Why do I buy into the Strauss/Howe model anyways?

Well I suppose for 2 reasons: 1) it seems to fit, and 2) I like models.  But ever since I started this blog, I’ve been getting pushback about how to define generations and what makes ours what it is.  Which is fine, good even, the whole point is to talk about it.  So with that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig a little deeper and try to figure out how much stock I should be putting into this model.

Regardless of whatever else we can say about their model, it does appear to work.  It’s been more than twenty years since they published their book, and they have accurately predicted when the recent spat of bad stuff would hit, and that when it did it would hit us the hardest.  But there’s a reason why second year college students are called sophomores: they’ve learned all of the simplest models but don’t know how to apply them.  Let me use an example.

Every freshman chemistry textbook has a chapter on something called the Octet Rule.  It works perfectly on the handful of elements most important in life1.  It works most of the time on the double fistful that come next.  And it almost never works on most of the rest of the elements, which is the vast majority of them.  Yet when Lewis et al. came up with this model almost a hundred years ago, it was a big enough deal that Lewis, anyways, got his name into all those freshman chemistry textbooks along with the model that he championed.  But the thing about models is that they aren’t real: model airplanes don’t fly, underwear models don’t have cellulite, and mathematical models make drastic assumptions.  Models aren’t real, but they help us get a sense of how things work.

The thing is, it takes  a lot of research beyond the initial model to come up with a more refined model that takes everything else into account.  I’m not a sociologist or historian, but I don’t know that anyone has come along and tacked their name on the end of this model to make it fit better2.  Even if they had, the model would still not be perfect.  One hundred years after Lewis, we still don’t completely understand chemical bonding.  And civilizations are infinitely more complex than elements, so it’s somewhat amazing that a model for civilizations even exists.  We should expect this model to be quite messy.

Before I start tearing into this model to come up with something that might fit everyone else’s perception of Generation X and its surroundings, it might be useful to talk about why I think it fits.  I probably think it fits because I’m smack dab in the middle of almost every definition of Generation X.  I could try to explain this using an analogy to wavefunctions, but that’s probably a bad idea because 1) most of you don’t know what that word means so you’ll end up thinking I know more about what I’m saying than I actually do, and 2) perhaps more importantly, it ends up being a bit narcissistic.  So instead, maybe it’s best to break things down by going back to the actual definition.

What is a generation, anyways?   In the family sense, it’s obviously children, parents, grandparents, and on back into deeper ancestry.  But as soon as we start adding in simple side chains like aunts and uncles and cousins, it starts getting more complicated: my son is almost 15 years younger than his oldest cousin, and probably not of the same generation when it comes to most working definitions of American generations.  When we start looking at an entire nation, things get trickier.  Where do we draw the line between one generation and the next?  Depending on your source, start dates for Generation X range from 1961 to 1964, and end dates from 1981 to 1984.3  And even in their book, Strauss and Howe make a kind of break in the middle of the Baby Boomers that indicates the end of that generation and the start of ours is more blurry than it is some sort of line in the sand that can’t be crossed.  Many of the attributes associated with our generation began showing up before it actually existed, including the name for it.4

Maybe the best place to start is with cohorts based on school years, starting with the class of 1979 and working our way up to the class of 1999.  When something significant happens, it interacts with us, with how we grow up, in a way that is distinctive to our age at the time.  So when the Challenger exploded when I was in 6th grade, the effect that had on people in my class was likely more similar to the effect it had on people in my brother’s 5th grade class than it was to the effect it had on people graduating from high school that year.  And, dammit I’m going to have to talk about wavefunctions afterall5, we can therefore say the 5th grade wavefunction is more similar to the 6th grade wavefunction than it is to the high school senior wavefunction.  Likewise, when the Vietnam War ended, it probably had a different effect on someone in grade school than it did on someone who was two at the time and only found out about it later from movies by either Oliver Stone or Sylvester Stallone.

So maybe on a national scale, there aren’t any generations afterall, or at least much fewer of them than we typically talk about.  Maybe we have nothing but a bunch of wavefunctions collapsing under the weight of the national narrative.  Maybe that narrative is defined by a few narrow bands of three to five years that somehow didn’t collapse: people of an age to have waded onto a beach in France many years ago, people of an age to have attended a concert in upstate New York not quite as many years ago.  Maybe if the Vietnam War had gone differently, or hadn’t gone at all, we wouldn’t have learned to be so cynical.  Maybe if the War on Drugs had gone differently, or hadn’t gone at all, L.A. wouldn’t have had such a crack problem in the 1980s, and Seattle wouldn’t have had such a heroin problem in the 1990s.  Maybe if the War on Terror had gone differently, or hadn’t gone at all, we could have actually sent our soldiers somewhere that they would have been greeted as liberators.  But the Strauss/Howe model dictates that none of it would happen that way: we were destined to do all the work and get none of the credit.  And though it might overgeneralize and make arbitrary boundaries, the model works, whether we’re a big blob called Generation X or a bunch of loose gravel and collapsing wavefunctions.  Dammit.

1-      Well, I suppose by its most literal interpretation, we’d have to exclude hydrogen as an exception, too.

2-      As, for example, occurred with things like the Redlich-Kwong-Soave equation of state.

3-      Or even 1975 if that buzzfeed article is to be trusted.

4-      At least according to Wikipedia.

5-      This still doesn’t mean you should trust anything I’m saying.  When I’m trying to make sense of things, I make analogies to things in my field.  Actually, the bigger the words I use, the less you should trust me.  Which is also my feeling about the entire field of philosophy, but that’s probably a story for another blog…


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