The Boomer Generation Legacy

Boomers are just now realizing that they want to leave a legacy. Is it too late?

I was recently talking with a friend at a non-profit and he was telling me about the challenges faced by the organization. Most of the company is getting on in years, mostly Boomers (born 1943-1960) who have been with the organization for a very long time. Because it is an non-profit, they are driven by a desire to fulfill the “mission”. As many of these Boomers are nearing retirement, they are realizing that they would like to “leave a legacy” behind them. The only problem is that each of them has a different vision of what that legacy should be.
This is a uniquely Boomer reality: the desire to leave a legacy which only arise as they are getting close to departing from their work-life. The challenge with this desire is two-fold:

  • If everyone wants to leave their own legacy at an organization, the organization is likely to have troubles being true to a singular mission
  • You can’t build a legacy in just a few years

Many Boomers have spent their lives rebelling against a system that they saw as corrupt and shallow. They accomplished this goal, tearing down the American Dream society built by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), and I would argue it needed tearing down. But because their focus was inward and individual, they were not able to rebuild an new society based on their vision(s), at least not in their midlife (from 42-63). But now as they enter Elderhood (64-84) they are realizing that building something lasting might be possible with the enlisted help of their heroic children (Millennials, born 1982-200?).

All that is reasonable enough, but the problem arises when each individual Boomer wants to build their ideal and leave their mark on an organization or society in general. There just is not enough room for all those ideals. The other problem is that to build a true legacy you must work your entire life towards that goal. You must be true to a singular vision from very early in life. It is not something you can adopt at 63 and expect to bring it to fruition before your are too tired to continue. Many Boomers will leave a legacy, but it is likely that they started working on that legacy a long time ago.

But for many Boomers this is not a deterrent. Many Boomers see the opportunity to finally build something lasting instead of taking down something they despised. It is a worthy goal, but it must be done with a recognition that it will be another generation will be deciding which ideal to pursue and the time for talk and squabbling is almost over. This pushing and pulling for the reins will become more common in the next few years while we decide what ideal to build upon.

This attitude reminds me of the leadership of several failed startups I have worked at. I have often said that the leaders of these companies became so enamored of their part in the story of the company that they stopped caring where the story was going. They just wanted to be sure that they were a part of the story, even if that meant it ended badly. Let’s hope Boomers don’t make the same mistake.

Neil Howe talks about Generations

Neil Howe spoke about his book “The Fourth Turning” on a radio show in October of 2008. The show is up on Youtube for your listening pleasure.

Neil Howe spoke about Generational cycles in a radio show in October 2008. It’s a total of about two hours, and well worth a listen of at least the first few segments (it’s divided into 10 minute segments because of Youtube limitations). All are below:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

Part 10:

Part 11:

Part 12:

Defend the Honor of Generation X!

Generation X (born 1961-1981) has taken a lot of grief over the years, but never more than from the “I Hate Gen X” site. It’s time to defend the honor of our generation.

Yesterday I came upon this site titled “I Hate Gen X (and Y)“. The site has pictures and bios of various Gen X’ers who are, in the authors view, despicable:

X Losers

Many of the pictures are linked to bios that describe the awful things that these generation X’ers have done and how they have ruined society. There is also a page on the voting history of Generation X (and quite a bit of Generation Y). Much of the thesis of the site is that X’ers are bad citizens because they don’t turn out to vote in high numbers:

Perhaps the site is tongue-in-cheek (it is pretty funny, really), but I need readers help in coming up with content as a rebuttal to this:

where are the great x'ers?

The site has this image and asks the question: Name one great Generation X’er.

So this is where I need your help. Can you name great examples under the categories listed above? Generation X is defined as anyone born between 1961-1981. So that includes Barack Obama right off the bat, but we need more, many more. Jeff Gordinier took a shot with his book, “X Saves the World“, which I highly recommend, but I think a comprehensive list would be powerful.

C’mon Gen X’ers, do us proud!

While you are at it, pass this post around to other Gen X’ers you know on Twitter and Facebook

I will amend this post with the top candidates for each category:

Category Candidate 1 Candidate 2 Candidate 3 Candidate 4 Candidate 5
Thinker Malcolm Gladwell Mark Kingwell
Poet Christian Bok
Philosopher Sam Harris
Leader Barack Obama Rachel Maddow Todd Beamer
Writer Jonathan Franzen David Foster Wallace Michael Chabon Will Ferguson JK Rowling
Actor Don Cheadle Robert Downey Jr. Jodie Foster Ralph Fiennes Natasha Richardson
Comedian Eddie Izzard Jon Stewart Dave Chapelle Seth McFarlane Eddie Murphy
Statesman Barack Obama
Glamor Queen Princess Diana Julia Roberts
Sculptor Douglas Coupland
Architect David Adjaye
Fashion Designer Alexander Wang
Artist Matthew Barney Shepard Fairey
Film Director Sophia Coppola Quentin Tarantino Steven Soderbergh Guy Ritchie Andy Wachowski
Enviromentalist Julia Butterfly Hill
Politician Bernard Lord George Stephanopoulos Jim Thune
Social Visionary Arundhati Roy Shane Claiborne
Labor Leader Naomi Klein Lois Jenson
Musician Andrew Bird Garth Brooks
Athlete Barry Bonds Tiger Woods Wayne Gretsky Michael Jordan Steve Young

How Generations Predict the Crisis will last until 2025

The cycle of generations in the US shows us the patterns of history. And those patterns predict that the crisis we are in will not be over until around 2025.

One of the most significant aspects of generational research for me is its predictive ability. The cycle of generations described by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their books (starting with “Generations“) has an amazing predictive ability. Their book “The Fourth Turning“, written in 1997, predicts many of the events we have seen in the last few years with amazing accuracy. But this is not astrology or soothsaying. The predictions are based in strong social science that shows how the character of generations creates specific changes in society. Information about turnings can also be found on the Lifecourse Website.

Howe and Strauss point out that there are four cycles in history, that they call “turnings”, which are very similar to the four seasons of the year. It begins with the “High”, similar to Spring, a period in which life is growing, the days are getting longer and optimism abounds. The last High in the US was between 1946 and 1964. The next turning is the “Awakening” which is like the Summer, a period where life flourishes in many forms, perhaps to the point that things are a bit out of control. Our last Awakening the Consciousness Revolution from 1995-1985 when everything our society was based on during the High was questioned. The third turning is the “Unraveling”, similar to the Fall, when life dies back, the days shorten and things feel chaotic and uncontrolled. The last Unraveling in the US were the Culture Wars from 1986-2005, when society fell apart as it answered the questions from the Consciousness Revolution. The fourth turning is the “Crisis” which is most like Winter. During the Crisis the seeds that have been planted in the fall must survive through the short, cold days and life is bleak and unforgiving. We are in the Crisis now, and it will likely last until 2025. Those that survive the Crisis will enjoy warmth and promise of the coming Spring/High.
The chart above shows the turnings since 1900 (click on the image to enlarge). The red line represents the “High” and “Low” of the cycle. At the top of the curve, there is maximum unity in society as well as a simple worldview. At the bottom there is maximum discord and a complex worldview.

Just like the cycles of the seasons, the turning are of a specific length. Most vary from 20-25 years in duration. Just like the seasons in nature, it is difficult to change the timing of the turnings because they are guided by a natural force. The natural force in play is the length of an average long human lifetime, 85 – 100 years (also known as a saeculum). This period is significant because it is the amount of time required for us to forget the lessons of previous generational cycles. The cycle makes a full revolution from the High through the Crisis (and then repeats).

So while it is possible financial crisis we are in will end soon, perhaps in the next few years, the larger crisis will last for at least 10-15 years (until 2025 or perhaps as early as 2020). Think back to our most recent historical example, the Crisis turning from 1929-1945. It began with the Great Depression. By the time that the Depression was “over” (in the late 1930’s) Europe was already marching toward WWII. Think of what the outlook must have seemed like in the late 1930’s. If you had managed to survive the Depression you were wary and protective. Although the economy was improving, there were much bigger storm clouds gathering on the horizon. And by 1939 it was clear that the Great Depression was nothing in comparison to what was coming in the War. The world looked very bleak indeed (just like the middle of winter), and few would have predicted the glory that was in store in 1945. We are in a similar period now, and we are building towards that climax which is still 10-15 years away.

The climax will be the final reconciliation of the Boomer (born 1943-1960) generation who play the role of prophets in our current cycle. The ideological battle for how society should look will be debated by the Boomers and fought by the Millennials (born 1982-200?). This was true in the last cycle when the Missionary generation led (Stalin and FDR) and the GI Generation fought (all the war heroes). Does this climax need to be a war? No, but the climax has always been a major war historically (WWII, Civil War, American Revolution, Glorious Revolution, etc..)

I see this coming war taking one of two shapes. It will either be a war against Global Warming/Peak Oil/Water Shortage and other threats to our living environment, or it will be a battle against another nation or group of nations (Arab or Chinese being most likely). I would prefer the former, but as a Generation X’er I have little influence. Fortunately, there is one person in my generation does have some influence on this direction, and his name is Barack Obama (no guarantee that he will have the answer either).

The good news is that society will pull together during this crisis and we will forge a new direction for our entire country (and perhaps world) before it is over. That is how the next High will arise, but it will be a long time before it arrives. Although our situation may seem dire, it will be useful to be aware of the fundamental changes happening in our society as we face this immense struggle. And, as I have said many times, it will require a huge effort from all the living generations who must work together despite their different views.

If you want a primer on the research of William Strauss and Neil Howe, see my “start here” section.

[I put a comment about this on  as “dsohigian”]

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:

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:


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:


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
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

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.