Generational Cycles

Millennials Rising by Neil Howe & William Strauss fleshes out a theory that generations have a cyclical nature, with four generational types.

Here is the basic idea:

An era starts with an Idealist generation, focused on social issues, and question/challenge the morals of institutions. Idealists are born and grow up in a societal ‘high’- when crime is low, optimism is high, and children are indulged.

Next, is the Reactive generation, focused pragmatic-solutions, and survival. They are usually rebellious, independent, and cynical. The are born during an ‘awakening’- when society is focused on ‘self’ rather than community. Crime starts to rise, and children are under-protected. They are usually branded a “bad” generation.

Next, is the Civic generation,  focused on ‘how to clean things up’, and finding consensus in a divisive ‘unraveling’ culture. They gear toward rebuilding institutions, and value optimism and team-work.

Next, is the Adaptive generation. They are born during a societal ‘crisis’. They are over-protected, and value fairness, sensitivity, cooperation. They tend to be conformists, and are usually labeled as a “good” generation.

So based on this cycle it’s fairly easy to identify these archetypes in the present era:
Boomers (Idealists)
GenX (Reactives)
Millennials (Civics)
still cooking… (Adaptives)

So what does all this actually look like?
To better understand the era we’re in now, it helps to look at the previous era cycle 1890s-1970s.

The Missionary Generation was born post-Civil War, and raised with Victorian values, and was a pampered and indulged generation. They grew up to reject the strict Victorian values, questioned ‘a woman’s place’ and other gender roles. Missionaries were born and grew up when the Industrial Revolution hit the U.S. They feared society would become soulless, inhumane, and money-driven. Much to the chagrin of their affluent Victorian parents, they fought for workers rights, rather than furthering technology and accumulating money. They fought for laws that protect women and children from harsh work conditions which helped lead to the restriction of child labor. You could say this generation actually created our modern idea of childhood for Americans. They embraced romanticism, and were determined to marry only for love, and not wealth or social status. Women of this generation also embraced being single. They were the first wave of feminism and proudly called themselves spinsters. They were the largest group of women in American history to remain unmarried throughout their lives until the Boomers. The 1900s was a time of Awakening in America. Similar to the 1960s-70s.

The Lost Generation came of age during a time of self-discovery, and new exciting philosophies. Freud published new psychological theories in 1900. Electrical inventions were starting to be produced for mass-consumption. Modern art movements were starting to shock the public, and push the boundaries of what was acceptable. Women’s clothing changed, skirts got shorter, women sported a cropped hairstyle. The coming of age for this generation was the Roaring Twenties. The stock market was used as a way to get rich quick. Prohibition was being pushed by the Missionary Gen, and irrelevantly dismissed by the Lost Gen who were famous for speak-easies, bootlegging, and moonshine. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the spokesperson for his generation. A generation who loved the decadence of the early century, but also got lost in the frivolity of the times. Most of WWI soldiers were of the Lost Generation. Hemmingway is said to be coin the label “a lost generation..” The 1910s-1920s was a time of decadence, affluence, and social unravel. Compare to the 1980s-1990s.

GI Generation was born to mostly Missionary parents. They were protected and had benefits given to them the previous generations hadn’t experienced. They were on average an inch taller than previous generations due to better nutrition and medical technology. They were the first generation on average to not have a parent or sibling pass away while they were children. Both, huge breakthroughs at the time. They were closely advised by their Missionary parents, who raised them to have strong values, and make a difference in the world around them. GI’s coined the phrase ‘teenager’ which was recognized as a unique phase of life for the first time. They grew up on hero stories like Superman, and were very accomplishment-driven, and optimistic as a generation. They came of age in the 1930s-1940s which was a time of crises, including the Great Depression, and later WWII. It was a time of coming together as a nation, and society beginning to ‘trim the fat’ from previous values. Similar to the times we’re entering now 2000-2010.

The Silent Generation was born during the time of crises. This is the generation I understand the least, probably because the Silents alive now are in their 70s, and the upcoming Adaptives are still being born. As kids their impression of the world was that it is a scary, unsafe place, and it’s best to keep your head down, cooperate, and try to just have a good time. As teenagers and young adults the nation was in the Cold War, and not focused on ‘teen’ culture, which was still a brand new thing. The youth culture that did exist was branded as nice and squeaky-clean, although the reality may have been very different in their personal lives. Rather than searching for purpose, or being ‘heroes’ this generation focused mostly on financial security. As midlife adults, they set the tone for the careerist and money-driven mood of the 1980s. Silents were the youngest marrying generation in U.S. history, and the first mass-divorcing generation in the U.S. As Reactive generations are oppressed by a turbulent society and culture, Adaptives are oppressed by rigid, pressured social values. In adulthood, Silents were instrumental in the Civil Rights movement. Growing up with a sense of ‘moral oppression’ by an unfeeling society, Silents have a sensitivity toward personal rights. A sensitivity, but not a bold conviction like the Boomers that lead the Conscience Revolution in the 1960s…. or the Missionary Generation at the turn of the 19th century…

and the cycle starts again
…and continues..
with a fresh Idealist generation….

28 thoughts on “Generational Cycles

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  3. Most of your analysis is from Strauss and Howe and you rightly credit them. However, they say there are no “good” or “bad” generations. Each generation is unique and serves a purpose at the appropriate time in history. I encourage you to read the books. Thanks.

    • This is a synopsis of the generational theory (fully credited to H&S) to inform the reader of the framework I’m using to analyze Millennials in many of my posts. I’m using the terms “bad” and “good” very abstractly (and with quotations, I believe), as I agree that no generation could be given such a definitive label. In the context of a “bad” Reactive generation, I mean rebellious, and an “good” Adaptive generation, I mean compliant. With a post-modern mindset, most Millennials don’t think in terms of absolutes.

      I have read through many of H&S books, including Generations, The Fourth Turning, Millennials Rising. Also: Winograd & Hais Millennial Makeover, and Millennial Momentum.

      Thank you for the feedback! Any comments on my posts would be appreciated on this so-called Civic generation.

    • Lol this discussion thread is amazing! There’s nothing better than watching some arrogant, condescending dude who thinks he knows better getting “politely corrected” by a woman who knows what she’s talking about and knows it well enough to expound upon it and ad her own analysis. Come on Marc. If all she did was regurgitate what the authors said without explaining it in the context of her larger work, what would be the point? That’s the whole point of academic study in the first place, brother. #jointheconversation

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  19. I take it you are a so called millennial? If you are a millennial, it makes perfect sense to me that you wouldn’t “get” the Silent generation. I personally completely do not “get” or like the Boomers, and although I share the same level of tech-usage and similar cultural things with millennials (electronic based music, videogames, Internet, social media hey I was on Friendster and Napster before it was cool) that didn’t exist in previous generations (I’m in the younger half of gen x) I also have a hard time relating to millennials although I do generally like them ok (kind of like having loud, obnoxious, attention seeking, bratty younger siblings who you can’t help but love even though they’re spoiled and annoying).

    I do, however, completely “get” the Silent generation and relate to them very easily on a generational level. Gen X and Silents are both tiny, introverted generations sandwiched between huge, iconic, extroverted, pushy generations. Silents were overshadowed by the big, dominant WWII GI generation that came before and the big, loud, obnoxious, dominant Boomer generation after. About 45 million Silents were born versus 75 million Boomers. Gen X is also about 45 million born (and 20 million aborted after Rowe V) stuck between the 75 million Boomers before and the 80 million millennials after.

    There has never been a Silent generation president – it was GI gen right through the first Bush, then to Clinton a Boomer and all Boomers since (I know Strauss & Howe tweak the end date of Boomers back a bit from 1946-1964 dates. They count Obama as a barely gen Xer, but clearly he behaves as an idealistic Boomer and was born before 1965). We are about to have another Boomer president now (Clinton or Trump) and yeah Cruz the Gen Xer and Bernie the Silent are giving it a try, but good luck with that guys, the Boomers won’t give up their powerful demographic majority until they’re all dead and it will skip directly to the millennials. The Silents just never got their turn as a demographic focus or in power. Neither will gen X.

    The Silents fought Korea by themselves and most of Vietnam, but you only hear about WWII and then skip straight to Vietnam as a totally Boomer war (the oldest boomers born in 1946 were 15 years old when the first American troops went to Vietnam, and the youngest boomers weren’t born for 3 more years. I know older boomers got hit with the draft, but come on no one mentions the Silents – talk about revisionist history). Also THANK YOU for pointing out it was Silents who should get credit for civil rights movement. Again, I guess the Boomers watched it on TV as kids and thought they were there, but seriously how many of their moms were letting them skip elementary and middle school to freedom ride buses and march with MLK? In 1969 the boomers were between 5-23 years old, so again some older ones participated but it wasn’t boomers primarily. But talk about civil rights today and somehow boomers come up like they made the movement happen! This is like Clinton (boomer) versus Sanders (silent) today – Clinton who was a Goldwater Girl in 1964 is somehow winning the black vote and endorsements for being pro civil rights? And yet Bernie actually WAS THERE marching with MLK and getting arrested protesting, and everyone just denies he did anything for civil rights until there is photographic and video evidence? And even then they try to say the photos aren’t him, and support Clinton the boomer civil rights champion? Also, Boomers and their endless self-congratulatory talk about the music of their generation – they name all kinds of greats from the 60s-70s, all that Woodstock, Bob Dylan, Beatles, Rolling Stones type stuff.. Who are all Silent generation musicians! The boomers only consumed that era of music, they didn’t make it – music Boomers made was Disco and Madonna and Michael Jackson. Those are Boomer musicians.

    As a Gen Xer I get it completely. We are between 33-51 years old and should be the dominant adult generation – but we’re not. It’s the oldest congress in U.S. History, boomers will never pass the reigns. Same in corporations, institutions. Our turn is being skipped. But whatever, we were neglected latchkey kids called slackers and losers, when actually we had way lower youth crime & abortion rates, and far higher rates of graduating from college than the boomers did. Everything has been boomer, boomer, boomer since before I was born almost 40 years ago. It was refreshing when I first started hearing millennial, millennial, millennial about 10 years ago. Talk about the mid-east wars? Millennials come up, it’s the millennials’ war. Well, ok – gen x fought the original dessert storm when you guys were in diapers and when 9/11 happened gen x was ages 18-36 which is the majority of the military. I know the wars dragged out so long millennials got dragged in, but like the Silents GenX will not be heralded for their military service. Also I hear all about Millennials with tech and social media – have to laugh, because we were on Napster and Friendster and MySpace, and hell AOL way back in the day before your stuff like Instagram and snapchat and Facebook existed. Gen xers made Google, most of the early social networks and file sharing stuff, apps, etc. you’re welcome. And yes, we were the first gamers and the first to have consoles (nothing will ever beat N64). And we were the first generation to embrace electronic music as our main form of pop (gen x invented rap, hip hop, techno). All your millennial dub step etc. Yawn. We were raving to techno in the late 80s and early 90s. And the millennial snarky hipsters… Ok, we invented snark and subversive cultural things like South Park which hates and makes fun of absolutely everything. We just aren’t so pretentious, or self-promoting. We are ok with being pragmatic, and influencing through art and social commentary rather than having social or demographic power, we can fade into the background. I like millennial culture much more than boomer culture, because it is derivative of Gen X innovations – like boomer culture was derivative of Silent gen innovations. I get the Silents, I really do.

    But I like you guys (millennials) and feel you have something we gen xers don’t, which is a certain dose of optimism & can-do-it beliefs in yourselves that I find charming. Gen x is pessimistic and resigned ourselves to sarcasm and cynicism long ago. I hope millennials live up to their hype! The boomers are rotting sacks of flesh, and honestly the sooner their cultural influence fizzles out the better. I hope you go get it, kids, make this world a better place.

    • I just want to say thank you so much. I’m 27 years old and I’ve recently awakened to the problems of our world and the system the boomers have created. Though, the more I learn from history books, the great intellectuals of the past, and of current events, the more apparent it has become that the boomers are not the only ones responsible for the American Empire. So much truth in such little time has left me a bit pessimistic, depressed, and slightly dissociative, but reading words of optimism and support of older people such as yourself pulls me back and helps me continue my search for truth and solutions. It is my goal to make this world a home for all humans and not just the few and knowing that this isn’t merely a pipe dream, that people before my time have felt the same way that I do, is encouraging. Again, thank you, and I hope that my generation makes yours proud.

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