Book Review: Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe

Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, by William Strauss and Neil Howe

Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. I don’t think I fully buy their theory just yet . . . but get back to me when I’m in my nineties and I might have a different opinion.

Strauss and Howe posit that, throughout America’s history things occur in cycles, including people. The big breakthrough in this book was Strauss and Howe’s description of recurring generational archetypes that shape, and are in turn shaped by, events. They are not the first social scientists to put forth a generational theory, but they are the first, as far as I can tell, to have a four-stroke generational cycle, as well as clearly defining the generational types.

The authors of Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, William Strauss and Neil Howe

Each generational cycle, as observed by Strauss and Howe, consists of the following generational types:

  • Idealist (dominant)
  • Reactive (recessive)
  • Civic (dominant)
  • Adaptive (recessive)

I’ll explain dominant and recessive generations later, but suffice it to say that each generational archetype has its own personality and tendencies.

Still alive today, we see the following generational breakdown:

  • G.I. (“The Greatest Generation”) (Civic) (born 1901-1924)
  • Silent (Adaptive) (born 1925-1942) (end of the prior “Great Power Cycle”)
  • Boomers (Idealist) (born 1943-1960) (beginning of the current “Millennial Cycle”)
  • 13er (“Gen X”) (Reactive) (born 1961-1981)
  • Millennial (Civic) (born 1982-2003)

The book was published in 1991, so this is where the analysis ends, but it’s easy to see that what is sometimes called “Generation Z” (those born in or around 2004) would be considered an Adaptive generation by Strauss and Howe, more similar to the Silent generation than to their parents and grandparents.

Each generation lasts approximately 22 years, and is split into two waves. While there may be some differences between, say, first-wave Adaptives and their second-wave counterparts, these are nothing close to the differences between those second-wavers born on the cusp of the next generation–in Strauss and Howe’s analysis, these tend to have far more in common with their first-wave generational cohort than the succeeding generation. As one born in 1981–the last birth year for 13ers–I find this particularly fascinating.

But there’s even more groundwork needed to understand this hypothesis. It sounds complicated, but the pieces fit together quite nicely.Each four-generation cycle begins with Idealist, ends with Adaptive, and consists of four crises, two spiritual and two secular. Spiritual crises are things like the Great Awakening, and secular crises are events like the Civil War. These crises alternate every 22 years and last about as long (spiritual, secular, spiritual, secular); in other words, they are roughly 44 years apart. So that’s over 80 years between, say, one secular crisis and the next.

But wait: there’s more.

Confused woman meme

Does your brain hurt yet?

Each generation has four distinct phases:

  • Youth (ages 0-21)
  • Rising Adulthood (ages 22-43)
  • Midlife (ages 44-65)
  • Elderhood (ages 66 and over)

Strauss and Howe observe that a cycle begins at the tail end of a secular crisis in the Idealist generation’s youth. A spiritual crisis then hits the Idealist generation during their period of Rising Adulthood, while the Reactives are in their Youth, the Adaptives are in Midlife, and the Civics are Elders. The next big crisis is secular, and hits when the Civic generation are Rising Adults.

This is where the dominant and recessive generation types come into play. Dominant generations get a “catharsis” in their Rising Adulthood, be it spiritual (Idealists) or secular (Civics). This then gets flipped when the next crisis hits in these two generations’ period of elderhood: a spiritual awakening when the Civics are elders, and a secular crisis when the Idealists are. These generations tend to shape the world far more than the recessive types.

The two recessive generations, in turn, are affected by both their next elders and their next juniors. Being denied catharsis, sandwiched by dominant types, they react by either taking their cues from each (Adaptives) or rejecting and being rejected by both (Reactives).

We’re not done: there’s even more.

Each pattern creates a “generational constellation”:

  • Awakening (Idealist rising adults, Civic elders)
  • Inner-driven (Reactive rising adults, Adaptive Elders)
  • Crisis (Civic  rising adults, Idealist elders)
  • Outer-driven (Adaptive rising adults, Reactive elders)

These constellations have a mood, and these moods and these moods have a great influence on how America acts, reacts, creates, and wages war.

But the freaky thing Strauss and Howe found is how regular these crises were, and how predictable each generations’ reactions were within their given cycle, save for the Civil War, which hit too early, according to their observed pattern. Indeed, the Civil War cycle is the only three-stroke generation: it lacked a Civic generation.

This, Strauss and Howe explain, is why the Civil War was waged so brutally, and why its aftermath was unsatisfying to all parties involved, Union and Confederacy, black and white. When crises hit at the “wrong” time, sub-optimal outcomes occur.

This is all an interesting history lesson, but things get jucier when Strauss and Howe turn their model towards the future. Guess when the first secular crisis of the Millennial Cycle was “supposed” to happen? 2020.

Guess what happened on September 11, 2001?

Oops.

In later interviews, Strauss and Howe–who have written more books that I’d like to read, by the way–claim that the 2008 financial meltdown was the crisis, but I’d disagree with that.

Anyway, you really need to read Strauss and Howe’s discussions of the various American generational cycles for yourself to understand their theory, and then some of their predictions. With 20 years of hindsight, it’s easy to nitpick the micro points they got wrong, but as far as the macro trends, Generations is eerily prescient.

One of the most important things this book got me to do is think about generational diagonals. This is the idea that every generation ages not in a straight line, but a diagonal one. Each generational type is different than the others at each phase of life, though similar to similar to its archetype in the past. For example, a Boomer does not think, act, and feel at, say, age 55 as Civics did when they were 55, or as Millennials will when they are 55. In other words, like much conventional wisdom, the “You’ll think, say, and do X when you’re older, just like the rest of us” is a fallacy.

However, I see some flaws in the analysis, even though I know only the future will bear them out.

First, Strauss and Howe say such a Cycle only happens in a “non-traditional” society like America. But they don’t discuss how changes to America could affect their cycle theory, or perhaps break it.

What changes? How about technology and the stranglehold on information by the elite? It has given older generations even more ways to ensure that the next generation or two are just like them. In fact, I would argue that Millennials are not Civic, but are Idealist.

More importantly, what about demographic changes? Strauss and Howe touch on this only briefly. Now, in a Balkanized country focused on identity politics and the things that divide us, these archetypes may no longer apply because the majority of the people in the U.S. are increasingly not the descendants of English settlers or African slaves.

Second, the theory seems a too pat. Strauss and Howe acknowledge that outliers exist, but there isn’t much discussion of them. I don’t know if that’s a flaw, but it didn’t seem to be accounted for.

Still, Generations is one of the most interesting and useful social science books I have ever read. Many books identify a phenomenon. Strauss and Howe go one step further: they actually develop a predictive model that makes sense. And like any honest purveyors of social science–of which there doesn’t seem to be too many–they readily admit that their model is in no way a crystal ball. These are broad predictions. While Strauss and Howe speculate on how a crisis would unfold, or how society may develop when certain generational types are in certain ages and positions of leadership, they never claim to know THE answer.

But, and this is important: The reader walks away from Generations with the ability to spot these trends. For that, Generations stands as that rare late-20th century work that is not firmly bound to its time. Nearly 30 years later, and Generations is as powerful as ever.

I might not be 100% on board with Strauss and Howe, especially as they are very hopeful for this country throughout, but it has given me more to think about than any book I can remember in a long time. And although I find generational warfare stupid and counterproductive, even Strauss and Howe see it as inevitable, especially in how ruling dominant generations tend to focus society’s efforts and energy on themselves at the expense of the future.

That’s one prediction that is, regrettably, always right.

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