In 2000, William Strauss and Neil Howe published Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, and with it the term “millennial” quickly became a part of our generational parlance.
What most people don’t know is that they introduced the concept of “millennial” within a larger framework for understanding generations. In their seminal work Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (1990), they put forth the thesis that there is a fourfold cycle in American history. In understanding each cycle, they believe one can better understand the role and identity each generation takes in it.
They state it this way: “The cycle draws forward energy from each generation's need to redefine the social role of each new phase of life it enters. And it draws circular energy from each generation's tendency to fill perceived gaps and to correct indeed, overcorrect) the excesses of its elders.”
The four cycles are as follows:
· The first cycle is “High” in which institutions are strong, and society has a strong sense of cohesiveness and consensus, which also leads to conformity.
· The second cycle is “Awakening” in which a new generation looks upon the “High” as a time of cultural poverty and attacks institutions in the name of personal and spiritual autonomy.
· The third cycle is “Unraveling” in which institutions are weak and distrusted, and individualism flourishes.
· The fourth cycle is “Crisis” in which institutional life is torn down and rebuilt. Civic authority revives, cultural expression finds a community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group.
· After a period of “crisis,” there is a turn to a societal “high” and the fourfold cycle continues.
Strauss and Howe label our current era a time of crisis, and they predict that millennials will become the new civic leaders who will rebuild institutions and promote social cohesion. This flies in the face of the current trend of labeling millennials as detached from institutions and distrustful of people. If we give any credence to Strauss and Howe’s thesis, we may be overlooking an important role millennials will play in the future.
We are quick to define and confine generations to labels we have given them. But whatever we think of the fourfold cycle of history, it reminds us that a generation’s self-understanding and role changes over time. Therefore we had better be ready for some surprises as millennials age and (re)define who they are.
Michael S. Bos