Strauss-Howe Generational Theory is the closest thing we have to a crystal ball — Part 1

When you call yourself a ‘baby boomer’ or a ‘millennial’, you are unwittingly applying the sociological framework of historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. A closer look at their work could also help you make sense of our future in the next 50 years.

I was born in 1982, and for most of my professional life as a young adult, I have worked in the field of marketing.

I’m not sure when it started, but sometime around 2007 or 2008 I began to be made keenly aware by my older colleagues, sometimes dismissively, that I was part of a generational cohort called the “Millennials.” This label made me part of a group that, depending on whatever person was bringing it up, made me either a) possessing of special superpowers that would surely be of help to humanity in our dystopian future or b) impossibly self-absorbed, entitled, narcissistic, lazy and in need of an immediate intervention.

The word millennial further came into vogue in marketing departments across the Western hemisphere in the early 2010s, becoming blithely used as an accepted descriptor for the demographic of people who today are generally between 16 and 36 years old — in other words, the kids born in the 80s and 90s.

The sociological theory of the historian and author duo of William Strauss and Neil Howe has proved to be very, as is said in viral marketing, “sticky” over the years. You have heard your parents countless times refer to themselves as Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. You are deeply familiar with these terms without even realizing where they came from. So powerful and all-encompassing was the influence of Strauss-Howe theory, seeping so efficiently into the societal zeitgeist that it has prompted more than one critic to frustratingly lambast it as “pop-sociology.”

I was fortunate to have taken a full semester of Generational Theory as an elective during my now seeming halcyon years at McMaster University in the early 2000s. I remember it being an engaging course. But that was a long time ago — and I had almost completely forgotten about the very source of the coursework, the pair of groundbreaking and controversial tomes that Strauss and Howe had penned: Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584–2069 and Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

As I devoured the books with fresh eyes all these years later, my jaw dropped open in awe of how logical, well-researched and intricately designed their conclusions actually were. A eureka moment followed by a sense of calm washed over me: I realized with great excitement that Strauss-Howe Generational Theory could be used as an extremely helpful mental framework for how to navigate the twists and turns of the next 50 years.

I have long been driven by an almost irrational confidence, a resounding faith in my own abilities, and a firm belief in the innate ingenuity of mankind: that our top scientists and thinkers will come up with solutions, even if at the eleventh hour, that can avert our absolute destruction. I’m an optimist. But why am I imbued with these feelings? Where does this outlook come from?

According to Strauss and Howe, millennials have had a “hero” complex baked into our heads by the impact of history and the timeline of the world around us. A number of personally atmospheric factors including what year we are born, what years our parents are born, and how we are personally shaped by the backdrop of historical events during our lives combine, like a wicked witches brew, to infuse our personalities with an array of traits, beliefs and habits uniquely familiar to each generation.

Strauss-Howe theory features generational cycles — 15-20 year periods that fit into a never ending cycle of rebirth and destruction that takes place approximately every 80 years.

20 year periods happen to correspond neatly with the 4 phases of a typical 80 year human lifespan: it is generally accepted that one transitions from childhood to adulthood at age 20, to mid-life at age 40, and to old age at age 60.

Repeating in a continual pattern going back to 1584, Strauss and Howe identify four distinct phases in the historical cycle of civilizational evolution:

A period of peaceful international collaboration, mass social consensus and industrial innovation called The High is then followed by a period of heightened awareness of social issues and and wider societal debate regarding updating accepted pillars of morality, ethics and civil rights — this post-High period being called The Awakening. After an Awakening, a period featuring relative tumult in contrast to the placidity of the High period, an era featuring heightened social focus on individualism, economic greed, and insidious moral decay follows, referred to as The Unraveling. After an Unraveling, a final period featuring heavy unrest, war and social upheaval follows, aptly called The Crisis. Then, the cycle begins again, impacting whatever generation happens to be alive at the time.

High → Awakening → Unraveling → Crisis

Following the historical phase timeline of Strauss-Howe generational theory, today in 2017 we are somewhere on the downward curve of a period of crisis.

In part 2, I will deep-dive further into the fascinating historical timeline of Strauss-Howe theory, explore the different generations (G.I., Silent, Baby Boomer, Gen X and Millennial) and examine the array of perceptions, behaviors, and attendant coping mechanisms, outlooks and worldviews possessed by each. I will also look at the period called The Crisis — the period that we are in right now — what we can anticipate happening on a macro level over the next several decades in keeping with the historical timeline of generational theory, how we can use this framework to plan for success in the future, and even why the theory has caught the eye of someone like Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon).