It has been over three years since I last posted to this blog, and a lot has changed in that time. The effects of this generational cycle are becoming clearer, especially with Brexit, Trump and other nationalist forces coming to the fore in 2016. I have been reluctant to talk much about it because I prefer to stay away from partisanship in generational research, but I think it is important to discuss the larger forces at play in the next 4-8 years. Understanding that bigger picture during this pivotal time will be critical to the health, safety and perhaps survival of your family and community. In part one of this post I will cover the relevant basics of generational theory. Part two will attempt to interpret recent events using this lens. If you are not familiar with the Strauss and Howe’s generational theories, I suggest you start by watching my primer on generational theory.
According to Strauss and Howe, we are in the midst of “The Fourth Turning”, the final, winter-like stage of a cycle that began in 1946 with the “American High” following WWII. It is likely we started the Fourth Turning in 2008 with the market crash and that it will continue until around 2025. It will be during the last quarter, the climax of the Turning, that we will see a fundamental shift in the nature of our society and the world. The most blatant shift, currently, is a political one. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump both signaled a significant shift in politics, certainly the largest most Gen X’ers have seen in our lifetime and, according to the theories, the largest since The Great Depression and WWII. The nationalism that these movements represent seem to be gaining steam around the Western World, along with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and other strident politicians threatening to overtake traditional styles of governance. While there are many reasons for these shifts, the often forgotten generational component is not insignificant.
There three currently active generations in our society. The first are our elders, the Baby Boomers who are, for the most part, our national leaders. As of 2015, About 58% of Congressmen and 73% of State Governors are Boomers. Baby Boomers are known for their strident, obstinate views and purist idealism. In the case of Donald Trump, that idealism focuses primarily around both American Exceptionalism and that the idea that world should be viewed as a Zero Sum Game.
The second currently influential generation is the middle-aged Generation X. Generation X has are notoriously pragmatic, individualistic and cynical. A majority of Generation X voted for Donald Trump. Generational theory suggests that many of them voted this way because they felt that the status quo has served them poorly for the last 20 years, prompting them to ask what they had to lose. Gen X’ers hold most of the remaining leadership positions (Paul Ryan is a Gen Xer) but they are not as well represented in government as the Boomers.
Finally, the Millennials. Millennials are young adults who were raised to be collaborative, idealistic and civic-minded. Many of them backed Bernie Sanders—at least on the Coasts—and did so because they believed that a new approach to civic engagement was needed. Although Trump does not personally appeal to many Millennials, if he starts to tout a message of stronger collaboration and working towards a common good, he could successfully woo followers in this group.
Each of these generations has an “archetype” which aligns with previous generations. Boomers are of the “Prophet” archetype, last seen in the Missionary Generation (FDR, Churchill). Gen X, the “Nomad” archetype, was last paralleled in the Lost Generation (Truman, Patton). Millennials represent the”Hero” archetype of which the GI Generation (JFK, Reagan) is the previous example. The last time that we saw these archetypes in this particular alignment was in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. This is the key insight of generational theory: that the life stage cycle of the various generational archetypes help to push societal shifts. For a visual of this cycle, take a look at this chart.
Based on generational theory we are at a particularly pivotal point in history where the “stack” of generations presents great risk and great possibility. In Part 2 I will examine more specifics consequences, especially in light of the recent nationalist movements around the world.