Why? The term “millenial”, “Gen Z, Gen Y, “Baby Boomer” etc — all of these are sociological concepts… terms coined by sociologists?

You sociologists of the future!

1991 book generations summary

“Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069,” published in 1991 by William Strauss and Neil Howe, is a seminal work that introduced a groundbreaking theory on the existence of recurring generational cycles in American history. Strauss and Howe posit that history unfolds in a predictable pattern of generational types, each with its own characteristic attitudes, behaviors, and societal roles. The book outlines a cyclical pattern of four generational archetypes—Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists—that recur in that order every roughly 80-90 years, constituting a full generational cycle or saeculum.

Summary of Key Concepts

  • Generational Archetypes: The authors identify four archetypes that repeat sequentially:
  • Prophets are born during or just after a crisis, growing up as indulged children, coming of age as the self-absorbed young crusaders of a spiritual awakening, and emerging as elders guiding another crisis.
  • Nomads are born during a spiritual awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas, growing up as under-protected children, coming of age as alienated post-awakening adults, and emerging as elders during a crisis.
  • Heroes are born after a spiritual awakening, during a time of institutional strength and public confidence, growing up as increasingly protected children, coming of age as the heroic young teamworkers of a crisis, and emerging as powerful elders.
  • Artists are born after a crisis, during a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order, growing up as over-protected children, coming of age as the sensitive young adults of a post-crisis world, and emerging as process-oriented elders.
  • Historical Cycles: The book argues that American history can be understood as a series of these generational cycles, each approximately four generations or about 80-90 years long, which they term a “saeculum.” Each saeculum ends with a major crisis that reshapes society’s structure and values, followed by a new cycle beginning with the next generation.
  • Predictive Power: Strauss and Howe suggest that by understanding these cycles, one can predict the general mood, attitudes, and behavior of future generations and the likely events that will shape their lives.

Impact and Legacy

“Generations” has had a profound impact on the way sociologists, historians, marketers, and policymakers think about generational differences and their effects on society. The book’s framework has been applied to analyze various aspects of American life, including politics, economics, and culture. Its theories have influenced subsequent works by the authors themselves and other writers who have explored generational issues in different contexts.

Strauss and Howe’s theory has not been without its critics, some of whom argue that the generational cycles are too neat and deterministic, failing to account for the diversity within generations and the influence of global events. Despite these criticisms, the concept of generational cycles introduced in “Generations” remains a powerful tool for understanding social and historical change.