Advertisement
Share

Generations: The Times of Our Lives : Books: By looking for patterns in the past, two unconventional historians say they can predict the future of American society.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think it’s tough these days contending with recession, war, drought, broccoli at $1.50 a pound and whether Bo Jackson will continue to know baseball?

Check out this lineup for the remainder of the ‘90s:

* The gap between the haves and the have-nots will expand even further as the super rich and the super poor are disparaged for lacking appropriate civic virtue.

* Many of those who are today’s teen-agers will become alienated young adults who “game the system without any pretense of higher principle.”

Advertisement

* Deviant behavior will be punished with greater severity and overtones of moral retribution, with increasingly strict public scrutiny aimed at issues--such as parenting and substance abuse--once considered matters of personal choice.

Ready for more? How about these expectations for the year 2003:

The baby boomers and the post-boomer generation will enter a “culture war,” with “loud, moralizing aggressors on the older side and atomized, pleasure-seeking victims on the younger--a vindictive age polarization America has not witnessed since the Roaring ‘20s.”

And 30 years from now, there’s the “Crisis of 2020" to look forward to--a cleansing, apocalyptic mega-event expected to span the years from 2013 to 2024. This unspecified crisis is likely to compare with, say, the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the era that encompassed the Great Depression through World War II.

Before you start wondering if tabloid psychic Jeane Dixon has suddenly dumped Madonna and Cher and turned her attention to world affairs, consider the source of these calculations. They are the work of two of Washington, D.C.'s, most provocative if unconventional historians and policy analysts: Harvard-educated William Strauss, a former congressional counsel, White House staffer and faculty fellow at the University of Notre Dame, and Yale-educated Neil Howe, chief economist at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation and former editor of the American Spectator.

In their just-published book, “Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069,” Strauss and Howe report on generational patterns that have occurred cyclically in the United States since the Colonial Era. By examining how those patterns are likely to play themselves out in upcoming generations, the two claim they can reliably predict what sort of delights and predicaments we can expect in the years ahead.

Apparently, this is just the sort of prognostication that politicos embrace. The book has already received such a warm D.C. reception that two U.S. Congressmen--Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.)--were successful in getting publisher William Morrow to send copies to every member of Congress. And the book has received endorsements from both ends of the political spectrum and beyond. Conservative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and liberal Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) both lent their quotes to the book’s promotional campaign as did New Age high priestess Marilyn Ferguson of Los Angeles.

At the heart of “Generations” theory is the notion that there are four, basic, recurring types of generations, each lasting about 22 years. These groups--the idealists, reactives, civics and adaptives--follow one another as predictably as comedians are hired to host the Academy Awards:

Advertisement

America’s first generation (and, according to Strauss and Howe, every fourth generation since) was an “inner fixated " idealist generation. Idealist generations are typically moralistic, somewhat arrogant and characterized by vision and values.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because today’s idealist generation, aged 31 through 48, is America’s infamous baby boomers, the most self-conscious clique alive.

In Strauss and Howe’s view, an idealist generation “grows up as increasingly indulged youths after a secular crisis (for the boomers, the Great Depression and World War II); comes of age inspiring a spiritual awakening (the consciousness revolution of the late 1960s through the 1970s); fragments into narcissistic (young) adults; cultivates principle as moralistic midlifers; and emerges as visionary elders guiding the next secular crisis (of 2020).”

For these idealistic groups, the authors contend, spiritual self-absorption is both their greatest asset and worst liability. And for better or worse, these generations tend to dominate the rhetoric and culture of the times in which they live. (As you might expect, both Howe, 39, and Strauss, 44, are boomers.)

Advertisement

“But there is a dark side to the boom. They have rigid standards of what’s right and wrong. The generation that once trusted no one over 30, now wants to police the morals of everyone under 30,” observes Strauss, who is the also the director of the Capitol Steps, a satirical troupe that annually plays more than 200 engagements throughout the country.

Howe predicts that as the boomers assume power, the youths who once preached sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will eventually enact “the most Draconian substance-abuse laws since the 1920s; that was when the previous idealist generation was entering midlife.”

“Our message to the boomers is that as they age, they will become the elder-priests who will lead America through the next crisis (of 2020),” Strauss continues. “Boomers have a very powerful sense of generation. There’s a potential for triumph or tragedy. History’s greatest trial for them will come for them in old age.”

A reactive generation follows each idealist generation. In their youth, members of this group pursue survival and adventure, then later on find their roles as pragmatic managers. Today’s reactive generation, which the authors label the “13ers,” includes Americans aged 10 through 30. They are known for being far more patriotic and conservative than the boomers before them. And they have the dubious distinction of being the first generation since the 19th Century to receive less college education than the generation before them.

Advertisement

As children, say Strauss and Howe, reactives predictably grow up as “underprotected and criticized youths during a spiritual awakening (for the 13ers, the consciousness revolution of the late ‘60s and the ‘70s); mature into risk-taking, alienated (young) adults; mellow into pragmatic midlife leaders during a secular crisis (the catastrophe of 2020) and maintain respect (but less influence) as reclusive elders.”

“We call (today’s reactive generation) 13ers because they are the 13th generation in American history and because the number 13 reflects their hard luck,” says Howe, adding that because 13ers are coming of age at a more sobering time than the boomers, they feel as if they’ve come upon a beach trashed from a summer of partying. And they get fined for littering. “Even the 13ers see themselves as lost,” he points out. While they were growing up, Americans were having more abortions than any time in history. What’s more, “these are the latchkey kids of divorce whom blue-ribbon commissions regularly berate as dumb, insensitive and cynical. But they look at themselves as being realists in a world where the economic odds are stacked against them.”

As this group matures, the authors predict their alienation will continue as they become “nomads driven by necessity in a world whose economic harshness is not their fault.” The good news for this group is that their financial woes and cultural alienation is expected to help them seek stability in intimate relationships and re-strengthen family life.

And the 13er generation “will make near-perfect 50-year-olds . . . they will be nice to be around. More experienced than their elders in the stark reality of pleasure and pain, 13ers will (be able to) . . . distinguish between mistakes that matter and those that don’t.”

Advertisement

A civic generation follows a reactive generation. Today’s civic generations are kids 9 or younger (the authors’ “Millennial Generation”) and senior citizens aged 67 through 90 (their “GI Generation”). In the Strauss and Howe cosmology, these groups have led or can be expected to lead lives of heroic achievement and secular reward; they tend to dominate technology and institutions.

According to the duo, civic generations endow society with a larger-than-life sense of mastery and community. As a result, today’s generally active senior citizens (who survived the Great Depression and triumphed in World War II) believe they still have a lot of living to do and can expect to have a hard time coping with limiting, physical decline.

But the seniors are likely to take considerable delight in the current batch of young kids with whom they share similar life patterns. Strauss and Howe see the youth culture of children aged 9 and below as more clean-cut, homogeneous and sure of itself than any since the 1930s (when today’s seniors were kids). And the authors already see such civic-generation qualities as optimism and confidence showing up in the tots depicted in such cute-baby movies as “Look Who’s Talking,” and “Three Men and a Baby"--both of which inspired sequels.

An adaptive generation follows a civic generation and is known for its gentility. Strauss and Howe call the current adaptives, aged 49 through 66, the “Silent Generation.”

Advertisement

Members of an adaptive generation predictably grow up as overprotected youths. In the case of the Silent crowd, they were the first generation to be born primarily in hospitals and were typically reared with strict guidelines of acceptable or unacceptable conduct.

In the “Generations” breakdown, adaptives become risk-averse conformists early in their adulthood then mature into midlife abitrators-managers known more for their communication than leadership abilities.

For example, the authors note that today’s Silent Generation has yet to produce a U.S. President; it’s 0-6 in the elections for which it’s been eligible. This generation fought a war--Korea--but it was “a war they tied,” says Howe. “But this consummate helpmate generation exhibits a heightened social sensitivity. Silent professionals fueled the 1960s-era surge in teaching, social work, ministry, government and the 1970s explosion in public interest law.”

Many members of the Silent Generation recognize that they are sandwiched between the older, overachieving civic generation and the younger, preachy baby boomers, say Strauss and Howe, but adaptives are big on understanding and getting along. They are well aware of why people don’t always achieve big-time, societal goals or why they fall short of idealistic moral standards.

Advertisement

At the moment, say Strauss and Howe, most Silent adaptives are wealthier than they ever imagined they would be. But as a group they are also more confused as to their purpose and feel both anxiety and guilt over their late-life rewards.

“No generation has more difficulty enjoying a good thing--or has such keen antennae for sensing the needs of others,” they claim. " . . . The Silent have never been and never will be collectively powerful, but will continue enriching others with a gentler kind of endowment.”

As for why anybody would want to examine the past, present and future with the sort of generational theory of history Strauss and Howe present, the answer is simple.

As Strauss puts it, “A cyclical theory of history is reassuring.”

Advertisement

Indeed, from his and Howe’s viewpoint, generational differences are society’s built-in check-and-balances system, with each generation reacting to and trying to correct the excesses of the generation that reared it.

For example, the two point to today’s 13er Generation, the alienated teen-agers and young adults whom many write off as wild, lost and cynical. But as the world grows increasingly complex and moves faster and faster, Strauss and Howe expect that the mission of the seemingly lost generation of 13ers will become obvious.

“Their life mission, growing up in a world they find over-complex,” says Howe, “is to bring society back to practical truths such as strengthening the family and, in later years, reducing public debt.”

Not to mention making sure that everybody can afford broccoli.

Advertisement

Name: G.I. Generation

Ages: 67-90

Type: Civic

A get-it-done generation, they are confident, rational problem-solvers who have had a 30-year hold on the White House. In Hollywood, they are remembered through films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Members include Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan.

Advertisement

Name: Millennial Generation

Ages: 9 and younger

Type: Civic

Cheerful and wanted, this generation is much like the G.I.s. They’ve been labeled as smarter and more civic-spirited youth. They have been celebrated with films such as “Look Who’s Talking.” Members include Lisa Simpson, “Cosby’s” Raven Symone.

Advertisement

Name: Silent Generation

Ages: 49-66

Type: Adaptive

A consummate helpmate generation, they are facilitators and technocrats, valuing fairness and expertise. They give freely to charity and believe in due process more than final results. Most Woody Allen films reflect their views. Members include Allen, Clint Eastwood.

Advertisement

Name: Boom Generation

Ages: 31-48

Type: Idealist

A moralizing generation, they were born into an era of optimism and became Sputnik-era kids, hippies, draft resisters, Jesus freaks, New Agers, yuppies and leaders of ecological and anti-drug crusades. Their views show up in Steven Spielberg films. Members include Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey.

Advertisement

Name: 13er Generation

Ages: 10-30

Type: Reactive

A criticized and alienated generation, they were the throwaway kids of divorce and poverty, heirs to classrooms without walls. They see themselves as pragmatic and quick. 13er films include “The Breakfast Club.” Members include Rob Lowe, Lisa Bonet, Gary Coleman.

Advertisement


Advertisement