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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