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138 of 144 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A seminal work in understanding generational behavior, and a pleasant read, January 2, 2006
This review is from: Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 (Paperback)
Strauss and Howe have written several books since this one, expanding upon their general historical thesis. But this one is the seminal book, the important one, and the one on which the others are based.

The book basically is a theory of American history that is premised on generational behavior. The authors have been quite successful in explaining and in some instances predicting the cycles of events, values and opinions of American society. It's very much worth reading simply because the reader is likely to experience an enhanced understanding of what is happening around him/her in the body politic.

The basic insight in this book is a simple one: Instead of trying to build a theory of American history (as did Arthur Schlesinger) that is based on unexplained "cycles" and "swings" from liberal to conservative and back again, why not simply look at how American generations behave as they age? When you do that, as Strauss and Howe have found, you find that American generations behave with a certain consistency throughout their lives. If their formative experiences push them in a certain direction while young, they'll continue to act in that way as they get older. That is, if you understand that history is really the process of different generations moving through time, then the swings of American history no longer look so mysterious; they appear as predictable manifestations of the fact that different generations with different life experiences have risen to the foreground.

Of course, you don't want to take all of this too sweepingly, or else it starts to seem like astrology or historical biorhythms. Generations are diverse groups, and no two people within a generation are exactly alike. But there are clear trends of generational behavior, which Strauss/Howe substantiate quite well.

Their basic model is that there are four basic generational types, which tend to occur in this order: Idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive.

The GI generation (born 1902-1924) that fought WWII is a classic example of a "civic" generation. Consider their life experiences; when they came of age, they were asked en masse to participate in the greatest government-directed effort imaginable, fighting and winning WWII. Then when they got done with that, many of them went to school on the GI bill. When they were young, government spending and focus was oriented on youth. When they aged, government spending and focus shifted along with them, to where it is now focused on their elderly group, through Social Security, Medicare, and the other elderly programs that dominate the federal budget. It was natural that this generation would come to think of government's priorities being oriented in their direction as the natural order of things. They are civic-minded and they tend to have a more benign attitude towards government than do other generations. Accordingly, they are generally suspicious of change in the government approaches they know (for example, strongly against Social Security personal accounts, as opposed to a government-defined benefit.) Also, as a civic generation, they didn't focus their energies on redefining the values and purpose of America, they had a job to do (win the big war), and they did it.

Contrast that with an "idealist" generation, the "boomer" generation. Many in this generation grew up with an assumption of unlimited economic opportunity and security. They therefore turned their attention to spiritual matters, questioning and often rebelling against the values of the GI generation as well as its follow-up generation, the Silent generation. It was this "idealist" element of the boomers that unleashed the social revolutions of the late 1960s. This streak of strong opinions is visible in the boomers to this day; many of the political leaders who are regarded on both sides as being among the most shrill and uncompromising are from the boomer generation. This was also true when they were youth in the late 1960s; not only the activists on the radical left, but also those who retreated into a dyed-in-the-wool conservatism. The Silent generation prior to them didn't generally split into such poles.

The contrast between the "Silent" generation and the boomers is instructive. The "Silents" followed on the GI generation, looked up to them, generally shared their values, and sought to expand and liberalize them somewhat incrementally. The "silents" worked within the system: the 1950s, for example, saw civil rights expanding, Brown vs the Board of Education, etc. They sought to expand the blessings of liberty but at the same time were generally trustful of the leadership of previous generations. Not so the boomers; as the boomers came of age, they loudly, and often with great hostility, attacked the core value systems of the generations before them as being inadequate to progress, and sought to make a new, purer system of values. The silents wouldn't have been nearly so bold.

You can see the results in our national politics. The GI generation dominated the presidency for some time (Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Elder) and then handed the baton off to the Boomers (Clinton, Bush the Younger.) The Silent generation was simply skipped over.

The so-called "Generation X" (1961-81 birth years in this book) is a classic example of a "reactive" generation. These generations usually followed idealist generations, and didn't have the economic optimism of their predecessors, and thus didn't feel the same security to reimagine the spiritual basis of their nation. These generations often receive great criticism from the generation before them for failing to uphold their ideals. When the Strauss/Howe book came out, this was happening to Gen X much more than is the case now; the boomers, anxious to preserve their spiritual vision, often expressed concern and even disgust about the cynical, world-weary attitudes of the generation that followed them. But the Gen xers had had a different experience; they were not taught, as were the boomers, that life was always going to be sunny for them economicallly. The boomers were blocking the job pipeline as these Gen Xers entered the workforce for the first time. And their life experience with government is exactly the opposite of the GI generation;at every stage of the Gen Xers maturation, government's resources have been directed to benefit someone else. Whereas the GIs will get far more out of Social Security than they ever put in, Gen X will put far more in than they will ever get out; small wonder that Gen X generally wants to be given personal accounts instead of sticking with the old system.

Only over time have the Gen Xers won the respect of previous generations, just as did previous "reactive" generations of their type. A great analogy are the generations that came of age before the American Civil War. The analogues to the boomers then were the "transcendental" generation: the Thoreaus and the Lincolns and the Garrisons -- many of the abolitionists and civil disobedients who found the value system of their nation to be lacking. They unleashed a social revolution that exploded in the Civil War. Meanwhile, the generation behind them, the Ulysses Grants of the world, were thought to be mundane, unimaginative, unimpressive. But it was the Grant generation that fought and won the Civil War, relying on the resourcefulness that a tougher life had required them to learn. The Gen Xers are showing similar resilience now.

As said, you can't take any of this too exactly; otherwise it starts to seem like the Chinese zodiac; it's not the case that everyone born in the Year of the Bunny is lucky and affectionate. But it is still the case that formative experiences are often a key to understanding generational behavior. Strauss and Howe provide a very useful way to think about history, and an entertaining book to boot.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 13, 2007 9:55:28 AM PDT
Wow, this is a really great summary of the book.

Posted on Jul 13, 2007 3:41:14 PM PDT
I agree. Outstanding summary. Thanks for taking the time.

Posted on Jul 25, 2007 3:01:14 PM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2007 7:09:25 AM PDT
Odysseus says:
The generational splits in attitudes toward Social Security are well documented; a typical example is a 2005 survey http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1295.xml?ReleaseID=659 that found a split of more than 20 points between seniors and GenXers on the question of personal accounts. These splits have remained in force even as support for funded accounts has risen and fallen nationally. Generally, Gen Xers are much less likely to equate personal accounts with "wanting Social Security destroyed." They also generally exhibit less confidence in the current system than do older Americans. At first glance, this may simply reflect the different impact of Soc Sec on current workers vs beneficiaries -- as people approach retirement age, they generally are less inclined to favor changing the system, whereas as workers, they experience it mainly as a tax burden. But if one looks more deeply at the issue from the standpoint of a Strass/Howe analysis, one sees other reasons for the difference in attitudes. Certainly it's true that for Gen Xers the current system is less healthy than it is for the remaining GI generation. Also, each generation will have experienced the system differently by the end of the game -- the GIs receiving far more in benefits than they paid in contributions, and GenXers the reverse (at least on a present-value basis.) These figures are accessible in the annual Trustees report. The attitudinal differences between generations towards Social Security are well documented and have a rational basis, ideology aside.

Posted on Oct 21, 2007 10:15:19 AM PDT
southpaw68 says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2008 9:55:38 PM PST
It's an interesting question whether the differing attitudes towards social security are generational or age related. According to the Strauss and Howe's theory, Gen X might be expected to be more self reliant than boomers, and thus more interested in replacing social security with individual accounts, as this review suggests.

I think the evidence is otherwise, however. Bush (son) actually did suggest transitioning social security this way, and the idea has not gained much traction with either Gen X or with the boomers. Gen X - which Strauss and Howe presciently noted would outnumber boomers by the time they all reached voting age - was largely responsible for sweeping Obama into the white house, in a rejection of Boomer and older leaders, including Bush and his ideas.

I think this may reflect Gen X self reliance and practicality in other ways. They may not believe that social security can really survive long enough for them to get much in the way of benefits from it, but they are practical enough to save for retirement from their own income if they think that's important, without insisting on getting rid of social security taxes first. They're used to getting the short end of the stick, so the fact that that's happening with social security is not as much of a special issue as it might be to boomers. Watch out if the Millenials see it as their getting the short end of the stick, though - they're likely to object rather more strongly to paying for Gen X retirees without getting at least as much back in return!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 21, 2009 5:05:28 AM PST
Social Security is the largest Ponzi scheme ever invented. Many of us Gen-X'ers want individual accounts because Social Security doesn't actually have any money--it is funded through current taxation. What happens when the larger Boomer generation stops working and doesn't make a significant tax contribution anymore? A much smaller Gen-X is going to be paying for the retirement of those that came before us and the education of the children of the generation that came after us. It's no surprise that so many Gen-X'ers of any means are slavishly learning to make money in real estate or the stock market...it's our only hope of a survivable retirement.

Posted on Feb 4, 2009 5:36:27 AM PST
Pandora says:
Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough, illuminating review. I've ordered the book and look forward to reading it.

Posted on Feb 16, 2009 6:34:59 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 16, 2009 6:41:33 PM PST
Wow, this review sounds like an infomercial for Generation X.

Generation X is showing similar resilience now as soldiers did during the Civil War? What?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 25, 2009 4:42:12 AM PST
If the "individual accounts" favored by Michael Lomker had been a reality since, for instance, the Nixon administration many of them would have lost a devastating amount during the recent recession. His assertion, "many Gen-X'ers of any means are slavishly learning to make money in real estate or the stock market" ignores that the vast majority of Gen-Xers have not and will not have life situations which will afford them opportunities "to make money in real estate or the stock market" -- slavishly or otherwise. Many who thought they had the knack "to make money in real estate or the stock market" are now hurting; especially as regards real estate many are 'under water' or 'feeding the alligator' and hoping for a way out.

Not everyone has the aptitude, inclination, and time available to devise & execute investment strategies which will assure a bullet-proof retirement fund -- not even many of those who imagine they have what it takes. After all, if it were so downright doable many by now would have already built such funds (from their personal 'free cash flows') sufficient to retire early and get out of the rat race and, thereby, escape Social Security taxation. Remember, Social Security taxes income produced by labor -- not income from investments.
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