The History of America’s Future

Sometime in the early 1990s, I became aware of a new book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, entitled Generations: The History of America’s Future, from 1584 to 2069. As a student of history, I eagerly dove into the book, studied it, and have revisited it often in the thirty years since.

In Generations, the authors speculate the history of America as a succession of generational biographies, beginning in 1584 and encompassing everyone through the children of today. Their bold theory is that each generation belongs to one of four types, and that these types repeat sequentially in a fixed pattern. The vision of Generations allows us to plot a recurring cycle in American history – a cycle of spiritual awakenings and secular crises – from the founding colonists through today and well into this middle of this century.

Generations come in cycles. Just as history produces generations, so too do generations produce history.

William Strauss and Neil Howe

From the book, a brief description of the four cycles:

Strauss and Howe labeled the four generational types Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist. With one exception, they have always recurred in a fixed order. During a spiritual awakening, Prophets are moving into rising adulthood while Nomads are appearing as children; during a secular crisis, Heroes are moving into rising adulthood while Artists are appearing as children. Later in life, these generations trigger another social moment and thus keep the cycle turning.

The first and third types are what we call “dominant” in public life – Prophets through redefining the inner world of values and culture, and Heroes through rebuilding the outer world of technology and institutions. The other two types are “recessive” in public life, checking the excesses of their more powerful neighbors – Nomads as pragmatists, Artists as ameliorators.

The passage of four generations, Prophets through Artists, completes one full generational cycle over the course of four, twenty-two year phases of life (a total duration of roughly ninety years). From the 1584 Puritan birth year forward, the authors traced five such cycles through American history – of which three (Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War) are fully ancestral, a waning fourth (Great Power) comprises the eldest 28 percent of the American population at the beginning of 1991 (when the book was released), and an emerging fifth (Millennial – the name of the cycle, not the name of the generational cohort) includes the youngest 72 percent. Within these cycles, we identify eighteen generations, from John Winthrop’s Puritans to Jessica McClure’s Millennials – and a recurring pattern of awakenings and crises.

Keep in mind that this was written in 1991.

So, here we are in late 2020, and what does the history of America’s future look like?

From above: during a secular crisis, Heroes are moving into rising adulthood while Artists are appearing as children.

That would be today’s Millennials moving into rising adulthood, and Gen Z appearing as children and teenagers.

So, according to Strauss and Howe, a secular crisis looms.

That pretty much describes 2020, don’t you think?

Here is where the life cycle can help. The story of civilization seldom moves in a straight line, but is rich with curves, oscillations, and mood shifts. The ebb and flow of history often reflect the ebb and flow of generations, each with a different age location, peer personality, and lifecycle story. By viewing history along the generational diagonal, by searching the cycle for behavioral clues, we can apply the mirror of recurring human experience to gaze around the corner of current trends and say something instructive about the decades to come.

William Strauss and Neil Howe

Here’s a timeline visualization of the generational cohorts:

What do you think?

Looking ahead: more ideas from Strauss and Howe, a look back (and today?) to the Gilded Age, and more!

Inspired and adapted from Generations: The History of American’s Future, 1584 to 2069

To Better Understand Gen Z, Take a Look Back

As a reminder for everyone, the “context” around you affects everything else.

In the case of this post:

  • My wife and I are Baby Boomers (born in late 50s)
  • My four children and their spouses are GenXers and Millenials (born between 1981 and 1992)
  • My six grandchildren are Gen Zers (born between 2008 and 2020)

Generational cohorts (like the above) are a source of never-ending curiosity for me. From being in the largest group (Boomers) to having kids at the end of one cohort (Gen X) to the beginning of the next (Millenials) to having grandchildren born in the middle of the next cohort (Gen Z), just observing and interacting with my immediate family has been fascinating.

Increasingly though, I am being drawn to GenZ; specifically, this generations’s defining moment.

And to no surprise, virtually everyone is pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as the defining moment of GenZ.

As The Center for Generational Kinetics defines it, a defining moment:

Takes place at the right time in a generation’s coming of age experience. The event or external influence needs to occur at a formative time in a generation’s coming of age experience, which is usually an age range from childhood through early adulthood. The key is the generation needs to be old enough to deeply experience the event while at the same be in a young enough life stage where it can significantly impact their views, beliefs, and attitude toward their world and their future.

Creates a powerful, unforgettable emotional impact, usually tied to fear and uncertainty caused by the event and its aftermath. These moments tend to make a generation feel vulnerable and look at the world differently than they did before, such as the way 9/11 impacted Millennials or how the JFK assassination affected Baby Boomers. 

More from CGK:

For Gen Z, COVID-19 has upended almost every aspect of their life. For younger members of Gen Z, they no longer go to school with classmates, see their friends in-person, or work part-time jobs. Instead, they are confined to their home, with a parent or other family members, and trying to continue their education at a time when many schools do not have an effective distance learning program. These same Gen Zers are seeing their parents struggle financially, including job losses, inability to pay rent, and tension between adults within their household as everyone deals with this new reality and the close quarters of being quarantined.

Gen Zers from the class of 2020 in high school saw standardized testing canceled, no graduation ceremony, uncertainty about college options, financial pressure, and no ability to play competitive sports or drive academic achievements or progress that could change their future. These Gen Zers are telling us they worry if college will even take place in the fall. Will they move out of their family’s home this year? If college is all online, how will they have a traditional college experience? While the COVID-19 experience can vary widely based on our interviews with Gen Zers from different socioeconomic, geographic, and other factors, the result continues to be a real question mark about what will happen after their senior year of high school.

At the same time, Gen Zers who are in the workforce are disproportionately in the service industry, hourly workers, in entry-level jobs, or are young professionals as they are typically on the very front end of their careers. These same Gen Zers are often the first to get laid off or furloughed as many industries contract. Gen Z can also suffer from the “last hired, first fired” mantra of years past. Put all this together, and Gen Zers already in the workforce are feeling a massive reset at exactly the time they should be starting to build their independence and self-reliance. 

Gen Zers who are in college are often experiencing a hybrid of the newly upended work and education reality. Some colleges and trade schools have moved quickly to cancel all on-campus classes and move to online learning while others are struggling under the weight and scale of the change— as well as the practical limitations of specific learning activities, such as scientific lab access. Add to this mix the unknown about whether or not colleges will refund room and board, whether international students who had to go home will be able to return, and the overnight change of having tremendous freedom taken away as they move back in with their family. There is a lot for Gen Z college students to worry about besides just finishing their classes.

On top of Gen Z’s work and school impacts from COVID-19, add all of these significant stressors: the heavy external influence of daily death counts and mortality rates, fear of losing their parents, grandparents, or friends, and the endless social media echoing how bad the world is around them. It’s easy to see why COVID-19 is a Generation Defining Moment for Gen Z—and the impact gets deeper the longer the event is extended and the more uncertainty, fear, and difficulty it creates. 

from “The State of Gen Z 2019-2020,” The Center for Generational Kinetics

Wow – is that heavy, or what?

And yet, I have reason to hope. Reason based on the fact that while we may live in a very tumultuous time, and uncertainty is a constant, all this is not new.

It’s highly likely that some of the best understanding of the future can be gained by studying the past.

And that past reveals – going back hundreds of years, and a couple dozen generational cohorts – is that generations have a cyclical pattern.

What Gen Z is experiencing today – not the specifics, but broad understandings – can be unlocked by looking at a prior generation.

The farther you look back, the farther forward you are likely to see.

Winston Churchill

My grandchildren may well be shaped by circumstances and events like their great-grandparents, born in 1925-1942.

More to come!

My 5 Generation Family is a Microcosm of Society

The legions of ancient Rome were composed of ten cohorts each: cohesive units of 300-600 men who trained, ate, slept, fought, won, lost, lived, and died together. The strength was their ability to think, act, and react as a unit. Though composed of individuals, training and socialization equipped them to behave as if of a single mind when called to battle. Social demographers, students of the effects of population on society, use the term cohort to refer to people born in the same general time span who share key life experiences – from setting out for school for the first time together through reaching puberty at the same time, to entering the workforce or university or marriage or middle age or their dotage at the same time.

The five primary generations of today’s American lifestyle span a remarkable slice of American and world history. Three major wars, countless minor (?) ones, economic booms and busts, social upheavals, rocketing technological achievement, and even stepping beyond our planet are among the milestones that have directly and indirectly shaped the times.

I count myself fortunate to have a direct connection to all five generations. To me, understanding more about how each of them think, feel, and act is not just a mental exercise – it’s necessary part of life.

  • Veterans (1922-1945) My father and mother were born into the early part of this cohort. He entered military service just as WWII was ending; she was in college and then taught school; they were part of what some call “The Greatest Generation”. Think “American values” and you’ve got their number: civic pride, loyalty, respect for authority, and apple pie. My father passed away in 2012, and my mother in 2018. They may not be physically present with me, but who I am was shaped by their influence, and they impact me every day. My mother-in-law, aged 99, still lives at her home of 65+years (with a caretaker). Additionally, this cohort, as their generation moves into their twilight years, still controls a significant part of the economy and will continue to be influential in the years ahead outside of their numbers.
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964) My wife and I are late Baby Boomers. Born in the latter 50s, we are a part of what was until recently the largest cohort in US history. For over thirty years, the sheer size of the Boomer generation defined the organization’s social landscape in a majority-rules cultural takeover. We were the civil rights, empowerment, and diversity generation. Never content with the status quo, we are always redefining what it means to be old and cool and important and successful.
  • Generation X (1965-1981) My oldest son and one of my daughters-in-law are Xers, even though they sometimes exhibit characteristics of the next cohort as well. Technologically adept, clever, and resourceful, the Xers are a deeply segmented, fragmented cohort. Their need for feed back and flexibility, coupled with the dislike of close supervision is but one of the many complex nuances of this generation. They are all about change- they’ve changed cities, homes, and even parents all their lives. Often seen as pessimistic with an edgy skepticism, many Xers are more positive about their personal future than the group as a whole.
  • Millennials (1982-2000) My other three children, two daughters-in-law, and a son-in-law all fall into this cohort. They are the children of the soccer moms and little League dads, and endless rounds of swim meets, karate classes, dancing lessons, computer camp and … you get the picture. They consider themselves the smartest, cleverest, healthiest and most-wanted group to have ever lived. Born into the technology boom times, barriers of time and space have little absolute meaning to them. They are willing to work and learn. By sheer numbers (their total births eclipsed the Boomers by several million) they are going to dominate history in new ways. They are the hyper-connected: constantly connected to multiple devices in order to know what and whom they need to know.
  • Generation Z (born after 2001) Just now entering teenage years and early adulthood, sociologists have little hard data yet. But it is the generation of my six grandchildren, and it is important to me! So far, technology is the hallmark of this group, which is the first generation to be raised in the era of smartphones and social media as a daily part of life. They’re growing up amid the promise of technological innovation – but also in the environment of economic uncertainty, a sharp decrease in well-defined and reliable career paths, increasing political divides, and the effect of decades of repressed racial tensions. Consequently, when compared to their predecessors, this group is both more cautious and more anxious.

There are some indications that generational cohorts repeat every four generations, so we’ll just have to see. Led by the thoughts of William Strauss and Neil Howe published in the late 1990s, this idea of “cycles” is getting more attention now that their predictions of today’s Millennial cohort are proving to be on target more often than not. That will definitely be my radar in the future!

An interesting fact, and the origin of the title of this website: there are 27 years between each of the first born in the above generations of my family, thus 27gen.

The next five years are going to be very interesting as each of these five generations exert influence on each other. I will be actively watching my own microcosm of society.

The last time we were all together in one place – Walt Disney World, September 2016.

How to Understand Gen Z’s Spiritual Perspective

Born between 1995 and 2012, at 72.8 million strong, Gen Zers are making their presence known. It is the generation that is now collectively under the age of 25. They’re radically different from the Millennials, yet no one seems to have been talking much about them until recently.

While there has been a great deal of conversation about “fixing” the Millennial generation, we are in danger of missing the next generation as they step into the workplace – and leadership roles at our churches.

As a group, on one hand they have been notorious about dropping out from your church. On they other hand, they make up a significant part of both your ministry participants and prospects.

They are also beginning to step into very visible leadership roles in your church.

So what does Gen Z look like, and what does that mean for your church?

The Quick Summary – James Emery White, Meet Generation Z

Move over Boomers, Xers, and Millennials; there’s a new generation–making up more than 25 percent of the US population–that represents a seismic cultural shift. Born approximately between 1993 and 2012, Generation Z is the first truly post-Christian generation, and they are poised to challenge every church to rethink its role in light of a rapidly changing culture.

From the award-winning author of The Rise of the Nones comes this enlightening introduction to the youngest generation. James Emery White explains who this generation is, how it came to be, and the impact it is likely to have on the nation and the faith. Then he reintroduces us to the ancient countercultural model of the early church, arguing that this is the model Christian leaders must adopt and adapt if we are to reach members of Generation Z with the gospel. He helps readers rethink evangelistic and apologetic methods, cultivate a culture of invitation, and communicate with this connected generation where they are.

Pastors, ministry leaders, youth workers, and parents will find this an essential and hopeful resource.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION –

Research from various sources confirms that younger generations, especially Gen Z, are interested in spiritual matters – it’s just religion they are rejecting.

In beautiful and surprising ways, Gen Zers are searching for God on earth, not some trendy program your church has to offer. In effect, your challenge is not just to reach a younger generation, but instead to create a more fuller expression of Jesus lived out in your church.

The most defining characteristic of Generation Z is that it is arguably the first generation in the West (certainly in the U.S.) that will have been raised in a post-Christian context. As a result, it is the first post-Christian generation.

Perhaps the most defining mark of members of Generation Z, in terms of their spiritual lives, is their spiritual illiteracy. This is, of course, the defining mark of the post-Christian world. They do not know what the Bible says. They do now know the basics of Christian belief or theology. They do not know what the cross is about. They do not know what it means to worship. But their spiritual illiteracy is deeper than that. They are more than post-Christian. They don’t even have a memory of the gospel.

We have to become cultural missionaries and act according to that identity. I think we all know what a good missionary would do if dropped into the darkest recesses of the Amazon basin to reach an unreached people group. They would learn the language, try to understand the customs and rituals, and work to translate the Scriptures, particularly the message of the gospel, into the indigenous language. When it comes to worship, they would incorporate the musical styles and instruments of the people. They might even attempt to dress more like them. In short, they would try to build every cultural bridge they could into the world of that unreached people group in order to bring Christ to bear.

James Emery White, Meet Generation Z

A NEXT STEP

Author James Emery White poses some excellent questions for you to consider as you contemplate reaching Gen Z. Take time in your next team meeting to review the questions below.

Why is it that what would be so natural, so obvious, so clear to do so in the missiological setting described above is so resisted in the West?

Do you or does your church approach your community with a truly missiological mindset, the same way you would if you were in a new country?

What’s the average age of staff members and attenders at your church? Are you comfortable with that? If not, what can you do this year to start changing that?

We live in a world that is more open than ever to spiritual things. Not defined religion, but spirituality in general. How do you see this manifested in the world? What might it mean for the church and its mission to reach people?

Every generation must translate the gospel into its unique setting without transforming the message itself. If an average non-attender from Generation Z were to sit in your service this Sunday, would the experience make any sense to them? If not, how can you work to translate elements of the service so that the service connects with them without compromising the truth it contains?

When it comes to outreach in your church, are you honestly willing to do whatever it takes to reach the next generation? Are you willing to lose those who can’t see that it’s not about them?

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 70-2, released July 2017.


 

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “summary” for church leaders. Each Wednesday I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt here.

 

>> Purchase SUMS Remix here<<