|BACKGROUND ON GENERATIONAL THEORY
THE ARCHETYPES -
Generation Watch brings you news and views of America's living generations, usually directly
in relation to a theory developed by
William Strauss and Neil Howe. These authors propose that
American society has been subject to a cycle whose duration is
approximately that of one long human life. In this cycle, a society
experiences an alternation between a period of institutional
growth and ideological conformity, and a period of institutional
decay and ideological divisiveness. The cycle is driven by the
changes in values and attitudes of each new generation,
developing under conditions inherited from, but distinct from,
those within which its parental generation was raised.
Strauss and Howe develop a very specific theory
of this cycle, or saeculum, that divides it into four phases
called turnings. Within each turning, a new generation is born,
exhibiting a distinct collective persona described in part by an archetype. Each generation is shaped by the mood and orientation
of the turning in which it is raised, and has an
important part to play in the whole cycle. As one turning gives
way to the next, a society's mood shifts, because the generations
age from one phase of life to the next, bringing their unique perspectives and tendencies into their new social roles.
|Phase of Life
||Growth: receiving nurture, acquiring values
||Vitality: serving institutions, testing
||Power: managing institutions, applying values
phases of life, from The
Fourth Turning, 1997,
Broadway Books, p. 57.
||Leadership: leading institutions, transfering
The Generational Cycle
A generation's formative phase of life is its childhood. It is during
this period that a generation's collective persona develops, determining
its archetype. As the years pass, child rearing
patterns alter to suit changes in society's priorities, insuring that
each generation develops a unique persona.
Since a generation moves through four phases of life, at different points in time there
are different types of generations occupying the age brackets of the life phases. For example,
in one era there may be a risk-taking generation in young adulthood; in another, a cautious generation.
The arrangement of the archetypes within the life phases in an era is the generational constellation,
the makeup of which determines the mood and inclination of society in that era. The change in the constellation as the generations
age drives a cycle, which has four turnings.
The saecular cycle begins in the aftermath of an epic struggle
which remakes the society's political structure and empowers the rising
generation to lead the new regime. In this First Turning of the cycle,
the society expands and prospers, while its children are raised optimistically
in a secure environment and encouraged to explore the frontiers of social values
in an atmosphere of increasing freedom. These children develop into a Prophet
generation, obsessed with meaning and distrustful of authority. When it enters young
adulthood, the Prophet generation defies the rulership of the political regime, which at that
point seems overly repressive and out of touch with reality.
Thus the Second Turning begins, in which the society is shaken to the core
by a dramatic challenge to its basic values and institutions. Spiritual fervor
sweeps the land, and children are more or less left to themselves as adults become
preoccupied with self discovery and new movements. The underprotected children
develop into a Nomad generation, tough and wild, who earn a bad reputation and
bear the brunt of the blame for the ensuing social chaos. With the society's
institutions discredited, civic decay sets in and the Third Turning begins. The Nomad
generation has a rough and tumble coming of age, as traditional bonds and associations
are broken and scattered. Meanwhile, children
are raised pessimistically in a dangerous environment, restricted by ever-tightening
codes and harsh judgements from their elders.
The Current Saeculum
One can see a trend of increasing protection of children
in the recent American experience. Zero-tolerance rules, laws named after victimized
children (Megan's Law, Amber's Law), and endless political wrangling over the
educational system are all indicators of the Third Turning child rearing mode. The
urgency and concern of adults are helping to develop a new Hero generation, civic-minded
and optimistic, which is destined to provide the politically powerful leaders of America's
This regime will be forged by the epic trials of the Fourth Turning, which may or may not be
upon us. This is the
phase of the cycle in which the Hero generation comes of age and the political order is
transformed according to the
new values which arose in the previous Second Turning phase. It is a dangerous
and difficult time, during which children are heavily protected, developing into
a sensitive and caring Artist generation. This Artist generation has a quiet coming
of age in the subsequent First Turning of the new cycle, as the inheritors of the
The Four Turnings
||Era of prosperity and civic growth.
||Political regime faces spiritual challenge from rising generation.
||Era of self-absorption and civic decay.
turnings, adapted from The
Fourth Turning, 1997,
||Political regime is transformed in a trial by fire.
America's Living Generations
- Lost (Nomad, born 1883-1900) The generation
that gave the 1920s its roar. Examples: Dwight Eisenhower, F. Scott Fitzgerald,
George Patton, Harry Truman, Mae West
- G.I. (Hero, born 1901-1924) The "greatest
generation," which fought WWII and built up the nation during its post-War boom.
Examples: Lucille Ball, Walt Disney, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan
- Silent (Artist, born 1925-1942) They grew
up as quiet, sensitive types and then had mid-life crises in the 1970s.
Examples: Woody Allen, Judy Blume, Phil Donahue, Jane Fonda, Colin Powell
- Boomer (Prophet, born 1943-1960) The rebellious
generation which gave America its famous 1960s generation gap. Examples: George W. Bush,
Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, Michael Jackson, Madonna
- Gen-X (Nomad, born 1961-1981) The latchkey
kids of the 1970s; they have fared the least well in post-revolutionary America.
Examples: Matt Drudge, Jodie Foster, Michael Jordan, Courtney Love, Barack Obama
- Millennial (Hero, born 1982-?) The "babies
on board" of the 1980s who have been the focus of adult attention ever since. Examples:
Reggie Bush, Sarah Hughes, Scarlett Johanson, Haley Joel Osment
- Homeland (Artist, born ?-) The Homeland Generation
is probably being born now, or at least will be soon.
See a chart of the complete cycle of four turnings.
To learn more about this theory, visit www.fourthturning.com.