Foundations of Crisis, Part II: Generations
Generational conflict has been recognized since ancient times. The twist here is the discovery of several things that have previously eluded observers. One is that the well- known conflict between fathers and sons is only half the story; there aren’t just two generational types that alternate (e.g., liberal and conservative), but four. The reason for looking at it this way is that a human life can be conveniently divided into four stages: Childhood, Young Adulthood, Midlife, and Elderhood. Throughout all of history, a long life might be considered to be 80 to 100 years, with each of the four stages equaling a quarter of it.
Just as each person’s life holds four stages of about 20 years each, each generation comprehends a group of people born over about 20 years. Members of a particular generation tend to share values and ways of looking at the world not only because their parents also shared a set of views (which the kids are reacting to), but because every new generation experiences a new set of events in a way unique to them. They hear the same music, see the same events, are exposed to the same books. Members of a generation share a collective persona. There appear to be four distinct archetypal personae that recur throughout American history. And throughout world history as well, although that’s a bit beyond what I hope to explore here.
It also seems, throughout history, that there are periodic crises. About once every century, or about when each of the four generational types has run its course, a cataclysmic event occurs. It generally takes the form of a major war, and it generally catalyzes a whole new epoch for society.
The four mature generations alive today each represent an archetype. Let’s review them from the oldest now living, to the youngest.
The “GI” generation, born between 1901 and 1924, includes basically all living people in their mid-70s and older. They grew up and came of age in the midst of the most traumatic years in human history: the 1930s and ‘40s. This was a time of catastrophic financial and economic collapse, world war, political dictatorship, genocide, and virulent ideology, among other unpleasant things; a period of intense turmoil. The times required them to be civic minded, optimistic, regular guys who could be counted on to do the right thing, fit in, and see that everybody got a square deal. As a consequence of what they’ve been through, they tend to be indulgent parents. As kids they’re “good”; as adults they’re selfless, constructive, and communitarian. Hero archetypes encounter a Crisis environment in Young Adulthood; assuming they survive it, the odds are the rest of their lives will be lived in growing economic prosperity, leading to a leisurely retirement.
Meanwhile, another generation was being born at the height of the Crisis – something that seems to occur roughly every 80-100 years – from 1925-42. This generation, the “Silent,” watched these titanic events happen but were too young to take part in them. They were relegated to being protected, while trying to be helpful in the limited ways available to them. They’re overprotected as children, when they might be characterized as “placid”; they tend to underprotect their own children as a reaction. As adults they’re sensitive, well-liked, sentimental, and caring.
Next came the group we call the “Boomers,” born from 1943 to 1960. This was the first generation born after the Crisis was over, and they grew up in an environment where their parents (mostly GIs and early cohort Silents) felt obligated to protect them from all the trauma of the preceding years and were desirous of giving them all the things they never had. As kids they’re seen as “spirited.” Later in life, they tend to be narcissistic, presumptuous, self-righteous, and ruthless. Born after a Crisis, their Childhood years coincide with a rebirth of society, and their Elderhood coincides with another Crisis. More on them below.
The fourth generational type is represented by today’s “Generation X,” born 1961-81, during what might be called an Awakening period when the Boomers were in the limelight. As a consequence, they were overlooked and a bit abandoned. Their reputation as kids can be summed up as “bad.” They’re oriented toward survival, which is partially a result of their being underprotected as children. When they become parents, they react and become overprotective. They tend to be savvy, practical, tough, and amoral.
The kids born between 1982 and perhaps 2002 should be another Hero archetype. My own experience with them is that they’re shaping up that way. Represented by clean-cut, straight-arrow Power Rangers. Quite a reaction to the sewer-dwelling Mutant Ninja Turtles that were analogs for the previous generation. They’re “‘can do” kids, programmed to do the right thing in a smoke-free, drug-free, eco-sensitive, politically correct world. Like all Hero types, they respect their elders, do what they’re told without much questioning authority. That’s just the type of person you want to have fighting a war for you, and that’s probably just what they’ll wind up doing. Just like the last Hero types, the GIs. (Iraq was first. Iran next? Or will it be Saudi Arabia?)
It’s risky to characterize everyone born in a certain time frame as sharing a persona; after all, people are individuals, not ants or atoms, each like the other. But it’s really no different than characterizing people by the country they’re from. There’s no question in my mind that people share characteristics by virtue of the milieu in which they live, and that’s true of time as well as geography. Take a look at the people you know by age groups, and see if they don’t roughly fit the brief descriptions.
The interesting thing is that through about 400 years of American history, it’s possible to see these generational types repeating themselves. It’s not an accident. The characteristics of each type shape the next generation, as well as current events. And events leave a further imprint on all of them.
Making an Example of the Boomers
Just as every generation has its own persona, the character of each generation evolves as it moves through life. The Boomers are perhaps the most relevant example of this. First they were Mouseketeers and Beaver Cleaver clones. Who could have guessed they would mutate into Hippies and even Yippies as they reached Young Adulthood, reacting against everything they’d grown up with, everything their parents worked so hard to give them.
They came of age during a period that might be called an Awakening, and it’s recurred on schedule five times so far in American history. Awakenings are times of religious and moral ferment, when the youth tend to challenge prevailing cultural values pretty much across the board. Young adults were into New Age things this time around, in the 1960s and ‘70s. At the time it seemed utterly shocking and completely new, but that was only because nobody then alive had seen the previous Utopian Awakening in the 1830s and ‘40s, the Pietist Awakening of the 1740s and ‘50s, the Puritan Awakening of the 1630s and ‘40s, or the Protestant Reformation of the 1530s and ‘40s.
Like all the generations before them that grew up in similar times, they eventually put away the things of their youth. But who guessed that their next mutation would be into Yuppies, whose motto was not “Peace and Love” or “Revolution for the Hell of It,” but “Shop Till You Drop” and “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins” as they moved into midlife.
But even now the acquisitive mania that characterized the ‘80s is ebbing, now that the first cohorts of Boomers are crossing over 50. You can already see the signs of their next stage of evolution, in the judgmental behavior of people like William Bennett (George Bush) and Dan Quayle (Ann Coulter) on the “right,” and Al Gore and Hillary Clinton on the “left.” They did sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘60s. They believe they’ve fought the war of good against evil in both Vietnam and the segregated lunch counters of the South. They know they were the first generation to have traveled widely thanks to the jet, to have been brought up by television, and had the telephone as a given. They’ve been there, done that, and now that they’re getting older, they’re going to make sure that everyone else benefits from their wisdom – like it or not.
The Boomers are an archetypal Prophet generation, a type born after a secular crisis, just in time to create another one. Get the image of a grim elder, with a well-defined vision of what’s right and wrong, calling down wrath, and laying down the law for a troubled nation in chaotic times. That’s the type of person who tends to lead countries into wars, as well as through them. Interestingly, the Boomers in America have their counterparts abroad today, especially in China, where they grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Two ideologically driven, righteous groups running two such powerful and alien cultures is almost a guaranteed formula for a millennial-sized crisis. Which should appear, coincidentally, sometime shortly after the millennium. (We’re right on schedule.)
January 20, 2009