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Terminology | Politics

Strauss–Howe Generational Theory

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The Strauss–Howe generational theory is a sociological model that suggests recurring generational cycles in American history, characterized by distinct types of generations who influence society in predictable ways as they move through life.

The Strauss–Howe generational theory, developed by American authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, describes a recurring generational cycle in American history. This theory, presented in their book “Generations” (1991) and later in “The Fourth Turning” (1997), posits that every 80 to 100 years, or roughly the length of a long human life, American society undergoes a cycle that includes four types of generations and four corresponding eras, or “turnings”.

The Four Generations:

According to Strauss and Howe, the four generational archetypes repeat sequentially in a fixed pattern. These archetypes are: the Prophet, born near the end of a “Crisis” (such as the Baby Boomers); the Nomad, born during an “Awakening” (like Generation X); the Hero, born after an “Awakening” (such as the Millennials); and the Artist, born during a “Crisis” (like the Silent Generation). Each of these generations has distinct collective personalities, shaped by their particular coming-of-age experiences.

The Four Turnings:

The theory also outlines four societal moods or “turnings” that recur in the same order, each lasting around 20 years. These are: “The High”, a period of recovery and strong institutions (post-World War II); “The Awakening”, a time of spiritual upheaval and questioning (the 1960s and 1970s); “The Unraveling”, marked by weakening institutions and growing individualism (1980s to 2000s); and “The Crisis”, characterized by a decisive era of upheaval and rebuilding (potentially the 2020s).

Historical Examples:

The authors provide historical examples to support their theory. For instance, the “American High” (post-World War II period) was a time of strong societal consensus and institutional confidence, which gave way to the “Consciousness Revolution” or “Awakening” of the 1960s and 1970s, characterized by social and spiritual upheaval. This was followed by the “Unraveling” in the late 20th century, where institutions were distrusted and the focus shifted to individualism.

Crisis and Rebirth:

The “Crisis” period is viewed as a time of great danger and also great potential. During a Crisis, institutions are rebuilt and society’s structure is fundamentally transformed. The authors suggest that the resolution of a Crisis could mark the beginning of a new “High”.

Criticisms and Reception:

While intriguing and influential in some circles, the Strauss–Howe generational theory has faced criticism from academics and historians. Critics argue that the theory oversimplifies historical trends, relies on anecdotal evidence, and may suffer from confirmation bias. Others question its predictive power and the rigidity of its generational categories.

In summary, the Strauss–Howe generational theory offers a cyclical interpretation of American history through the lens of generational change, suggesting a repeating pattern of societal moods and generational archetypes. While it provides an interesting framework for understanding societal shifts, it remains a subject of debate among scholars.

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