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 Winthrop, William Berkeley, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert 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 Bacon, William Stoughton, George Washington, John Adams, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. These were shrewd realists who preferred individualistic, pragmatic solutions to problems. (Example among today’s living generations: Generation X.…
Hero generations are born after an Awakening, during 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 Mather, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John 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.
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 Shirley, Cadwallader Colden, John Quincy Adams, Andrew 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.