The History Of Generations

A brief overview on the history of generations and Generational Theory
many generations sitting together

History doesn't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. The average lifespan of a human today is roughly eighty years. That time span is enough to see changes in the world but falls short of seeing those changes follow through along with the consequences that arise.

There are patterns in our history that are too obvious to ignore. The story behind generations could be a puzzle piece to those patterns.

Explaining the History of Generations

The grouping of peoples born in the same time block of history has only been studied and discussed for a short period of time. The idea of generations started swirling around in the 1860s when French philosopher Emile Littré coined the notable term:

"[Generations are] all men living, more or less, at the same time."

While this sums up what a single generation is, it wasn't until over a hundred years in the future that this topic was put under a microscope.

Generational Theory

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe began analyzing generational trends throughout history which culminated in their first collaborative book "Generations: the History of Americas Future 1584-2069" in 1991 and the follow-up titled "The Fourth Turning" in 1997.

These books take a look at the relationship between generations in the span of a saeculum.

What is a saeculum?

A saeculum is roughly a century. The generations that live and die within that time span are the inhabitants of that saeculum. According to Strauss and Howe, there are 4 turnings within a given saeculum, much like seasons to a year.

Here's a basic example of what a saeculum is:

Let's say a village was founded by a group of 1,000 settlers. There is a healthy mix of the elderly, young to mid-life adults and adolescents/infants within the settlement.

The very day the village was founded is the day the saeculum starts. The day it ends is when the last of the newborns draws their last breath, leaving no one from the first day of the village alive.

The Four Turnings

How and when these turnings occur affect each generation differently. Here is Strauss and Howe's idea of what they are.

The High:

A time of prosperity and economic growth. The high occurs after a crisis. Within that crisis, society is forced to rally together and put their individualism aside in pursuit of one common goal: survival.

Institutions established during the crisis are strong and are essentially the consensus on how the society should be run.

The Awakening: 

The children born during the high have no recollection of the crisis preceding them. They were born in a time of good spirits and strong institutions.

However, they don't understand why those institutions are there in the first place and begin to question the previous generation's formula for success over the crisis.

The Unraveling: 

With previous institutions questioned, they begin to weaken. The generations that came together in the time of crisis are either dead, in their twilight years, or in middle age. The future starts to lie in the hands of the generation born after the crisis.

The Crisis: 

This turning can either stem from the events during the awakening and the unraveling. This event is a sudden shock to society: that of destruction, tragedy, or both.

The institutions set during to previous crisis are now obsolete and society to do a hard reset.

The peoples born after the previous crisis are now at the apex of their lives. the young adults who weathered the crisis are now too old, unable to do anything but just watch as society goes through the climax of the current saeculum.

The collective victory over the crisis thus ushers in a new saeculum starting again with the high: repeating the cycle.

The patterns don't stop there

People born during each of the four turnings earn an archetype. This archetype is their role in society that will play out in each of the turnings.

The Four Archetypes

According to Strauss and Howe, there are 4 archetypes to generations. Which archetype a generation receives is dependent on which turning they were born.


Born after a crisis. They came of age in a time of little cultural and civil turmoil and brought up in strong institutions. 

They are most likely to be the catalyst of the awakening, questioning the previous institution established. As children, they are rigorously protected by their parents who were 1st hand witnesses and heroes of the crisis

The most recent example would be the Baby Boomer generation. They were born after the greatest war in history: World War II. Veterans of the war came home reaping the benefits of their valor.

The G.I. bill was instrumental in making America what it is today. The bill gave (mostly just white soldiers) a chance to buy homes at low interest and pursue higher education or trade at little to no cost. 

Soldiers were coming home to houses, well-paying jobs, and opportunities to start a family-- thus creating the suburban sprawl. Boomers were the first to experience childhood and adolescence in this new era.

By the time they reached adulthood, they came to loath it. 


A sort of a rebellious teenager of a given saeculum. Born during the awakening period when the prophet era is starting to have kids while questioning their institutions. Society is having a collective look in the mirror.

This generation does not need to search for individualism, they are born into it.

This generation is overlooked, tugging at the shirts of the older generations as they clash about how society should be run. Individuals fight the conformists while the children are left home alone to fight boredom.

They adapt, react, and move to an ever-changing ever-decaying culture
that's crumbling right in front of them. They have never seen a strong economy or a balanced society.

Gen X is the most recent example.

Born during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war, Generation X came into a world starkly opposite to the Golden Era of Capitalism and Post War bliss of the mid-40s through 50s.

Families were split, more parents were working, racial inequality and injustice were at a boiling point, and the Vietnam war wasn't being fought because "It was just the right thing to do."

Turmoil stemming from economic and cultural uncertainty are the only things nomads know.


Born during the unraveling, their innocence is shrouded in a tense cultural stand-off and rapidly growing distrust in government. As children, they are unaware of the dangers that lie ahead.

However, when the crisis happens, they will the first ones called to action. They will come of age by the time the crisis is in full effect and will be on the frontlines fighting whatever the crisis is: disease, war, etc.

The crisis will influence them to trust in institutions that helped combat the crisis. 


These are the fragile babies of the crisis. Too young to do anything, some too old to forget. This generation is usually overprotected by their parents in reaction to the recent crisis. 

This overprotected generation grows up in a rigid institution that was created in place of the crisis. They tend to be more sensitive and conforming to the institutions set in place.

Here is a brief explanation of the theory from author Neil Howe:

Generational Theory predicting America's turmoil

Of course, human life is much too complex to just categorize generations by certain times within the century they lived. Each century's technology increases, speeding up not only our daily lives but our place in history as well. 

However, when this theory was applied to the near future, the outcome produced some scary-accurate results.

The book "The Fourth Turning" was released in 1997. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Around 2005, a sudden spark will capitilize a crisis mood-- economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land with questions of class, nation, race, and empire.

The authors go on to say:

Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history commensurate with the Civil War, Great Depression, and WWII.

As we navigate our way in the year 2021, this theory holds some shocking weight 24 years after it the book was published. 

The authors state the fourth turning began in 2008 with the housing crisis. While it can be argued that 9/11 is the genesis of the current crisis as the entire nation, along with the whole world, changed its collective mood and outlook. 

The War on Terror began in response to the September 11th attacks while a steep rise in hate crimes against Muslims ushered in a new era of xenophobia.

Soon after, the housing crash in 2008 ensued.

Questions of police brutality and systematic racism were brought to the forefront of America's deep-seated issues in the 2010s. These events and issues caused a massive rift in the country as views became more divided than ever.

With domestic terrorism, an ever-looming threat, by the end of the decade almost no one trusted each other.

Entering a new decade we have come to the climax of the crisis, the very part responsible for our travel through "the great gate in history." The antagonist: COVID-19.

COVID-19: The end of the current saeculum

COVID-19 brought our society to the final turning point. Everything before March 16th, 2020 seems to be in the distant past. The normal we knew yesterday will not be the norm tomorrow.

The "Good 'Ole Days" are dead, disassembled, and burned in the wake of a new millennium.  The decline of America starting in the 1980s is now culminating with the pandemic, showing its deep disfunction and growing division.

The structures set in place combating this crisis will show long after pandemic status is lifted. 

By Strauss and Howe's theory, after this crisis passes (around the end of the decade) a new saeculum will begin, ushering a new high. The cycle begins and the process repeats itself.

Only time will tell to see if the theory holds up, although, one thing can be said. The world will experience a new era post-COVID-19.

We are not past COVID-19, however. The battle continues. 

The 4 archetypes and their role during the crisis

Baby Boomer-Prophet: Born Post-WWII, they are now the elder leaders finally facing a crisis after being born in the "Golden Era" of America.

According to the Library of Congress, the average age of Congressman in 2020 was almost 58; Senators 62. This means Baby Boomers are the ones making decisions regarding this pandemic and its subsequent issues. 

Baby Boomer Late-Life Attitude

Generation X-Nomad: This generation was born during the awakening of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement.

Baby Boomers were young and fighting the system, while this young generation was given a key and an empty house.

Generation X coincides with the nomad's description. As they grow up with institutions beginning to weaken while they come of age during the tumultuous 1990s (the unraveling,) Generation X has known no stability.

Both of my parents have bounced around in their lives, either for jobs or a change in scenery. They don't like to stick with the same line of work for too long and are almost always on the move. 

This is a generation hardened by America's decay; which will show long into their elderly years.

Gen-X beliefs in Social Security

Millennials-Hero: With 1980 being the earliest birthdate for Millennials, this generation started coming of age during the unraveling. A large portion of Millennials came of fighting age during the Iraq war. 

The older millennials were grunts fighting a war overseas as they were led by Baby Boomers.

Now as the second half of millennials were kids during the Iraq War, they might have also seen their parents lose their house in 2008. The imbalance of wealth is at the highest it's ever been leaving many Millennials in tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Millennials who chose a healthcare career path have started in the most challenging time for healthcare workers in almost 100 years. 

Millennials and their role with family

Gen Z-Artist: With Gen Z being just infants during 9/11 and adolescent young adults through the 2020s, this generation may not know anything crisis for the first part of their lives. 

They were born in a world of fear, radical violence, and egregious corruption. Their parents being overly protective caused them to become sensitive to the growing issues that arose in the 2010s.

Issues regarding race, mental health, and gender identity we see today are the culmination of Gen Z's youth and the horrific events that unfolded during that time. 

The Next Generation

We won't really know what the next generation will be like until at least a decade from now.

The Next Generation

If COVID-19 and other societal issues resolve. It's only a matter of time before a generation is born into a world with a vastly different trajectory. They will not have personally went through a crisis and will not know of one until near the end of their life.

According to the theory anyway.

With technology rapidly growing and the economy globalizing, it's hard to say whether this theory will withstand the test of time. 

While this theory is called pseudoscience, applying it to other centuries proves to match some key elements. This might just be a glorified horoscope in the grand scheme of things. However, applying this theory to history's patterns carries weight.

Time, as we perceive it, is linear. Time has a beginning and an end. Although, cyclical events help us perceive time within a linear realm by creating patterns within to show the passage of it.

These cyclical events can match up with history, giving us the seasons of our civilization.

Paul is passionate about mastering the craft of writing. Adaptive and charismatic over pen and paper, no subject is out of the question.

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