Essay

The new social order my son and his generation will build

Depending on where you draw the generational line, this Sunday my son will join one of the first, if not the first, college graduating classes of Generation Z.

If you follow the generational theories of William Strauss and Neil Howe, we live in a four-generation cycle that builds and then destroys the social order. A first generation builds a social order, in which institutions and communities are strong. The subsequent three generations feel constrained and limited by that social order, so they weaken and even attack the institutions, and seek autonomy and individualism. Eventually a historic crisis finishes that job and the next generation quietly builds a new social order.

You can see this in the Silent Generation, which began to come of age as World War II ended. They rebuilt American society, perhaps without intending to. They simply noted the mess the world was in as they grew up during the Great Depression and World War II and, in response, set about creating highly stable, even cautious lives for themselves. They went to work and worked hard. They were loyal employees and climbed the ladder. This helped create the most prosperous time our nation has ever known.

And you see it in the Baby Boomers, which began to come of age in the mid-1960s. They rebelled, and hard, against the conformist lives their parents had lived.

Each generation responds in predictable ways, say Strauss and Howe, to the generations that precede them. In and through every fourth generation there is a historic crisis that finally destroys the social order. The next generation responds by quietly building a new one.

The Silent Generation was followed by the Baby Boomers, which was followed by Generation X, which is followed by the Millennials, which is followed by Generation Z. One, two, three, four, …and one again.

In my Generation X lifetime I watched the Silent Generation’s social order weaken and fail. I’ve quietly endured the destruction of useful institutions, such as the nuclear family and a large and strong middle class. I’ve cheered as harmful institutions have given way, leading to such things as improved equality for women and the ending of bans on interracial relationships.

This period in which we now live, which I think began with 9/11, continued through the great recession of 2008, and is very likely ending with an unconventional and destructive President, is the historic crisis to which my son’s generation will respond. Or at least I hope it is; I’d hate for it to be capped by a major war, as it was the last time.

Damion, I look forward to the new social order you and your generation will build. I’ll bet you won’t even look at what you’re doing that way. You’ll just say you’re quietly living your lives.

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11 thoughts on “The new social order my son and his generation will build

  1. An interesting analysis. But I wonder if the starting point of the 4 generation cycle didn’t start with the youth of the jazz age that followed in the aftermath of W WI.

    That would be followed by The Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation and the boomers. I think we boomers destroyed what had been built and that Xers (maybe joined by Millennials) are building afresh. Or maybe I need to think about this more.

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    • I’m going entirely by what Strauss and Howe have calculated all the way back to the Civil War, which says it’s Gen Z that will do the rebuilding. But who knows, it is just a theory after all. One thing their theory doesn’t seem to account for is “early” and “late” people in a group. I’m early Gen X, but I know someone who’s very late Gen X (born about 1980) and he has some Millennial traits. You’re probably late Baby Boom. My mom is late Silent Generation. When you both were children, the early part of your cohort were already adults or almost adults.

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      • An excellent point that these generational labels are sometimes not terribly precise. I have always seen a huge difference between early and late boomers, with early ones doing the sex/drugs/rock&roll thing while those of us at the tail end may have had more in common with you GenXers.

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  2. Jim, your sentiments are stirring and I hope are true. I don’t know if there’s much hope for humanity if you’re incorrect. So much is riding on our sons.

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    • It’s hard for any of us to take the truly long view, if you hew to Strauss and Howe, for nobody lives long enough to see their four-generation cycle complete. I imagine that at this point in the cycle, each time the cycle has reached this point, everyone feels considerable despair.

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  3. Very thought provoking Jim, and a very different topic to roads and cameras.

    How do the theories apply across the globe? I’m just wondering how other nations and world economics fits in to the theory, especially as we’re in an age where human travel is more than ever – people travelling abroad not just for holidays and adventure, but for work, love, opportunity etc.

    No single nation’s social order can live in isolation from the rest of the world – less so now than ever.

    I know these terms, like baby boomer, millennial etc, but I don’t think they’re used anything like as much here in England. We talk about different generations and “the generation gap” and so on, but perhaps don’t name specific generations in this way.

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    • I believe, but am not certain, that Strauss and Howe limited their research to the United States. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some analog in every society worldwide. I also would not be surprised if, globally, society cycles are falling into sync as the world connects deeper.

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  4. DougD says:

    Hmm, never heard of Strauss & Howe but that is food for thought indeed.

    Being an early GenXer as well as a child of immigrants I’ve always a discontinuity in my place in society. But I am just trying to quietly live my life.

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