I wrote about the saeculum and its four turnings (or seasons) in my last post. Each turning has a collective “mood.” What drives these moods is the configuration of generations alive during each turning.
Drawing on the work of political theorist and historians dating as far back as the Greeks and the Old Testament, William Straus and Neil Howe believe there is a repeating pattern of four generational archetypes: Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist. It is the mood of the turning that shapes the parenting and nuture a rising generation receives. As the oldest generation fades from the scene, there is almost an unconscious yearning to recreate the virtues of the passing generation in the generation being born.
Here is a summary of traits for each generational archetype combined with the placement of five generations living today.
The information in this chart describes variables about generations in the aggregate. Most misuse of the data stems from a failure to appreciate this. There is a temptation to read information about your own generation and say “That doesn’t describe me” and therefore conclude the typology is worthless. The other temptation is to read this data like a horoscope and conclude that by knowing a persons age you can pigeonhole there character. Neither of these is appropriate.
By way of analogy, most would agree that Alabama is a politically conservative state. Does that mean that a liberal living in Alabama should conclude that Alabama is not conservative because she is not conservative? Does that mean when we meet someone from Alabama we can automatically conclude that he is conservative? No on both counts. Still, it is true to say that Alabama is a conservative state and anyone who lives their lives in that milieu. The same is true for a member of a generation.
One of the things I like about the dates Strauss and Howe assign to generations is the number of variables they consider. I have seen a variety of dates given for living generations. The reasons for breaking points are often interesting but not based on as thorough an analysis as Strauss and Howe’s dates. For instance, demographers often speak of the “Baby Boom” as people born 1946-1964 but Strauss and Howe use 1943-1960. Both are right for their purposes. The fertility rate began to rise beyond historical rates in 1946, peaked in the late 1950s and then dropped significantly in the early 1960s. By 1965, the fertility rates had fallen to historically typical levels. If you plot the rates on a chart with the mean rate for the century you can see quite vividly what happened. However, Strauss and Howe are asking a different question. The fertility rate turned upward in 1943, indicating a change of attitude about parenting decisions. Similarly, precipitous decline in the fertility rate began about 1960, showing parenting values had changed again. Thus, 1943-1960. The lines between generations are permeable not rock solid. I like to think of a computer screensaver that shows a picture for awhile and then dissolves out as a new one is “dissolving” in. There is a break between the two but not a sharp transition.
One other point needs to be made about Strauss and Howe’s work. It is not fatalistic. They believe this generational pattern is strong and resilient but not inevitable. They believe that out of the 14 or so turnings that America has experienced, there scenario has played out all but once. That was at the Civil War. If you look at a generation like the G.I. “Hero” generation (born 1901-1924) they confronted a major secular crisis as young adults. Meeting and overcoming that challenge gives the Hero generation an almost euphoric sense of empowerment that shapes their performance in the last half their existence. A similar presumed “Hero” generation fought the Civil War and the war came abruptly at the beginning of a fourth turning (that is about 15-20 years ahead of the way the scenario usually plays out.) The Civil War did not lead to the euphoric sense of empowerment and the “Hero” generation morphed into an “Artist” generation, the archetype that should have followed it. Thus, in effect, the Hero generation was skipped.
Part of what I like about Strauss and Howe’s work is the ecological midset it uses to analyze history. Many use generational analysis as a linear tool where each generation is shaped by a narrow range of political and social events unique to them. Strauss and Howe see oscillations over decades as the culture swings back and forth, never quite sustaining balance. For example, there are times when children are under protected in childhood. Society begins to focus on children. Soon children are better protected but the movement swings beyond equilibrium to overprotection. Society responds once again as it loosens up concerning children. But again, the correction goes too far and children are under protected. There is a never ending quest for equilibrium.
Finally, consider this picture of Mt. Rushmore.
Each of these presidents was of a different generation archetype and placed in the correct sequential archetype order on mountain.
- George Washington - Liberty Generation, born 1724-1741 (Nomad)
- Thomas Jefferson - Republican Generation, born 1742-1766 (Hero)
- Theodore Roosevelt - Progressive Generation, born 1843-1859 (Artist)
- Abraham Lincoln - Transcendental Generation, born 1792-1821 (Prophet)
This is the configuration at the end of a First Turning. Was there an unconscious connection with these archetypes in their selection? Who knows.
Over the next few posts I will give a brief summary of each of the living generations and how this ecology of generations has unfolded.