Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Week Before Last Week's Book: Generations

I have a relatively free summer and I'm a solid two weeks behind on these. Let's get reading!

May 27-June 2: Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe

History (1991 - 538 pp.) 

Generations is, by any measure, very atypical for a history book. It relies more on statistical analysis and journalism-style digging than traditional primary- and secondary-source research. It applies normative judgments here and there, much as it is usually successful in its attempted neutrality. It even has an entire part at the end predicting the future, the exact type of writing that makes historians bristle. All of these things are what make Generations so fun for someone interested in learning more about his or her place in American history. One of its authors holds a doctorate in history, the other a master's in public policy and a law degree, a perfect mix for this type of study. 

I will not go into depth describing the theory behind the book, as that is already recounted in countless places, so this entry may seem a bit confusing to those unfamiliar. The basics are that generations repeat themselves every ~88 years based on "social moments" in the form of Awakenings and Crises. About every 22 years, the type of generation changes based on its reaction to the social moment in question. As such, Idealists come of age during an Awakening, Reactives are born during an Awakening, Civics come of age during a Crisis, and Adaptives are born during a Crisis, with a few years' give and take at times. Each generation then has a collective identity, or a "peer personality", it takes with it to the grave. No effort can possibly enshrine terms like "The Lost Generation" and "The Baby Boomers" more than something like this. 

Generations truly is a compelling story regardless of the criticism it has drawn. Any blanket theory like this one is bound to be full of holes, and indeed, Strauss and Howe attack their biggest one (the U.S. Civil War) head-on. What it does provide are some comparisons between generations I had not previously known and some insights into the human side of American history. It also allows me to see my own (Millennial) generation in context. The values and ideals used to describe Civic generations like mine seemed like the utmost compliments, while the ones ascribed to others seemed less than flattering. I imagine Adaptives, Idealists and Reactives could all say the same thing. I certainly identify with the Republicans (not named after the party, but rather the founding of the Republic) and the G.I.s better now too, much as my ancestors had different perspectives from them. 

Almost exactly one generational cycle after Generations, it is truly amazing how well Strauss and Howe have called events. Shift the end of Generation X, which they call the "13ers" for being the 13th generation of U.S. citizens, back to 1979 from 1981 for a moment. Many historians and sociologists place it there, and I agree with them. Fast-forward 22 years and you have 9/11, an event lining up with what Strauss and Howe estimate as the beginning of a new crisis, and they even post a potential crisis as involving terrorists and New York City. Their warnings of Boomer (Idealist) religious fervour becoming a topic of political discourse have come true as well. A less violent outcome Strauss and Howe did not predict was that the Silent Generation (b. 1925-1942) has never produced a U.S. president and likely never will - an atypically young Bill Clinton saw to that only a year after Generations was released. 

As a Canadian, Generations felt relevant to me and my last few generations of ancestors. However, this is a self-aware book about American history, with historical events perceived from American eyes. Wars like the French and Indian War and World War I may have been critical parts of alienated Reactive lives in the United States, but to continental Europeans they were Crises. This is not even really a criticism, though, as the book not only does not intend to be global but encourages other historians to write similar volumes for their parts of the world. It is worth mentioning, though. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 6

...and what a fun read this was. Shame I can't go on about it forever, because I could seriously write a 10-page essay on it. Be thankful I haven't said that about Dickens or Wells, I suppose.

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