One of my lifelong interests has been detecting and understanding trends in human behavior. As I have studied sociology and history, too many models I see are deterministic closed end systems of behavior. I readily admit that I am a firm believer in human free will, (even though I am Presbyterian **grin**) and many of these “systems” are just a little too neat and tidy.
In popular culture, I often encounter an opposite problem. I think we Americans want to believe we are masters of our own destinies, unrestrained by any influences other than our own will. I think that is grossly in error. Inscribed on the main building for the National Archives is the phrase “The past is prologue.” We come into the world and are presented with language, social institutions, stories, customs, and values which we had no hand in creating. The generations of the past have set the table for us to dine or starve at in the present. We make decisions about what to do next with what we have been presented but we do not come in with a blank slate.
Over the past two weeks I have presented a generational analysis of recent American History. I don’t know about you but I find this a helpful lens through which to view the flow of history. It is not the only lens, and maybe not even the primary lens, but I do think it strikes a balance at giving some sense of the social forces that drive our age without being overly deterministic. It is able to tell us that there are seasons and to tell us that winter days will likely be colder on average than fall days. It does not tell us the daily high and low temperatures for the next ninety days!
To me, any social theory rises and falls on how well it answers two questions. First, how well does it explain what we have observed in the past? Second, how well does it predict what will happen in the future? The second question is always a bit trickier, precisely because human beings have free will. Imagine 100 people who, while out driving, decide they need gas. They come across to gas stations across the street from each other. One is charging a $1 per gallon and the other is charging $2 a gallon. Most if not all of those 100 people are going to choose $1 a gallon station because they will reflect on what is in their best interest. This does not mean that they were compelled to choose the $1 station but it does mean that you will get a highly predictable pattern of collective behavior. I think the same thing holds true for many of the resilient patterns of human behavior. The trick is in discerning those patterns.
How well have Strauss and Howe predicted behavior? I wrote several posts about social indicators a few weeks ago and you can find an index of them at Social Indicators: Indexed and Rated. If you examine them and compare them to the general trends Strauss and Howe forecast in the chart I posted two weeks ago called Moods of the Four Turnings, I think you will find they did remarkably well. Keep in mind that they were writing the book in 1996 and the most current data would have been for 1993-1995, depending on the variables. Many of the variables had shown only slight or erratic change by that date. Some were actually moving in the opposite direction Strauss and Howe forecasted they would ultimately go. Yet, with another decade of data, we can see they clearly forecasted the right direction. Similarly, yesterday’s post about what might trigger a fourth turning, The Fourth Turning is Here, is almost spooky in retrospect.
If you look at the Moods of the Four Turnings chart, you will notice that many of Strauss and Howe’s variables are about oscillations within polarities. Society is an ongoing Polarity Management enterprise.
Individual freedom vs. communal responsibility
Protected childhood vs. self-directed children
Inner-directed vs. outer directed
Similarity of genders vs. differences of genders
Institutional efficiency vs. human creativity
Simplifying core values vs. appreciating complexity
These are but a few examples. I think few would doubt that such tensions exist in culture. What I think Strauss and Howe have done is demonstrated a cyclical balancing act as society changes linearly over time.
What, then, can we say about the days ahead based on what Strauss and Howe have learned from past cycles of change? Here is a generational break down looking forward from these early days of a fourth turning. (I am borrowing extensively here from Fourth Turning (322-328) with my own spin.)
G.I. Generation “Hero” (1901-1924)
The G.I.s are rapidly fading from the seen and have all but relinquished the positions of power to younger generations. More than 85% of all G.I.s who have lived have gone on to their reward and by the end of the fourth turning fewer than 1 in 250 will be living.
For those who are living, these will be troubling days. It will appear as if all they worked to build is coming apart at the hands of what they believe to be self-centered Baby Boom leaders. Yet, it was another Prophet Generation (Baby-Boom-like) leader named Franklin Delano Roosevelt that gave G.I.s the visionary leadership to survive the dark days of their young adulthood. G.I.s will need to end their antipathy toward the Boomer Generation and challenge them to offer the visionary leadership they are capable of.
Strauss and Howe suggest that G.I.s, along with the Silent Generation, might even be able to contribute to a new civic era by way of example. Should something like a severe economic crisis emerge, can you imagine the impact it would have for a group like the AARP to stand up and offer concessions in entitlements in order to better care for children of an emerging generation? It would be one last demonstration of the selfless civic virtues G.I.s exhibited in youth.
Silent Generation “Artist” (1925-1942)
About 60% of the Silent Generation is alive today but by the end of the fourth turning, that will likely be less than 20%. They are likely to feel threatened by the rising pragmatic “Nomad” Generation X young adults who they fear are oblivious to all the emphatic processes they have engineered to create inclusion and fair process. But the Millennials, who are children today, are already moving away from the inner-directed individualism of Boomers and Xers. Silents need to be aware that a new Artist generation is being born even now and that oddly enough, it is Xer and Millennial parents who are nurturing traits in children today that Silents value.
The Silent Generation will continue to fade from power in a fourth turning. Strauss and Howe claim that with each year they will have less and less power to drive agendas but will still have significant abilities to veto and block actions of younger generations (primarily through remaining senior leadership and within the court system where they will be disproportionately represented.) The temptation will be to slow down and block reforms that may be urgent in a time of crisis because the change violates their sense of careful deliberation and rigorous fair play. There will be a growing need to defer to younger generations as the try to retool for their future. Failure to do so could exacerbate and prolong crises. Yet the Silent Generation brings something that is always in short supply: Empathy. Exhibiting this character and demonstrating how we can show concern for each other in the midst of crisis are invaluable contributions in a fourth turning.
Baby Boom Generation “Prophet” (1943-1960)
For the Baby Boom Generation, it is time to grow up! I liken the Boomers to two incessantly squabbling siblings. Each blames the other for what ever problem emerges and imputes the vilest of motives to their sibling’s thoughts and actions. Each threatens to clobber the other, all the time knowing that Mom and Dad will step in if things get too far out of hand.
“Mom and Dad” are the G.I. and Silent Generations. They are all but gone now. There is no one to step in against no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoner, win-at-all-costs tantrums. With their hands on the levers of power, including the launch keys of nuclear weapons, it is time for Baby Boomers to own up to their position in life and begin using their visionary gifts for the benefit of society and their children instead of self-aggrandizing political forays. It is time to ratchet down the hyperbole and the demonizing, and ratchet up the inspiration and courage of younger Americans who will increasingly be looking for leadership. Without self-sacrificing leadership, the Xers and the Millennials will be paralyzed from making their needed generational contributions to a new order.
Should the Baby Boomers be unable to rein in their “dark side,” they run the risk of plunging the world of their children into devastating destruction and misery. (i.e., economic collapse, civil war, nuclear devastation, etc.) Should they rise to the challenge, they have the opportunity to lead the nation into an unprecedented era of hope and prosperity. Unlike the G.I. and Silent Generations, a majority of the Boomers will live to the other side of the crisis era. As they pass in to their twilight, what will they make of their role in the world they will have created?
Generation X “Nomad” (1961-1981)
In a time of crisis, innovative strategies and institutions must be created on the fly. It will require an unflinching realism that is not easily diverted by past ways of thinking or shibboleths from any quarter. This is a task that Xers, as a generation, were born to. They will be called upon to recreate and reconfigure institutions based on the new realities of the emerging world.
This means that Xers, often chided for their “bad seed” image, will have the challenge of constructing a world with all the things they were raised without: Strong families, effective government, and thriving civic institutions. However, to do this, they will have to shed cynical isolationist, anti-institution, “whatever” attitudes. Will they? If the care and devotion already evidenced by this generation for their children is any indicator, I think they will.
But the Xers have another important role. It will be incumbent upon them to stand up to the idealistic excesses of their Baby Boomer elders who will consider themselves wiser and superior to Xer leaders. A good metaphor is the firing of “Prophet” General Douglas MacArthur by “Nomad” President Truman, even though it was just after the last crisis era. Truman was known as “Give’em hell Harry” because of his blunt way of saying what he was thinking. Truman simply observed “I don’t give ‘em hell. I just tell the truth and they think its hell.” That was a Nomad leader speaking! The Xers may be the only brakes on idealistic elders who may have a tendency to accelerate out of control.
Millennial Generation “Hero” (1982-200?)
The Millennial Generation is just now moving into young adulthood and they will likely all be adults by the end of the crisis era. They have a critical role to play as well. By rejecting the cynical and divisive behavior of their elders and honing skills at organizing and teamwork for the common good, the Millennials can earn the respect and admiration of their elders, while at the same time shaming them into becoming the leaders the era needs. When the crisis comes to a head, they will be the soldiers (either figuratively of literally) upon whom the future of society rests.
I hope this series on generations, and the preceding series on social indicators, has been useful for you. It is the first time I have tried to collate all this in any coherent fashion. I hope I made some sense and, if nothing else, I got you curious about generational thinking. I will follow up this post with an index to the posts on this series. Thanks for hanging out with me at the Kruse Kronicle.