Trapped in a generational cycle?

Thursday November 8, 2012

Charles Putney

We Americans tend to label ourselves by the generations of which we are a part. For the past 30 years the Boomers have been the most notable generation, partly because of its size -- some 80 million Americans. During the past decade we’ve also made much of the World War II GI generation, or the "greatest" generation.

People who work with young adults, such as college admissions people, are particularly concerned with the Millennials.

In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe published a best-seller that argued that since its founding the U.S. has been in series of 80-year cycles made up of four generations.

The most recent cycle, starting at the beginning of the 20th century, is: The "Civics" born in 1901-24 (GIs of WW II, called the greatest); the "Adaptives" born in 1925-41 (who were known as the silent generation); the "Idealists born in 1942-60 (the boomers); the "Nomads" born in 1961-82 (Gen-X), and, repeating the cycle, the "Civics" born in 1983-2005 (Millennials).

Strauss and Howe say that these four generational types cycle through American history over and over again. An individual’s "generational" style is largely determined by the people he or she grows up with. But what’s really fascinating is that by and large the Civics are the parents of the Idealists and the grandparents of the next Civic generation. The Adaptives, likewise, are parents to the Nomads and grandparents to the following Adaptive generation.

Some of these generations are better at leadership than others, according to Strauss and Neil. The U.S. presidency, for example, skipped from the Civic generation of the "greatest" to the Idealist generation of the "boomers" (Senior and junior Bushes, for example).

Strauss and Howe, writing back in the late ‘90s, suggested that because of this cycle, our nation faces a crisis under the leadership of the Idealists. Now it should be noted that the Idealism of which Strauss and Howe speak is not necessarily positive or negative -- it’s just a frame of mind. The crisis isn’t necessarily caused by the Idealists -- it only comes to a head then. The 1929 market crash came while Idealists were leading the nation and while the Civic generation of the GI years was coming of age and would go move forward with a unified vision of the nation.

In the ‘90s Strauss and Howe suggested that a major crisis would strike the nation somewhere around 2010. It could be that the 2008 plunge into a major economic struggle--something that has not yet been resolved -- is the predicted crisis. Our current economic challenge is not only one of the usual short-term economic cycles we see but a major crisis that will face our nation over the coming 10 years, no matter who has been elected.

It may have been that the sense of entitlement that has arisen in our nation after 60 years of robust economic growth needs to be modified as we reach the financial limits brought on by hard times. The current economic climate is affecting all of the generations as retirement funds are limited, business expansion is trimmed, jobs are hard to get and educational resources are limited.

After 60 years of a boom economy it will be difficult to balance the budget, find an appropriate tax policy, trim the military and control health care spending. If Strauss and Howe are right, however, if the Idealist leaders of today get us through the crisis, the next Civic generation (those who graduate from high school since 2000) will build a stronger nation and end the current fractured politics at the national level.

Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.


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