi to be seen from Calais to Berlin. And Iwo Jima? Pah! A good-hearted mud wrestle if ever there was one!
The real sacrifices and heroism came from the people of Eastern Europe, trapped between two genocidal empires.”
Absolutely. Slovakians, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians in particular certainly saw some wicked fighting on the Eastern Front. Indeed, they were usually stuck doing the really rough stuff that the Wehrmacht didn’t want to waste good soldiers and equipment on. Heroic fascist sympathisers nonetheless.
I’ve always thought the whole idea of labeling “generations” by birth year was silly to begin with. By “originalist” logic, I’m a boomer. Taking current revisions into account, I’m in Generation Jones. In the context of births on one side of my extended family, my generation includes people born between 1930 to 1962, overlapping considerably with the next generation (births between 1959 and 1990.) On the other side of my family, my generation started and ended with my own birth in 1956.
That said, I do feel a minor and admittedly frivolous attachment to the Generation Jones label. I feel very little cultural kinship with the early boomers who are ten years older than I am, and much more with people up to ten years younger. There was a point when I referred to my own cohort as “Generation W”, but that letter has been ruined for good by the last eight years. “Gen-J” is much more pleasing.
“I’ve always thought the whole idea of labeling “generations” by birth year was silly to begin with.”
The Generations argument is pretty damn silly period. As pseudoscientific cottage industries go, it’s fast becoming the new astrology.
That said, I’m pretty damn certain that the bastards shooting down my grants lately are all Pisces.
Reading this made me sad this morning. I am going through a phase where I am trying to make myself believe that if I just have sound data, all of the interpersonal crap that comes with science (and is part of the human condition) will be suddenly unimportant.
Get used to it. I review your manuscripts, too. And the fraudsters are everywhere, including your perfect institution. I know that you think that you and your surroundings are perfect, but someone here has already described you correctly as paranoid. Instead of worrying about the likes of me, you better watch some of your own colleagues who absolutely don’t fit your Disney world.
Recently you blamed me of trolling, looking to rile CPP. If you check the recent posts and comments, you’ll find out that the opposite is true. It is CPP whose comments to the most recent posts were all about me, in response to my comments, trying to rile me.
Nevertheless, do not take this interpersonal crap too seriously. I don’t. CPP is just one of those very competitive assholes who hates to lose (his team lost Saturday and he still has’nt got over it), who also believes that scientists are cleaner than any other professionals. Moreover, what riles him the most is when I’m right.
Dearest Dr. Isis,
Sometimes, it seems to me that one of the most very difficult things about this career path is that one needs to be highly skeptical and generally highly reality based… and yet still have enough faith in oneself to at least act as though one believes one *will* get funded, even through the really tough times. Even through the interpersonal BS.
It’s like a recipe for cognitive dissonance.
DSKS- the Pisces totally have it in for me too!
Right. Although I’m technically a proud member of the Pisces generation, I’ve tended to feel more like an Aquarius. I don’t like fish, and I often carry other people’s water. I admit that I specifically reject any grant I see that comes from Becca’s or DSKS–but unless they are Leos (who I do truly hate), then their arguments don’t hold much water and smell of rotten fish.
Wow, I think I burned out a few of my limited GenJ allotment of functioning cortical neurons, by reading that WaPo opinion piece.
I don’t know from this “generational” shit
Lucky you, then. We, those happy hapless boomer, GenJ, and GenX professional school basic sciences teachers, get that “generational shit” shoved in our faces on a regular basis, by psychology/psychiatry/Ed.D. types. Welcome, oh welcome, the wondrous technologically advanced GenYers to our university shores, where we must recognize their interwebz and multitasking skillz, and cater to their diverse learning styles and their needs for special testing accommodations.
I’m not particularly worried that they’ll take over just yet, though, as they seem far too busy alternately whining and boasting on their blogs, uploading photos of themselves and their material possessions to Flickr, posting endless playlists from their iPods to Facebook, and texting each other about the boxed cereal choices available at the grocery store or what they put on their Freebird burrito today.
Of course, BikeMonkey. But it did make you laugh.
(Its not Wisconsin) but that would be nice. think farther east.