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:
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
with a fresh Idealist generation….