Generations: The History of America's Future,
William Strauss & Neil Howe
William Morrow and Co. Inc.
This is a fascinating book. The authors build on the academic tradition of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and his father in finding cycles in history. But they travel farther down the road than these eminent historians. Taking their historical data from such learned men as disciples of Jose Ortega y Gasset, William McLoughlin and Samuel Huntington, David Hackett Fischer, J.C. Furnas, Wm. Manchester, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, Henry S. Commager, Ann Douglas and a host of others, the authors build a plausible argument for fine-tuned cycles in the history of the United States of America that border on the scientific.
Although the authors are unaware of this accomplishment (I pointed out to one of them that I had used their book as a text in my postgraduate class in Chaos Theory), they have described American civilization in terms of a complex, nonlinear iterative feedback system. One that is expected to exhibit chaotic behavior. Indeed, periodic points (cycles) are a feature of such systems.
The authors provide convincing evidence that each era of four generations (a generation comes about every 22 years) produces a set of four distinct 'peer personalities' that repeats itself periodically. That is, the four distinct generational personalities repeat, in order, in each era of about 88-100 years.
The current era contains G.I. generation elders born 1901-1924, Silent generation mid-lifers born 1925-1942, Boomer rising adults born 1943-1960, and 13er youths born 1961-1981. Each of these generations has had a mirror generation (in the same chronological order) in each of the four eras of America's existence as a people. The 'peer personality' of each of these generations has been formed by their experience in a world which inflicts Social Moments on them. These Social Moments in history come at a time that finds each of the generations at a different stage in their lives. Their reaction to these Social Moments differ, depending upon their age at the time, and thus their 'view of the world,' their 'peer personality,' differs with their age.
These Social Moments are themselves periodic. That is, they are comprised of a Secular Crisis (an economic depression or a major cataclysmic war) and a Spiritual Awakening, one such pair during each era and each such Social Moment about 40-years apart. Thus, the peer personalities (each different for the four generations in an era) are formed by each generation's reaction to the major happenings about them and the outcome of these happenings (success, victory, or the opposite) depends upon the constellation of the peer personalities of those who face the challenges of the period. This meets the scientific definition of a system that is periodic but which may dissolve into chaos.
So far, this behavior has been in periodic equilibrium in America. That is, we have been sufficiently fortunate that the outcomes have been successful and victorious. The science of surprise, Chaos Theory, tells us, however, that such systems can experience very small changes in the 'constant of complexity' and stable periodic equilibrium can abruptly change to either an exponentially 'good' outcome or come to a catastrophic and sudden end, or any random point in between. Scientists at the Santa Fe Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratory have studied past civilizations which have experienced such catastrophe and have explained their demise in terms of this scientific theory. Earlier historians, Gibbon, Toynbee and others have documented just such an end for all civilizations which have preceded us.
The authors accumulate historical data in patterns that make plausible the notion that American civilization is indeed such a system.
The G.I. generation, a Civic generation, is described as having left a colossal lifelong imprint on America's political, social, and economic institutions. They have a distinct character. Collectively, the G.I.s grew up so accustomed to being looked upon (and rewarded) as good, constructive and deserving. Their prototypical predecessors (as a generational type) included Cotton Mather and James Blair in the 1720s and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the early 1820s. The G.I.s are a rationalist generation. They came of age (in their early 20s) believing that history moves in orderly straight lines. For much of their life-cycle, this attitude brought them hope; in old age, it brings them mostly despair.
The current Silent generation has an Adaptive personality. This type tends to respond ambivalently to anything they confront. They are enablers who tend toward a consensus or 'compromise' perspective. They remain undecided until hearing what the experts have to say. They are now on the cusp of elderhood having shared neither the outer triumph of their next-elders nor the inner rootedness of their next-juniors. Sixty-five years after their first birthday, no member of their generation has yet been elected President. An instinct for leadership may not be their generation's strong suit. They have a highly refined taste for process and expertise that ties other people in knots. They bring a sense of nonjudgmental fairness and open-mindedness to American society.
The Boomer generation has an Idealistic personality. The comfort Boomers derive from their own 'authentic' identity is precisely what makes them troubling in the eyes of others. Like their prototypical predecessors, John Winthrop or Ralph Waldo Emerson, they perceive that within their circle lies a unique vision, a transcendent principle, a moral acuity more wondrous and extensive than anything ever sensed in the history of mankind. According to the authors' 'cycles' of history, the Boomers' counter-culture revolution was supposed to be a spiritual Great Awakening. Its failure to materialize is what many sense as a break with the past -- a change in the 'constant of complexity' -- such that they are deemed, possibly, the most dangerous generation in America's history.
The 13er generation is a throwback to what Gertrude Stein called the 'Lost Generation.' This is a Reactive generation. It may not appreciate being lumped in with mall rats, drug gangs, and collegians who can't find Chicago on a map -- but they grudgingly admit that's how others see them. A popular 13er putdown is "That's history," translated to mean , "That's irrelevant." Wrong. Previous 'Reactive' generations, especially those of Captain Kidd, Benedict Arnold, William Quantrill, and Al Capone) whose entire life-cycle was spent dodging the criticism and mistrust of others, produced the toughest leaders, most effective warriors, most scathingly perceptive artists, and (of course) most successful entrepreneurs. But so too did many of their members burn out young, turn traitor, endure heaps of blame, and suffer a difficult old age.
That and much more is contained in this vast repository of detailed knowledge concerning our history from a perspective that is at the same time entertaining (a Web Site, http://fourthturning.com, is dedicated to the book and its successor), informative and deeply thoughtful. It is a book that should be on everyone's bookshelf who has a curiosity about America's future. For in reading and understanding such a history of our cyclical past, one can reason toward a semblance of America's future -- if the cycles persist.
And if one is conversant with Chaos Theory, one can contemplate the subjective events which comprise the 'constant of complexity' and the direction of our unique system of government. And the impact of this direction on American civilization. The book fits well into the realm of the science of surprise -- that is, the science of unintended consequences. All of us should be aware of this book; politicians, teachers, clergy, businessmen, military leaders and all others who have a leadership role in our American civilization. It is manna for the rest of us as well.