The LifeCourse Method: Introduction

LifeCourse Associates’ work is grounded in the vision of authors and founders William Strauss and Neil Howe, who have identified a recurring generational cycle in American history. Strauss and Howe laid the groundwork for their theory in their seminal book Generations, which retells the history of America as a series of generational biographies going back to 1584. Their 1997 book The Fourth Turning expands on the theory, focusing on a fourfold cycle of generational types and recurring mood eras in American history. The theory is anchored in multidisciplinary social sciences, examining changes in human attitudes and behavior and in the social mood over time. 

Led by LifeCourse Associates’ president Neil Howe, the LifeCourse team continues to expand and deepen the Strauss-Howe generational theory and to apply it to a variety of sectors through our seven practice areas. Strauss and Howe originally developed the theory to describe the history of the United States, including the thirteen colonies and their Anglo antecedents, and this is where LifeCourse has done the most detailed research. However, we have also examined generational trends elsewhere in the world and identify similar cycles in most of today’s developed countries.

Social generations are a powerful force in history. By viewing the flow of events from a generational perspective, it is possible to lend order, meaning, and even a measure of predictability to long-term future trends. The Strauss-Howe generational theory provides LifeCourse with tested predictive tools suggesting what to expect from people in each phase of life—and from society as a whole—in the decades to come. This has enormous implications for everything from strategic planning, marketing, and education to the workforce, the economy, and geopolitics.

Had you looked at the future from the LifeCourse perspective back when Generations was published in 1991, you would have foreseen some of the the major nonlinear changes in phase-of-life attitudes and behaviors that would subsequently occur.

For example, Strauss and Howe made major predictions about how the Millennial Generation, then only eight years old, would transform the behaviors and attitudes of teens and young adults over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. All of these predictions have turned out to be largely correct. For example:

  • In 1991, rates of youth crime, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse among Gen-X teens were rising to alarming levels, prompting many youth experts to forecast further increases (and even the emergence of urban “superpredators”) by the year 2000. But Howe and Strauss predicted that “substance abuse, crime, suicide, unwed pregnancy will all decline” as Millennials passed through adolescence. Today, rates of teen crime, pregnancy, and alcohol and tobacco consumption have reached all-time lows.
  • In 1991, politicians and social commentators warned that the youth popular culture was destined to continue its decades-long trend towards more explicit sex, violence, and overall edginess. But Howe and Strauss predicted that the Millennials would pioneer a “more clean-cut and homogenous” youth culture with a friendly, big-brand appeal. Today, everyone notices that upbeat, big-brand entertainment has become overwhelmingly popular with Millennial teens and “tweens,” from Glee to Justin Bieber.
  • In 1991, most political leaders assumed that the prevailing youth mood of civic disengagement and political alienation would continue indefinitely. Yet Howe and Strauss predicted that Millennials, when they reached their teens, would “show an extraordinary talent for teamwork and public service.” Today, record shares of Millennials are volunteering, pursuing nonprofit and government careers, and turning out to vote.

Strauss and Howe have also made startlingly accurate predictions about older generations. Twenty years ago, the authors forecast that Silent Generation elders would bring a hip, youthful style to retirement communities, that Boomers would wage intense culture wars and bring a new values focus to midlife leadership, and that Gen-X young adults would bring a reputation for pragmatic, market-oriented, free agency to America’s workplaces. All of this has come to pass.

The Strauss-Howe method can not only predict how individual generations will transform each phase of life as they age into it—this method can also predict how the aging of all generations will transform the national mood. In 1997, America’s greatest luminaries were predicting that America was about to experience the “end of history,” a benign and indefinite era of growing individualism and market-driven prosperity in which the need to face major public challenges (“history”) would wither away. But Strauss and Howe forecast that, sometime in the middle or end of the 2000–2010 decade, “a spark will ignite a new mood” of national urgency. “The spark,” they predicted, “might be as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party,” and it would set off a chain reaction of further emergencies rooted in “debt, civic decay, and global disorder.”

Many years later, Strauss and Howe’s prediction of the national mood change has indeed come to pass. A severe recession has erased a decade’s worth of Dow Jones gains and, according to some economists, promises to deliver yet another “lost decade.” Global trade is shrinking for the first time in a half century. Protectionism looms. Households are retrenching as they adjust to the “new normal.” America has swelled with a new vein of Tea-Party rebelliousness and political anger. Washington, DC is humming with plans to overhaul on a vast scale—from banks to health care, energy, schools, cities, and transportation. Meanwhile, the nation is waging ground wars in two Asian nations and wages proxy wars on terror in over a dozen others.

Where will the tides of history take us next? How will each of today’s age brackets transform over the next five, ten, and fifteen years? How will the national mood evolve?

LifeCourse Associates continues to use our road-tested generational method to make cutting-edge, nonlinear predictions about the future. We are called on by numerous clients to explain how generational change will affect areas as diverse as the workforce, K-12 and higher education, the military, marketing and entertainment, strategic planning, and demography. To find out how we do it, read on.

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