Before baby boomers flooded the postwar scene, generations were merely branches on the family tree

August 2, 2001 | By Michele M. Melendez

Before baby boomers flooded the postwar scene, generations were merely branches on the family tree.

Now that Americans routinely sort each other by age, some experts are rethinking how we define generations. Many still argue that generations are rhythmic, that they churn in cycles of about 20 years and follow patterns. But dissenters say that technology and other forces are accelerating this process, that children are exposed to a host of remarkably different experiences at shorter intervals.

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, who have written several books together, have mapped America’s generations, starting with the 16th century.

Strauss and Howe found a cycle: Traits and attitudes repeated every four generations. An idealistic generation gave rise to a reactive generation, which bred a civic generation, which produced an adaptive generation.

So, in Strauss and Howe’s theory, the boomers are idealistic, Generation X is reactive, and the youngest generation, which the authors call “Millennials,” is civic-minded. The authors predict next will come an adaptive generation, like the children of the Great Depression four generations ago.

In that arrangement, generations run 20 to 25 years.

“Generations are not shrinking; that’s a conceit of the present,” Strauss said. “Technological change was far more profound in the 1920s than now, and generations didn’t speed up then, either.”

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