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generationsThis is a book a bit dated, but actually it makes for a more interesting read. Since it’s publication in 1991, of course a few years have ensued and since it purports to suggest that in some sense our history as a nation is predictable, there are a few years to test.

Howe and Strauss urge us to stop looking at history in the normal fashion, as isolated incidents and instead see it as a revolving drama of essentially four generational cycles, the idealist, Civic, Adaptive, and Reactive. Each is about 22 years long. These four types rotate throughout the years and are impacted by two main themes, a “crisis” to be faced, and a “spiritual awakening”.

Each cohort (generation) has specific characteristics and it will respond to the world throughout its lifetime based upon them.

This is in counter to the usual belief that we all age in much the same way. Youngsters are risk takers, we are open idealistic in our 20’s, we become more conservative as we age.

Any given generation is raised one way, and raises its own another. Those who fought the revolution were nere-do-wells, not highly thought of by their parents. They were as likely to be pirates as patriots. The writers of the constitution were not religiously inclined nearly to the degree that their parents were. The generation squeezed in between the GI generation that fought WWII and their Boomer children, ached to be great like their GI elders, yet yearned to be young and carefree in their social lives like the Hippies.

The suggestion is that knowing the generation who is “in charge” at any given time and what groups are pressuring them as youngers or their elders gives you a better handle on what decisions are made and why they are made than any other factor. The GI generation was the perfect one to handle the war effort, for they were lifelong  the “can do” people, who always thought pulling together and getting the job done was all that mattered.

Conversely the Boomers were narcissistic and inner driven, individualistic in their drive to have personally meaningful lives, and care little for pulling together in community.

One generation suffocates its offspring, another parades it as the best thing since sliced bread, and another nearly ignores it completely as annoying interference.

While it’s hard to judge here in 2014 how well they have predicted (I don’t think of myself as being unduly harsh when it comes to crime and drugs–just the opposite in fact), they did successfully predict that the Boomer generation would split between liberals and evangelicals and that has surely come true. They predicted the divide and the polarization. I’m not sure they got the “crisis” right, since they believed it would come close to 2020, and I see it as having arrived in 2001 with 9/11.

No matter. The point is that this is an important way of viewing history and suggests that we can better understand ourselves and the future if we identify the respective characteristics of the generations who are alive and their placement. Like much of social science we are learning that with different groups come different approaches. You don’t convince arch conservatives with facts because they are unmoved of facts and suspicious of science. You convince them by showing them how their stated moral values will be enhanced by a move in your direction.

While it is undoubtedly true that social science is moving rapidly these days, I think it still worth reading this book. If we are to prepare for the future which now speeds ever more rapidly, every handle we can grab to understand the people who we are contending with with be of help.

Besides, you will decide, if you are a sufficient age, in deciding whether you fit well in your generation or not.


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