Generational theory tells us that there are four stages to the cycle of history: The High, The Awakening, The Unraveling and The Crisis. We are in The Crisis phase now and this can be further divided into events that Neil Howe describes in a recent post as the catalyst, the regeneracy, the climax and the resolution. As Neil stated in that article, we are clearly in the Crisis, but he wonders when the regeneracy will hit.
There’s much more good news than bad news. But bad news travels fast and commands attention. Good news is like water carving a valley or a tree gradually extending its branches. Good news is a child learning a little more each day or a business quietly prospering. We hardly notice it.
Here are some reasons for hope: Extreme poverty is declining. HIV is no longer a death sentence. Technology is transforming everything from African agriculture to urban transportation. Drug violence is decreasing in Mexico. Travel is safer almost everywhere. Crime rates are falling.Somalia is emerging from a long night of anarchy. Myanmar (Burma) is coming out of its dictatorial shell. And while it’s true that China and Russia are only semi-free and the Egypt and other post-dictator nations may be going down ill-considered paths, water is still carving the valley. Freedom lives in 7 billion hearts.
If the regeneracy (which Howe describes as “a new counter-entropy that reunifies and re-energizes civic life”) is more of a ethic rather than a specific event, then I would argue that the world is already moving together in ways that our daily news does not reflect.
Perhaps it will take another massive event to make us truly come together, but all of the articles in the CSMonitor this week point towards a shift that is already in progress. Young people’s expectations and abilities are starting to influence our global conversation. The shift in global power is starting to reveal how the US, while no longer the super-power it once was, is still a symbol of some of the freedoms that many people long for and see as possible in their lifetimes. In some ways our various fumbles (bitter elections, legislative gridlock, unstable economy) will give other nations more empathy for the US as a country that still strives in a very human way.
The regeneracy is about a time when people come together, perhaps as a nation, perhaps globally. It is a difficult time when many will see their ideals crushed and their way of life disrupted. But it is also the time that will define the nature of the next cycle. So while we will likely see political battles and crisis in many forms over the next 10 years there will be an undercurrent (perhaps not noticed) of a strengthening of civic values and cohesion that will eventually overcome whatever we will face.
Call me a blind optimist (an unlikely title for a Generation X (born 1961-1981) like me) but that is the way I see it.
I have never been much of a historian, but I picked up “The Plot Against the President” at the library recently and I have really been enjoying it. According to the theories of Strauss and Howe, we are in a period that is very similar to the early stages of the Great Depression. This period, known as Fourth Turning (Crisis) is similar to the period starting in 1929. The book is about the early period of FDR’s presidency, including his campagning before getting into office. I have only finished the first half of the book which mainly covers up until FDR took office.
I suppose my education in the 80’s was lacking because I had no idea that there was an assassination attempt on FDR right before he took office. The first half of the book covers this event in detail, including all the social chaos going on at the time. Clearly the period from 1929-1933 was one of the worst in American history. Herbert Hoover (portrayed here as a bitter and ineffectual man) was all chased out of office but there still seemed to be little hope for the country at the time. The Depression had hit hard and there seemed no end in sight. Roosevelt, to many observers, seemed to be just the wrong person to take the helm at the time. There was a huge division between rich and poor (the greatest disparity ever in American history up until just recently) and great distrust of the moneyed class. Roosevelt came from old money and was seen as somewhat of a dilettante at the time. The fact that he had been paralyzed by Polio made his election even more surprising.
But FDR managed to prove all of his detrators wrong even before he took office. He took a two-week vacation at sea (on an expensive yacht owned by a friend) prior to his inauguration. When he landed in Miami, Florida there was a huge crowd assembled to see him. Denton tells the story of how Giuseppe Zangara took five shots at the President-elect but failed to even hit him. Six people around Roosevelt were struck and they were all rushed to the hospital. FDR held one of them, Anton Cermak (Mayor of Chicago) and kept him from going into shock as they sped to the hospital. Cermak died two weeks later but Roosevelt was held in high regard for how calm he remained after the attempt on his life. This event, at least as presented by Denton in the book, gave Roosevelt a boost in popularity as he took office.
The interesting parallel to today’s crisis is that we too have been suffering the effects of a financial crisis that still seems to be hanging around. Although there are signs of improvements it is clear that a recurrence is entirely possible. And we are headed towards what may be a very contentious election that does not seem to offer any candidates with a clear ability to lead (in my opinion). Obama’s first term has not shown him to be a firebrand but rather a compromiser on many issues. Romney also does not appear to be the sort that would take on the status quo to really shake things up. It is certainly possible that another candidate will take the Republican nomination, but the interesting thing to me about the lead-up to the 1932 election is that Roosevelt and Hoover seemed to be a choice between the lesser of two evils too.
Hoover had certainly been more than useless during the later part of his term and using Douglas MacArthur against the Bonus Army was the death blow to his chances at a second term. But Roosevelt certainly did not seem very Presidential at the time either. Many described him as a dabbler without much real knowledge of economics or larger political issues. But when the time came for him to take office (at the very pit of the Great Depression) he proved to be and incredible leader. The times, in some ways, defined his abilities. The same may be true for our next President, whoever that may be. We can certainly hope that whoever does take office can unify the nation during this portion of the crisis.
The other striking thing about the history presented in the book is just how ready the US was for a leader that would dictate our direction. When FDR came into office there were journalists and pundits that called for him to be a dictator during our time of need. The country was willing to give up their liberty if it meant the possibility of turning around our economy. So in many ways the country was primed to take the direction of Roosevelt if he was strong in his convictions. It will be interesting to see whether the same is true in the upcoming election. Will the US be ready to have a leader that does whatever is needed to lift our country out of the recession fully? Only time will tell, but the parallels to our history 80 years ago are enormous.
This is from Neil Howe at Lifecourse.com:
We ran these number per Census as of July of this year for everyone age 18+. They are cut exactly according to our birthyear boundaries:G.I. (born 1901-1924), 4.5 millionSilent (born 1925-1942), 26.2 millionBoomer (born 1943-1960), 65.6 millionGeneration X (born 1961-1981), 88.5 millionMillennial (born 1982-2004) 18+, 52.0 millionTotal: 236.8 million.Subtract this from the current total U.S. pop (around 311.8 million) gives you 75.0 million under age 18. That’s about 4.2 million per cohort, which is just under the recent birth per year totals. Again give a bit of allowance for immigration. So that fits.Also, nearly 2/3 of these cohorts under age 18 are Millennials, which gives you nearly 100 million total Millennials–so that fits. The remaining 25-30 million are Homelanders.
For more than two decades, a loyal group of young Americans have participated in a national study to allow the nation to understand the thinking and the life experiences of Generation X. This web site reflects the thousands of hours of time and effort that LSAY participants have put into completing questionnaires, taking tests, and sharing their information about new addresses, new names, and new members of their family. We hope that the LSAY will continue to monitor the history and the future of Generation X for years to come and we have attempted to make this web site a useful place for staying in touch with the study and sharing the results of this work.
LSAY stands for Longitudinal Study of American Youth and it looks like they have been surveying these folks since 1987!
The report findings are interesting but not terribly surprising for those who follow generational theory. Gen X’ers continue to strive for work/life balance and that includes an active and healthy social life. I found the happiness index to be encouraging:
The cool thing about this report is that they say they are going to produce them quarterly and it will be fascinating to see the other issues they delve into. It would be really interesting to compare their survey results with their current (Millennial) students’ answers.
An interesting interview with Neil Howe in The Atlantic. I particularly like the last answer:
Will Millennials become skeptical of government over time?
HOWE: When they say they are pro-government, they don’t mean that they like what Congress is doing. It means they think there are great things that could be done to bring America together as a community. A growing share of millennials live with their parents. This dovetails into some very positive resolution of the problem of older entitlements. Families will be much closer. That is going to be huge because it avoids some of the huge tax and fiscal drag of a third-party entitlement system supporting older people.
This post on Cracked.com is both insightful and hilarious. It describes, with great accuracy, the reasons why Generation X (born 1961-1981), Boomer (born 1943-1960) and Millennial (born 1982-2004) view the Occupy movement very differently. It also gives some perspective on the “entitled” label often given to Millennials.
If you are new to generational research, here are a few starting points for understanding how the generational cycles work.
- The Cycle of Generations – 10 minutes <–The best place to start.
- Recent Generations and Turnings Chart – (post with explanation)
- Generational Attitude Chart – (post with explanation)
- Circular Generational Attitude Chart – (post with explanation)
- Nested Cycles Chart -(post with explanation)
- US President’s Generations Chart – (post with explanation)
- Legislative Generations Charts
Materials from Other Sites
Books for further research
This is an interesting article about the current state of Generation X:
Not sure if it will last, but perhaps all the realization that we have survived so far is enough to keep Gen X’ers pretty satisfied at this point…
I have been thinking quite a bit about the “Arab Spring” recently. Back in 2007 our family spent three weeks traveling around Egypt (Cairo, Alexandria, the White Desert, Luxor and Hagarda) and we feel an affinity for the area because of our time there.
Strauss and Howe have pointed out that the Arab world (and Europe for that matter) lag behind the US in their generational cycle by about 5 years or so. But the changes going on in the Middle East seem a lot more like the Third Turning (Unraveling) of the 1960’s rather than a Fourth Turning (Crisis). But that may just be on the surface. The “agitators” in the Arab Spring sound a lot like our Millennial (born 1982-2004) rather than Boomer (born 1943-1960). The establishment they are forcing out or protesting against are Silent (born 1925-1942) in many cases – which is different than our leadership in the US (we have never had a Silent Generation president and probably never will). This article from CNN implies that the Arab youth are like the Freedom Riders of the 60’s.
I do wonder whether they are on an entirely different cycle than the US. The outcome of the Arab Spring will be telling in that regard. If it continues to escalate and results in a remaking of the institutions in the next 10-15 years, then they are part of the same Crisis cycle we are in. If it degenerates into social chaos and prolonged instability then they are headed where we were in 70’s and 80’s. I certainly hope for the former.