Generations Explained: Understand Generational Cycles in just 10 Minutes

If you are struggling to understand the effects of generations on our society, this basic primer will give you a grounding for further research. Delivered in a fast-paced 10 minute video that explains each of the living generations and where they are headed

You have heard of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and perhaps even the Silent and GI Generations. But do you know how they are fundamentally different from each other? Each holds specific values, particularly around what they believe is an ideal society. This 10 minute video is a basic primer on the current living generations and how to understand their cycles.

The Millennial Generation’s Rebellion

The Millennial generation is rebelling from it’s parents and society, just like every generation before. But the form this rebellion takes is unique and has not been seen in over 85 years. Learn how the cycle of generations predicts what will come next in our society

In this webinar posted on Slideshare, I discuss how the Millennial generation is rejecting and rebelling against the values and ideals of it’s elders. This will shape our society in surprising ways in the next 15 years. Watch the slideshow with audio below to learn more:

Legislative Generations

The generational makeup of our legislature is shifting, and it will definitely affect our future as we move further into the crisis.

Our leadership is constantly changing, not just in their political party, but also in the generation they represent. If you look at this chart from the Strauss and Howe website, Lifecourse.com, you can see the shift in the generations over the last 100 years:


Source: Lifecourse.com

This covers only up until 2005 (you can also download a spreadsheet with their source data – very cool!) so I captured the information for 2007 and 2009 from the Congressional Biographical Directory and created a couple charts showing the recent trends.

The first is the number of congressmen (including both house and senate) from each generation in the last three congresses:
Recent_Legislative_Generations
You can see that the Boomer (born 1943-1960) numbers hold quite steady (there are more in 2007 than in 2009) and the GI generation (born 1901-1924) is almost non-existent (there are just two or three in congress, so they don’t really show up on the chart). The shift that is beginning to happen is that the Silent (born 1925-1942) are giving up ground to Generation X (born 1961-1981). The chart below isolates these two generations:
Recent_Legislative_Generations_X
Generation X now equals the Silent Generation in Congress, up from around only 35% just four years ago. The shift from Boomer to Generation X will likely take many more years.
The significance of this shift is important. The Silent generational leaders are very knowledgeable, but are not known for decisive action. Generation X, on the other hand, is very practical and won’t get caught in “analysis paralysis”. Gen X leaders often go with their gut and are willing to try things out and evaluate as they go along. This will probably make for faster decisions in congress, but might also mean that those decisions are not as well thought out. You may also notice that there are not any Millennial generation (born 1982~2005) leaders in the Legislature yet, but I expect there will be several in the next congress.

Millennial Indie Film: Pope Dreams

Last night I watched an Indie Film called “Pope Dreams” and I felt the generational themes were strong enough to mention here. It is a coming of age film about a Millennial (born 1982-2005) who is caught between the expectations of his parents and his own desire to do something good, and important, in the world. His parents are probably Boomers (according to their stated ages). There are many aspects of the film that fit with generational archetypes (or perhaps stereotypes). For example, there is a clear differentiation between the “Haves” and “Have Nots” in the relationship between the protagonist, Andy, and Brady, the “Abercrombie” girl he has a crush on. The sense of duty that Andy feels towards his friends and parents is also a typical Millennial character. Andy is pressured, sheltered, team-oriented, conventional and feels he is special and should achieve something in life.

The acting in the film is very good, Phillip Vaden in particular, and it is well composed overall. In many ways this film feels like it captures the spirit of this new Hero generation as the John Hughes films caught the spirit of the Gen X generation that came before them. The fact that it stars Millennial-aged actors ads to its authenticity. Put it on your Netflix list and let me know what you think.

Presidents’ Generations

There has been a lot of talk about Obama’s generation lately. Many demographers would say he is a Boomer (the strict definition of the Baby Boom goes through 1964) others (myself included) say he is a Gen X’er (based on the definitions of Strauss and Howe). Others categorize him as part of a newly discovered generation, Generation Jones. For me the interesting thing is not the name of the generation he fits into, but the character of that generation when compared with the past.
One of the main features of the generational theory put forth by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe is that there are repeating “archetypes” or characters of generations throughout American history. There are four archetypes they identify: Artist, Prophet, Nomad and Hero. Each carries its own signature style and has specific attributes depending on what age bracket they are in at the time. I have two webinars (part 1 and part 2) that can be useful for an understanding of the generational cycles if you want to know more about them.
The other important feature of their theory is that there are “turnings” or cycles in history where certain events are likely to occur. These are the High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis. We are currently in the Crisis phase according to their theory, having recently moved out of the Unraveling. Again, if you want to get an overview of these turnings refer to my “start here” page or the Lifecourse site that Howe and Strauss put together.
Thinking about the archetypes and turnings in US history, I created a spreadsheet that contains the generational archetypes of each of the US presidents. It also has the turning during which they started their presidency. And finally, it contains the “ratings” of each president based on expert ratings (found on Wikipedia ).
I have posted the spreadsheet for your viewing pleasure. You will need to sign into Google to use the sort functions on the spreadsheet (please don’t change any of the values for now). Go to the “Presidential Archetypes” page. As with all my diagrams, the archetypes are color coded with the following colors:

  • Orange = Artist
  • Blue = Prophet
  • Green = Nomad
  • Yellow = Hero


The Red color in the ratings section refers to the bottom quartile of ratings, while the Green refers to the top quartile.
Playing around by sorting the results generates some insights. The top three presidents according to most of the surveys came from Crisis eras (Washington, FDR and Lincoln). By contrast, the Unraveling periods produced consistently low results for most of the presidents during those periods (Woodrow Wilson was the one exception). If you try sorting by Archetype (select that column, go to Tools>sort by colum Z -> A, or just click on the bar below the title of the column – again, you must be signed into google to use this function) you will see that Prophets contain mainly either top or bottom ranked presidents; there are few that are in the middle. This fits well with the polarizing character of Prophets. Heroes have lots of highly ranked presidents and only a couple in the bottom quartile (Carter, Nixon and Ford). Nomads are less remarkable in their presidencies and with just a few exceptions don’t rank in the top or bottom quartile much at all. Artists are similar to Prophets in that you either love them or hate them.
So what combination of Turning/Archetype creates a great president? It’s hard to tell, but it is clear that Prophets that preside during an Unraveling don’t fare very well (Fillmore, Pierce, Harding and Coolidge), a trend that is likely to be born out by our previous two presidents (G.W. Bush and Clinton, both Prophets in an Unraveling) once we can look back on this period with a historical eye. Prophets can do amazingly well during a crisis (FDR and Lincoln) but also really badly (Hoover and Johnson).
Presiding over an Unraveling, when society is falling apart, is unlikely to reflect well on a president regardless of their archetype. Hero’s seem to do well during a High (Jefferson, Madison, Kennedy, Johnson) but less so during an Awakenign (Carter, Ford and Nixon).
Take a look at the chart, do some sorting and poking around and give me your insights and observations.

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.

Does Generation Jones Exist?

A recent article in USA Today has popularized the concept of a “Generation Jones” born between 1954 and 1965. The idea is that there is a generation between The Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Generation X (born 1961-1981) that has traits of both but does not really feel it belongs to either. Although the concept is gaining in popularity as many people born during the Jones timeframe feel it resonates with them, I wonder if the concept really has much value.
The dates I mention on this blog for the timing of generations is drawn from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, who are well known for their work on generations. Their landmark book “The Fourth Turning” gives clear definitions of the cycle of generations and how they have evolved in the US over the last 500 years (going back to England). The value of their research is partially in understanding our personal roots (“Oh, now I understand why my Boomer friend acts like that…”) but more importantly in understanding the direction of our society overall. My question about Generation Jones (and other divisions) is whether it helps in that effort or just confuses.
Here is a chart showing the roll of generations since 1900 (click on it for a bigger version):
jones1-01
According to Howe and Strauss, the marks between each generation are very clear and are based on their surveys of people born in these years. Each generation has a specific character, and these are shown on the chart by the various colors (the “archetype” for each of these generations is shown in the legend on the right). The concept is that, for the most part, each generation is about 20 years (give or take) and they follow each other in a specific pattern (Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad and so on). This pattern has (mostly) held true for the last 500 years of history, although some of the timeframes vary by a few years. If you accept this theory, at least in part, it allows you to extrapolate into the future based on the ages and attitudes of the generations that will be alive. I go into this concept further in my two presentations on turnings and generations (Part 1 and Part 2).
But it does seem fairly unlikely that EVERYONE born in 1961 would have an “X” attitude when compared with EVERYONE born in 1960, who would have a “Boomer” attitude. But I don’t think that is the point. Let’s look at an analogy.
In 1984 Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the race for the Presidency against Walter Mondale. Mondale got only 13 Electoral votes vs. 525 for Reagan, in what, I believe was the most lopsided victory in US History. But what was the Popular vote? The result was around 59% to 41%. Again a strong majority, but it does mean that over 37 Million people wanted Mondale to be president. Without going into how silly our electoral system is, I think there is a parallel to how we perceive the change in generations.
Let’s look at that chart again, but this time with Generation Jones put on top to show the span of years.
jones2-01
It falls fairly neatly in the span between Boomer and X’ers on Howe and Strauss’ system. There are probably many people in this period that feel like they favor either Boomer or X’er attitudes, or perhaps feel like they combine both. But the important thing is that a balance point is reached where over 50% of people would favor the attitude of one generation or the other. Just like in the 1984 elections, when grouped together this slight shift in the balance can have large effects on our overall society.
Perhaps the more accurate chart should look something like this:
jones3-01
With a gradual shift from one generation to the next, but a “tipping point” that results in a large perceived shift in generational attitude. This would explain the “Generation Jones” effect (along with other theories that break the generations down even further), as the period of transition lines up with that proposed generation:
jones4-01
I am a Gen-X’er (born 1966), and I fit the generational stereotype in that I am very pragmatic. The value I see in this generational research is in understanding where, as a society, we are going based on where we have been. Breaking down the system into smaller parts may make many feel they can identify with the roles more clearly, but I am not sure if it helps our predictive ability. So its not that I doubt that many people born between 1954 and 1965 feel they are caught between generations, its just that I am not sure that clarifies where our country is going in the future.

Pelosi and Eugenics: 1932 or 2009?

The clash of ideologies predicted by William Strauss and Neil Howe in “The Fourth Turning” is certainly hitting it’s stride now. I found an article that is particularly telling with regards to how these ideological battles are being fought. The article is supposedly about ridiculous spending items in the stimulus plan, but it has an interesting undercurrent.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. (a Generation X’er born between 1961 and 1981) writes about the “pork” in the plan here: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/02/navarrette.stimulus/index.html
His commentary is mainly focused on Nancy Pelosi (who is part of the Silent Generation, born 1925-1942) and how she wanted to get birth control into the plan and had an extremely weak argument about why this should be in the plan. Navarrette draws a fascinating parallel to Margaret Sanger who was the founder of what became Planned Parenthood. Sanger was a controversial figure because she was in favor of Eugenics, which was a policy adopted by the Nazis to control racial makeup of society.
The interesting part of this is that he quotes a statement from Sanger from 1932:

“the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race such as … [those] barred by the immigration laws of 1924.”

Here’s the generational connection: according to the turning of generations we are at the beginning of the crisis (started in about 2005), perhaps only a few years in. If we look just a few years into the start of the previous crisis (started in 1929) we would come up with the year 1932. It is interesting that Navarrette would use an argument from that period to go after Pelosi. The similarity to that period is that there was a huge ideological clash going on and there was a battle for control of public perception, just like today. Like in my previous posting where Gore was accused of trying to brainwash kids like Nazi youth, I think we will see more and more of this sort of reference over the next few years. Each side in the ideological battle will try to paint the other as the absolute enemy, and referring back to the enemy in our last major crisis (the Axis) will be a favorite tactic. Watch for it.
(if you are curious to learn more about the basics of generational research, go to “Start Here“. It includes links to Strauss and Howe’s original works as well as my interpretations).

Gore figures out how to upset Gen-X Parents

Want to know how to really upset parents of Millennials? Ask Al Gore, who managed to do just that by suggesting that teenagers not listen to their parents.
This video from Glenn Beck’s show, which was recorded by one of the kids at the conference, and her father (probably a Gen X’er) was upset enough to go on the show and talk about it. This has been making the rounds at lots of conservative blogs, many of which are comparing Gore’s statements with indoctrination of Nazi youth. As a die-hard liberal, I don’t buy the politics here, but I think the generational aspects are fascinating.
It’s not surprising that a Boomer (Gore) would suggest that kids rebel against their parents. That was the approach of the entire generation – knock down the institutions built by their parents (the GI Generation). But he made a HUGE mistake in thinking that this generation of kids (Millennials) and their parents (Gen-X and some Boomers) would react well to trying to divide them. Gore could definitely use some generational coaching.
This is very much part of the battle that will unfold over the next 10 to 15 years as various Boomers try to convince the Millennials to follow their particular ideology. Asking them to rebel against their parents is unlikely to work (as the Millennials are generally very close to their parents), but that won’t stop Boomers from trying. The reaction of the Gen X parent is very typical as we tend to be a fairly over-protective bunch and don’t want representatives of institutions telling us how to parent.
How could Gore have changed his approach to make it more likely to be heard? He could have appealed to the kids sense of purpose and tendency to want to work together. By saying something like, “We are all counting on you, the young people, to help change the world for the better. Your parents are counting on you. I am counting on you. The problems are big, but if we work together we will overcome them. And all of you will be a big part of that success.” By putting a positive message and tying their parents into the equation, he could have really gotten them on board. But, instead, he’s being accused of being an evil Nazi overlord.

Here’s the actual video:

Presidential Precedence: Obama is most like…

I did not follow the Presidential race/inauguration/early days very closely, but I did hear a few things that made me think about the generational aspects of President Obama. Leading up to the inauguration there were many references to former presidents, particularly FDR and Abraham Lincoln. There are some similarities between Obama, FDR and Lincoln, but they have little to do with leadership style. The similarities are in the character of the time that they came into power.
According to Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book “The Fourth Turning“, there are specific cycles in time which repeat on a regular basis. They work like this:

  • The First Turning is a High. After prevailing through a massive crisis, society is united and feels strong. An example of this period is the American High, 1946-1964
  • The Second Turning is an Awakening. Young people start to question the established values of the society. An example of this is the Conciousness Revolution, 1965-1984
  • The Third Turning is an Unraveling. Society starts to pull apart as the old establishment is broken down and values become fragmented. An example of this is the Culture Wars, 1985-2005
  • The Fourth Turning is a Crisis. Society is challenged by a massive crisis that requires everyone pull together to survive. An example of this is the Great Depression and WWII, 1929-1946. We are in a Crisis turning now as well (started in about 2005) and will probably remain so until about 2025 when it will come to a climax.

The similarity between Lincoln, FDR and Obama is that they all came into power during a crisis. But that is where the similarity ends, and another surprising relationship begins. Lincoln and FDR were both part of a generational archetype that was known as the “Prophet” generations, similar in character to the Baby Boomers. Lincoln was part of the Transcendental Generation and FDR was part of the Missionary Generation, both of which fit the Prophet archetype. Prophets are described as:

A Prophet generation grows up as increasingly indulged post-Crisis children, comes of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of an Awakening, cultivates principle as moralistic midlifers, and emerges as wise elders guiding the next Crisis. (from http://www.lifecourse.com)

Obama is not part of a Prophet Generation. Born in 1961, he is Generation X, which is a Nomad Generation:

A Nomad generation grows up as under protected children during an Awakening, comes of age as the alienated young adults of a post-Awakening world, mellows into pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and ages into tough post-Crisis elders

So when is the last time we had a pragmatic Nomad leading the country during a crisis? Take a look at this chart that shows the various generations and turnings visually (click on it to see a bigger version):

president-chart-052

The colors represent the archetypes of each generation, Yellow for Hero (GI Generation, Millennials), Green for Nomads (Lost, Gen X), Blue for Prophet (Missionary, Boomer) and Orange for Artist (Progressive, Silent). On the far left is the founding of the nation with George Washington as president, and on the far right is the current day, extrapolating Obama out for four years. I have more detailed versions of this data that I will put up in a future post, but this diagram gives an overview of the presidential generations through our brief history.
There are lots of things you might pick up from this chart, but if you look for the crisis periods (1940’s and 1860’s, WWII and Civil Wars respectively), you will see the previous two have mainly blue bars, meaning they were Prophet Generations (Lincoln and FDR). The previous crisis was The American Revolution (way over on the left side of the chart) and it had a green (Nomad) leader: George Washington.
So who does Obama most resemble in terms of generational character combined with social cycle? He is Generation X, which is a Nomad generation (green in the chart), leading during a crisis. The last time we saw that combination was our first president, George Washington, a Nomad leader during the crisis (American Revolution). What does this mean for his potential in office? Having a practical leader who pushes getting things done during a national crisis is something our country has not seen in over 200 years. I may examine that in a future post.

You can download a high-res PDF of this chart