As regular readers know, I am a big fan of Neil Howe and William Strauss‘ generational research. They literally wrote the book on Generations, and I have found their theories very valuable. Enough so that I have helped Neil Howe in getting a blog started which we just launched a few weeks ago. You can see Neil’s latests posts at http://blog.lifecourse.com. I proud to be the administrator and editor for the blog. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line.
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:
Disclaimer: I like Neil Howe’s work and have read most of his books. I have not read Bauerlein’s but probably will soon.
This video is very short, but I don’t find Mark’s argument compelling. For example, he says:
“Teen to teen contact is crowding out the voices of teachers, parents, ministers and other mentors in in their lives”.
Sounds like the Boomers (born 1943-1960) are getting some payback on this one. They certainly did not listen to any of their teachers, parents, ministers or other mentors in their youth. They had a similar “echo chamber” amongst their peers, and they used it to preach to each other and then tear down the society built by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924). But unlike the Boomers, this is a generation of people who DO more than they SAY and want to build up something new rather than tear something down.
“They don’t read books” and “In 1982, 18-24 year-olds formed the most avid readers in our country. In 2002 they became the least active reading group”
Equating reading books with intelligence is, well, an out-dated concept. I am Gen X and I read a ton, but I have lots of VERY smart peers and friends who don’t read much. Should we really judge intelligence by the size of a person’s bookshelf? Is complex thought only possible after reading a book?
Although I personally place high value on reading, it is worth noting that it is a very passive activity. Sure, some might say you use your imagination when reading, but in comparison to having an active conversation or debate with another person it is pretty passive. Should we judge those conversations harshly because they happen online instead of face-to-face?
It is particularly ironic that Baurelein subtitled his book, “Don’t trust anyone under 30”. It is a reference back to the 60’s statement “Don’t trust anyone over 30“. The message here from a Boomer is that we shouldn’t trust anyone older than a Boomer, and probably should discount anyone younger than a Boomer as well!
Bauerlein’s whole argument seems to be very, “Kids today! They have no respect for their elders”. It’s a tired argument that does not apply. It applied to Gen X (born 1961-1981) and Boomers(born 1943-1960), but not to Millennials. Time to get past that myth. Listen Howe’s brief statement. It has a LOT better facts backing it and paints a much clearer picture of what this generation is about.
Note: I can see the argument that the “multi-tasking” that afflicts most people today (of almost all ages) is destrimental to coherent thought processes, but doesn’t make Millennials stupid as a generation. I may do a future post on this distraction/multi-tasking topic in the future.
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.
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.