Generations. Today I relate better to 40-year-olds than I do to 19-year-olds. I have friends in their 30s who relate really well to me, and to everyone else I know who’s close to my age, but I can’t step down the same number of years that they can.
One possible explanation is intelligence and/or maturity level, but I know some 19-year-olds who are more mature than I was at that age, and I know our 18-year-old intern at work is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. So that explanation, though it may have had some merit when I was a lot younger, doesn’t have much now.
I’ve found a possible explanation.
The theory of generations goes like this. There are four basic generation “personality types,” if you will. They’re cyclical. We hiccuped once after the Civil War and skipped one type, but that’s the only time we’ve done so in the roughly 500 years that people of European descent have lived in the Americas.
Quick disclaimer: All of the examples I’m about to cite are male. My source doesn’t include a lot of female examples. Knowing the birth dates, obviously, you can fit female examples into these.
The first type is the Civics. The book says this is the most basic type, but it’s the one I understand least. They’re very rationalist and value social harmony. The two Civic generations of recent memory were born in 1901-1924 and 1982-2003. Historical figures from Civic generations include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Two recent examples of Civics are Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. (This was the generation we skipped immediately after the Civil War. That makes sense–that time period wasn’t very compatible with rationalism and social harmony.)
The Adaptive generations understand the others better than any other type does. They’re compromisers, above all else. Recent adaptive generations were born in the years 1925-1942 and 1843-1859. Interestingly, the current adaptive generation, known as the Silent Generation, has yet to produce a U.S. president and looks ever less likely to do so. Historical Adaptives include Teddy Roosevelt and The Great Compromiser Henry Clay. Contemporary examples of Adaptives include Ralph Nader and Walter Mondale.
Does the Idealist generation need any further explanation? OK. Think hippies. Recent Idealist generations were born 1860-1882 and 1943-1960. Historical examples of Idealists include Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Winston Churchill. Contemporary examples of Idealists include George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Hmm. We was robbed. Or maybe we just gave our Idealists too much power too soon this time around. Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister. (It also would have helped if we’d picked an Idealist who could keep it in his pants, but hey. We make these stupid mistakes so future generations don’t have to, if they’re paying attention.)
I don’t think the Reactionist type needs much explanation either. GenX (born 1961-1981) is reactionist. So was the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) that so influenced the Roaring Twenties. Reactionist Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and aptly described his generation and mine. We’re all or nothing. We produce crooks like Al Capone, we produce traitors like Benedict Arnold, pirates like Captain Kidd. We also produce scathingly perceptive artists like Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and wildly successful tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. We also produce great generals like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and can even claim the Father of our Country, George Washington, as one of our own.
Now, here’s the idea. Knowing the cycle and the general characteristics, it’s easier to watch history repeat itself. And while you can’t predict the future, you can predict future trends on this model. You can’t predict who the great leaders of a generation will be, but you can in broad, general terms describe the heroes and goats of a future generation based on the best and worst characteristics of that generation. And since generations define events as much as events define generations, it’s sometimes even possible to describe future events in broad, sweeping terms.
But I think I like it best as a tool for understanding people. I’m not going to understand today’s 14-year-olds by looking at how I was at 14. Sure, there’ll be some similarities but just as many differences. Since today’s 14-year-olds are a Civic generation, in order to understand it, I really have to go back to the next-most-recent Civic generation. In my case, I have to go to my grandparents. If you want to know what GenX is going to be like when it starts hitting the big 50, your best bet is to look at the Lost Generation (those who survived that long–which should, in itself, tell you something) at a similar age.
Based on past history, GenX will have its day, crisis will come–and GenX will prove to be very adept at being both part of the problem and part of the solution–then struggle with and eventually give way to an Eisenhower-like generation, which will either comfort you or scare you.[added later] Well, duh… I forgot the best example of what GenX coulda shoulda woulda been (and still could be). Unfortunately, not many of us remember the story of Samantha Smith, the 10-year-old from Maine who wrote to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 and asked why the Soviets wanted to conquer the world.
What was remarkable about her? Mostly she was in the right place at the right time. At the peak of the Cold War, here was a child who stepped forward and asked a tough, innocent question no other generation was willing to ask. She asked her question, unafraid of whether she’d be ignored. And her question just happened to be heard.
She’d be 28 now. Who knows whether she would have faded away back into a normal life, or if she would have become a voice of the generation. Unfortunately, she died in a 1985 plane crash.
But we’ve still got time. GenX’s spokesperson doesn’t necessarily have to be Kurt Cobain.