The Generational Diagonal

Why does it make sense to look at social history generationally, tracking one cohort of people as they pass through each phase of life? Consider the following chart. It lays out the way contemporaries regarded the personality of Americans of different ages over much of the past century. For example, midlife adults in 1920 are described as “moralistic,” since that is how their juniors and elders perceived them. They were in fact the major proponents of Prohibition.

The Generational Diagonal in the Twentieth Century
  1920 1941 1962 1983 2004
Click to highlight a sample diagonal
Age 66–87
sensitive visionary reclusive busy sensitive
Age 44–65
moralistic pragmatic powerful indecisive moralistic
Young Adult
Age 22–43
alienated heroic conformist narcissistic alienated
Age 0–21
protected suffocated indulged criticized protected

Now read horizontally along any single row, for example, tracing the evolution of rising adults, and you’ll see that no entry seems to have any intrinsic connection to whatever comes before or after it. Why would a seamless ribbon of 25-year olds pass from being “alienated” to “heroic” to “conformist”? Next read vertically up any single column, tracing a full lifecycle at any one moment of history, and try to imagine how anyone could grow old that way. The progression just doesn’t make sense. Yet there’s a third approach: to read history along the generational diagonal, monitoring how each set of peers has traveled a separate path through life. For example, the “protected” children of 1920 grew into the “heroic young fighters of 1942, then the “powerful” midlife politicians of 1964, and then the busy senior citizens of 1986. This is a familiar story: the story of the G.I. Generation. Forty years later, the “indulged” children in the new suburbs of 1964 grew into the “narcissistic” yuppies of 1986, and then the “moralistic” midlifers touting culture wars in 2004. This is the well-known story of the Boom Generation.

Each diagonal represents a generation that possesses its own distinct age location and peer personality. By understanding these generations, what creates them, and how they come together to create the national mood, you can begin to see their powerful relationship with history—and to look ahead and envision what will come next.


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