Directions for Generation X

In Strauss and Howe’s book “The Fourth Turning” the describe the roles of each generation during the various “Turnings“.  At the end of the book there are “scripts” for each of the generation in the Crisis (aka “Fourth Turning”) that represents the next 10-15 years in American history. Each script describes how the generation in question should act for a positive outcome from the Crisis. I already posted the script for the Millennial Generation (born 1982-200?) a few days ago. The script for Generation X (born 1961-1981)  is shown below (emphasis and links mine). “Nomad” refers to the archetype of Generation X.

Survival skills are what a society needs most in a Fourth Turning, and those are precisely what the most criticized archetype—the Nomad—possesses in abundance. Through the natural corrective force of the saeculum, the Nomad was raised to excel in exactly those skills that history will require from him in midlife at a time of real public danger. His challenge will be to stop dispersing these skills for scattered purposes and start gathering them for one larger purpose. Through the Unraveling, the Nomad has been able to withdraw from civic life, but come the Crisis he cannot. It will be his duty to ensure that whatever choices society makes will work as intended. In public life, the Nomad must cut through the paralytic residue once built by his shadow, the old Artist. In private life, he must rebuild the family and community rituals once discarded by the old Artist. As he does this, the Nomad will nurture the new child Artist.
The Fourth Turning will find other generations with lives either mostly in the past or mostly in the future, but it will catch X’ers in “prime time,” right at the midpoint of their adult years. They must step forward as the saeculum’s repair generation, the one stuck with fixing the messes and cleaning up the debris left by others. Every tool X’ers acquired during a hardened childhood and individualist youth will be put to maximum test. If X’ers apply these tools for community purpose, they will become antidotes to pathologies remembered from their own Awakening-era childhood— from divorce and latchkeys to public debt and cultural decay.
The X’ers gravest Fourth Tuning duty will be their society’s most important pre-seasonal task: to ensure that there can indeed be a new High, a new golden age of hope and prosperity. For the Crisis to end well, X’ers must keep Boomers from wreaking needless destruction and Millennials from marching too mindlessly under their elders’ banner. They will not find it easy to restrain an older generation that will consider itself far wiser than they, and a younger one that will consider itself more deserving. For this, X’ers will require a keen eye, a deft touch, and a rejection of the wild risk taking associated with their youth.
From now through the end of the Fourth Turning, X’ers will constantly rise in power. From 1998 until around the Crisis climax, they will be America’s largest potential generational voting block. As the years pass, their civic contributions will become increasingly essential to their nation’s survival. They will have to vote more and participate more, if they want to contain the Boomers’ zealotry. They will have that chance. Their own elected officials will surge into Congress as the Crisis catalyzes, eclipse Boomers around its climax, and totally dominate them by the time it resolves.
As they go one-on-one with history, X’ers should remember that history is counting on them to do whatever hard jobs may be necessary. If X’ers play their script weakly, old Boomers could wreak a horrible apocalypse, and X’ers demagogues could impose a mind-numbing authoritarianism—or both. If X’ers play their script cleverly but safely, however, a new golden age will be their hard-won reward. As they age, X’ers should remember Hemingway’s words: “Old men do not grow wise. They grow careful.”

This was written in 1997 and I am personally amazed at how true it holds today. Us X’ers have a tough and thankless job ahead of us (just like our tough and thankless childhood/young adulthood). But perhaps knowing how critical our role is in this transition will bolster our morale.

The Cycles of Generations

How do the attitudes of each generation form the climate of society during different periods (and vice versa)? This webinar explains.

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:

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.

How Generations Predict The Future

Part of understanding the cycle of generations is being able to see how the unique character of each generation varies as they pass through the stages of life.
I created a chart recently to describe the attitudes of various generations as they passed through time. In this webinar I describe the chart, piece by piece, to give a better understanding of the cycles involved. You may want to view Part 1 of Understanding Generations first. You can download the hi-res PDF version of the chart.