Sussing Out Patterns in American History
July 23, 2010 | By Ben Preston
American history has witnessed several major upheavals, and it seems in the midst of another contentious period. Tea Partiers claim irreconcilable differences with liberals and cry for smaller government while their opponents say that social programs must be preserved, creating a political echo of the widening cultural rift. The U.S. military languishes in overseas conflicts many see as less than vital to the nation’s interests. Hamstrung by economic crises, indecisive on environmental concerns and with unprecedented numbers moving into retirement age, American society’s challenges start to seem insurmountable.
But authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in their books Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997) suggest that throughout the 500-year span of Anglo-American history, a more or less predictable cycle has played out, a cycle in which generational types are in a certain stage of life at any given time.
Howe studies and lectures on these cycles (Strauss died of cancer in 2007) and contends the United States really is in crisis now. He draws parallels between other crises in American history — the Great Depression and World War II, or the Civil War, for example — and notes that the arrangement of generational types forming right now is the same as during those times.
“History shapes generations when they’re young, and as they get older, generations shape history,” he said in a recent interview.
Howe and Strauss described four distinct generational types — heroes, artists, prophets and nomads. With those generations have come a series of what they call turnings — tied to the rising and falling of the generation types — that occur in the time it takes to completely replace the population. (That roughly 80-year period is known as a saeculum, a concept developed by the ancient Etruscans.)
They identified four turnings (which closely follow the classical life cycles of a saeculum): the High (youth), the Awakening (young adulthood), the Unraveling (midlife) and the Crisis (old age).
According to Strauss and Howe’s model, we’re currently in an Unraveling, with the aging prophet Baby Boomers moving into elder mentorship roles, the middle-aged nomad Gen Xers assuming the highest leadership positions, and civic-oriented Millennials coming of age to become the doers and institution-builders of the next High.
To judge their model of making sense out of chaos, it’s necessary to understand the pair’s terms:
Heroes: Exemplified by World War II’s GI Generation and today’s Millennials. Powerful, outwardly focused, institutionally driven and not given to spirituality. Born as overprotected children during an Unraveling, they are given to cohesive teamwork and trust in authority as they come of age, becoming the organized fighters during a crisis and the builders of institutions afterward. As they age, their conformity and lack of spiritual identity are attacked by the rising prophet generation as the next awakening is realized.
Artists: Includes the postwar Silent Generation, and most likely the current generation of children, which some are beginning to label iGeneration. Indecisive, compromising, malleable and subtle, they are the overprotected youth of a crisis, usually reared by hard-bitten nomads eager to provide more structure than was provided by their underprotective prophet parents. Young adults during a High, they become indecisive midlifers during an Awakening, with many adopting the values of the following generation.
Prophets: Made up of Boomers and like generations, such as those that have risen to adulthood during spiritual upheavals from the Puritan Awakening to the cultural shift of the 1960s. Prophets are values-driven, inwardly focused, moralistic and have a tendency early in life to be extremely critical of established institutions. Born during a High, they are indulged as children, become moralistic leaders during an Unraveling and wise mentors during a crisis.
Nomads: Gen X and the post-World War I Lost Generation are the most recent examples. Tough, unwanted, adventurous and cynical of institutions, these are the underprotected children of the prophet generations. Growing up during an Awakening period, they become alienated young adults during an Unraveling and pragmatic midlife leaders during a crisis. In old age, they are often not cared for as well as the elderly of other generations.
High: After a major crisis has been resolved, a societal renaissance — such as the postwar boom or the post-Revolutionary War Era of Good Feelings — occurs. The national mood is characterized by confidence and optimism — like during Kennedy’s Camelot years — and conformity and institution-building are paramount. While development of infrastructure is attended to, moral direction languishes, bringing about the next phase. Gender roles are distinct and wars unlikely.
Awakening: After prolonged focus on material advancement and outward goals, the next generation seeks meaning during an Awakening. The security and comforts of the High, although taken for granted, are spurned as superfluous. Trust in social collaboration and in institutions is at a low, and risk-prone lifestyles burgeon. The gender gap narrows and wars, if fought, do not generally go well. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s is the most obvious example, but the Utopian communes of the 1830s and the Great Awakening of the 1730s are also illustrative.
Unraveling: The moral debates of the Awakening reach fever pitch. Although people have now reconciled meaning and spiritual growth, collaborative effort seems impossible. Moral righteousness abounds and tempers flare — such as during the years leading up to the Civil War or during the Great Depression — directly following a crime and excess-laden boom period as seen during the 1850s, 1920s and 1990s. Howe argues that we are now in an Unraveling, and that although it seems like a new threat the likes of which American has never seen, the cycles of history suggest otherwise.
Crisis: Social, economic and military conflicts that would have been ignored or deferred during previous periods are channeled into one struggle to maintain the integrity of society. The heated debates and extreme challenges leading up to these periods are cast aside as society once again forms into a cohesive, problem-solving unit. Individuality is sacrificed for the good of society, and wars are fought with vigor and purpose. Optimism for a bright future materializes once again. Increased security, public order and reductions in risky personal behavior are the hallmarks of such an era, best characterized in modern times by World War II, but also seen during the Civil and Revolutionary Wars.
While the generation currently coming of age — the Millennials — looks to be the next batch of institution builders, many have expressed doubt that the coddled, video-game-playing youth could be the heroes our society needs. Boomers tend to view the rising group of young adults as materialistic and self-centered, but Howe says that taken in context, this generation is as likely as any of its predecessor hero generations to succeed at overcoming the crisis we face at the end of the current unraveling period — the next fourth turning.
Secular institutions that have been under siege since the beginning of the last Awakening period will be torn down and built from scratch.
“Fourth Turnings can end in many different ways, but those issues of political polarization will work themselves out during this era — they won’t linger,” he said. “Disaster, sometimes, scares people into making the required changes.”
But disaster alone isn’t enough. Howe points to generational constellations — or arrangements of generations in terms of age location — as a determining factor in how any conflict will play out. He maintains that comparing the impacts of the Vietnam War with those of World War II is a compelling argument in favor of this phenomenon, not only in terms of how the conflicts were handled by commanders and ground troops, but also by how returning veterans were treated at home. By most accounts, World War II — as a national experience — is generally regarded more positively than is Vietnam.
Many would argue that with the rapid rate of technological advance over the past few decades, the current time cannot be compared with any other. But Howe says that once context is applied, it’s easy to draw comparisons and make inferences about America’s future.
“In any given era, we’re hyper aware of the changes taking place, but each generation faces its own kind of change. If you look at the changes in the physical infrastructure during President Dwight Eisenhower‘s life, they were enormous,” he said. At Eisenhower’s 1890 birth, there were no cars, no telecommunications and the biggest problem municipalities faced was removing manure from the streets. By the end of his presidency, he was riding in a jet airplane, commanding a nuclear arsenal and paving the way for a manned mission to the moon.
Compare that to the 60 years since the end of World War II. While information technology has advanced, the way most Americans conduct their lives on a day-to-day basis hasn’t changed all that much. People still drive cars, buy their food and live in the suburbs.
Howe sees technology as shaped more by generations than vice versa. Take computers. The institutionally oriented GI Generation created the huge mainframe computers of the 1960s and ’70s. During the 1980s, Boomers spawned a technological revolution that turned computers into an expression of personal liberation with the advent of the personal computer. “That was a declaration of independence. Millennials are turning technology back into a great big group thing,” said Howe, citing cloud networking and social networks, such as Facebook, which was created by a Millennial. “There’s no privacy with these great big social networks like Facebook.”
It is this group mentality that shows Millennials’ similarity to their GI predecessors.
“One of the biggest complaints I get from faculty members is that they can’t get students to debate anymore. They want to consult one another and come up with a consensus,” he said, adding that as GIs pass away, Millennials are taking their place in the generational constellation. “Not only does a generation correct for the excesses and mistakes of the midlife generation in charge, but it also fills the vacuum left by the generation that’s passing away.”
The generational types described in Strauss and Howe’s books can be found beyond Anglo-American history. Howe explained that strong parallels can be drawn between American generations and those in other developed countries. From the French and German counterculture radicals of the late 1960s — comparable to American Boomers — to the Chinese institution builders who appear to be neck and neck with our coming-of-age Millennials, generations in Europe, the Far East, Russia and other wealthy countries share many traits with their American counterparts.
On the other hand, the Muslim world appears to be on a different schedule than the West and other parts of Asia.
“The Muslim Awakening was one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in history, but it didn’t take place until about 1979,” said Howe, citing the rise of the Mujahedeen against Soviet Union, the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the Mecca Uprising as prime examples. Of Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, Howe asked, “What could be more ironic than a guy who poured more concrete than anyone else in Saudia Arabia having a son who wanted to blow it all up?” Sound familiar?
Although it can’t be looked at as a solution in itself to current problems, Strauss and Howe’s model offers a framework in which history suggests how the future is playing out. The outcomes of wild cards like climate change, resource depletion and the dynamic global balance of power can’t be predicted, but by looking at generational characteristics, perhaps a bit more confidence can be gleamed that those problems will be dealt with in a way that preserves our society and leads to a positive denouement.
While we may be a bit different than our forebears, history suggests that even they were not without their faults, and that we have more in common with them than we’ve given ourselves credit for. If they could dig themselves out of catastrophes like the Civil War and the Great Depression, why can’t we?