Strauss and Howe’s “Generations”: My Review

Last night I finished reading the book Generations by historians William Strass and Neil Howe. This book posits that every 80-100 years, four types of generations move through a cycle through four types of “societal moods” and this cycle continues to repeat itself. Each generation spends a different portion of its life in a different mood, the four phases of life being childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age, though they acknowledge that increasingly, as life expectancy grows, there is also a post-elder phase.

The premise of the book is that there are four distinct periods in a cycle: a crisis, in which society and its institutions as it knows them are under threat of destruction from either an internal or external force and institutions and society must make sacrifices and band together (the last crisis was the Depression/World War II); a high, a post-crisis era in which the new institutions are strong and trusted and society is moving forward with economic and scientific progress (the last high was from the end of World War II until around the JFK assassination); an awakening, in which society’s institutions come under attack as cold and heartless by a moralistic and spiritually-minded young cohort (the last awakening was from about the arrival in America of the Beatles to around the election of Reagan as president); and an unraveling, a post-crisis society in which institutions are a very distrusted entity and people are very self-focused, and problems are allowed to accumulate (the last unraveling was throughout the 80s and 90s, perhaps ending with 9/11).

This was one area where I had a slight problem with the book. I felt that it constantly picked different times from completely different points in history, and illustrated them as examples of how that point in history was one of the aforementioned moods. However, this problem is more early in the book; they do generally provide larger frameworks in later chapters.

With these period of history established, they outline four types of generations: Civic, Adaptive, Idealist, and Reactive.

A Civic generation is one which is born during an unraveling, with weak institutions but strong spirituality, with problems slowly accumulating. During their coming of age, however, a crisis unfolds, and their young adulthood is spent providing the muscle to fight that crisis and brainstorm new institutions. They take that civic-minded confidence with them into their midlife during the high, as they become optimistic leaders. During their elderhood, they are attacked by an awakening, in which their institutions begin to be seen as heartless, and they clash with the young.

An Adaptive generation spends their childhood during a crisis, and are overprotected while the adults are busy with said crisis. They come of age around the end of the crisis, and are conformist young adults during the high. They become midlifers during the awakening, and often serve as mediators between Civic elders and Idealist young adults. They become indecisive elders during the unraveling, which often results in the accumulation of problems.

An Idealist generation is born during a high, and are overindulged, coddled children. They come of age and spend their young adulthood fighting secular social institution, trying to bring about a spiritual refreshing to society. As they move into midlife during an unraveling, they become values oriented decisionmakers and family leaders, often seeing things in black and white. This increases as they reach elderhood during a new crisis; they are uncompromising, often enlisting the young Millenials into their causes.

A Reactive generation is born during the awakening and are underprotected in the midst of the chaotic world. Their young adulthood is spent in the unraveling, in which the worst side effects of the awakening are felt. They are cunning realists, the ultimate rogues, and do not have any sense of idealism. They are often decried by midlife Idealists as amoral. They move into midlife during the crisis as newly responsible, trying to implement realistic manifestations of the Idealists’ lofty goals. They become reclusive elders during a high.

Where their theory becomes much more convincing is there systematic outline of American history, starting with the young Puritan arrival. The Puritans grew up in the height of Elizabethan England, in the aftermath of the crisis with the Spanish Armada, setting them up to be ripe for a spiritual awakening. Hence the rhetoric of their leaders like John Winthrop is filled with lofty visions for the “City on a Hill”. According to Strauss and Howe, they brought these visions into midlife, hence the Salem witch trials and an era of religious intolerance. They additionally illustrate a recurring trend during that period: the clash between spiritual midlife Idealists and hedonistic young adult Reactives, in this case between the Puritans and Cavaliers. The Puritans set moral vision as elders during the Crisis of the Glorious Revolution, while the civic-minded young adult Glorious Generation fought the revolution and then emerged as the midlife leaders during the height of the Enlightenment. Interest increases, at least for me, when it gets closer to the American Revolution. The children of the Enlightenment were the young adults of the Great Awakening, looking to leaders such as Jonathan Edwards for guidance in an advanced but spiritually dead world. That era is known for wild church behavior, and out-of-control existential experiences. The children of the Great Awakening are referred to as the Liberty Generation, and include Washington and Adams. They spent their young adulthood fighting the French and Indian War, and being called immoral by midlife Awakeners. They brought Reactive individualism to the table, such that in their midlife, they were able to apply this realism to management decisions during the American Revolution, and implement the ideas of Awakener elders, while the young adult Republican Generation provided the muscle to build new American institutions and included Jefferson and Madison. This portion of the book provides great insight regarding the debate about America’s Christian heritage. If this generational outlook is correct, then during the American Revolution, while the Awakener elders provided a lofty Christian vision for the new country, the midlife Liberty provided a more realistic method of decision-making to bring about a new system, and the young civic-minded Republicans, thoroughly scientific and rationalistic, did not. Reportedly Madison was asked why he did not mention God in the Constitution, he replied, “We didn’t think to.” They were a secular-minded generation who did not share the moralistic vision of their Awakener parents. The end of the Revolution ushered in a new high that we know as the Era of Good Feeling.

The authors make their argument more convincing by willingly acknowledging a time period, the Civil War cycle, in which no young adult Civic generation appeared to arise. In it, they contend a combination of elderly Transcendentals, with young Reactives, allowed the uncompromising nature of the Transcendentals had no community-oriented, civic-minded young adults to counter-balance this, hence the Civil War was particularly ugly.

For lack of space, I will briefly touch on the last cycle. About twenty years after the Civil War began what historians call the Missionary Awakening, with another Idealist generation as the young adults. They spent their midlife in the World War I/Prohibition/Roarding Twenties era clashing with the reactive Lost Generation young adults. In the Depression/World War II era, the Missionaries became the idealistic elders, with the now-midlife Lost making the more realist-minded management decisions, and the young adult GI Generation (Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”) providing the muscle, while the overprotected Silent Generation children looked on helplessly.

This brings us to the final cycle. Following World War II, we moved into the high of “Superpower America.” The heroic GI’s were now the confident, optimistic midlife leaders, exemplified by JFK. The young adult Silents lived in a fairly conformist fashion. However, the Baby Boomers were the new generation of children, indulged in a scientific, efficient, and commercial world. However, as the Awakening arrived (the Consciousness revolution, hippies, etc.), they began clashing with the GI elders, while the midlife Silents tried to mediate between their scientific elders and spiritual “youngers.” The children of this era, Thirteeners (Generation X) were very underprotected during this time, and largely, they contend, viewed as nuisance, as children commonly are during Awakening eras. They note the prevalence at the time of the “evil child” genre of movies, such as Rosemary’s Baby. It then becomes more relevant to me, as we arrive at the next unraveling, the individualistic 1980s and 1990s, which was my childhood.  During that time, their assessment is that elder Silents, with their compromising, consensus-building leadership, allowed society’s problems to accumulate without confrontation, while the mid-life Boomers formed the Religious Right, or left-winged environmental activist groups, with an uncompromising spirit, particularly clashing with the young adult Generation Xers, who had record levels of drug use, STD’s, teen pregnancy, violence, etc. This was motivated largely, they contend, through protecting their Millenial children, of which I am one, determined they would not grow up as wild as they did.

The authors’ predictions of eventual trends are in many ways disturbingly accurate. The book was published in 1991, and it predicts that in the 1990s, Boomers would reclaim political office, become controlling on institutions, and become increasingly attacking on topics previously thought untouchable. They will become increasingly focused on moral values, they contend, implementing their morality through politics, criminal justice, etc. They even predict a possible moral clash of Boomers, with “bicoastal New Agers squaring off against heartland evangelicals.” Sound familiar? It gets freakier. “One rather safe prediction experts make about elderly Boomers is that they will collide with underfunded federal pension and healthcare systems, starting in the mid 2010s.” The book was written in 1991!  They outline this as the leadup to the “Crisis of 2020” which will likely include economic elements, perhaps also climate change, terrorism, war, etc. The authors predict them to be “policy perfectionists, inclined to enforce principle even at the risk of toppling the existing order.” Sounds a lot like the polarized political system today.

They additionally predict that while Generation X spent their young adulthood in a self-centered era, they will enter midlife during a crisis era, which we are arguably in right now. They contend that they will hit a “hangover mood” around the year 2010. It is interesting that more and more parents with little kids can now be considered part of Generation X. The authors predict that they will bring a realism from the “school of hard knocks” as midlife realist leaders, and hopefully to restrain the zeal of the Boomer elders.

Finally, they predict that Millenials (my generation) will enter young adulthood during the crisis era (which, again, I would say we are in at this point), will be the product of  more protective child-rearing era. I find this sensible, since, as I understand, numerous vices, such as drug addiction, teen pregnancy, STDs have actually decreased. They correctly predict economic hardship for young adult Millennials. They then leave it ambiguous as to whether the Millennials will end up, depending on the timing of the crisis, like the GIs and Republicans, who saw through World War II and the American Revolution, respectively, or if they will poorly handle the crisis, as in the Civil War, and never truly become a Civic generation.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Their outline of history very much makes sense to support their notions of cycles. The main problems are that the ideas are largely unfalsifiable, and it does not account for individual personality, or age characteristics as a commonality throughout history. However, it is difficult to argue with the evidence they present, frequently citing concrete examples of each generation displaying certain characteristics.

Regarding the notion of the Millennials becoming a Civic generation, there is much unanswered at this point. I think they go into further detail in the book The Fourth Turning, which I intend to read soon. However, in my personal life, I do see some of the desire to work together to build institutions to build a better world, as a Civic is supposed to. Yet I also see clashing Reactive cynicism and Idealist, well, idealism. I see a bit of each generation in me. The same goes for many of my friends my age. And in many ways, hanging out with them suggests to me that my generation retains much of the same crass outlook and distrust of institutions that are supposed to be a Generation X thing. I sense a degree of hopelessness in contrast to the optimist that this generational archetype is supposed to demonstrate. Maybe I am looking in the wrong places. I hope the crisis may eventually cause us to unify in the way the GI’s did in 1941 (simultaneous war/economic turmoil), under the Boomers’ moral direction and Xers’ practicality, such that we usher in a new social order that makes our world a better place.  I have hope. Such a scenario is completely feasible. But I also have to remain healthily skeptical.

For heaven’s sake, read the book! It’s brilliant and insightful, whether completely accurate or not.


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