Prescient. My one-word description of this book. Written in 1991, it has more to say and more to teach than today’s newspaper.
More than anything, this book provides a framework for thinking about history in general and American history in particular. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe identify 18 generations from the Puritans beginning in 1584 to the Millennials beginning in 1982. Within these 18 generations lie 5 cycles with 4 generation types per cycle (with the exception of the sped up Civil War cycle). Each roughly 89 year cycle starts with an idealist generation, proceeds to a reactive, then civic, and finishes with an adaptive generation. Each generation is around 22 years. The most common generations we know are the Boomers (idealists, born 1943 – 1960), Gen X (reactive, born 1961 – 1981), and Millennials (born 1982 – 2004). Since these generation types repeat within cycles, the authors looked back to see how different types behaved and responded in the past, considered their behavior in the present, and predicted cycles and even crises time periods into the future.
This made for an absolutely fascinating read. Instead of just reading about the Great Awakening of the 1700s, we see how the generations before led to the spiritual revival and how it affected generations afterwards. In school, we’d just learn about the event with little to no context. This book provides the context (people, immigration, trends, etc.) going on around the time of major historical events in America. I wish I had read this in high school. It would have given context to viewing American history.
Here are some things that really stuck out to me while reading the book:
- There has not been one US president that has come from the Silent Generation (those born between 1924 – 1942). The last person in contention was Bernie Sanders (born 1941).
- Three of the last 4 presidents are Boomers (those born between 1943 – 1960) and were born within 3 months of each other in the SAME YEAR – Donald Trump (born June 14, 1946), George W. Bush (born July 6, 1946), and Bill Clinton (born August 19, 1946). The outlier is Obama who is of Generation X (those born between 1961 – 1981) and is the first Gen X president.
- The author’s unbelievably prescient chapter on hypothetical terrorists attacking New York City in the future and how different generations of leaders would respond. How would Boomer leaders respond (George W. Bush a Boomer) – “they would exaggerate the threat…tie it into a larger sense of global crisis (hello “War on Terror”), these leaders would define the enemy broadly and demand its total defeat…the nation would act promptly and decisively as a single organism.” Remember, this book was written in 1991, a full 10 years before 9/11.
- The Boomers (yes, the generation that gave us free love and Woodstock) has turned very moralistic in later years. This kept coming up in the book and it astounded me. Seems hypocritical.
- It’s one thing for a book to present a framework of history and look back at events and tie them into the framework. It’s quite another thing to then predict the future using the same framework and to get a lot of things right! This was one of the best American history lessons I’ve read within a book. I learned a ton. But I was astounded when reading many of the predictions in the future. My main question is in their reference to a coming crisis around the year 2020. I wondered if that crisis came early either in 9/11 or in the financial crisis of 2007-08. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
- I was challenged to consider the family members that I have known (the oldest being a great-grandmother), what generations they were from, what they experienced, how that made me who I am, and the legacy I and my generation will pass onto my children and my children’s children. I had never really thought in those long timeframes before. It was a good exercise.
- Generations was suggested by Tony Robbins in Tools of Titans (and was gifted to him by Bill Clinton). It is also a favorite of Al Gore and Newt Gingrich. Steve Bannon, the recently fired White House Chief Strategist for Trump, also was impacted by Generations and created a documentary called Generation Zero where he discussed theories from this book.
This was a very dense book. It took me many hours to read because I ended up underlining so many parts. We hear talk of generations nearly every day. I’ve noticed it even more since reading Generations. This book was the basis for a view of people and history that we now take for granted. This should be required reading for high school and I think it would help a lot of students have a better grasp of history and historical context. It’s had a profound impact on major leaders, media, and our every day conversation. You owe it to yourself to read the source of the complete set of these generational definitions and theories.
Book 49/52 is The Fourth Turning by these same authors. I’m looking forward to reading that book later this year and seeing how it expands upon Generations.
This is book 30 of 52 of the 2017 Books of Titans reading list.