Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Fourth Turnings: Generational Archetypes

Is there truly a spirit of an Age? Can we speak of generational stereotypes? Marketers certainly think so -- we've been sliced and diced demographically. Marketers target boomers differently than Gen x'ers or Millinnial children (see for instance Ypulse, a website dedicated to understanding marketing to the Millenial Generation. So if we approach generations differently when we're trying to sell a cylander of artificially colored sugar water, then perhaps we can view each generation as unique as we look at the unfolding of history.

Strauss and Howe believe that each new generation is shaped by some defining event that happens -- and their life stage at that time will shape how they then appraoch culture later. For instance, after a Crisis period is resolved, the generation that was in young adulthood (a Hero generation that was on the frontlines of the battles) returns home to consolidate their victory and raise their children in peace. The children that are born post crisis are indulged, protected, cherished, coddled, and looked upon with great hope -- they after all are the future -- they are the future for which the hero generation was fighting. However, there is this strange generation between the two -- those too young to fight the battles, but who have a living memory of living through the crisis -- they were protected, but largely told to keep their place -- they bide their time and come of age in the peace following the crisis, expanding their creative capacities.

So here we have three archetypes allready, by Strauss and Howe's designation they are: Hero, Artist, Prophet. During this post crisis period (known as a high) there is stabiility and conformity and an emphasis on social cohesion. But when the Prophet generation begins to mature, they question the order that was built out of the crisis. They have no living memory of the crisis remember -- they question the conformity and social order. As the prophets move into maturity, they question the social order -- this becomes the tumultuous time that we've referred to as an Awakening. A new generation is being born in this awakening, but they are largely left alone because society is preoccupied with the changes going on -- this new generation is called a Nomad archetype, because they're often left to their own devices and prior generations have very low expectations.

So four archetypes that cycle through the four ages of man - moving from childhood, to young adulthood, to maturity, to eldership. Each generation playing a different role in society as they enter the life stages -- and therefore driving what will come next.

Think of this: GI Generation (Heroes) come home and build the great 1950s culture of Happy days. The Silent Generation (Artists) remember the war, but enjoy the idyllic season of growing up in Buddy Holly's america (think Happy Days). The Baby boomer generation (prophets) is born just after the war. But then when the baby boomer generation begins to mature (say around 20 years after the close of the crisis -- think mid 60s), they question the social system (does anybody remember the 60s and 70s??). As they're busy self-actualizing, they're giving birth to a new generation that receives considerably less attention than they did -- this generation becomes a generation of slackers (can we say Generation X anyone?). However as these slackers come into their own and the boomers self actualize society into a thousand different fragments, there becomes a new emphasis on co-operation and investing in children --

the unravelling that is precipitated by the self-actualizing zeitgiest from the Awakening may just propel us to a new crisis and that new generation (the Millennials) may well become the heroes -- the next GI generation that has to serve in the front lines of the new crisis.

Or think this scenario: The revolutionary war heroes had a whole generation of artful and subtle compromisers (John Quincy Adams for instance). But in the Post revolution era of a High, there was significant expansion and exuberance in America (Louisiana purchase anyone?). The children born during that time of exuberance would when they came of age be the catalyst for a little event known as the Second Great Awakening - a spiritual revival that broke out from the 1820s-1840s. Then, there is a season of unravelling as the prophets of the various religious and personal movements begin to battle (Bleeding Kansas?), until after about 20 years of unravelling, there is another crisis (The Civil War).

Crisis, High, Awakening, Unravelling
Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad

Which, if we're on the verge of crisis now, our 20 year olds and younger are the heroes who will bear the burdens -- the Nomads (that us Gen Xers) will have to be the tough decision makers -- the Pattons, the Eisenhowers, the Shermans, the Grants, the Stonewall Jacksons. The Prophet Boomers will make their prophetic voices heeard by goading the faithful into the breach. And the Artists will tend, nurture, and shepherd the generations with wisdom.

Challenging thoughts for challenging times

Soli Deo Gloria

Index to the Fourth Turning Series
First post
Concepts of Time
Crises of American History
American Awakenings

Supplemental Articles
Kruse Kronicle: Index on Generations
American Thinker article: "Parkinson's War" (thanks Chris Larimer)
Ypulse -- Ypulse provides daily news & commentary about Generation Y for media and marketing professionals.