Generational Theory

strauss howe

The Strauss-Howe generational theory, created by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, identifies a recurring generational cycle in American history. Strauss and Howe lay the groundwork for the theory in their 1991 book Generations, which retells the history of America as a series of generational biographies going back to 1584.

Former U.S Vice President Al Gore called Generations the most stimulating book on American history he’d ever read, and sent a copy to each member of Congress. Some reviewers of the duo’s books, such as the New York Times’ Michael Lind have criticized their theories for being too vague, and for verging into the realm of pseudoscience.

Strauss and Howe define a social generation as the aggregate of all people born over a span of roughly twenty years, or about the length of one phase of life: childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age. At the heart of the theory is a basic alteration between two different types of eras, Crises and Awakenings. Both of these are defining eras in which people observe that historic events are radically altering their social environment.

Crises are periods marked by major secular upheaval, when society focuses on reorganizing the outer world of institutions and public behavior (the last American Crisis was the period spanning the Great Depression and World War II). Awakenings are periods marked by cultural or religious renewal, when society focuses on changing the inner world of values and private behavior (the last American Awakening was the ‘Consciousness Revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s).

During Crises, great peril provokes a societal consensus, an ethic of personal sacrifice, and strong institutional order. During Awakenings, an ethic of individualism emerges, and the institutional order is attacked by new social ideals and spiritual agendas. About every eighty to ninety years—the length of a long human life—a national Crisis occurs in American society. Roughly halfway to the next Crisis, a cultural Awakening occurs (historically, these have often been called Great Awakenings).

Generations that come of age as young adults during a Crisis or an Awakening directly absorb the lessons of that defining era, and carry these lessons forward in their attitudes and behaviors later in life.  Generations that grow up as children during a Crisis or Awakening take a dependent role during that defining era, which shapes their later attitudes and behaviors very differently. Strauss and Howe label these recessive generations.

To date, Strauss and Howe have identified 25 generations in Anglo-American history, each with a corresponding archetype including:

Prophet generations (dominant) are born after a Crisis, during a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order. Prophets grow up as the increasingly indulged children of this post-Crisis era, come of age as self-absorbed young crusaders of an Awakening, focus on morals and principles in midlife, and emerge as elders guiding another Crisis. An example among living generations would be the Baby Boomers.

Nomad generations (recessive) are born during an Awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas, when young adults are passionately attacking the established institutional order. Nomads grow up as under-protected children during this Awakening, come of age as alienated, post-Awakening adults, become pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and age into resilient post-Crisis elders.  An example among living generations would be Generation X.

Hero generations (dominant) are born after an Awakening, during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez faire. Heroes grow up as increasingly protected post-Awakening children, come of age as team-oriented young optimists during a Crisis, emerge as energetic, overly-confident midlifers, and age into politically powerful elders attacked by another Awakening.  (Examples among today’s living generations: Millennials.)

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