Generational Cycles – Distribution Curves & Contradictions
Editor | On 15, Jul 2018
There are two kinds of people in the world Part #335. There are the people that see everything as black or white. And there are people who understand distribution curves. For some reason the generation-cycles work of Strauss and Howe seems to attract a lot of the former. They reveal themselves usually by taking great offence at a model that describes them (or their offspring) according to a caricature word or phrase. When a caricature word describes a generation cohort as ‘narcissistic’ or ‘suffocated’, their immediate assumption is that it is trying to insult everyone in the cohort. It is not. And, as far as I can tell following multiple re-readings of the Strauss & Howe work, it was not their view either. Strauss & Howe understood distribution curves. Such that, when we characterize Boomers and Nomads as ‘live to work’ generations, we know that there is a range of live-to-work-like behaviours that can be spotted when looking at different members of the cohort. Likewise, not every Hero generation Millennial has a 180-degree opposite ‘work to live’ perspective on life. The reality when comparing the different cohorts might look something like this:
What this pair of distribution curves is trying to tell us is that ‘on average’ a GenX Nomad is more likely to have ‘live to work’ attitudes than the ‘average’ GenY Hero.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the distribution curve appreciating people like the Strauss & Howe model any more than the black-or-white crowd. Their argument usually tracks along the lines, ‘well, if the difference between one cohort and the next is only a few percentage points, does the model actually tell us anything useful at all?’
And that’s why the world needs a third kind of person. People that understand the true value of distribution curves has nothing at all to do with the mean or deviation, but rather the two extremes. The extremes tell us what the contradictions are. And the contradictions define the innovation opportunities.
It’s not about what percentage of Nomads live-to-work and what percentage of Heroes don’t, it’s about recognizing there is a contradiction between live-to-work and work-to-live and if we can somehow solve that contradiction we make everyone in between the two extremes happy.
I wish there were more of this third kind of person. If there were, the world wouldn’t find itself having so many fatuous arguments about whether there’s a two-point difference between two distributions, or whether normal distribution curves are more relevant than power law curves, but would rather get on with the more important job of innovating to make everyone happier…
I’m not sure either Strauss or Howe understood it, but the real power of their caricatures is they make all the important generational contradictions much more vivid and visible. Their fine work makes for the perfect base camp for innovators.