So, too, must it be with generational analysis generally, if recent attempts by pop culture mavens and marketers to typecast the current cohort of babies is any indicator.
"No one knows who will name the next generation," says Neil Howe, who, along with his deceased co-author and business partner, William Strauss, is widely credited with naming the Millennials, a generation he figures spans from about 1982 to 2004. Millennials, he says, lived during a huge cultural change in how to nurture children. It was the era of the Baby on Board stickers. Cocooning. Over-protected kids.Millennials Rising followed The Fourth Turning, but before The Fourth Turning was Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, the subject of this evening's Book Review. No. 13. Generations prefigures The Fourth Turning (the churlish will note that many of the most colorful passages in Turning are lifted verbatim from Generations) but it also suggest that generation-naming, and epoch-naming, are ad hoc at best, and as a theory of social development, it might work best retrospectively.
And, arguably, he's got early dibs in to name the next generation, as well. His company sponsored a website contest in 2005, and folks voted overwhelmingly for the "Homeland Generation." That was not long after 9/11, and one fallout of the disaster was a nation that felt more safe staying home.
But he's not set on that name. "We're not totally wed to it," he says. "We've resisted the temptation to name the next generation until we think the Millennial Generation has run its course." That will be a while, he says, because the heart of the next generation is still mostly in nursery school.
Even then, he says, others are trying way too hard to slap a name on them. "Names are being invented by people who have a great press release. Everyone is looking for a hook."
He knows why. Naming the Millennial Generation back in 1989 has been a boon for his own business, though he downplays it. It's made him relatively famous. His best-selling book,Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, was published in 2000, and he is now a must-book speaker in demographic circles.
Thus Generations begins with a comparison of President Kennedy's inaugural parade with that of President Bush the elder. Both Presidents served with distinction in World War II, and their inaugural parades were slices in time of the G. I. Generation in rising middle age and in elderhood. Working hypothesis: epochal events shape cohorts of individuals, in the case of the G.I.s a massive coming of age challenge combining economic distress and global war.
The complementary proposition, however, of cohorts of individuals shaping the epochal events, is less persuasive. The most destructive epochal event of the Anglo-American saeculum, namely the secession crisis and Civil War of the late 1850s and early 1860s, is an anomaly in the Generations framework, in which there is neither a four-cohort (Idealist, Reactive, Civic, Adaptive) stratification of the population nor a four-duodecade (Awakening, Inner-Driven, Crisis, Outer-Driven) divison of the lifespan. (In Fourth Turning, these terms are clarified as respectively Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist cohorts and Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis, High eras.)
Increased lifespans, the authors suggest, also have the potential to change the interaction of cohorts. With relatively few sixtyish or older members of the currently oldest cohort, a generation's hold on positions of elder influence attenuates quickly. The authors do not explore all the possibilities of those longer life-spans for disrupting or modifying the historical cycles, although their discussion (from the early 1990s) of the G.I. Generation (Civic or Hero, came of age during World War II) notes their long tenure in the Presidency (1961-1993, as subsequent events prove.) They project Baby Boomer presidencies commencing in 2000 until 2020, with Thirteenth Generation presidencies after 2020. In reality, two Baby Boomers, neither noted by the authors as prominent politicians (the smart money was on Albert Gore the younger and Newt Gingrich in those days) served eight year terms commencing in 1993, and Barack Obama, more like a Thirteener than a Baby Boomer, began his first term in 2009. Perhaps some future analysis will suggest the Boomers and the Thirteeners ascended to national office too soon, although what those officeholders did has to be viewed against the events they reacted to.
Those events included the hung election of 2000, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the collapse of exotic finance commencing in 2007, and the unraveling of the European monetary union. Generations anticipates a secular crisis commencing around 2010 (a little late) with a resolution in the late 2020s. The public response has been a mix of internal dissension (characteristic of the 1960s), deferral and calls for compromise (characteristic of the early 1990s), and exaggeration of the threat and calls for consensus (worked after Pearl Harbor, not at all characteristic of the early 2000s).
Whether we are looking at the first draft of a logical hypothesis, or a pop-culture distraction, will be left to the reader as an exercise.
(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)