John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

No Society is Static – The Seasons of Civilization

May 16th, 2009

Patterns rule the world around us, recognizing these is part of what allows humanity to master science & nature.  One set of patterns we’ve been slow to recognize are the ones that guide our own behavior as a society.

If history proves anything, it is that no civilization, state, or community can remain static indefinitely. What is particularly interesting to me as a student of history and government, is exactly how predictable this cycle of civilization is and how regularly it unfolds across the span of a human life.  (To give credit where its due, this theory has been pioneered by Strauss & Howe in a series of books dealing with the various generational archetypes and social phases that repeat in Anglo-American history.)

The Seasons of Society

Each season lasts about 20 years – exact duration depends on factors like war, climate, and technological advancement.  The general structure of the cycle stays strangely consistent. One full revolution is roughly equal to 80 years or slightly longer than an average lifespan.

  • High (Spring:  1945-1966) – A society reaches a high in the decades after a crisis is completely resolved. Institutions are new and recently designed to cope ultra modern concerns.  Government works like it is supposed to.  Wealth is growing but the memories of recent financial crises cause people to invest conservatively and look down on excessive materialism.  If a society fails to solve the issues that caused the prior crisis, the high can instead be an “Austerity” with widespread poverty and especially hard work left to be done.
  • Social Awakening (Summer:  1966-1982) – Wealth and relative stability allow a greater exploration of spirituality, artistic expression, and philosophy.  While a vocal minority may find faults in “the system,” that system is still providing enough prosperity that few if any structural changes go through.  In America’s history, social Awakenings are led by young Prophet generations & these periods coincide with the “Great Awakenings” (powerful religious revivals.)  The last American Awakening was somewhat unique in the amount of attention hippies brought to liberal and secular values.
  • Unraveling (Autumn:  1913-1929, 1982-2005) – In an unraveling, prosperity gives way to corruption.  Institutions begin to show signs of irrelevancy and an inability to solve newer problems, spiritual progress falls victim to dogmatism, witch hunts, and culture wars.  Serious financial problems tend to go unaddressed, but much distortion of reality is done to boost confidence in a failing system.   In the roaring 20s and high-speed 90s, the rich got richer while the poor had enough access to credit that they could feel rich, too.
  • Crisis (Winter:  1929-1945, 2008?-2025?) – When the institutions have failed repeatedly to protect society from new threats, the illusions of stability and prosperity ultimately collapse and usher in an era of prolonged crisis.  Debt comes due and economies can suddenly spiral out of control.  In America, these phases of crisis have resulted in a Revolution, a Civil War, a New Deal, and our incredible response to World War II.  While the period is marked by a lack of material wealth and stability, they are also times of rapid change and progress toward establishing institutions capable of resolving modern threats & injustices.

The Generations

According to this theory (which is agreeable to my own sense of history & politics), there are four primary types of generations.

  • Artists (Silent Generation 1924-1944, New Artists 200?-202?) – Artists are born into or spend their youth in a crisis.  As the name implies, the stereotypical disposition of this generation is skewed toward artistic expression.  Born in the 20’s and 30’s, the recent artists were the beatniks, blues musicians, and bohemians of Post-WW2 America.  The last artist generation gave us Johnny Cash, Elvis, and George Carlin.  The younger artists are just now being born and entering into elementary school.
  • Prophets (Baby Boomers 1944-1962) – Prophets are born into a seemingly stable society and can be driven by a sense of moral conviction and/or entitlement.  These are not just the hippies of the 1960s, they’re also the social conservatives who rallied around Bush and the Republican party’s culture wars.  Prophets tend to be idealistic, but this idealism can stifle compromise and leave issues unresolved.
  • Nomads (Generation X 1962-1982) – Nomads are born during a cultural awakening and come of age as a society begins showing signs of decay.  Similar to artists, this generation is generally more concerned with self-expression than saving the world.  As a particularly rebellious group, they are likely to shun social expectations if they don’t see personal benefit in it.
  • Civics (“Greatest Generation” 1901-1924, Millennials, 1982-2004?) – Civics are born in an unraveling society and come of age during a crisis.  As the civilization is seeking solutions to the crisis, this generation tends toward political interests early in life.  The last Civic generation fought WW2 and went on to virtually dominate the presidency from JFK to GHWB.  The major criticism is that they can be reckless and short-sighted in their rush to solve immediate social problems.

If you’re interested in reading more, the books are available at LifeCourse Associates bookstore.  Be sure to check out Generations, a History of America’s Future, the book that set the whole paradigm in motion (notice that it has strong praise from both Al Gore and Newt Gingrich – when did those two ever agree on anything before?)  No, I’m not trying to sell the book and make money here, I just think this should be taught in schools!  Then again, we may be changing the cycle by becoming aware of it… so there’s no saying where we go from here, even if history does show us a pattern explaining how we got to where we are.




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