An Interview With Neil Howe
The Fourth Turning is an amazingly prescient book Neil Howe wrote with the late William Strauss in 1997. The work, which describes generational archetypes and the cyclical patterns created by these archetypes, has been an eye-opener to anyone able to entertain the notion that history may repeat itself. At the time the book was published, the Boston Globe stated, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets." Read this visionary interview published in The Casey Report, and see for yourself.
DAVID GALLAND: Could you provide us a quick introduction to generational research?
NEIL HOWE: We think that generations move history along and prevent society from suffering too long under the excesses of any particular generation. People often assume that every new generation will be a linear extension of the last one. You know, that after Generation X comes Generation Y. They might further expect Generation Y to be like Gen X on steroids — even more willing to take risk and with even more edginess in the culture. Yet the Millennial Generation that followed Gen X is not like that at all. In fact, no generation is like the generation that immediately precedes it.
Instead, every generation turns the corner and to some extent compensates for the excesses and mistakes of the midlife generation that is in charge when they come of age. This is necessary, because if generations kept on going in the same direction as their predecessors, civilization would have gone off a cliff thousands of years ago.
So this is a necessary process, a process that is particularly important in modern nontraditional societies, where generations are free to transform institutions according to their own styles and proclivities.
In our research we have found that, in modern societies, four basic types of generations tend to recur in the same order.
DAVID: The four generational archetypes. Can you provide a sketch of each for those of our readers unfamiliar with your work?
The first is what we call the Hero archetype. Hero generations are usually protectively raised as kids. They come of age at a time of emergency or Crisis and become known as young adults for helping society resolve the Crisis, hopefully successfully. Once the Crisis is resolved, they become institutionally powerful in midlife and remain focused on outer-world challenges and solutions. In their old age, they are greeted by a spiritual Awakening, a cultural upheaval fired by the young. This is the typical life story of a Hero generation.
One example of the Hero archetype is the G.I. Generation, the soldiers of World War II, who became an institutional powerhouse after the war and then in old age confronted the young hippies and protesters of the 1960s. Going back in American history, we have seen many other Hero archetypes, for example the generation of Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and President Monroe. These were the heroes of the American Revolution, who in old age were greeted by the second Great Awakening and a new youth generation of fiery Prophets.
After the Hero archetype comes the Artist archetype. Artist generations have a very different location in history – they are the children of the Crisis. For Hero generations, child protection rises from first cohort to last. By the time Artists come along, child protection reaches suffocating levels. Artists come of age as young adults during the post-Crisis era, when conformity seems like the best path to success, and they tend to be collectively risk averse. Artists see themselves as providing the expertise and refinement that can both improve and adorn the enormous new institutional innovations that have been forged during the Crisis. They typically experience a cultural Awakening in midlife, and their lives speed up as the culture transforms.
A great example of the Artist archetype is the so-called "Silent" Generation, the post World War II young adults who married early and moved into gleaming new suburbs in the 1950s, went through their midlife crises in the ’70s and ’80s, and are today the very affluent, active seniors retiring into gated lifestyle communities.
The third archetype is what we call a Prophet archetype. The most recent example of this archetype is the Baby Boom Generation. Prophet generations grow up as children during a period of post-Crisis affluence and come of age during a period of cultural upheaval. They become moralistic and values-obsessed midlife leaders and parents, and as they enter old age, they steer the country into the next great outer-world social or political Crisis. Boomers, for example, grew up during the Postwar American High, came of age during the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and are now entering old age.
Finally there is what we call a Nomad archetype. Nomads are typically raised as children during Awakenings, the great cultural upheavals of our history. Whereas the Prophet archetype is indulgently raised as children, the Nomad archetype is underprotected and completely exposed as children. They learn early that they can't trust basic institutions to look out for their best interests and come of age as free agents whose watchword is individualism. They are the great realists and pragmatists in our nation’s history.
The most recent example of the Nomad archetype is Generation X. This generation grew up during the social turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s and are now beginning to enter midlife. They are the ones that know how to get things done on the ground. They are the stay-at-home dads and security moms trying to give their kids more of a childhood than they themselves had. Their burden is that they tend not to trust large institutions and do not have a strong connection to public life. They forge their identity and value system by "going it alone" and staying off the radar screen of government. It could be very interesting to see the rest of the life story of this generation, particularly as they take over leadership positions.
DAVID: Could you tell us the general age ranges of these archetypes now?
HOWE: One Hero generation that is alive today is the G.I. Generation, born between 1901 and 1924. They came of age with the New Deal, World War II, and the Great Depression. They are today in their mid-80s and beyond, and their influence is waning.
Today's other example of a Hero archetype is the Millennial Generation, born from 1982 to about 2003 or 2004. These are today’s young people, who are just beginning to be well known to most Americans. They fill K–12 schools, colleges, graduate schools, and have recently begun entering the workplace. We associate them with dramatic improvements in youth behaviors, which are often underreported by the media. Since Millennials have come along, we've seen huge declines in violent crime, teen pregnancy, and the most damaging forms of drug abuse, as well as higher rates of community service and volunteering. This is a generation that reminds us in many respects of the young G.I.s nearly a century ago, back when they were the first boy scouts and girl scouts between 1910 and 1920.
DAVID: Then following the Hero, we have the Artist, right?
HOWE: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, one example of that archetype is the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1942. This generation was too young to remember anything about America before the Great Crash of 1929, and too young to be of fighting age during World War II.
That 1925 birth year is filled with people like William F. Buckley and Bobby Kennedy, first-wave Silent who just missed World War II. Many of them were actually in the camps in California waiting for the invasion of Japan when they heard that the war was over. Part of their generational experience is that sense of just barely missing something big. Surveys show that this generation does not like to call themselves "senior citizens." They did not fight in World War II. They did not build the A-bomb. They are more like "senior partners." Unlike G.I.s, they are flexible elders, focused on the needs of others. Many of them are highly engaged in the family activities of their children and grandchildren. In politics, they are today's elder advisors, not powerhouse leaders.
There is a new generation of the Artist archetype just now beginning to arrive. They started being born, we think, around 2004 or 2005. We did a contest on our website to choose a name for this new generation, and the winner was Homeland Generation, reflecting the fact that they are being incredibly well protected. So we are tentatively calling them the Homelanders.
This generation will have no memory of anything before the financial meltdown of 2008 and the events that are about to unfold in America. If our research is correct, this generation's childhood will be a time of urgency and rapid historical change. Unlike the Millennials, who will remember childhood during the good times of 1980s and ’90s, the Homelanders will recall their childhood as a time of national crisis.
So, those are the two examples today of the Hero archetype, and two examples of the Artist archetype.
DAVID: What about the Prophet and the Nomad generations?
HOWE: There is only one Prophet archetype generation alive today: the Boomer Generation. We define them as being born between 1943 and 1960. Those born in 1943 would have been part of the free-speech movement at Berkeley in 1964, the first fiery class whose peers include Bill Bradley, Newt Gingrich, and Oliver North. The last cohorts of this generation came of age with President Carter in the Iran Hostage Crisis.
For the Nomad archetype, we again have only one example alive today, and that is Generation X. We define Gen Xers as being born between 1961 and 1981. Actually, there may be a few members of the earlier Nomad generation still around — those of the Lost Generation born from 1883 to 1900, but today they would be around 110. This was the generation that grew up during the third Great Awakening, the doughboys who went through World War I. They were the generation that put the "roar" into the "Roaring ’20s" — the rum-runners, barnstormers, and entrepreneurs of that period. They were big risk-takers.
DAVID: Is the Millennial Generation the next group up in terms of controlling or being a powerful force in society?
HOWE: It depends what you mean by a powerful force in society.
DAVID: Who is going to be in the driver’s seat?
HOWE: Let me put it this way. The generation that is about to be in the driver’s seat in terms of leadership is Generation X, the group born 1961 to 1981. In fact, we now have our first Gen-X President, Barack Obama, who was born in 1961 and who is in every way a Gen Xer, despite being born at the very early edge of his generation. His fragmented family upbringing, with his father leaving while he was young and his mother moving all over the world, is typical of the Gen X life story. A telling anecdote from his biography is that, when he arrived at Columbia University, he spent his first night in New York sleeping in an alley because no one had arranged to have an apartment open for him.
His life story has a "dazed and confused" aspect. He made his own way against a background of adult neglect and lack of structure. It's interesting that he is the first leader in America to call himself "post-Boomer." As a matter of fact, he talks regularly about how he intends to put an end to everything dysfunctional about Boomer politics: the polarization, the culture wars, the scorched-earth rhetoric, the identity politics, all of that. I understand a lot of people do not believe he can actually do this, but it's interesting that this is the rhetoric he chooses. That rhetoric is one reason why the vast majority of Millennials voted for him.
Obama is the opening wedge of Gen Xers who will assume very high leadership posts. They are not yet the senior generals in control of the military, but they are taking over the reins of government and, of course, the top spots in American businesses.