Of Generations and History


By Murray M. Lee

Yours truly has enjoyed reading history all his life, both in reading the facts, but also sometimes looking at why things happened the way they did. So when I heard about the book “Generations: A History of America’s Future” in 1991, I went ahead and got a copy. It’s remained one of the books I recommend those interested in history have a read.

Written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, the central point of the book is what’s come to be called the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, that generations more or less repeat themselves in a pattern, and influence history’s patterns of “Spiritual Awakenings” like the Great Awakenings of the 1740s and 1820s and the 60s Counterculture movement, and “Great Crises,” such as the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression/WW2. Generations, the authors stated, can be grouped as four types, appearing in a cycle: Civic-minded generations, such as the “GI Generation” of which was the generation that was fighting age around WW2, Adaptive generations, such as the “Silent” generation that came of age in the late 40s and 50s, Idealistic generations such as the Boomers whom came of age in the 60s and 70s, and Reactive or realistic generations, such as “Generation X.” Over a course of about eighty years, they appear in a pattern: Civic/Adaptive/Idealistic/Reactive.

And just as there are different generations, American history follows a pattern. Times of crisis, such as the Second World War, are followed by a time when the country is united and society is more conformist. What follows is a time in which the norms of society come increasingly into question, or a “Spiritual Awakening,” such as the 60’s and 70s. What follows is a time in which the country is less unified, the people more individualistic. Times like these are known for rugged individuals such as the 49ers who sought their fortunes in the Old West, barnstormers and stock-market moneymakers in the 1920s, and the dot-com Internet enterpenurers of the 1990s.

In the last Great Crisis, the Depression WW2, you had an Idealistic generation, what they called the “Missionary” making up most of their elder statesmen (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur), a Reactive generation, the “Lost,” making up lesser leadership roles (Harry Truman, George Patton), a Civic generation, the “GI” generation, as the young adults fighting the war, (John Kennedy, John Glenn, George Bush), and an Adaptive generation, the “Silent,” in their childhood (Walter Mondale, John McCain), who could only watch as older generations served in a global conflict.

In the Postwar era of the 1950s (termed the American High by some), a time when the country was unified by some were starting to get uncomfortable with the conformity, the Idealist Missionary generation was passing into history and the Reactive Lost were now making up the elder statesmen. Members of the GI generation were getting elected to Congress and other government positions, as well as working their way up corporate ladders, the Silent generation were now young adults, serving in the Korean War or entry level jobs in businesses, and a new Idealist generation, the Boomers, were growing up as children in a time of prosperity and conformity.

In the “Spiritual Awakening” of the 1960s and 70s, members of the GI Generation were assuming the positions of elder statesmen, with members of the Adaptive Silent rising up to leadership positions just under them, or leading movements themselves, the Boomers now as young adults and their numbers swelling the ranks of counterculture and civil rights movements, or serving as the foot soldiers in Vietnam, with a Reactive generation, Generation X, in a childhood in which the outside world seemed more than a little chaotic at times.

In the 1980s and 90s, a time of rising individualism and less of a sense of a united country, the Adaptive Silents would assume some positions of elder statesmen (although the Presidency itself would elude them), with the Boomers taking some positions of leadership in politics and business (Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs),  Generation X now all grown up was entering the working world or starting their own companies, notably those in technology such as the dot-com businesses, with a lucky few making names as singers or athletes (Philip Rosedale, J.K. Rowling, Michael Jordon), and the Millennial generation (Mark Zuckerberg, ) as children, watching the Cold War come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and seeing politicians become increasingly bitter to one another.

Just as history isn’t always cut and dry, the cycle isn’t a perfect one. It was broken once during the Civil War, which was characterized by people identifying with the Idealistic “Transcendental” generation for a longer than normal time for a generation, and the absence of a true Civic generation. Strauss and Howe wrote that during the Civil War Crisis, the Reactive generation of the time, which they called the “Gilded Generation,” took on some of the attributes of a Civic generation. But after what they had faced, they would be more distrustful of moral zealotry and more willing to accept less than perfect institutions. The generation following the Gilded, growing up in the shadow of a destructive Civil War and in a land where corruption was becoming more of a problem, would become an Adaptive generation, whom Strauss and Howe termed the “Progressive.”

My own knowledge of history is lacking in places, but I don’t recall the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s having a time of spiritualism as the US had several decades before and after, though more were drawn to missionary work overseas as Africa and much of Asia fell under Western control, and there was the Progressive movement in politics.

And of one generation giving way to another in positions of leadership, there has been one noteworthy hiccup: no Silent generation US President. Although they fielded a number of candidates from Walter Mondale to Michael Dukakis to John McCain, none would get the job, becoming the first generation to fail to get to top political office in America, the job in the 80s and 90s going instead from GI generation to Boomer.

One thing that marks Generation X is having a rougher time economically than their parents at their stage of life, enterpenuers of the dot-com era ending up going bankrupt and houseowners losing big in the housing bubble of the later 2000s. Previous Reactive generations have had troubles not dissimilar. Members of the Lost generation would make fortunes in the Stock Market in the 1920s, only to lose them in the crash, spend a decade of their prime working years unemployed or making depressed wages in scarce jobs, and getting the short end of the stick for the new Social Security program. For the Gilded generation, thousands took part in the 1849 California Gold Rush hoping to strike it rich, but most would find no gold and had to settle down to take whatever job they could, such as farming.

So what does this cycle of generations and history mean for today? Well, according to the theory, we’re right on the verge of a Great Crisis, which could he several months or several years away. The American Revolution, American Civil War, and Second World War, are roughly eighty years apart from one another: 1780/1860/1940. So the next one should be around 2020, give or take a few years.

What this conflict might be like, or what kind of generation the Millennials are likely to become will be the topic of  a later commentary. For now, I’ll leave you to a video of the authors of “Generations” discussing their book (Click here).

Murray M. Lee


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