“Generations” Shows History’s Unique Cycles

January 6, 2002 | By Don Knefel

When I first thought about reviewing the book that is the focus of this column and the one to follow, Sept. 11 hadn’t happened yet.

Now, one of the most “stimulating and politically relevant” works on American history, as former Vice President Al Gore has said, takes on new meaning after the terrorist attacks on the United States.

“Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe (Quill, 1991), changes one’s world view, not only of the past and present, but of the uncertain American future. Written a decade ago, “Generations” provides such a sweeping and convincing view of our history that it will be many years before it is dated. In fact, one of the book’s central ideas is that the theory of generational cycles it describes predicts that something big (and likely bad) is coming our way within the next 20 years. It’s probably already started.

Strauss and Howe have co-authored two other books, both on the subject of generational change and social evolution: “13th Gen” (1993) chronicles the post-boom Generation X (born between 1961 and 1981); and “The Forth Turning” (1998) warns of massive social upheaval on the order of the Civil War or World War II within the early decades of this new century.

Both authors have backgrounds in social policy, history and economics; and, in the case of Strauss, political satire with the Capitol Steps comedy troupe.

Their theory is both simple and profound: American history has a pattern of meaning and development that is intimately tied to the “peer personalities” of the specific generations that have fought the wars, made the social policies and built the culture that we take for granted.

Overflowing with fascinating detail, “Generations” nevertheless presents a straightforward narrative of American development from the Puritans (born 1584-1614) to the “Millennials” (born starting in 1982). The authors show that throughout our history recurring themes and patterns of behavior have stamped each generation as unique but also part of a larger cyclical picture.

For example, there are “Idealist” generations, such as the aforementioned Puritans, the Transcendentals (1792-1891), and the Boomers (1943-1960), all of which came of age during a period of “awakening” or a shift in moral consciousness.

As zealous parents in young adulthood, they often give rise to a “Reactive” generation of rebels and misfits, such as Cavaliers (1615-1647), Gilded (1822-1842), and Lost (1883-1900), who repudiate their elders’ moral strictness.

Then there are “Civic” generations, such as the G.I.s (1901-1924) in our own century, who have great influence over the nation’s public life and who are often called to service in a time of crisis.

Finally come “Adaptive” generations, such as the Progressives (1843-1859) and the later Silent (1925-1942), caught between the their Civic predecessors and the next-in-line Idealists.

All this is traced out against American social evolution over four centuries, in several long cycles (Colonial, Revolutionary, Civil War, Great Power and Millennial), through the cataclysms of civil and world war, depression, and the arrival of the United States as a global economic force.

Next time, I’ll look at the predictions the authors make for the current difficult age, and how the influences of generational personality may determine how we emerge from it.


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