Are generational traits cyclical?

I haven't looked at any of the underlying research but I found the following claims to be very interesting:

In the end, however, much of what my research uncovered was inconsistent with Strauss and Howe’s theories. At least in terms of psychological differences, generations do not occur in cycles; instead, the changes are primarily linear, with each generation taking the previous generations’ traits to the next level. There is no sudden shift in personality for someone born before or after 1982 (Strauss and Howe’s cutoff for what they call the “Millennial” generation). Thus generational labels such as Boomers, Xers, and GenY are of limited use. What’s more important is the number of birth years separating two people – e.g, 20 years or 40 years. Although I occasionally use generational labels (such as Generation Me or GenMe to describe today’s young people), I primarily rely on labels such as “older” and “younger” generations; those in the middle in terms of age (today, the GenXers in their 30s and 40s) will typically fall in the middle in terms of traits and attitudes.

One particular implication is that individualism and indeed narcissism have been increasing steadily with each generation.  I find that the most plausible models of intergenerational learning support the author's "linear accretion" view rather than cycles of rebellion and counterreaction.  There is a niche effect for siblings, but I think less of such an effect for generations per se.

Hat tip goes to BPS Research Digest.


It is very interesting to me that my generation (Millenials) has been described by a lot of sources--NYTimes and 60 minutes for example--as being a selfless, collectivistic generation.

My experience has been the opposite. I find my peers are more shamelessly self-absorbed and narcissistic than my parents (boomers) generation.

When did this trend start? 1865? 1688? 1933?

when do we reach 'peak me'?

seriously though, i was born in 1964 and i always felt there was a generational difference between people my age and people a couple years younger.

i always attributed it to being somewhat alert during the late 70s and remembering a time (nixon / ford / carter / the first auto industry collapse / inflation and recession) before reagan was president.

i felt there was a difference between me and people a couple years older than me as well -- they caught the end of the comet tail of promiscuity and drug bliss at the end of the 70s that i missed out on. but i never felt that was generational -- it was part of my makeup and part of the promise of my age, even though my age fell flat.

One of the more striking developments in my lifetime is the decline in the generation gap. My sons, for example, appreciate my knowledge of, say, The Clash, while I didn't much appreciate my dad's knowledge of Perry Como.

I've read both the original Generations book and The 4th Turning by Strauss & Howe. I have to agree that the models lack perfection, but I've found them to be - at the very least - a good way to illustrate THAT generations change, and what could be the causal aspects.

I have found it useful not to consider generational shifts to be a circle, but more of a spiral, which seems to be more in line with the accretion of traits that has come before. Even so, Strauss & Howe make a good case for some kind of cyclical change (though it appears based more in external *perceptions* about a group, rather than what the group themselves thinks about themselves).

Babar: S&H argue that the silent generation and the boomer generation had a sharper split than most precisely because the Vietnam war threw the respective roles of the generation into sharper relief: you were either in the age group to be drafted or you weren't.

I'm VERY interested in observations and data that can throw Strauss & Howe's observations into question, though. If someone around here has a link or two, I'd love it. IF (a big if) S&H have something valuable to add to the discussion, then it needs the same degree of scientific poking-apart that we give the hard sciences.

I find it useful, for sure, but I've found lots of crap to be useful in the past only to learn that it was groping around the facts, and not the facts themselves.

Excellent thoughts all around, gang!

I think a lot of this is an illusion. Young people, here defined as people without responsibilities to people other than themselves are self centered because the self is all that's there. So whichever generation is the most recent is going to be the most self centered. Because they actually have the least reason not to be self centered.

Adolescence is getting longer based on increased returns on human capital or the expectation of such returns so there is a component that is real. And we haven't had any big wars or drafts to provide a monolithic extrapersonal cause. And people are living sufficiently long that people don't have to take care of their parents before they have families. And you have a recipe for whichever generation is most recent being viewed as the most self centered. And when the current generation gets older and has families they will more or less escape their reputation and everyone will complain about the freshman class.

Well all this is interesting being born in 1976, I have, as do many of my peers a great care and understanding for past generations. I feel we are doing more for them or more importantly WITH them in a time when the economy not only puts us in a time of need but those who thought they were prepared as well, in short being human beings we arise to what the needs are for in our time, whatever that should entail. Have faith in the decency of man.

Not being familiar with the work of Strauss and Howe, I admit my lack of background knowledge, but, from some of the posts, it appears to me that their research is based, or at least heavily reliant on, the so-called "generation gap" that commonly described the socio-cultural and political divisions between boomers and their parents. Fair enough? As a male born in 1943, I have always regarded that concept as an illusion. That is, were it not for the coincidence of the Vietnam War (accompanied of course by military conscription), I really doubt that there would have been much division observed between the two generations. Indeed, most rebellion against the political position of the earlier generation grew out of an easy perception that greed and imperialism had replaced legitimate defense as the basis for national military activity. However, it seems very likely that, absent the fear of involuntary induction, most boomers would have regarded third-world military adventurism by their government with a level of indifference quite similar to that shown by latter generations not subject to conscription. In fact, it seems evident that the draft was discarded in the 1970's for that very reason. A useful way of further examining S & H theory might be to look at other generations showing a similar cultural dichotomy arising out of compulsory military service, as for example, British generations in the early 19th century, or Russian gens in the late 19th century, where the imperialistic ambitions of ruling classes required a continuing supply of young bodies to fight foreign wars. On the other hand, perhaps the size and scale of military conscription in this country in the 25 years after WW2 was so unprecedented and venal, it simply led to a level of social rebellion not seen in earlier, or subsequent, generations.

Is there any reason to believe that youth's "rebellion" in adolescence was a common cultural experience before the 1960s? Any data to support that notion? When, exactly, were adolescents with responsibilities rebelling?

I don't have any other factual basis for this, but the Amish tradition of Rumshpringa indicated that adolescent rebellion is not a new thing.

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