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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 (Artist’s Conception)

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.

They are destined to return?

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.

Pictured: Artists (apparently)

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.

Clap if you love Pseudohistory!

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.

George Washington (1732 – 1799) “Nomad”

A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured an introductory post concerning the power which population demographics exert over the affairs of people and nations.  I would like to follow up on those ideas with a post concerning demographic cohorts in the United States (and in Western Europe, where history and shared culture have produced similar chronological categories).  A cohort consists of a group of contemporaries, born together in a 15-25 year period, who have shared certain coming-of-age experiences and crises together. According to conventional thinking there are seven age-based cohorts still marching in the great parade of life here in the western democracies:

  1. The Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900): Honestly only a few last representatives of the World War I generation remain alive, and they are now so old as to seem fabulously unbelievable–like unicorns or manticores. They earned their name in a horrible way.  A whole generation of young men were conscripted to fight in the trenches of France–and they never came back from the mud beneath the big guns. Even in America, which entered the war late, a huge part of this generation was lost to Spanish flu. The last man to fight in the trenches died earlier this year.  Soon everyone who ever lived in the shadow of the monstrous debacle that was World War I will be dead and the generation will truly be lost–but for now a few ancient grandmothers still survive. 
  2. The Greatest Generation (born 1901 to 1924): This generation also came by its name through fighting in a World War.  The abject awfulness of the Nazi and Japanese war machines gave Allied soldiers a moral clarity and purpose which other generations have lacked. Also this generation first mastered the atom, first ventured into space, and then presided over a time of unprecedented plenty and economic success.
  3. The Silent Generation (born 1924-1945): The oldest members of the Silent Generation participated in World War II along with the greatest generation and now pretend to be part of that cohort, but largely this was the generation slightly too young to go to war.  They grew up in the depression–and they carry some of the hardheaded skinflint pragmatism of that time with them always.
  4. The Baby Boom (born 1945-1965): When the Second World War was won, the world lay in smoking ruins–except for America which was at the peak of its productive capacity.  The brave soldiers came home, started businesses, and married the strong capable women working in the hospitals and factories.  Then together they engendered a huge demographic bulge of newborns. The demographic weight of the boomers (combined with a certain self-absorbed focus on their special destiny) has put them much in the center of national affairs. They were the hippy generation who protested during the summer of love.  They were the hard-charging yuppies of the eighties.  They are the bulk of the government now.  However the boomers are beginning to retire and this massive flux is going to upend everything in our nation.
  5. Generation X (born 1965-1981): Also called the thirteenth generation, this is my generation. We were born in the post-sixties hangover, when recession and malaise stalked the nation and then we came of age in the booming eighties and nineties as communication technology underwent unprecedented breakthroughs (and brought an unprecedented boom in productivity). My generation has always seemed a bit lost—a rain shadow cast by the demographic mountain of baby boomers.  The conventional wisdom is that generation x is lackadaisical, cynical, and apathetic. We certainly do not have any moon landings or atomic bombs to our credit but we did have a hand in creating the new information age.  Also our entire generational ethos has not been finalized. Our greatest masterpieces have not yet been painted.
  6. The Millennial Generation (born 1981-2002): This group is also known as the shadow boom or mini-boom because they are the children of baby boomers (and therefor have their own demographic power). The majority of our active duty service members are from this generation.  They grew up surrounded by pagers, faxes, emails, and texts and they have the mentality to make sense of our networked world. When I was visiting my alma-mater a few years ago, I noticed that the students looked a lot happier and better-dressed than they did when I was a student.  The bars and bathrooms were not covered in graffiti and everyone’s hair was neat.  I think this generation really does have a different and more optimistic mentality then the two preceding it.  Coming into the workforce during a crippling recession might jar the polite businesslike smiles of the millennial generation a bit, but based on their battlefield aplomb and their personal rectitude, we can expect great things.
  7. The New As-Yet-Unnamed Generation (2002-present): No golden-tongued wag has yet given a name to the generation who are currently children.  Whenever I see this group featured in the mainstream media, it seems to be a pejorative article about how video games and environmental mercury are making them dull, but on an anecdotal level I have not found this to be true at all.  The children I have met have all the grace, swiftness, brilliance, and innocence of children.  They are bright and shiny as new-struck coins and I think it is appropriate that nobody has given them a name yet.

Of this list, I obviously have a preference for the first two generations and the last two generations. The lost generation and the greatest generation were badasses who came of age killing Germans with bayonets while building superweapons at home.  The two most recent generations are good-looking kids who are polite, hard-working, socially conscious, and still possess nimble minds. Naysayers who complain about the bad pop music and bad attitudes of “kids these days” are out-of-touch curmudgeons who are not paying close attention to reality [well, popular music actually is pretty bad—ed.].  The millennials are alright and the unnamed generation are better than alright—they are adorable kids who could grow up to be anything.

Sadly, the three generations in the middle—the generations who are at their economic peak and are running the country–are a greedy, fumbling mess.  It is popular to blame Chinese manufacturers, world trade, and globalization for the current economic turmoil, but there is a simpler reason for these bad times.  The inability of government to work and the excesses of our financial sector reflect a deeper division in our society. A huge number of Americans are beginning to retire, and, as large swaths of the population change from productive members of society to retired (but politically active and materially successful) seniors, the nation’s economic timbre is sure to be diminished.

A quick look at the halls of congress or the directorship of large companies will reveal that the silent generation and the baby boomers may be retiring, but they have not given up the true reigns of authority. The great political movements of the past few years—the tea party and the “occupy Wall Street” protests snap into a much sharper focus if you look at the age of the respective participants.  Wrestling control of the faltering nation from the hands of hard-bitten silent generation plutocrats and from a huge number of retiring boomers (who have always had things their way) falls to the indolent hands of generation x—people who would rather write blogs or paint weird paintings.  I, for one, am looking forward to when the millennial generation can also rise to the halls of power. I also worry that demographic stalemate might mean we have to wait until then to enjoy a united and prosperous nation.

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