by Jerome F. Winzig
Last night I heard a talk by a Lutheran pastor named Carl Eeman on his 2002 book, Generations of Faith. Pastor Eeman explored a theory of four generational types that repeat themselves in American history, in cycles lasting 90 to 95 years. This theory was developed by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 1991 book, Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584-2069.
This theory posits these four generational types: the "Hero" or "World War II" generation (born 1901-1924, and repeating from perhaps 1983 to 2005 as the "Millennial" generation), the "Artist" or "Silent" generation (born 1925 to 1942), the "Prophet" or "Boomer" generation (born 1943 to 1960), and the "Nomad" or "Xer" generation (born 1961 to 1982).
When I first heard this theory, I was skeptical. Can we really generalize about the characteristics of an entire generation? Do these characteristics really repeat themselves in every fourth generation? And most importantly, even if it's true, so what?
I'm less skeptical now. Pastor Eeman skillfully uses American history to illustrate each generation's characteristics. It's clear that those characteristics don't imply an entire generation thinks alike. For example, Eeman points out that the "Hero" generation born from 1901 to 1924 held the U.S. presidency for 32 years, from 1960 to 1992. That's longer than any previous generation of its type. But the span includes very different men: Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
In talking about the "Prophet" or "Boomer" generation, Eeman points out that Benjamin Franklin belonged to an earlier "Prophet" generation. In 1776 he was getting old. Nonetheless, he pushed 13 often-reluctant colonies towards independence and the creation of a republic. Both were ideas greeted by skepticism on the part of other generations of the time.
This generational type is characterized by vision and idealism, but the early leaders produced by previous generations of this type haven't always been the greatest. Perhaps that explains the kind of leadership we've seem from the first two "Boomer" presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The fact that they are alternately characterized as great and horrible might be explained by the fact that the "Prophet" generational type is also known for being judgmental and argumentative. Come to think of it, maybe that's also why we're in the midst of an incredibly long and divisive presidential campaign characterized by dogmatism on both sides.
We're not necessarily divided by generational characteristics, however. Last month I was part of an interesting conversation at a friend's birthday party. (He was celebrating the 35th anniversary of his 35th birthday.) Three generations participated in the conversation, which was about the state of public education.
The clear consensus was that our schools are in trouble because of the conduct of students and parents, and by the willingness of administrators to accept conduct that was once considered beyond the pale. This judgment is echoed by almost everyone I know who works in education or who works with kids today.
But it's not a judgment heard much in the political arena. Instead, the right accuses public schools of poor management and bad values. The left accuses the right of stripping schools of adequate funding. Bill Cosby makes some pointed comments about parents' values and priorities, and a racial firestorm erupts. Lost in the uproar is that, while Cosby was addressing poor black parents, his remarks apply to a whole lot of well-off white parents everywhere. The problem with our schools lies not with someone else, but with us.
At the end of our birthday party conversation, there was a feeling that we knew what the problem was, but didn't know how to fix it. There was even some laughter about the suggestion that we could solve the world's problems, if only people would listen.
We need solutions that bridge generational and political differences. So I'm restarting this column after a two-year lapse. I intend to resume examining issues that cross our political and generational lines. I'd like to propose solutions that benefit the public good rather than special interests. It's a tough challenge. I will try to have ideas worth sharing. I hope to start a dialog that continues.