I have an earlier post about the attitudes of generations, and how they affect the climate of our society. In that post I used a chart I created to explain the cycles, but it was presented on an X/Y axis. I have created a circular version of that chart, and put up a slideshare presentation explaining it. Enjoy:
One of the things about the Generational cycles described by Howe and Strauss is that they point to cycles within cycles. As I mentioned in my previous post, they suggest that there are four “turnings” or parts of a cycle related to generations. These four turnings together total between 85 and 100 years, the length of a long human life. Of course, there are other natural cycles that occur inside of these turnings. The most obvious is the cycle of years, with the four seasons. Recently I heard Obama referring to this time of crisis as our “Winter of our Hardship” and he is right on with that. Each year has a natural cycle (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) and the turnings of the generations line up with these as well (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis). One way to look at all this is a sort of “fractal” made up of ever smaller cycles. If you consider my overview of the generations chart (click on any of these images to enlarge):
You can see the red line that goes up and down with each portion of the turnings (shown on the top). This line describes the overall “gestalt” of society at that time. But there is another cycle inside of that cycle, represented by the “maginification” chart below:
The high and low represented in this chart are the actual seasons, Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall. Those fit inside of the generational cycle and are shown in the “magnified” portion of the chart. The point is that there are cycles within cycles.
That’s one way to look at the way cycles are nested inside each other, but a much better approach is to create a circular chart. For example, if we consider the High and Low portion of a day (Noon and Midnight) respectively, we get a circle like this:
This shows the 24 hours of the day, with high noon at the top, and Midnight at the bottom. The red line in the center represents the “high” (Noon) and “low” (Midnight) of the day. When the red line meets the outer circle it is the high point of the day, and when it hits the middle of the circle it is the low. It is interesting how this cycle turns into a heart shape on a circular chart (I think there is some name given to that type of shape on a circle).
We can represent other natural cycles with this same shape. The Lunar cycle can be shown like this:
If we start at the top we have the Full moon, then the Waning moon, New moon, Waxing moon and then returning to the Full moon. Again the red line represents the “high” and the “low” of the cycle.
Next would be the yearly cycle, with the seasons:
The cycle that Strauss and Howe propose is outside of that is the “Saeculum” which is the 85-100 year cycle that defines the high and low of society:
As we can see, this pattern can repeat multiple times as we go further and further out. These are all natural cycles that definitely affect even our modern society (most people do sleep at night and get outside more in the Summer). Often we don’t realize just how much these cycles affect us (see my post on linear thinking), but they that does not lessen their effect. The turnings are a natural cycle as well because they are based on a natural phenomenon (a human lifetime).
We can put all those cycles onto one chart and they look like this:
So here is the big question I get out of this chart. If there is some relationship between the natural cycles (day, month, year, turning) then what is the larger cycle outside of the saeculum? I have some ideas about this that I will put in another post, but I would love to hear readers thoughts and comments.
Also, I am not sure that I got the cycles lined up properly. Spring goes with the Saecular High, but does that correspond to the Full Moon, and Noon?
One thing I have noticed when I show this circular chart to people is that they are often puzzled by what it represents. Unlike the linear chart above, which makes sense to most Western thinkers, the use of a circular chart can be confusing, even though it shows the information in a much more coherent way. That is part of our linear thinking as well, and something I still struggle with. I still need to make the linear charts first before I can put them in a circle. I have several other circular charts that I will describe in later posts.
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.
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.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
— George Santayana
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:
|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:
|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.