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A Model for Social Change

Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069. By William Strauss and Neil Howe. New York: Morrow, 1991.

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. By William Strauss and Neil Howe. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. By Neil Howe and Bill Strauss. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Achieving fundamental social change seems to be both difficult and slow. How many decades have we worked for painfully minute changes in human treatment of animals? But there may be good news for vegetarians, radical environmental activists, and other advocates of fundamental social change. We could be entering a dramatic new phase of history, in which in a relatively short period of time about twenty to twenty-five years, we could see enormous world-wide social changes which would dwarf anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, the decisive engine for social change is not the objective conditions forcing us to change -- whether it is war, economic distress, technological opportunity, or something similar. Rather, it is the sociological and psychological conditions caused by the interplay of different generations. Each generation -- whether it be the Baby Boomers, Generation X, or the older so-called "silent" generation -- has a unique character, and it is in the relationships between the generations that movements for change gather force and finally transform society, whether for better or worse.

Strauss and Howe do not take sides on the nature of this crisis; they are not (as far as I know) vegetarians, environmental activists, advocates of simple living, or anything like that. What they do talk about is the fact -- and timing -- of social crises, and that is what makes their books so interesting.

The Character of Generations

According to Strauss and Howe, each generation has a unique character, reflecting the majority viewpoint its members, which it retains throughout its lifetime. Each generation is different because, basically, each generation becomes more and more individualistic and less and less civic-minded. Those of us who are "baby boomers" remember very well all the talk about the so-called "generation gap" -- so many of those who were young adults during the Vietnam War saw the world so very differently from our parents. But the same thing applies to "Generation X," which followed the baby boomers.

Strauss and Howe identify four different generational types. (Confusingly, they give different names to these types in their different books, but I will use the terminology in Generations.)

-- The Civic generation is a generation which experiences their youth in a time of major crisis, such as the Great Depression and World War II, or the American Revolution. As young adults, surrounded by unprecedented challenges, they rally around a common cause and struggle to overcome the obstacles thrown at them. The most recent example is the "G. I. Generation" who were in their 20's and 30's while the Second World War was being fought.

-- The Adaptive generation experiences their childhood in a time of crisis. They grow up in a frightening world in which, as children, they are fairly helpless, though when they grow up the crisis is resolved. The most recent example is the "Silent Generation" who were children during the Second World War, and experienced young adulthood during the 1950's and early 1960's.

-- The Idealist generation is a generation which has never experienced a crisis in their younger years. They are raised in a relaxing climate after a crisis, and these children are treated more indulgently, so they become idealists. They are often caught up in religious revivals -- or, in the 1960's and 1970's, a "consciousness revolution" -- and start to challenge the social ideals of their parents. The most recent example is the "Baby Boom" generation who were young adults during the 1960's and 1970's.

-- The Reactive generation is a generation which also has never experienced a crisis in their younger years. But they do have to cope with increasing individualism in society, and an increasingly uncertain world due to the fact that the idealistic generation which preceded them has set society adrift in its social moorings. They learn to protect themselves and become pragmatic and results-focused. The most recent example is the "Generation X" which experienced young adulthood in the 1980's and 1990's.

And what’s the next generation after a reactive generation? It’s another civic generation. This theory is a cyclic theory. What starts the cycle over again is a social crisis in which society is reorganized around a new value system. Suddenly civic virtue (based on the newly formed value system) is more important than individualism. Each generation is born during a period of about 20 or 25 years, and an entire cycle takes about 80 to 100 years to complete, with a major social crisis marking the beginning of the repetition of the cycle. (The American Civil War crisis was the exception: it was so catastrophic that it shortened the cycle by almost a generation.)

Strauss and Howe identify several "crisis periods" in American history: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. (They go all the way back to 1584!) The aftermath of these crisis periods saw fundamental social changes: independence from Great Britain; abolition of slavery; social security; a dramatic increase in the role of government in the economy, and in the American presence in the international sphere.

Their theory does not predict when "big events" like wars or depressions will happen, but how we will react to these events. The First and Second World Wars both featured catastrophic European wars in which millions died, and into which the U. S. was ultimately drawn. But America’s reaction to the First World War and its reaction to the Second World War were completely different. America only got in at the very end of the First World War, after much hesitation, and when it ended America immediately reverted to isolationism. But in the Second World War, America fought during the brunt of the war and remained internationally involved for generations afterwards. In other words, our reaction to a catastrophic European war is what defined it as a social crisis in which things would fundamentally change, as opposed to a disaster that we have to cope with as best we can.

Strauss and Howe are also careful not to draw value judgments as to the relative merits of individualism versus teamwork, and careful to point out that crises often have very different endings. Individualism can manifest itself as crime and drug use; it can also manifest itself as technological inventiveness and the computer revolution. Teamwork can mean the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's; it can also mean the Hitler youth of the same period. The resolution of a crisis can be a triumph, like America in 1945; or it can mean devastation and disaster, like Germany in 1945.

Implications for Us

Generations and its companion books offer us several lessons. To begin with, it offers a useful primer on generations learning to get along with one another in a common cause. But most critically, these ideas signify that we are about to enter a crisis era just like the Second World War, the Civil War, or the American Revolution. During this crisis period, everything may be changed, just as the aftermath of the Second World War, the Civil War, and the American Revolution left society in a very different situation than it was previously.

Thus the implications for our movement are that a unique opportunity for dramatic social change is about to unfold. These crises unfold about every 80 years; 80 years ago, it was 1923. In 1923 we were in the middle of an economic panic, profoundly frustrated with our international involvement, and in the middle of culture wars over drugs (prohibition), teaching evolution (the Scopes Trial!), and the role of women. Sound familiar? We were just a few short years away from the Great Depression. And lest this be seen as "the-end-is-near" grandstanding to pump up book sales, it should be pointed out that Generations was first published in 1991.

Still not convinced? Think about September 11, the unraveling war in Iraq, the never-ending debates with the fundamentalist Christian right, the polarization of the country -- these incidents, which have remarkable parallels to the 1920's, the 1850's, and the late 1760's, are merely preludes to the social consciousness that we require a fundamental rethinking of our economy and our way of life.

Reading Generations, The Fourth Turning, or Millennials Rising should be required for all activists in this or any related movement. You may not agree with their views on social change; but the views in this book cannot be ignored. We need to be prepared for the possibility that a period of social turmoil in which, suddenly, everything will be up for grabs, is at hand.

-- Keith Akers
November 12, 2003