Among my preoccupations for a number of years has been the theory of generational archetypes laid out in Neil Howe and William Strauss’s 1992 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, 1997′s The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy and 2000′s Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

The central idea underlying generational theory is the belief that across American and British history since the colonial era there have been four repeating generations, each with a kind of “peer personality” shaped by shared experiences at similar times in life that united together those born in close proximity. A 5 year old experiencing World War II is shaped differently by the experience than a 15 year old, 30 year old, or 50 year-old. Howe and Strauss name the four generations — which shift every 15-20 years — with character types from literature, Wikipedia’s summary works to explain the basics:

The two different types of eras and two formative age locations associated with them (childhood and young adulthood) produce four generational archetypes that repeat sequentially, in rhythm with the cycle of Crises and Awakenings. In Generations, Strauss and Howe refer to these four archetypes as Idealist, Reactive, Civic, and Adaptive. In The Fourth Turning (1997) they update this terminology to Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist. The generations in each archetype not only share a similar age-location in history, they also share some basic attitudes towards family, risk, culture and values, and civic engagement….

Prophet generations are born near the end of 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.

Due to their location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age fervor and their values-oriented elder leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of vision, values, and religion. Their best-known historical leaders include John WinthropWilliam BerkeleySamuel AdamsBenjamin FranklinJames PolkAbraham LincolnHerbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. These people were principled moralists who waged idealistic wars and incited others to sacrifice. Few of them fought themselves in decisive wars, and they are remembered more for their inspiring words than for great actions. (Example among today’s living generations: Baby Boomers.)….

Nomad generations 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.

Due to their location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their adrift, alienated rising-adult years and their midlife years of pragmatic leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of liberty, survival and honor. Their best-known historical leaders include Nathaniel BaconWilliam StoughtonGeorge WashingtonJohn AdamsUlysses GrantGrover ClevelandHarry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. These were shrewd realists who preferred individualisticpragmatic solutions to problems. (Example among today’s living generations: Generation X.

Hero generations are born after an Awakeningduring an Unraveling, 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.

Due to their location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their collective military triumphs in young adulthood and their political achievements as elders. Their main societal contributions are in the area of community, affluence, andtechnology. Their best-known historical leaders include Cotton MatherThomas JeffersonJames MadisonJohn F. Kennedyand Ronald Reagan. These have been vigorous and rational institution builders. In midlife, all have been aggressive advocates of economic prosperity and public optimism, and all have maintained a reputation for civic energy and competence in old age. (Examples among today’s living generations: G.I. Generation and the Millennials.)

Artist generations are born after an Unraveling, during a Crisis, a time when great dangers cut down social and political complexity in favor of public consensus, aggressive institutions, and an ethic of personal sacrifice. Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the Crisis, come of age as the socialized and conformist young adults of a post-Crisis world, break out as process-oriented midlife leaders during an Awakening, and age into thoughtful post-Awakening elders.[44]

Due to their location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their quiet years of rising adulthood and their midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of expertise and due process. Their best-known historical leaders include William ShirleyCadwallader ColdenJohn Quincy AdamsAndrew Jackson, andTheodore Roosevelt. These have been complex social technicians and advocates for fairness and inclusion. (Examples among today’s living generations: Silent and Homelanders.)

As these different imprinted generations age and interact they take the different experiences of their childhood — and the effects of the very different parenting styles of each era — and then set out to compensate for the excesses of the previous generations. And often this happens in conflicting ways, and not always consciously. Different religions and ideological movements, though having the same experiences, may argue about how to understand them and what to do in response. So comparable peer personalities will take on different forms and then engage in political combat and cultural warfare.


Gen-X peanut butter and millennial chocolate.

The main reason why I’m so drawn to generational theory is that it’s been so useful in my real-world interactions. The tendencies described in the books have been so apparent in my dealings with older generations, my own, and also in comprehending my own personality and temperament.

Millennials are supposed to be what Howe and Strauss dub a “Civic Generation” — team oriented, optimistic, eager to build things. The pinnacle of the previous Civic generation — the GI Generation who fought World War II, my grandfather among them — was Ronald Reagan defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. That was the final triumph of the last Civic generation — and it’s of course been downhill ever since, accelerating after the Baby Boomers’ Permanent Bipolar Bipartisan Fusion Party ascended to power in the form of Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and then George W. Bush. In both cases government entitlements continued to grow and the Jihadist threat remained coddled, ignored, misunderstood, and ineptly fought until the unthinkable of today: our government now arming Al Qaeda, siding with the Muslim Brotherhood, and humiliated by pathetic dictators like Bashar Al-Assad. (And by the way, stealth Jihadists have infiltrated both the Left and the Right, both the Democratic Party and the GOP. The evidence is all there and ridiculously obvious but most baby boomer politicos are more concerned with maintaining the cushy status quo of their six figure salaries than doing anything of consequence.) The main difference between establishment Democrats and Republicans today is mostly just the rate they want to grow the federal government, which cheek of the Islamists they prefer to kiss, and which sets of sincere cultural activists they’re going to dupe into supporting them this election cycle.

Millennials are vulnerable to these deception techniques — many of us fell for them in 2008 with Obama — and can be easily deceived into thinking big government bureaucracies can be effective at doing anything. (Few of them have actually experienced it yet themselves — or had any practical experience in the free market’s mechanisms for creating wealth.) But in overcoming our naiveté and oft-misplaced optimism we have our Gen-X older siblings and mentors who balance out our excesses with their own — an individualist, independent, adaptive, and often even cynical outlook and defensive, spiky, overly clever sour humor. Is it fair to say that while most millennials don’t embrace this personality, we — or me at the very least — have some degree of affection for it? It’s particularly welcome in its most positive forms when it comes as Gen Xers genuinely looking out for and supporting millennials struggling in much darker and more uncertain times than the Bill Clinton Blow Out 1990s economic boom — actually Ronald Reagan’s economic seeds coming into bloom, of course. In its meaner form the Gen-X Big Brother Big Sister manifests in what Becky described in the first of a series on millennial culture I’ve encouraged her to start. It comes out as a kind of “pull up your boot straps and stop being lazy, wimpy bums” type lecture.

Language warning:

The generational cycle is like the passing of the seasons. In a future piece I’ll discuss the four archetypes’ connection to what Susan L.M. Goldberg discusses here — click the image — about the Jewish nature of God.

As I’ve continued to dig into generational theory as a tool to analyze culture and relationships, I think indeed, in its most popular form it is too much of an oversimplification. The generational periods described by Howe and Strauss are indeed there, but they are so wide that they are often hard to see. The shift of generations is more of a smooth, blending cycle, not a four-component shift. Part of the reason why I think a lot of people remain dismissive of generational theory is that they struggle to fully comprehend the components of their own generation’s peer personality in themselves. So they reject the idea altogether. Often this will be because they were born at the beginning or end of a generation, and thus they struggle to wholly sympathize with either, because they are a misunderstood hybrid mishmash of personalities in some ways fundamentally opposed. Sunny Millennial Optimistic Team Builders + Gen X Cynical Independent Individualists shouldn’t be able to work as well together as we do in both professional and personal relationships. But in the best cases we tend to balance each other out.

So here’s my oddball generational theory: I think rather than understanding generations as we do now — where each 20 year clump is to have one primary peer personality — we start thinking more in terms of waves of four five-year chunks made up of hybrid generational personalities.

So in the case of my generation, here’s a thesis I put up for discussion and debate. According to Howe and Strauss the millennial generation starts in 1982 and goes until about 2000-2004. This is obviously absurdly broad. Mid-to-late 20-somethings like Becky, Hannah Sternberg, R. J. Moeller and me have little in common with today’s fourth graders.

So while Howe and Strauss may be right that the generational shift starts about the time they claim — 1982 — I think the period of 1981-1985 should be better understood as producing millennial-Gen-X hybrids. I assure you, this is not just my attempt to escape the harsh anti-millennial propaganda emerging from a subset of bitter, older generations upset by our in-your-face earnest optimism.

In the past I’ve defended millennials and I intend to continue that. But I think I’ve come to see that just from living alongside people that those born in the latter half of the ’80s and the first half of the ’90s have very real differences and life experiences. Many of the most distinct stereotypes of millennials really apply most to those born from 1991-1995 — while those born 1986-1990 are better understood as Gen-X-leaning millennials. See where I’m going with this?

Going backwards then, the 1976-1980 are millennial-leaning Xers. (In my general experience, they tend to be happier than their older peers. This comes at the price of being more boring and less creative sometimes.) The real genuine Gen-Xers are then those born 1971-1975. They were raised in the wastelands of the 1970s and had to learn to fend for themselves while their absent Silent Generation parents were out having midlife crises inspiring them to wife swap, snort cocaine, and elect anti-American radicals to Congress to lose the Vietnam War and facilitate the massacres of millions, re-enslaved into a Stalinist slave state.

Here’s my whole chart, version 1. I haven’t gone about wholly articulating variations of the blended peer personality possibilities or selecting each 5 years’ most prominent examples. At some point soon I’d like to explain a bit about what it could mean to be a millennial-Gen-X blend. Yes, both millennial fanatical optimism about the future and Gen-X hardcore cynicism about the depraved evil nature of human beings can coexist. I’ll try and figure out how to explain it.

Perhaps some of the other PJ Lifestyle writers exploring generational themes would like to offer their thoughts? And do any readers have any thoughts about your own generation and your place within it or opposing it?

2011-2015 = Homelanders (a repeat of the Silent generation, born 1931-1935)

2006-2010 = Millennial-leaning Homelanders

2001-2005 = Homeland-Millennial Blend

1996-2000 = Homeland-leaning Millennial

1991-1995 = Millennials (a repeat of the GI generation, born 1911-1915)

1986-1990 = Xer-leaning Millennial

1981-1985 = Millennial-Xer Blend

1976-1980 = Millennial-leaning Xer

1971-1975 = Generation X (a repeat of the Lost generation, born 1891-1895)

1966-1970 = Boomer-leaning Xer

1961-1965 = Boomer-Xer blend

1956-1960 = Xer-Leaning Boomer

1951-1955 = Boomer

1946-1950 = Silent-leaning Boomer

1941-1945 = Boomer-Silent Blend

1936-1940 = Boomer-leaning Silent

1931-1935 = Silent

1926-1930 = GI-leaning Silent

1921-1925 = Silent-GI Blend

1916-1920 = Silent-leaning GI

1911-1915 = GI

1906-1910 = Lost-leaning GI

1901-1905 – GI-Lost Blend

1900-1896 = GI-leaning Lost

1891-1895= Lost generation



image courtesy shutterstock /  ADA_photo / Steve Degenhardt