Cycles in U. S. History

Generational Theory


Strauss and Howe claim to have observed cyclical trends in people's attitudes concerning religion, government, education, drugs and alcohol, conformity, materialism, wealth disparity, suicide, self esteem, and others. Of course not all persons share that generation's traits, but the claim is that on average the definitions are largely accurate.

What is striking is not that a swinging pendulum can be seen in one social barometer, but that the model claims to explain many different pendulums, swinging with different phases. All of these pendulums are linked to the others, building a whole which is greater than the sum of the parts.

Strauss and Howe proposed that the cycle is driven mainly by the desire of parents to overcompensate for the flaws they remember from their own childhood. This is expressed in the raising of their own children, and in attitudes towards childrearing by society in general.

One example would be a GI parent who remembers his childhood (1930's) as being restrictive and smothering. As a parent he might try to provide his Boomer child with a childhood (1960's) that has greater freedom and less supervision than he had. That Boomer child might become a parent who remembers his childhood environment as not controlled enough, and swing back to being a more restrictive parent to his Millennial child (1990's).

Contributed by Tim Moran

The four cycle model S&H propose is (1) underprotection, (2) increasing nurture, (3) over protection, (4) decreasing nurture, ...etc. Each by succeeding generations of parents. After the cycle of open upbringing given to our boomer generation, a cycle of underprotection was provided to the Generation-X youth. I think we can all see the reversal of those trends in the increased attention being paid to the raising of children today.

Strauss and Howe describe four generational phases of life, each with distinct roles to play in the social scheme.

  • Elders - Main role is stewardship and the passing on of values.
  • Midlife Adults - Main role is leadership and directing the institutions.
  • Rising Adults - Main role is activity serving the institutions.
  • Youth - Main role is a dependent one involving learning and acquiring values.

When a major social trauma occurs, such as a war or famine, each of the generational groups react to the crisis according to the phase of life they are in. As time passes, the lasting effect of the event, or events, tends to mold each groups personality differently. As each group moves into a new phase of life they carry a different perspective from the previous generation and carry on the role in their own distinctive way. At any given time the various social roles are being played by unique personality alignments which in turn shape ongoing events. This feedback system tends to repeat itself every four generations, driven by the nurturing cycle described above.

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