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Last year I wrote about generational cohorts: the idea that America’s current population can be roughly divided and characterized by age. The essay provoked a philosophical backlash from my contrarian friend Mike, who was opposed to the idea that large groups of people can be broadly characterized in such a manner (or “stereotyped” would be the pejorative way of saying it). I still firmly believe that groups of people do fit in to larger categories—that is why we have nations and tribes and professions and classes. It is why history is a meaningful discipline rather than an incoherent babble of individual voices. Characterizing what those categories are and what they mean is the goal of the social sciences and the humanities. However, my friend raised some legitimate points too. To defend his side of the argument–at least as I imagine it–I am going to write about a wholly unsatisfactory (albeit immensely entertaining) interpretation of generational cohorts, the Strauss-Howe generational theory, which is a ridiculous magical prophecy pretending to be a historical interpretation of seceding generations.
The Strauss-Howe generational theory is a bizarre amalgamation of historical perspective, Jungian archetypes, and craziness. The “theory” categorizes generational cohorts into four repeating archetypes: hero, artist, prophet, and nomad. Each generation has one of these characteristics (for example the World War II generation–the “Greatest” generation–was a “hero” generation). According to Strauss-Howe, the pattern sequentially repeats, and has done so throughout Western history! The World War II generation was made up of heroes who came of age as pragmatic civic-minded optimists during a period of crisis. They were able to work together as a team to overcome the disasters of their time. The Silent Generation grew up in a crisis and afterwards were overprotected and controlled. In middle-life they synthesized the values of the previous generation into an institutionalized canon of ideas and philosophies. The Baby-Boom generation was a counter-cultural revolutionary generation who eschewed the heavy handed group-think of the previous two generations. Generation X is a nomad generation, forever adrift, lost, and worthless. The Millennial Generation is a group of pragmatic civic-minded optimists growing up in an era of crisis. They are destined to work together as a team to overcome the disasters of their time…and so on.
Strauss and Howe flesh out their theories in their book “Generations: The History of America’s Future” which adds a longer historical context to the paradigm. Each generation must contend with a historical progression of “Unraveling”, “Crisis”,“High”, and “Awakening”. For example: the Great Depression & World War II provided the crisis; the Great Power era marked a high; the culture clash and protests of the youth movement were an awakening; the culture wars and 9/11 represent an age of unraveling. Then the pattern begins anew: the Global Financial Crisis we are now living through is another full-blown crisis (until the Millennials come of age and fix it). The generational cohorts repeat this cycle again and again (with one exception below).
Here is a list of each generational cohort by birth year and archetypical temperament:
Enlightenment Generation (1674-1700): Artist
Awakening Generation (1701-1723): Prophet
Liberty Generation (1724-1741): Nomad
Republican Generation (1742-1766): Hero
Compromise Generation (1767-1791): Artist
Transcendental Generation (1792-1821): Prophet
Gilded Generation (1822-1842): Nomad
Progressive Generation (1843-1859): Artist
Missionary Generation (1860-1882): Prophet
Lost Generation (1883-1900): Nomad
Greatest Generation (1901-1924): Hero
Silent Generation (1925-1945): Artist
Baby Boom (1946-1960): Prophet
Generation X (1961-1981): Nomad
Millennial Generation (1982-2004): Hero
“Homeland” Generation (2005-?): Artist
I have only included the familiar American Generations. Hilariously, Strauss & Howe continued back through the English Civil War, the Reformation, the War of the Roses…all the way to the Hundred Years War. Coincidentally, sharp-eyed observers will note the absence of a heroic generation around the time of the Civil War. The authors of “Generations” believed that the Transcendental Generation and the Gilded Generation were so debased, fractious, and incompetent that the war came about ten years too early. The Progressive generation was broken and disabused rather than ennobled. It became a bitter generation of introspective artists rather than battle-scarred heroes (although of course they did, you know, fight the Civil War). The lack of Civil War heroes however is the only break in the 500 year long continuum of the 4 part cycle–according to Strauss & Howe.
Anyway, I think that provides you with enough of an overview of the Strauss & Howe theory. If you are interested, there is more information out there (the Wikipedia page lays everything out nicely in tables). The book, coincidentally, was a best-seller. It particularly appealed to marketers and politicians of the Baby Boomer generation—both Al Gore and Newt Gingrich cite it as fundamental to their beliefs.
And so we come back to my friend’s point: that the behavioral characteristics of generational cohorts are arbitrary categories made up by academics (or frauds) in order to aggrandize themselves. The Strauss-Howe theory does indeed seem to be such a model. The cohort breakdown presented above might have some merit, but the four repeating archetypes do not. If we took out all of Strauss & Howe’s terminology and replaced it with random animal names (and then attributed selected characteristics of those animals to each era) we would have an equally valid paradigm. In fact astrologers have done exactly that for millennia. We can project Strauss and Howe’s model forward and learn…what? That there will be a crisis in the near future and that the current generation will solve it to the best of their abilities (presuming they aren’t screw-ups like the Civil War generation). That doesn’t seem very profound or useful. Macrohistory is a treacherous window. It is so large that a well-meaning scholar can find anything in it. I haven’t given up on differentiating groups of people by age, but seeing how silly such a game can quickly become provides a salutary lesson to proceed through the ages with care.