Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top



Generational Cycles – Beyond The ‘Pseudo-Science’

Generational Cycles –  Beyond The ‘Pseudo-Science’

| On 17, Apr 2018

Darrell Mann

Time, this month, to have a deeper look at the ‘pseudo-science’ arguing article mentioned in last month’s Generation article. We love anything that challenges existing theories. But only if it adds something to the story, as opposed to merely taking shots because the message being communicated by the theory is somehow inconvenient, or against your own views of the world. As we’ll see, we tend to get more of the latter than the former in the article in question. Perhaps in no small part because Steve Bannon is a ‘fan’ of the Strauss & Howe Generations story, and who doesn’t like taking a jab at him? That aside, let’s have a look at the diatribe section by section:

What Strauss and Howe added in their work was a comprehensive theory of generational repetition: US history moves in 80-year cycles, with generations moving through 20-year periods of influence called turnings. The cycles have highs and lows interspersed with major crises in history like the American revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Each of the four generations embody fundamental characteristics, and these characteristics repeat themselves throughout history. Our current cycle calls for a major, defining crisis that will take place, well, any moment now.

The Theory says nothing about ’80-year’ or ’20-year’ periods, ‘repeating throughout history’ or ‘calling for a major, defining crisis’, never mind, ‘any moment now’. The DNA of the model is clear: ‘the manner in which your parents raised you will influence the way you raise your own’. Likewise, it is clear that global events will and do happen at random. What drives societal behaviours are the reactions to these events. Sometimes the random events that ‘happen’ to cause society to react in large numbers come ‘early’ and sometimes they come ‘late’. That’s why the actual cycle time is somewhat variable between 80 and 100 years, and why some turnings occur before the ’20 years’ is up and some occur after. This variation currently tells us that the likely ‘defining crisis’ – the one that will create the societal s-curve shift will most likely occur somewhere during the period 2020 to 2025, and not ‘any moment now’.

“Social/demographic historians would agree that one can distinguish ‘generations’… but would be skeptical of ideas like cycles or radical disjunctures or character types,” says Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who noted that the variation between generations is distinctive “in only a statistical sense, usually percentage points different one way or another.”

This is one of the more serious errors in thinking not just in the article, but also in the manner many people think. In any complex environment, there will be some kind of distribution of characteristics. When we hear someone generalize about the French, or Americans, we (should) know that the speaker is not trying to imply that 100% of French people are rude or 100% of Americans arrogant, but rather that if you had a room full of French and Americans, on average you’d be likely to observe that the French were ‘ruder’ than the Americans, and, on average, the Americans more arrogant than the French:

In exactly the same way, not every Millennial is ‘heroic’, nor is every GenX Nomad  ‘alienated’. There’s a distribution. One where we are likely to see that ‘on average’ the Millennials will have more Heroic attributes than the Nomads.

While the shift in average may indeed only be ‘percentage points’, that completely misses the point as far as the manner in which we and TrenDNA uses the difference. The key thing at stake here is to establish the contradictions that in turn lead to the innovation opportunities. Using the theory has nothing at all to do with the percentage of heroes and nomads, simply that if we can design a new offering to solve the contradiction between the two extremes, we make everyone else in between happy… and if we don’t, that’s merely because we’ve selected the wrong extremes.

According to their theory of generational repetition, millennials will be a “heroic” generation, the modern analogues of the Greatest or GI Generation that came of age during World War II. Approximately 80 years later, millennials are destined to face a similar political and economic crisis, inherited from the poor management of their progenitors. No doubt the writers also enjoyed the parallels between their new generation, which looks forward to an epoch defining crisis, and the original Christian millenarianist movements, which looked forward to the end of the world.

The third sentence is the one that betrays the dishonesty of the article. Attempts to make comparison with thoroughly discredited ideas that were based on no Theory at all is grossly unfair.

Sociologists do recognize a “distinctive consciousness” that can be used to identify a generation’s worldview, centered on an influential historical event that occurred during their youth. For example, the mass mobilization in World War II and the experience of the Great Depression are believed to have left lasting marks on members of the GI generation. But saying that generations can share an identity is very different than saying they share a destiny.

There’s again absolutely nothing in the theory about ‘shared destiny’. Some things in the world change monotonically and some don’t. Technologies tend to be monotonic – mobility or communications, for example, almost never go through periods of ‘getting worse’. At some points in history they improve faster than others, but overall the direction is consistently and reliably towards improvement. Then there are things in life that are non-monotonic. Things that oscillate. Sometimes we crave nostalgia and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes society over-protects its infants and sometimes it under-protects them. Strauss & Howe’s model is purely about the latter oscillatory patterns. It tells us that the identities of Heroes in the GI Generation and the Millennials are similar in many ways because they were both generally protected as children, but it tells us nothing about their destiny. Yes, they will tend to have to face a Fourth Turning crisis in their adult years, but no-one is saying they can predict what the crisis will be, or what the outcome will be. Simply that times of chaotic crisis are rarely sustainable for long periods of time. Complex adaptive systems theory tells us that. Nothing to do with Strauss or Howe.

Most generational labels are applied after the fact—”Generation X” didn’t have a name until 1991, when the oldest members were already 26.

So what? ‘Show me the child of seven and I’ll show you the man’, Shakespeare famously said. What he didn’t say was that you could see the man from the newborn baby. The naming of Generations is a classic example of ‘events happening at random, but societies reaction to the events is generationally conditioned. As a species we seem to universally love categorizing things, and especially societal tribes. Consequently, multiple authors and commentators try to create labels that fit. Only society at large, however, can choose to adopt or reject those labels. It just happened that when author Douglas Coupland penned the book Generation X, there was a general nodding of heads (in the West at least), and the start of a meme that both the Nomad generation and the generations around them recognized as something that ‘felt right’. The dozens of authors before and after Coupland saw their naming attempts fail because, for whatever reason, society deemed they weren’t ‘right’.

Thanks to Strauss and Howe, however, millennials have had to grow up with their label, actively trying to justify, or deny, an identity based on a crisis that had yet to occur. What could it be? Strauss and Howe have been trying to find a “Fourth Turning” to define the generation for some time now. (Previous turnings featured the American Revolution, World War II, and the Great Depression.) Just like financiers predicting hyper-inflation in the US, they are quite sure the event is always just around the corner.

In the same way that firefighters light fires, pattern-finders find patterns. Most of these patterns prove to be the result of some form of cognitive bias. The whole point of the Strauss & Howe theory is not to try and find – or worse, ‘engineer’ – crises that fit the model, but to try and find things that don’t fit. That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do in our research over the last two decades. The fact that we haven’t found contrary evidence is the reason we still talk about the Theory. From a personal perspective, I couldn’t be happier if there was no crisis in the next ten years. Talking about crises doesn’t create crises. As far as Strauss & Howe are/were concerned, their work revealed a model for the first time that, now we know it, it should have allowed humanity to knowingly avoid the next crisis period. It appears that message hasn’t been listened to. Ironically, if Strauss & Howe – both ‘moralistic’ Boomers – had have properly understood their own theory, they would have understood that being moralistic was no way to convince the other generations about the validity or otherwise of their theory.

Perhaps the defining experience of the millennial generation is relative economic stagnation and inequality. But even that oft-heard word, inequality, is a reminder of how heterogenous millennials are: The experience of a college-educated 25-year-old is very different from one with a high-school education. Not surprisingly, this most racially diverse of American cohorts is likely to have the most diversity of experiences.

This seems to me to betray a fundamental mis-understanding about the difference between patterns and absolutes. Yes, of course, Millennials are more heterogenous than previous generations. That’s because the Internet means it’s very easy to see a broad spectrum of things that were very difficult for previous generations to see. The point here is not that every Millennial Facebook page is different to every other one, but that, when we step back and look for meta-patterns we realise there is a preponderance of narcissism, of wanting to portray yourself as someone better than your real self, of wanting to make a difference to the world, and, generally, to behave ‘heroically’. If I like socializing, a Hero says, I will socialize heroically in exactly the same way that if I wish to be abstemious, I will do that heroically too. Heterogenous and homogenous: just at different viewing perspectives.

The millennial cannot be falsified
The malleability of Strauss and Howe’s predictions says a good deal about the logic of these theories: The millennial generation is heroic because it will face the cataclysm of a Fourth Turning, and the Fourth Turning will be a cataclysm because it comes about 80 years after the last one. There’s more faith than reason at work here.

This is the part where the article is at its dumbest. The whole point of any theory is that it allows us to make predictions that, if they come true help to preserve the theory, and if they don’t cause us to reflect and revise the theory. When the Fourth Turning book says things like, ‘we can’t predict what it will be specifically, but if the theory is true we should expect to see a societal event somewhere in the period 2000 to 2005 that will change the mood of American society’, that was very specifically putting their necks on the line.

Again, all theories are wrong, but some are useful. If an organization is trying to project what they should be doing in 2035, or 2040, is it better to use a theory, or to randomly dream crap up? This is where I get very frustrated with individuals that demand I ‘prove’ the model before they’ll do anything with it. Prove it relative to what? If they had something better they were using, I’d go along with the argument; when I realise – as I invariably do – that they’re poking around in the dark with no clue about anything, that’s when I realise they’re a hopeless cause.

Most scientists don’t use the terms ‘boomer,’ ‘ex-er,’ and I don’t as well,” Glen Elder, a University of North Carolina sociologist who is a pioneer in the field of life cycle studies, wrote in an e-mail. He makes a distinction between “generations” and “birth cohort.” Birth cohorts “locate people in history,” while “generations are used to refer to a population born in a historical era, they generally cover a broad span of time—in doing so, they lose precision regarding historical influences.”

Great that Glen Elder saw fit to ‘write an email’ challenging the theory and make a tedious semantic point about the difference between ‘generation’ and ‘birth cohort’, but look at his list of publications (which I’ve done by the way), and you realise that this is a ‘scientist’ with really no clue at all about life-cycle studies. Simple tests: a) does he understand s-curves and discontinuous change? Answer: No. b) does he understand emergence and resolution of Contradictions? Answer: No. c) does he understand anything about complex adaptive systems? Answer: No. Three strikes, Mr Elder and you’re out. Bye bye.

Elder illustrates the challenges in assuming a homogenous view of generations by citing research into the Greatest Generation that helped define the field. He tracked individuals born in California over 40 years in order to assess how the Great Depression affected them. The results show major differences within fairly small time spans: Children born in 1920 or 1921 and those born seven or eight years later had very different experiences, as did boys and girls. In contrast, Strauss and Howe consider the entire group to be part of the same “GI” generation.

This is the same as the previous absolute-versus-distribution argument. We know that there are subtle differences in the turning points in the Strauss & Howe theory. Females tend to mature faster than males. Urban dwellers tend to see trends before those in rural areas. Popular music, for example, appears to follow half-generation patterns. As does fashion. This doesn’t nor shouldn’t discredit the theory: the theory is there to help us to find contradictions not question whether New Yorkers are seven months or nine ahead of Parisians.

Social scientists have hunted for “age changes that are universal or nearly universal across time and place,” akin to what Strauss and Howe describe. Discovering some universal rhythm to history would revolutionize our understanding of human society. But researchers consistently find more difference than similarity, between and among generations.

Crucially, as far as TrenDNA is concerned, Generation theory is but one of three important DNA-strands that help determine societal patterns and find the best contradictions to solve. We also need to look at Gravesian Thinking Styles and Cultural differences. It’s not possible to look at any one in isolation from the other two if you hope to draw any meaningful conclusions. A Heroic ‘Order’ thinker is different in many ways from a Heroic ‘Feudalist’, but they are both Heroic.

To borrow a phrase, they argue that time is a flat circle.

At no point in Struass & Howe’s work do they imply such an image or draw such a graphic. Some things in life change monotonically and some are cyclical. Taken together this should tell us that rather than a ‘flat circle’, a far more representative model of the world would have a spiral shape.

A self-fulfilling prophecy?
“[Millennials] have been the most written about generation of any generation, in terms of media and culture and their impact,” Tucker, the Ogilvy president, says. In his view, however, all this attention hasn’t resulted in the empowerment, energy or heroism predicted by the generational theorists. Instead, he says it made them anxious—which is supposed to be Gen X’s problem. Ogilvy hired psychoanalysts and ethnographic researchers in an effort to understand young people and the perception that millennials seek an “amazing set of life experiences.” However, their researchers found that millennials’ search was “fueled by high degrees of anxiety and a bit of insecurity…because they’ve grown up with social media, they feel high degrees of pressure to compete against their peers.”

More nonsense. There is no ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. The current Generation model is a description of first principle behaviours that, so long as they remain in place, will tend to cause societal patterns to emerge in similar ways. If the Millennial generation rejects the heroic label, they won’t be heroic (and will find other common ground instead). If the Millennials read the word ‘Hero’ and empathise with it, they will tend to emerge in the direction of heroic. We like what we like. We aspire to the things we aspire to. If a person has been protected in childhood and told they can ‘be whatever they want to be’ when they grow up, that’s the way they will tend to see the world. Especially if their (alienated, over-protecting) parents always step-in to help when the going gets tough. With the Hero generation, this tends to be more the case than not.

As the sociologist Elder and a co-author, Linda George of Duke University, write, “cohort differences are only one window to the life course—and how it changes over time. In many ways, cohort analysis provides a view of the ‘forest’ of life course patterns; but it is intra-cohort variability that allows us to see the ‘trees.’”

Every tree is different, and so is every forest. But both carry similarities. I have three 150-year-old beech trees in my garden and all three look different. At the same time, whether I step back and look at the whole tree, or zoom-in close and look at a single leaf, I can tell it’s a beech and not an oak or chestnut.

And yet again – likely not for the last time – the job of the theory is not to pigeon-hole everyone, it’s to look for differences so we can define the contradictions that in turn allow us to solve them and improve the lot of everyone. It’s not about making beech trees happy at the expense of oaks, it’s about creating an environment in which all the trees get what they want and need, when and how they need it.

Finally, here’s another set of complex adaptive system relevant ‘first principle’ patterns:

Don’t get me started on ‘peer review’.  If the Elder argument is in any way ‘ruthless’ it is in its attempt to obscure truth and confirm Elder’s own biases. Academics: a profession on the edge of extinction. If they’re not careful. Irrespective of generation cohort.


  1. Richard Platt

    Point of Order Here, Mr. Coupland gets points for popularizing the term “Gen X”, but the book that actually coined the term was “Generation X” from 1964, the original book on the subject. I think Coupland stole it, typical Baby Boomer (BB), stealing from Gen X and to not give credit. Greatest Generation my arse.

    Great article here on the Psuedo-Science versus real Science, and the difference in thinking between the generational cycles. However I think it was the real scientists and engineers that drove that list, not necessarily a generational cohort, in my opinion.

    • The key word re the naming of the Generation is ‘popularizing’. We can see the same thing with the new Artist generation – hundreds of prospective names being thrown around, but none will necessarily become the defining word.

      The ‘list’ has got nothing to do with generation cycles. It is included in my article as a (crude?) attempt to close the circle back to the pseudo-science author I was critiquing.

Submit a Comment