Generational Cycles – 12 Rules For (Millennial) Life
Editor | On 11, Nov 2018
Could the plight of today’s 20-something white American male be cured with a self-help book? For tens of thousands, the answer appears to be a surprising yes.
The author, Jordan Peterson, is a clinical psychologist and college professor from Canada. He derives answers from theology, psychiatry and philosophy for questions about life, gender roles, and other hot button topics. His book, 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has become a near-global bestseller.
Flipping the pages, this isn’t a book of Oprah Winfrey mantras on positivity. Its theme is simple – life is not supposed to be easy. In fact, life is “a catastrophe.” Peterson’s advice runs the gamut from the simplistic and common-sense – standup straight with your shoulders back at all times, and don’t forget to make your bed and clean up your room in the morning – to the more life-changing and revelatory. Happiness is a worthless pursuit in life, according to Peterson.
The book, his subsequent lecture videos, and a very public and pugilistic interview on UK’s Channel 4 against anchor Cathy Newman (the video has been watched 7 million times on YouTube), have skyrocketed Peterson to a rare level of celebrity. He’s the public intellectual of the moment in the United States, much to the chagrin of the ‘neo-Marxist’ liberal left he goes out of his way to berate. And here’s where the problems begin. The left’s response is to label Peterson ‘Alt Right’, very likely in an attempt to discredit him by association to the less savoury Trump and Brexit voters.
To me, Peterson has nothing at all to do with this version of Alt Right. What he actually is, is a latter-day Stoic. Albeit with a strong grounding in psychology. He’s certainly not an innovator however. And that’s perhaps the significant issue from a Generation Cycle perspective. If he were able to look forward with any kind of problem-solving insight he’d be advocating new ways of looking at the world. Maybe even the idea of revealing and solving contradictions a la TRIZ. Instead what we get is someone with a lawyer’s ear for language, a good shot of mythology and, for many, too strong a propensity to quote from the Bible and use the words he finds there to try and justify his ‘scientific’ arguments.
Peterson was born in Canada in 1962. Which places him right on the cusp of the Baby Boomer and Generation X divide. As with all cuspers, it’s very difficult to sit on the fence in life, and I’d have to say – having read 12 Rules For Life – that he falls very clearly on the Boomer side of the fence. Which means his tone is much more Moralistic than it is Pragmatic. And that he feels justified in saying things in the book like, ‘well, there’s this really odd verse in the Bible and it took me years to work out what it meant’. As if his thinking on the subject somehow trumps that of any other scholar of the past two Millenia. The arrogance could only come from a Boomer.
Falling on the Boomer side of the generation divide, however, comes with a big advantage. For Peterson at least. It makes it much more likely that the Millennials will pick up on his messages.
However, because Peterson is only able to look back rather than help design a better way forward, all that’s happening is that he’s becoming the catalyst causing the societal oscillation between over-protection of the young to start swinging in the opposite direction.
A few weeks ago a wrote a short blog article about ‘Peak Snowflake’ – the point when the cohort of young adult Millennials collectively hit their peak fragility. My conclusion was that we’re still a year or so away from that peak. In no small part because the over-protection that late-teen Millennials received when they lived at home now falls foul of the aforementioned neo-Marxist liberal left intelligentsia that Peterson claims has pretty much taken over the college system in most parts of the West.
We may still be a year away from Peak Snowflake, but I think it is legitimate to say that 12 Rules For Life will turn out to be one of those iconic calls-to-arms that history will deem to have triggered the turnaround of the societal pendulum.
Peterson’s concern for young men and boys has set him on an emotional quest– he openly cried during a radio interview describing emails and social media messages he has received from his viewers (very attractive to Millennials!) – that has gained him a passionate following, sell-out lectures wherever he goes, and a YouTube channel that will probably allow him to dominate the Millennial airwaves.
Part of Peterson’s fame reflects a feared crisis in young American men today. They are often stereotyped as either basement dwelling video game addicts or frat boy alpha male misogynists, out of touch both with society and their female counterparts – many with no real ambition or suitability for marriage.
Peterson sees young men as victims of a society that hasn’t prepared them to be men, where postmodern, identity group politics has leaked out of the campuses and into the elementary schools, where being an energetic boy is considered a mental health defect, as social media rumors say.
What they find in Peterson is a guide and someone who is fire-and-brimstone-preacher level frank, and honest about reality. Peterson doesn’t simplify the world’s problems, he acknowledges them as complex and that has given him credibility among his fans, who are navigating the new world of ever changing sexual politics, be it at school, work or the dating sphere. His lectures combine his expertise in clinical psychology, along with religious themes and Jungian psychiatry. He skips postmodern and ideological meanings, and gives answers in metaphors that run the range from philosophy and religion to Greek mythology. The answers are complicated, and in many cases there are no answers, but young men have found guidance in his videos and now his book, and believe they have found an authentic (those tears!) honest broker.
Peterson painting the world as a dark place isn’t surprising for Generation Xers, who came of age during the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. But it’s revelatory to some of Peterson’s younger interviewers and even shocking.
Young men have found a public advocate, after years of real or imagined blamed for being the cause of all the world’s problems; and for not meeting the expectations of anyone. The Millennial male is neither sufficiently manly as a whole, or is toxically masculine, depending on the given think piece, magazine article or girlfriend. But watching and reading Peterson, and analysing what his audience is attracted to most, it suggests young men are crippled by a prolonged adolescence. They were never given the tools to progress to maturity or the tests to gain the confidence to take their place in the world as adults.
And so the pendulum swing towards under-protection begins in earnest. Sorry, Dr Benjamin Spock (the author that triggered the previous swing in the direction towards over-protection with his 1946 classic ‘Baby And Child Care’), all of your work is about to be undone. At least until your successor comes along in another 40-50 years to set the pendulum swinging the other way again…
…unless society can somehow begin to recognize that these frustrating, time-wasting pendulum swings occur because we don’t recognize they symbolize unsolved contradictions. And that such contradictions are eminently solvable, provided we give ourselves permission to start designing new (third-way) contradiction-solving ways to actually make some societal progress.