I’ve been struggling with this generational paradox for the past 5-10 years and have asked a ton of people what they think about it. This theory comes closest to what I feel happened, is happening, and probably will happen. Enjoy!
Here’s my basic understanding of what went down (this is a long one — so stay with me — it’s really important):
The generation that birthed the Baby Boomers suffered like hell. Depression, World War II; they shouldered everything.
So when the US was growing more successful following WWII, they didn’t want their children to suffer. And their kids loved this. They lived in relative safety, had a clear boogeyman to fear in the USSR and ideology to love in the US of A. They got opportunities, whether to get jobs straight out of high school, or go to college, or travel the world, or whatever. Not everyone got this, of course, since we still did have poor souls shipped out to Vietnam.
They got awesome music, got to experiment with drugs, and then got jobs alongside their hardworking, nose-to-the-grindstone parents of the “Greatest Generation”. And as those parents retired and died, we were left with a overwhelming number of coddled, spoiled children running the show.
And the problem with that is that they haven’t grown up. They didn’t understand the hardships that drove their parents’ decisions. So they made decisions that didn’t aim to avoid those hardships, which has saddled us with debt, terrible regulations of tons of industries, and a number of unwanted and unwinnable wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Drugs), which has led to Gen Xers and Millenials getting the short end of the stick, and being generally bitter about it.
Even a cursory glance at what we call the generations even gives some insight into the Boomers’ thoughts toward their children compared to their parents. “Greatest Generation” vs. “Generation X”. Past vs. future, and the future gets humped.
Now, that’s not to say that every Boomer is like that. Plenty aren’t. It’s also not to say that this is a 100% correct reading of the situation, but it does seem to reflect what history has shown (so far) the Greatest Generation, Boomers, and Gen Xers to do.
I’m a firm believer in Strauss-Howe generational theory. We’ve repeated the same cycle of generational ‘types’ and social climes since the 1700’s. Baby boomers are ‘idealistic moralists’ in favor of wars they themselves don’t fight in, and they incite others to make sacrifices. The crisis they are driving us into will have to be dealt with by the scruffy, pragmatic Gen-Xers.
Here’s the gist of the theory (from Wikipedia):
To date, Strauss and Howe have identified 25 generations in Anglo-American history, each with a corresponding archetype. The authors describe the archetypes as follows:
Nomad generations (recessive) are born during an Awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas, when young adults are passionately attacking the established institutional order. Nomads grow up as under-protected children during this Awakening, come of age as alienated, post-Awakening adults, become pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and age into resilient post-Crisis elders.
Due to this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their adrift, alienated rising-adult years and their midlife years of pragmatic leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of liberty, survival and honor. Their best-known historical leaders include Nathaniel Bacon, William Stoughton, George Washington, John Adams, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. These were shrewd realists who preferred individualistic, pragmatic solutions to problems. (Examples among today’s living generations: Generation X.)
Artist generations (recessive) are born during a Crisis, a time when great dangers cut down social and political complexity in favor of public consensus, aggressive institutions, and an ethic of personal sacrifice. Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the Crisis, come of age as the socialized and conformist young adults of a post-Crisis world, break out as process-oriented midlife leaders during an Awakening, and age into thoughtful post-Awakening elders.
Due to this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their quiet years of rising adulthood and their midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of expertise and due process. Their best-known historical leaders include William Shirley, Cadwallader Colden, John Quincy Adams,Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. These have been complex social technicians and advocates for fairness and inclusion. (Examples among today’s living generations: Silent and Homelanders.)
One reason why the cycle of archetypes recurs is that each youth generation tries to correct or compensate for what it perceives as the excesses of the midlife generation in power. For example, Boomers (a Prophet generation, whose strength is individualism, culture and values) raised Millennial children (a Hero generation, whose strength is in collective civic action). Archetypes do not create archetypes like themselves, they create opposing archetypes.
As Strauss and Howe explain, “your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you.” This also occurs because the societal role that feels freshest to each generation of youth is the role being vacated by a generation of elders that is passing away. In other words, a youth generation comes of age and defines its collective persona just as an opposing generational archetype is in its midlife peak of power, and the previous generation of their archetype is passing away.
By the way — I’m a boomer (a late boomer – born in 1962), but still a boomer.
P.S. I’m expecting a lot of hate mail on this one — but I encourage two-way communication — that’s what this blog is about!