William Strauss and Neil Howe
|Style over substance|
William Strauss (1947-2007) and Neil Howe (1951-) think society turns on a repeating set of four circa 20-year stages in an approximately 80-year cycle and they try to predict the future based on this.
In spite of their claims being little more than unscientific cyclical theory, they are currently taken seriously by a lot of conservatives and liberals alike, because their theory offers conservatives the hope that society is on the verge of cycling out of the social changes of the 1960s and 1980s and back to the social conservatism of the 1940s-50s, and liberals the hope that society is on the verge of cycling out of the Reagan-Bush era of deregulation and privatization and back to the New Deal and Keynesian economics of the 1940s-50s. But first, of course, society has to go through the Big Crisis that comes along every 80 years and is coming again, soon according to the authors.
Since their theory is closely tied to study of the characteristics of American generations ("Baby Boomers," "Generation X," etc.,) they were in demand as media go-to people on generational history, which they inevitably used as a platform to pimp their pseudoscientific cyclical theory.
Their two books on this topic are Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1997).
Strauss and Howe describe an 80-year cycle with four successive stages (High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis), and four generational "types" which repeat in order:
- Prophet or idealist (for example, the Baby Boomers)
- Nomad or reactive (for example, Generation X, and the Lost Generation of the World War I era)
- Hero or civic (for example, the G.I. or "Greatest" generation of World War II, and the "Millennials" coming of age today)
- Artist or adaptive (for example, the Silent Generation that came of age too late for WWII and too early for the social changes of the 1960s, and the “Homeland” generation currently in early childhood)
Each type corresponds to particular stages of the cycle they spend childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and elder years in. A "crisis" stage comes along about every 80 years: the American Revolution, the American Civil War and Reconstruction, the Great Depression and World War II. According to the authors (writing in 1997), the U.S. was in an "unraveling" in the 1990s and due for another crisis in the 2000s-2010s, which will be followed once the crisis is resolved by a new "high" of economic liberalism and social conservatism à-la the 1950s. Strauss and Howe fans point to the crisis-a-month starting with 9/11, global warming, Hurricane Katrina, the stock market crashes of 2001 and 2008, etc. as evidence Strauss and Howe were right.
Strauss and Howe also cite some popular fiction to make their point: Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, for example, both have the generational lineup in the right order for a "crisis" period (Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi as elder "prophets," Strider and Han Solo as rough-and-ready middle-age "nomads," Frodo and Luke Skywalker as young "heroes"); while fiction taking place during an "unraveling" (Douglas Coupland's Generation X, the movie Pump Up the Volume) will have young "nomads" being unsupervised bad boys while middle-age "prophets" are indulging in spiritual woo and elder "artists" are quietly letting society fall apart under their watch. Fiction taking place during a "high" (for example the movie Stand By Me) will portray young "prophets" as children beginning to find themselves while their older "artist" siblings are just entering adulthood (and usually so subdued they are off the camera entirely), middle-age "heroes" are off building great projects like the Interstate Highway system and NASA, and elder "nomads" are cranky old geezers who sic their dog Chopper on you. They claim fiction "works" and strikes a chord with audiences if it has the generations lined up in the right order for their time, and fails if it doesn't. They also heavily cite the work of people like Joseph Campbell and his writings on mythological archetypes, and José Ortega y Gasset and his writing on how societal norms are passed from one generation to another until society reaches a point where young people no longer believe in the old norms and seek to find their own values from scratch.
For skeptics, their generational theory presents a number of areas for criticism:
- The generations themselves are social constructs. They have an age range of about 20 years each, but what gives somebody born in 1961 (defined here as a Generation Xer) more in common with an Xer born in 1981 rather than a Baby Boomer born in 1960? (According to Strauss and Howe, the difference between somebody born in 1960 and someone born in 1961 is that the former grew up traumatized by the JFK assassination, while the latter was just narrowly too young to remember. But why did the JFK assassination happen when it did? Their theory would seem to claim predictive power for such things, when in fact they constructed this theory after the fact based on past events.)
- The "crises" chosen also lend themselves to confirmation bias. The Depression and World War II period was a time of drastic societal change, but so was the Vietnam War and 1960s. Why is one a "crisis" and the other an "awakening"?
- Their theory is notably U.S.-centric, and the authors themselves call it an "Anglo-American" cycle.
- They use these cycles to make specific prophecies for the future. While major past events, and indeed any past event can be shoehorned to fit their labels, events in the future are supposed to follow exactly as the cycles predict. Many of these appear more to be Strauss' and Howe's own political and social views that they would like to see happen: they predict Generation Xers will lead movements to abolish no-fault divorce and privatize Social Security, school uniforms and mandatory national service will become the norm for Millennials, while Baby Boomers will try to radically remake society and enlist Scout-like Millennials in their crusades, who will willingly go along. Anti-drug crusaders, Strauss and Howe believe there is a struggle for the souls of Millennials regarding their attitude toward marijuana (as with the previous "hero" generation regarding alcohol during the Prohibition era) and they encourage Baby Boomers to demand strict drug-free lifestyles among their children, lest marijuana become re-legalized as alcohol was in 1933.
- Finally, even the cycle they claimed to identify from the past fell apart during the American Civil War. That period was a crisis but did not produce a "hero" type generation at all, but skipped directly from an "artist" generation to a "nomad" generation — the authors admit as much. Since their theory claims the repeating generational types cause the 80-year cycle of crises, if a generational type was skipped what does that say about their theory on the whole — or about the reliability of their prophecies for the future?
 Self-fulfilling prophecies?
The popularity of Strauss and Howe (and numerous other writers, ranging from complete woo-meisters to "mainstream" economists, environmentalists, and political activists both left and right, all forecasting catastrophic doom-'n'-gloom) may ironically encourage such a crisis to happen. If enough people believe a catastrophic "crisis" is forthcoming because Strauss and Howe (or others) said it would, they might be more likely to put society on a crisis footing in reaction to whatever events do happen. Compare the crisis-like reaction to and iconic status of 9/11 and Katrina to similar catastrophes in the past (during periods other than one of Strauss and Howe's "crises"), many of which are barely remembered today. Strauss and Howe fans would counter that the crisis-like response to these is precisely what Strauss and Howe's theory predicts, because of the way the generations are lined up at this given time with Baby Boomers itching for a pretext to justify a crusade to remake society and good little Millennial scouts looking for team efforts to join. But this reasoning is backward: what if Baby Boomers and Millennials had no idea they were supposed to think this way until they read The Fourth Turning which told them this was their generational destiny?
Given that many of their predictions appear to be things the authors want to see happen, it is not hard to imagine that they had self-fulfilling prophecies in mind all along.
On the other hand, it would be wrong to attribute the crisis-like response to current events to the influence of Strauss and Howe alone. It would be more accurate to say Strauss and Howe's writing reflects broader societal trends in which forecasts of apocalypse, or a need to radically change society, have become popular.