Sunday, November 9, 2008

I Knew How the Election would go - because...

I applied the "test" posited in the book Generations, written in 1991 by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Frankly, I didn't have the gumption to write this post before the election...

I'm sure that many of my readers have marveled, as I have, at the insights in this book. The basic tenets are (these are my summaries, based on charts in the book):

* The history of the English colonies and the United States can be defined by "generations" - groups defined as born between certain years, each generation encompassing 15 to 25 years in length.

* Each one of these generations has tendencies toward certain "peer personalities" - they call these personalities "Idealist," "Reactive," "Civic" and "Adaptive." The four generations cycle repeats in approximately 80 to 85 year periods.

* Two types of "social moments" occur in each 80-year cycle of the four personality types - a Secular Crisis (think Revolutionary War, Civil War, Great Depression) and a Spiritual Awakening (think Transcendental Idealism in the 1821-1839 time, Reform and Revivalism in 1886-1903, and the Sixties in 1967-1980 - the sexual revolution).

* As each generation moves through history, they take on attributes in approximately 20-year periods - for instance:

** The Adaptive personality type are suffocated in youth, conformist in Rising Adulthood, indecisive in Midlife and sensitive in Elderhood. These generations are the peacemakers, go along to get along, etc. The previous Adaptive Generation was called "Silent" (1925-1942) in the book, and the current Adaptive Generation doesn't have a name (born 2001-???) in the book.

** The Idealist personality types are indulged in Youth, narcissistic in Rising Adulthood, moralistic in Midlife and visionary in Elderhood. The current Idealist Generation, who tend to "think great things," is the "Boom" generation (born 1943-1960), which came of age during the 1960's and 1970's.

** The Reactive personality type are criticized in Youth, alienated in Rising Adulthood, pragmatic in Midlife and reclusive in Elderhood. The previous Reactive Generation, who tend to fix things, (1883-1900) was called the "Lost" Generation, and the current Reactive generation (born 1961-1981) is called the "13th" Generation in the book.

** The Civic personality type are protected in Youth, heroic in Rising Adulthood, powerful in Midlife, and busy in Elderhood. The Civic generations are those that do "great things" - the previous Civic generation was the GI generation born in 1901-1924 - the ones who fought in World War II and built American industry after the War, and the current Civic Generation are called "Millenial" (1981-2001?). There is great hope for the Millenials, of course.

I identify with the Adaptive personality type. However, I was born in 1943. My younger brothers are definitely Boomers, but I'm not, at least in personality type. Just call me "Mr. Sensitive," I guess.

Think about relationships between parents and children, and employees and managers, and you can understand why there are personality conflicts. It';s no wonder to me, that I identify so closely with my grandchildren who were all born after 2001, and are Adaptive types like me.

You have to read the 500-page book to get the full flavor of these theories and groupings, but they seemed persuasive to me at the time, and still do. Of course, not every person fits "neatly" into the "peer personality" type listed in the book, but it seems like the leaders of our country do fit.

One good example is Presidents:

* The "Lost" generation (Reactive) Presidents were Truman and Eisenhower

* The "GI" generation (Civic) Presidents were Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush I.

* The "Silent" generation (Adaptive) Presidents were - none. Think Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, McCain in this generation. There have been Adaptive Presidents in US history - Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are on the list.

* The "Boom" generation (Idealist) Presidents were Clinton and Bush II, and perhaps Obama. Or perhaps Obama is the first President from the "13th" generation, which is Reactive. It's too early to tell. What Obama accomplishes or how he governs may define his generation type.

Strauss and Howe make the point in the book that once the Presidency turns over to the next generation type, it doesn't go back. Clinton and Bush II are Idealist types, but McCain is a "Silent" generation Adaptive, and Obama is in a later generation type - either a "Boom" Idealist or a "13th" Reactive. So McCain, being an earlier type than already in office, really didn't have a chance, if the theory in the book is true.

I have tended to look at past, current and future history through this Generations lens. Strauss and Howe predicted events out into the 2060's in general terms.

When the 2008 Presidential nominees were McCain (an Adaptive) and Obama (an Idealist or Reactive type), I instinctively knew which one would win the latest election. I have no doubt that if the Democrats had nominated Hillary Clinton (a "Boom" Idealist), she also would have beaten McCain (an Adaptive). If the Republicans had nominated a "Boom" nominee like Huckabee, Romney or Giuliani, they might have won since the previous 16 years were "Boom" generation Presidents and there might not have been a generation-type turnover.

The book projects the next Secular Crisis in the 2010 to 2020 time period - we are close to that now. Will it be the current financial crisis (leading to depression or anarchy?) several years early? Or will it be a momentous political or cataclysmic event like a world (or nuclear) war or an asteroid strike? Nobody knows, but I'm not sure that I'm anxious to find out! And then in the 2040-2050 time there will be another spiritual awakening.

If you have the chance, buy the book or find it in a library and read it for the insight provided. They have published a sequel called The Fourth Turning which modifies some of the generation year ranges, and added more predictive material based on what has happened over the past 17 years since Generations was published.

How does this apply to genealogy research? Each of our colonial and American ancestors was born into one of these generations and probably had the typical "peer personality" of that generation. We may be able to correlate the typical "peer personality" with the life events of our ancestors, or perhaps be able to discern how they thought. The book has summaries of the historical events experienced by each of the generations.

What do you think? Do these theories have real purpose and validity? Do the "peer personality" descriptions fit your personality and outlook on life?

4 comments:

Apple said...

I was born at the tail end of the 50's and I see myself as more of a Reactive.

As I've been transcribing letters I've been thinking about the personality differences between my two 2nd great-grandmothers. They were only six years apart in age- Sarah born 1817 vs Hannah born 1823. I'll have to get the book and see if they were born near the cut off between different generation cycles.

Drew Smith said...

Randy, I've found another interesting connection between the recent election and genealogy. Compare the following two maps and tell me what you see:

(look at the second slide, of which counties voted more Republican)

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/flash/politics/20081104_ELECTION_RECAP/electionChange2.swf

(look at those who chose "American" in response to their ancestry question)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County.svg

Randy Seaver said...

Apple asked if a generation change occurred between 1817 and 1823. The book says that an Idealist generation was 1792-1821, and a Reactive generation from 1822-1842.

Now i'm curious if Apple can discern between her two 2nd great-grandmothers - do the peer personalities fit?

Apple said...

Actually I would have thought just the opposite! Hannah, b 1823 I would describe as narcissistic. I know very little about either woman as children. Both were very moralistic but Hannah was very outspoken about her views and believed everyone should believe as she did. "indecisive in Midlife and sensitive in Elderhood" describes Sarah, b 1817, very well. In the letters Hannah was never described as sensitive. lol

Thanks for looking it up for me.