More than twenty years I was in graduate school at Kansas State University studying sociology and demography. There was considerable interest at the time in the Baby Boom generation. Landon Jones had published his book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation in the fall of 1980. The Baby Boom generation was named as such because the there was a dramatic increase in the fertility rates starting in 1946. The rate peaked somewhere around 1957 and then declined to more typical rates by 1964. There was considerable conversation about the validity and implications of generational cohorts. That debate continues.
The idea generational analysis originated with marketing experts who detected distinctive consumer preference patterns among Americans born from about 1946-1964. This group of American children had unprecedented purchasing power and influence over purchasing decisions of parents. American business was driven to understand the behavior Baby Boomers. This interest was quickly shared by demographers and historians. The phenomenon soon raised larger questions. Is it possible that there are other generational cohorts?
“Generation X” soon emerged as the name given by marketing gurus to the kids born from 1965 to the early 1980s. Studying and naming this group proved to be a more difficult challenge. There was such fragmentation in interest and attitudes that they were named X, meaning the marketers could not find a descriptive label. Others began to push generational analysis to Americans born before 1946.
The first full orbed conceptualization of a generational pattern to history was developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Drawing on experience in political science, history, and economics, they wove together cyclical ideas from a wide range of sources including scholarly historians and with contemporary market research. They wrote two books that elaborated their schema.
The first book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069, was published in 1991. This book began by describing their basic conceptualization and then presented a generation by generation analysis of British-American culture over a 500 year period. The book is filled with a wealth of data and anecdotal stories to illustrate their ideas.
The second book was The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, published in 1997. It went deeper into the analysis of how generations interact and impact each other to perpetuate an ongoing cycle of behavior. As I proceed through this discussion it is largely this book to which I will be referring, but not exclusively.
I think the easiest way to get a handle on Strauss and Howe’s theory is to begin by defining five key concepts and then exploring how the relate to each other.
Life-Stage – There are four life stages each consisting of about 20 years:
Childhood (Ages 0-20)
Young Adulthood (Ages 21-41)
Midlife Ages (42-62)
Elderhood Age (63-83)
(Clearly people live beyond 83 but in the aggregate they are quickly vacating the societal scene and tend to exert minimal influence on societal events.
Cohort Generation – When many people think of generations they think in terms of grandparents, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, etc. This is a family generation. Use of the word “generation” for these purposes refers to a cohort generation. This type of generation is a group of people who feel a unique location in history because of a shared formative experience and inhabit the same part of a life-cycle at the same time. Consequently most generations are about 20-22 years in length (although a few are shorter and others longer.)
Generational Archetype – There are four generational archetypes. These archetypes repeat themselves in sequential order. In order they are:
I will elaborate on these later but here is a listing of the most recent generations and their archetypes according to Strauss and Howe:
Turning (Season) – As each generation is about twenty years in length, there are only four in the fullness of life at any given time. It also means that about every twenty years, there will be a near perfect alignment of the four generations with the four life-stages. The youngest birth year cohort of the oldest generation will have aged beyond their early eighties and new youngest birth cohort of the new generation will have just been born. Over the next twenty years each generation will mature to the next life-stage as another generation fades and new one is born.
Each time the there is an alignment between generations and life-stages a “turning” happens. Strauss and Howe use the idea of seasons and just as each season has distinctive characteristics, so are there distinctive characteristics about the cultural ethos of each “season.” Here are the four turnings given as seasons with their generational configuration from oldest generation to youngest at the beginning of the turning.
Spring (High) – Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist
Summer (Awakening) Nomad, Hero, Artist, Prophet
Fall (Unraveling) – Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad
Winter (Crisis) – Artist, Prophet, Nomad, Hero
According to Strauss and Howe we have entered winter (the Fourth Turning) within the last five years.
Saeculum comes from Latin and refers to “an age” of roughly 100 years. In this case, it refers to an era of about eighty years or one full cycle of the four turnings. The most recent saeculum begin about 1946.