Linear Thinking leads to Cyclical Reality

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

— George Santayana

Many people feel that our society is falling apart and are putting great effort into bringing it back together. The problem is that when we are blind to the signs of real change, we tend to miss our target and over-correct. It is likely we will follow this same pattern in the next 10-15 years.

Generational research purports that history turns in specific cycles and by understanding those cycles we can predict what society might be like 10, 20 or even 50 years in the future. If that sounds something like hokey astrology to you, then you are probably a linear thinker. And linear thinkers are exactly what fuel the cycles that generational research is about.

The work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (including their books Generations, The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising) all talk about the cycle of generations and the “turnings” or social periods that result from those generations. Most of their work focuses on the generations in the United States, but their theories apply elsewhere as well. The reason they apply so well in the US is that we, as a society, tend to be very linear in our thinking, which creates higher highs and lower lows in our social changes.
If you consider the chart I created to describe the cycles of generations:

basic-generations-chart

You can see a red line that curves up and down on the chart. This is meant to describe the overall cohesiveness of society during the various turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis). At the top (for example, in 1955) society is very cohesive, with a singular worldview that tends to be very positive. At the bottom society is fractured, with complex worldviews that tend to be very negative. We have been at the bottom of this curve for a bit, but things are changing now (as the curve starts to rise during the crisis) but our linear thinking makes it hard for us to see that possibility. Our perception might look more like this:

linearchart

One example of this comes from Strauss and Howe’s book “Millennials and the Pop Culture” (which I highly recommend). Early on in the book they have a “quiz” about the trends occurring amongst American youth. This table is a shortened excerpt of that quiz. For each factor you are encouraged to state how you think the factor has trended since 1995:

Factor Up Unchanged Down
Fatal shootings in school
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
Stranger abductions of children

So what would you guess for each of these factors (the full list in the book is much longer)?

The answers are:

Factor Up Unchanged
Down
Fatal shootings in school
X
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
X
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
X
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
X
Stranger abductions of children
X

How did you do? Many people in our society would guess the exact opposite: that all these factors have been, and are, increasing. Part of that is because of media reporting, but the larger responsibility is the fact that we can’t help extrapolating in a straight line from our past. In the years BEFORE 1995 we saw a consistent increase in the factors mentioned in the chart. Because of this we assume that this trend will continue even when the statistics tell us otherwise.

This tendency to believe that when things are bad that they are only getting worse creates a strange dynamic in society. The feeling that our society continues to fall apart make many people (particularly young people such as the Millennial generation born 1982-2005) fight hard to change the direction of society. This is important and admirable, but failing to recognize when change is actually occurring makes it so we overshoot our target.

A good example is the Awakening of the 1960’s. The rebellion by the Boomers (born 1943-1960) against the “establishment” (the GI Generation born 1901-1924) started the fragmentation of society. This continued for the next 20+ years and got more extreme at every turn because we failed to recognize that society had indeed changed! Many people continued to push for further change, for further breaking down of institutions and for further individual freedoms. The pendulum swung completely to the other side, and then well beyond! Because the rebellious Boomers (and pragmatic X’ers) refused to recognize the damage that this breakdown was causing, it went too far. And this was caused by linear thinking that said, “We need to break down every institution and rule to the point there are none left that anyone can trust”.

The same thing will happen again as part of this crisis, but in the opposite direction. As people pull together to deal with the heightening crisis, we will become more cohesive as a society. But the fears fueled by so many years of institutions being challenged will make organizations and individuals so passionate that they will shoot way past the balance point. We will come out the other side an extremely ordered and cohesive society, but it will be TOO ordered, TOO singular and it will fuel the next rebellion.

This is the reason I believe understanding the generational cycles is so important. Accepting the cyclical nature of society gives us perspective on current and future events. Being able to see when change is occurring is difficult, but it will definitely help us avoid the extreme highs and lows which are caused by linear thinking.

9 thoughts on “Linear Thinking leads to Cyclical Reality”

  1. Dude! I love this and am also fascinated by what you are studying here. I am quite obsessed with these types of sociological milestones and never reaized it. I am glad you found my blog and I will happily follow what you have going on here. Fascinating and optimistic….great work.
    Joy

  2. How would you feel if I posted one of your charts on my blog with credit and a link? I wanted to comment on it, because it rocks. Please let me know if I might.

  3. Great read on the social trends, and the world as we see it is repeating history.

    thanks for the stats, well read!

    Teri

  4. I’m sorry to be a critic of your really fine website, but I just wanted to let you know that the quote at the beginning of this article is misattributed. It is actually (loosely) attributable to George Santayana.

    Otherwise, GREAT content. I’m really benefiting from this.

  5. This is an awesome post. I really appreciate how you’ve simplified such a complex piece of information into a few easy to understand paragraphs and charts.

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