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.

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

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):


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