Generational Cycle Theory

Imagine that something bad happened. Like, really bad. Not just to you, but something on the scale of your whole country. Suppose an enemy attacks and declares war on you. And suppose that everyone knows this war is going to be bad. THE war. It has the potential to be the most devastating conflict that anybody can remember, and your nation finds itself fighting for its very survival. And it’s happening now and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it.

How would people react?

Faced with the choice between fighting back and certain death, the nation realizes that every man, woman and child must help in any way they can. The 20-something rising adults become the able-bodied soldiers, dutiful order-takers. The 50-something midlifers assume the role of pragmatic battlefield generals. The 70-something elders fit naturally into the role of supplying vision, guidance and wisdom. And the children help out most by staying quiet, and staying out of the way.

And if they were successful, what sort of long-term effects might the struggle have on the victorious society? The rising adults would return hailed as heroes, celebrated with parades in the streets. The midlifers would now move into the role of overseeing the ensuing reconstruction. The elders would die fulfilled, having seen their children save the world using their direction. And the children, remembering how frightened and helpless they felt, probably develop a lifelong aversion to combat, and feel quiet guilt at not having fought.

Two key insights from that story form the basis for the Generational Cycle Theory, as outlined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their books Generations, and The Fourth Turning. First is that major historical events permanently stamp the collective memory of a generation, endowing them with a cohort-wide shared experience and resulting personality. This is why you can make statements like “millennials are optimistic,” or “Baby Boomers are moralizers.”

And second is that historical turning points affect different people differently depending on their phase of life. The G.I. Generation remembers World War II fondly as their coming-of-age triumph, that gave them momentum to build the interstate highways and send a man to the moon in ensuing decades. But those just below the draft cutoff age, the Silent Generation, remember the war very differently, as a time when they were smothered by adults trying to protect them from calamity. For more recent examples, think about how old you were when 9/11 happened, or when the financial crisis happened, and how that affected you differently than it affected your parents or your children.

Add to this another key fact. Parents end up raising their children in the opposite way that they were raised. Nobody had “the perfect upbringing,” and it’s just human to want your kids to experience the things you didn’t get to. For the children born during World War II, their parents wanted them to have security even at the expense of freedom and individuality. But when the Silent Generation gave birth to Generation X, the focus was on freedom and individuality, even at the expense of security. Now that Generation X is having children, we’ve seen the pendulum come full circle back to security, with the rise of “helicopter parenting.”

It becomes clear that we should expect to see some repeated themes every 4 generations, or about 80 years, the length of a long human life. We need just one more premise, and we’ll have a full-blown cycle. Any cycle theory obviously makes predictions about the future, but how could we predict the nature of major events in the future? Nobody could have foreseen the A-bomb, or the financial crisis. What does it even mean to say that historical turning points happen in a cycle?

The key here is that the historical events themselves don’t matter as much as society’s reaction to those events. As Strauss and Howe point out, history is full of sparks. Some of these sparks fizzle away unnoticed, while some burn a gentle red then fade away, while still others start a forest fire. What determines whether the reaction to that spark will be a full-scale immolation or just a gentle heat? The answer is, the personalities and phases of life of the living generations.

Eras and Social Moments

In the theory, there are 4 time periods per cycle, lasting roughly 20 years each, or about the time it takes a generation to move from one phase of life to the next. There are two kinds of major historical events, called social moments, and they each happen just once per cycle, half a cycle apart from each other. These reflect a difference in focus between the eras, where some are focused on spiritual and moral values, while others are focused on secular institutions.

A society emerging from the great war above finds itself flush with success, energy, and drive, and also living in a world that requires much effort to rebuild. This era is called a High. It is characterized by national pride and unity, institution-building, and any other objective measures of “success.” This was how America emerged from WW2, a powerful and hungry economic engine that reduced inequality and put a man on the moon, a nation that knew it could do anything. But was no longer sure it could feel.

Focusing on roads, bridges, and space flight for so long leads to cultural blandness, and a big spiritual void. Meanwhile, there is a new generation of children during the High, who grew up in the comfortable aftermath of the war but are too young to remember the chaos. When they come of age and encounter this cultural dearth, they find it not to their liking, and rebel. This social moment, and its associated era, are called an Awakening.  In an Awakening, the young protest against the old, whom they perceive to lack serious conviction and purity. This was how America looked in the late 60’s and 70’s, with hippies, the summer of love, and Woodstock. Confident in their ability to do, the Consciousness Revolution reignited the nation’s ability to feel.

After an Awakening has run its course, society has emerged with a new inner satisfaction, but has also enshrined those values of protest against institutions. This leads to a renewed focus on individual liberty, but also leads inevitably towards social entropy. This era is known as an Unraveling, as the society becomes hectic and competitive, and once-strong institutions decay and become dysfunctional. In an Unraveling, society focuses on the purity of its values, engaging in culture wars, and slowly erasing the word “compromise” from the dictionary. This was where America found itself from the late 80’s to early 2000’s, when little-to-nothing got done as factions of opposing values battled each other and partisan gridlock became the new normal. The nation knew it could feel, but began to realize that they could no longer do.

Institutional decay can only go on for so long. Conditions deteriorate, long-term problems exacerbate, and nation begins to feel as though it’s on a collision course. When it becomes clear that the old social order has completely fallen apart and must be replaced, then that society finds itself in a Crisis era. Culture wars end as one side prevails over the others. Faced by challenges that can no longer be deferred, which have by now mounted to the scale of existential threat, the nation takes action decisively and collectively.  While an Unraveling society underreacts to problems, a society in Crisis overreacts to them, demanding total victory in order to preserve their way of life for posterity. They are times of great words and great deeds. The last American Crisis era began with the Great Depression and ended with Germany’s surrender. Confident in their values, a Crisis reignites a nation’s ability to do.

Generational Archetypes

Accordingly, there are 4 generation types, based on the era in which a generation comes of age. In order, they are called Adaptive, Idealist, Reactive, and Civic. In recent memory, the Silent Generation (born mid 1920’s to early 40’s) was Adaptive, the Baby Boomers (early mid 40’s to early 60’s) are Idealist, Generation X (early 60’s to early 80’s) is Reactive, and the Millennials (born early 80’s to early 2000’s) are Civic. These descriptions might not necessarily apply to every person as there are always individuals who go against the grain. But considering the entire group, these are the paths that the generational personalities take.

An Adaptive (or Artist) generation are the children of the Crisis. Over-protected as youth during incredibly uncertain times by a Reactive generation seeking security, they come of age feeling grateful to have weathered the storm, but also feeling pangs of guilt about not having sacrificed more. Rising adults of the High, they become experts in the new order, and do well refining the institutions that were born out of the passion-fire of the recent Crisis. Entering middle age during an Awakening, they are keenly aware that the new Idealist youth movement does not include them, but isn’t particularly against them either, and they act as a mediator between young Idealists and aging Civics. Somewhat repressed their whole lives, the Awakening offers them a chance to unwind and let loose, leading to spectacular midlife blowups. As they become parents themselves, they view childhood as a time when their children must be left alone to learn their own mistakes, and tend to under-parent, leading to the next Reactive generation. Entering elderhood during an Unraveling, they lament the social chaos they see forming everywhere they look. Lifelong mediators and compromisors, they view the Idealist’s culture wars as unnecessarily antagonistic, but ever the experts, they work on all sides to clarify and enshrine. Most don’t live to see how the Crisis resolves, and so they die with the unfortunate sense that the world is falling apart around them, and that they couldn’t stop it.

An Idealist (or Prophet) generation are children of the High. Too young to remember the sacrifices of the Crisis, they are inheritors of a world that is optimistic and improving. While Civic and Adaptive adults are working determinedly to do great things, young Idealists are the indulged children of a generation of strong proud parents. But as they become teenagers, Idealists start to notice that this post-Crisis world is particularly lacking values, and is spiritually and culturally bland. This is the impetus for the youth movements of the Awakening. During an Awakening, Idealist youth fight the emptiness of Civic institutions preferring moral purity instead, even at the risk of hypocrisy. They become a generation that believes that what you think is more important than what you do. Their Civic parents have difficulty understanding these impulses, and have trouble falling in line with the spiritual fervor. During the Unraveling, different factions of middle-aged Idealists that had formed during the Awakening fight over message, leading to intense culture wars assisted by aging Adaptive helpers and ignored by Reactive young adult bingers. Sensing the institutional decay resulting from their focus on personal values, as parents Idealists instill in their children a sense of teamwork, cooperation, and a can-do attitude. Fueled by a combination of guilt and urgency, aging Idealists kick off the Crisis reaction as last-ditch effort to right the ship of society for future generations, and as their final chance to bring the utopian visions of their youth to fruition. Society coalesces around the visions of these “grey champions,” as middle-aged Reactives form the plucky generals, and their Civic children agree to sacrifice anything and everything for the greater good. They die with a sense of satisfaction, at having safeguarded the nation through its most difficult times, and emerged victorious.

A Reactive (or Nomad) generation are children of the Awakening. Too young to participate, it is clear that society is not paying very much attention to them, adults instead absorbed in their own personal exploration and freedom. Their Adaptive parents, who are finally letting loose from the shackles of their childhoods, tend to under-parent, letting children make their own mistakes even if it hurts them. From a young age, Reactive children are disliked by society, perceived as an undue burden on adult’s personal discovery. As rising adults of the Unraveling, they are largely ignored by the rest of society that is swept up in the culture wars. Attempting to draw on institutions that are falling apart at the seams, they are hit hardest by societal entropy, and come to embrace a survivalist mentality. This leads to increases of binging and indulgent behavior, as well as socially irresponsible speculation and even outright cheating. Feeling the anger of a generation that was shafted much harder than Idealists, nor instilled with the optimism of the Civics, they are a much more cynical generation, not easily swayed to grand promises from leaders, but also not particularly loyal to any one group. As the Crisis begins in their middle-age, they grow weary of the binging behavior of their youth, as exhaustion sets in. Instead they focus on what really matters: individual satisfaction and family. As parents in increasingly uncertain times, they instill the security that was missing from their own childhoods, even at the risk of smothering. When the Crisis demands sacrifice, their natural role is as on-the-ground generals, making the quick and difficult decisions that could make or break the effort, willing to do what needs to be done. In the aftermath of the Crisis, they are not celebrated in the same way Civics are, but also never felt like they deserved it. Elders of the High, they mostly step out of the way for newly-empowered Civics to rebuild society in their image, but step in from time to time to check their unrealistic impulses. They die having helped create a far stronger society, and can feel redeemed for having atoned for the sins of their youth.

A Civic (or Hero) generation is the children of the Unraveling. Born at a time when Idealist adults were highly satisfied with their personal convictions, but felt less sure about the increasingly gloomy future ahead, Civics children are instilled with strong senses of cooperation and teamwork. While culture wars are raging among the adult Idealists, their children are largely shielded from it, as children are once again thought of as “special,” and worthy of protection. Facing a Crisis in their young adulthood, the Civic heed the call of the elder Idealists to do great things, and do them. The Civic youth believe strongly in doing what is necessary in order to provide for the future, and will sacrifice nearly anything to achieve those goals. Working collectively, they become the cheerful and optimistic engine of the national effort. If the Crisis concludes successfully, Civics are praised by all of society for their heroism and sacrifice, and are swept into leadership. The dominant figures during a High, midlife Civics set out to do great things, because they can. No longer facing peril but still exuding might and confidence, Civics challenge the frontiers of what is possible in any field deemed difficult enough to warrant their attention. Proud, optimistic, and focused on making the impossible possible, with the help of capable youth Adaptives, Civic parents exude confidence while raising their Idealist children. Entering midlife, those children balk at their parents’ hubris and rebel, kicking off the Awakening. During the Awakening, elder civics have a difficult time understanding why Idealists don’t share their vigor for doing great things, decrying the new youth movement as narcissistic. As collectivists in a society that is becoming more and more individual, elderly Civics retreat from public life, but, lifelong doers, they reinvigorate what it means to be old. They die still proud of their youthful accomplishments, but troubled that society no longer seems to care about that.

Where We Are Now

The beautiful thing about a cycle theory is that not only does it interpret the past, it also gives us clues about where we’re headed. According to the theory, America is currently mid-way through a Crisis era, that likely began with the financial crisis in 2008, and is due to finish around 2025-2030. As institutional decay reaches its maximum, yet society’s demand for order revives, our apatite to tackle long-term problems is returning.

With the Boomers entering old age and the Silent no longer around to urge them to calm down, their need to pursue the convictions of their youth will return, and in the face of adversity they will demand total victory. As Generation X enters midlife weary of the speculation and risk-taking of their youth, they will find themselves perfectly equipped to make the difficult and dirty decisions on behalf of their nation. As Millennials enter adulthood facing tremendous challenge but ever-optimistic, they will be willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to get the future back on track. And as children of the Homeland Generation, born mid 2000’s to today, enter youth in an increasingly tumultuous era, they will be both afraid of the times, and in awe of their elders who are sacrificing on their behalf.

The first stage of a Crisis is a catalyst, which is a singular event that informs us that our Unraveling era patterns of thought no longer make sense, and Howe identifies this as the financial crisis. The next stage is a regeneracy, a 1-3 year period of reversing social entropy and re-emerging faith in authority, when Americans realize that long-term problems can no longer be deferred, and they reunite around the common good. It is my belief that we are in the early days of the regeneracy.  With faith in civic life restored, Americans will come together to tackle our greatest challenges, but they will find these formidable indeed. At our darkest moment, when hope seems lost, we will face a climax that determines whether America emerges victorious or with its spirit crushed. And afterwards, a resolution will determine the winners and losers, and lay out the rules and the trajectory for the next era.

There’s a lot more to this story, but hopefully this has gotten you acquainted with the idea, and from there you can make your own evaluations. Frankly, I find it difficult to read about this without being inspired to action, but maybe that’s because I’m a Millennial. But if you think about history in a cyclical way, it makes it easier to cope with difficulty and uncertainty: if times were good in the past, then they can be good again in the future. As long as you and I are willing to work to build that future, together.


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