In the past few months, I’ve taken a deep dive into the works of William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss and Howe wrote two extremely important books: The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy and Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. The two books lay out a cyclical version of history focused on four generational archetypes. Based on their theory, America is entering a crisis and will look for leadership from the “prophet” generation, in this case, Baby Boomers. President Donald Trump, born in 1946, is a Boomer. But Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., born in 1942, is too old to be a Boomer, in the authors’ reckoning.
What generation does Biden belong to and why does it matter?
According to Strauss and Howe, America follows a four-part cycle. Every eighty years, the ancient Romans would celebrate a new saeculum — the span of a long human life that represented an important milestone in Roman history and culture. Strauss and Howe map out the major turning points in American history and find that every 80 years, the United States goes through a major crisis.
About eighty years after the American Revolution (1776-1783) came the American Civil War (1860-1865), and about eighty years after that came the Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945). If Strauss and Howe’s calculations are correct, the United States should be going through a major convulsion right about… now.
But the real force of the theory comes in the details of the generational archetypes and the overall cycles of history. Strauss and Howe reference many ancient myths to explore four different archetypes: the hero/civic generation that works to achieve success, the prophet/idealist generation that seeks wisdom to solve the next crisis, the artist/adaptive generation that seeks personal fulfillment and helps unravel society, and the nomad/reactive generation that grows up in a crisis and seeks to hold society together.
Then they plot history out in four roughly 20-year phases: the high (which correlates to a kind of spring), the awakening (a kind of summer), the unraveling (a kind of fall), and then the crisis (a kind of winter) — the titular “fourth turning.”
In a “fourth turning,” America faces a crisis, and the civic generation looks to the elderly idealist generation to give orders, while the reactive generation between them holds society together. After victory is achieved, America experiences a high, a period of societal stability, as the reactive generation holds the social order together, rewards the civic “heroes,” and inspires a rising generation of adaptives. Between roughly 1945 and 1963, America experienced a period of prosperity and social peace in the wake of victory in World War II.
Yet the social peace and stability of a high leave Americans anxious. They suddenly worry that things are working too well. They think of citizens as drones, all following the same tasks when they should be seeking new areas of fulfillment. As the civic generation ages into the leading role of society, a rising generation of adaptives begins to raise objections, and the new young idealist generation seeks societal change. This period of awakening leads to a flourishing of a new culture — the hippie movement and the evangelical explosion of the 1960s and 1970s.
As the awakening takes off, Americans become more isolated and seek their own personal fulfillment. This leads to an unraveling — a period of introspection and social isolation. Tribalism and polarization rise as trust in institutions wanes. Strauss and Howe suggested the unraveling would last from the mid 1980s until around 2006.
Then the crisis comes. In The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe predicted that the crisis would start around 2006, hit a fever pitch around 2020, and turn towards resolution by 2026.
This saecular cycle of generational change flips the modern wisdom on its head. Many Americans think linearly, assuming that current trends will continue. Yet each generation is slightly different from the one before, and not always in the same ways. Strauss and Howe’s archetypes provide a helpful schema to understand the turnings of history.
America’s current generations
According to The Fourth Turning, America should be in a crisis. This means the idealists (Boomers) are giving sage advice in elderhood, the reactives (Generation X) are holding society together in midlife, the civics (millennials) are waiting for the opportunity to leap in and fix problems or sacrifice themselves as heroes, and the adaptives (Generation Z) are getting smothered by helicopter parenting as society goes through a crisis.
This generational “constellation” is ideal for harnessing the power of different generations to achieve a common goal. Yet it seems America’s current generations aren’t quite up to the challenge. Boomers can’t seem to agree on an end goal. My fellow millennials are self-absorbed and focused on extreme activist positions. America needs something to direct the latent generational energy into one purpose.
Meanwhile, Americans are voting for two candidates who both fail to meet the idealist generational archetype of a crisis.
True, Donald Trump is a card-carrying Boomer, but he fits the Generation X mold much better. Trump is a street-fighter, focused on success. He cultivates an image of hard-scrabble real estate deal-making. As president, he has upheld America against various threats. He has championed the U.S. Constitution by nominating originalist judges and justices. He reversed Obama’s activist pushes on transgenderism, eroding due process in sexual assault cases, and more. He has cut regulations and taxes.
Trump has governed more as a moderate than as a radical. He may well have the stuff to lead in a crisis, but he is a divisive figure, partially because the establishment demonizes everything he does.
Joe Biden is a totally different type of animal. He isn’t even a Boomer — he’s a member of the Silent Generation. Members of the Silent Generation felt born out of time. They were too young to go fight in World War II and too old to really take part in the radicalism of the Sixties. They grew up looking to the GI or Greatest Generation, and then when they reached their thirties and forties, they started looking to the Boomers for inspiration. Members of the Silent Generation served as facilitators, not leaders. The generation has not had a single U.S. president.
The Silent Generation is an “adaptive” generation, which means its members are focused on moderation, regulation, process. While Joe Biden has an activist streak, he has often come across this way. Biden has bragged about working with people he disagrees with, from Segregationists in his own party to Republicans focused on crime bills in the 1980s and 1990s.
Biden has called himself a “transition candidate,” and it seems he represents a transition to Kamala Harris (a terrifying thought).
Joe Biden is not the man he once was. His repeated gaffes are legendary. He has effectively rushed off the cliff in attempting to appease Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He pledges to “restore the soul of America,” yet he brags about the smear campaign against Robert Bork and he lies about the car accident that tragically killed his wife.
Biden is a mess in many ways, but he’s also a mess generationally. If he wins in November, he would be America’s first Silent Generation president.
If William Strauss and Neil Howe are correct, a Silent Generation/adaptive president in the midst of a crisis is a recipe for disaster.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.