12. Generational and Phase Models of Social Values (Regular and Irregular Cycles)
Generational Models of Social Change
A number of scholars have identified recurring generational cycles in history. For US history, one popular regular cycle model is Strauss-Howe generational theory, outlined in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s insightful The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1997). Strauss and Howe also explore the values and behaviors of the Millennial generation, those born roughly between 1980 and 2000, in Millennials Rising (2000), and founded a consultancy, LifeCourse Associates, for their generational foresight work. Strauss passed away in 2007 but Howe still publishes. Their cyclic model proposes a four-stage cycle of generation-driven social change, where each stage creates the seeds for several differences in the nature of the next stage, in a cycle. They offer argument and some evidence that their cycles can be extrapolated back several hundred years, offering an enlightening reinterpretation of US history.
This kind of post hoc analysis can be subject to both our cognitive biases and the fallacy of incomplete evidence, so careful work is needed to determine what is real, if anything, and what is illusory in their model. Their proposed social values cycle has four stages:
- High, a post-crisis era where society has confident focus on a particular direction, then
- Awakening, an era when idealism and individualism grow and social discipline weakens, then
- Unraveling, an era of more ideology and autonomy and more distrust of institutions, then,
- Crisis, an era of social conflict and perceived threat that spurs significant social reforms.
They explore the media labels for recent generations in recent US history, including so-called Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, and Homeland generations (see picture right), and place them in a context of cyclically changing values, each reacting to the prior generation’s values to some degree. The media label for the generation after Millennials is no longer Homeland, but Centennials, or Generation Z. Koulopoulos and Keldsen’s The Gen Z Effect (2014) is one of the first of what we can predict will be many looks at Gen Z, and how they are affected by their rapidly advancing digital environment.
Strauss and Howe’s model is a great introduction to values cycle foresight applied to American history. Written in 1997, it predicted a “crisis” period of roughly 2005 to 2025, during which society will perceive itself as being under threat, focus much more on group identity over individualism, and strive to reform and rebuild aspects of institutional life that appear to threaten the group’s survival.
Depending on your definitions of when the phases start (and definitions today are quite vague and open to reinterpretation), aspects of the social crisis period have already materialized as predicted, halfway into the crisis period at present, with the Great Financial Crisis, the leadership-declared War on Terror, the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. The left might also add our slowly rising mobilization against Climate Change. Folks like Trump’s 2017 strategist, Steve Bannon, think the majority of the crisis is still to come. It’s easy to read more into such models than is actually there, and I think Bannon loves the coming crisis idea as it allows him, and Trump, to say “I told you so”, if the economy tanks, or we get in another war.
Others have argued that this crisis response has been much weaker, so far, than Strauss and Howe predicted. We already live in a more wealthy and technically productive world than they anticipated. Yet we have ten years still to go, and these cycle effects have historically been weaker in some generations and stronger in others, so we will likely need another twenty or thirty years to be able to look back and truly assess the value of the model. For now, it remains one useful perspective among several that good social futurists should understand. Only ignorant folks and elitist academics dismiss these models wholesale, as cycles, both periodic and chaotic, are deeply embedded in human biology and psychology.
Like all models, the Strauss-Howe model needs improving. Many have criticized it for not making statistical definitions and tests that would make the model falsifiable. Each generational phase is an arbitrarily chosen cohort that lasts from 20-22 years, without exception, so this is a very regular cycle model. An irregular model that worked backward from the data, with some cohort longer and others shorter, would be the only model I would expect to survive further evidence and testing.
In sum, generational cycle models like Strauss-Howe’s are fine to propose, and I expect they do at least weakly operate in all cultures. Every new generation wants to differentiate from their parents, and some of this action-reaction is identifiable as a cyclic response. But Strauss and Howe’s work must be understood in context, as perhaps the most popular current model in the very large and very old literature of social cycle theory. Historians and theorists including Nikolai Kondratieff, Joseph Schumpeter, Arthur Schlesinger (Sr & Jr), Pitirim Sorokin, William Thompson, Arnold Toynbee, and Quinny Wright have all offered promising data-backed social cycle phase models. This nascent field will need a lot more funding and attention in order for its full foresight benefits to emerge. Before we discuss those, let’s look at briefly about how easy it is to overinterpret and misuse generational foresight, and the damage that causes, with a recent example.
Misunderstanding a Generation – Simon Sinek on Millennials
For an example of audience bias, and generational stereotyping, and cause misattribution, see the 12min YouTube video Millennials in the Workforce: A Generation of Weakness, 2017 by the author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek. I’ve praised Sinek’s work in Chapter 11, in Why & What vs. How, Who, Where & When, but in this case, Sinek is guilty of offering a facile (tidy, superficial, and wrong) overgeneralization of millennials as a group, and of their future prospects for happiness. He also seriously misattributes the most likely causes of their unique attitudes as well. No foresight professional is without error, and we all need to call out that error, when it matters.
By calling this generation quitters, unsatisfied, superficial, and depressed, saying they need more patience, and blaming their attitudes toward work on bad parenting, technology, and insensitive bosses, he crafts a narrative that plays well to older folks looking for easy explanations, and sells more books (audience bias) but which also avoids the real, uncomfortable issues that audiences are less interested in hearing. The real reasons most American kids are much less engaged with the work force than ever are far more complex and diverse than those he offers. Good foresight always starts with truth telling, regardless of what your audience wants to hear, and it also requires admitting when you’re wrong. Hopefully Sinek will do that in coming months. We shall see.
Read the feedback from many of the millennials themselves in the many YouTube comments (16,000 and counting) below Sinek’s video, and you’ll see them discuss some of the real issues they face, and the social conditions that have been primarily responsible for creating their current attitudes. Most fundamentally, those social conditions are inequality and plutocracy, and the problems it creates, including the lack of affordable and relevant education, the lack of good jobs that pay a living wage, ever-faster and increasingly involuntary job changes due to wealth-creating technological automation, the fact, more obvious and extreme today than ever, that the vast majority of that technology-created wealth flows to a tiny minority in our society, leaving the rest stagnant or declining in income and assets, and how our growing inequality has resulted in a political system that is less effective and representative than ever before. If anything, millennials today need less patience, and more outrage and activism to deal with the bleak economic and political situation they are presently being offered by the older generations, and the sixty year downward slide in middle class prospects.
It is easy to overgeneralize (stereotype), and craft self-serving stories with our generational foresight models. We love to imagine how different we are from our parents, and how different today’s children are from us. But within any culture, people from any two generations are typically far more similar than they are different, and within every generation there are always many subgroups by culture, ethnicity, wealth, class, education, other factors, which makes generational generalization very difficult. Those differences that do exist also typically have systemic causes that we don’t even think to consider.
Some writers, journalists, and marketing departments are particularly guilty of overselling and cause-misattributing generational foresight, raising the ire of some of our more data-driven observers. For an acerbic critical take on millennial foresight, see Joey DeVilla’s Why Millennials Suck (Okay, Not Really), (2013). As we’ll see in our section on sociocultural foresight, cultural differences are typically much stronger than generational differences, but even our cultural differences are subsiding as technology and globalization continue to accelerate. We are truly on track to becoming one digital supersociety.
Certainly some subset of highly privileged kids fit Sinek’s stereotypes. Perhaps he has seen a nonrepresentative sample of today’s youth, and that has led him to his overgeneralizations. He makes good points that today’s kids have far more technological options than ever, many sadly allow them to disengage from human interaction, some of those options are biased to addict them, and parents could do a much better job setting limits, and helping their children use their technologies in only empowering ways.
But the real problem Sinek ignores is that has become harder than ever to find a decent job, it is easier than ever to graduate deeply in debt and without useful skills or a self-motivated mindset, and many youth see no way out of our antidemocratic plight.
In short, many aspects of our STEEPS environment are still going in the wrong direction, further impoverishing the middle and lower classes. The 1% and 5% are continuing to gain economic, political, and social power over the 99% and the 95%. Reversing that alarming megatrend requires activism, and the courage to talk the most about our most fundamental problems. We’ve tried to do that in the Guide, in our section on plutocracy in Chapter 1, in our sections on exponential activism in Chapter 7 and empowerment activism in Chapter 11, in our section on Inequality Cycles (Plutocratic-Democratic Pendulum) in Chapter 4, on lobby AIs and basic income in Chapter 8, and wherever else it has seemed appropriate.
In a world of accelerating technical productivity, there is now so much wealth in our advanced industrial democracies that their citizens can be free to live as they wish, get a great and inexpensive education, a growing social contract, a basic income just for being a citizen, and lots of great incentives to collaborate, innovate, and live healthier, more productive and fulfilling lives. The leading democracies, together, can also take ever more global responsibility for ending the corruption, violence, poverty, and overpopulation in emerging nations. America in particular can have a real republic again, in which the majority of people can say they are represented, where competition is fair, and where our rich and our corporations are kept by antitrust, taxes, and redistribution from getting richer and more powerful than our governments, a trend over the last sixty years that has allowed them to (temporarily) capture and disable them, to serve their own interests. All of this and much more is fully within our grasp today. We just have to make it a priority.
Good foresighters must acknowledge that audiences often don’t want to hear this topic, as it is easy for any of us to get discouraged when we think about the scale and difficulty of the problem. For example, Larry Lessig’s great talk on political Tweedism, Our Democracy No Longer Represents the People. Here’s How We Fix It, has had only 400K views and 1K comments as of Aug 2017, nearly two years after publication. Meanwhile Sinek’s oversimplistic narrative already has 1.4M views and 16K comments, seven months after publication. Lessig is even better known and much more credentialed than than Sinek, the two videos are of a similar length, and neither were likely to have been significantly promoted by their authors.
This viewing difference offers anecdotal evidence that we, as social creatures, have a mild but noticeable biocentric bias. See Chapter 2, on Emotional-Cognitive Biases, for more on this and other common biases. We usually prefer to talk about, and we tend to magnify, our small and always moderating social and biological differences, while the much bigger, and presently still growing negative differences in our economic, political, and technological systems versus those of our parents usually get much less attention than they deserve. The latter are of course harder to change, and require us to think abstractly, about the legal and cultural rulesets we are presently using versus our parents, and the way our choices, conscious and unconscious, voluntary and coerced, around those rulesets have improved or worsened our societies.
Fortunately, there are also immense strategies for addressing the “immense problems” of plutocracy, exponential strategies like digital empowerment and personal AIs, that are now emerging. The smarter our sims get the more evidence-based they’ll become, and our democratic conversations will increasingly go to both historical and comparative perspectives that we ignore today. Yet we can easily find examples of great rulesets from our past, and operating in many countries today, like the Nordic Democracies, Germany, Estonia, Australia, the UK, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and China that have led to vastly better social contracts, in large and small ways. But we have to be willing to go to the bigger picture, and make evidence and options our central discourses, and to really see how different technological, political, economic, social agreements lead us naturally to different outcomes. Many choices are always possible, and there are many predictable futures from today’s ruleset choices.
For example, Australia’s compulsory Superannuation retirement savings (and choice-based investment) system is far superior to America’s entirely voluntary 401(k) and alternative systems, which all result in ever-growing class inequality, growing government indebtedness (to the plutocrats), and the vast majority of Americans retiring financially impoverished, rather than comfortably well-off, like working Australians. See Paul Secunda’s Our super system isn’t perfect, but for a failure, look to the US, TheConversation.com, 2015, for one good overview. To understand why the US doesn’t have a better retirement savings system, we must see that it is not in the interests of the financial oligopoly or their captured legislators to present us with real choices or evidence of comparative rulesets for retirement savings in leading democracies around the world, or to make those real choices part of our democratic conversation, or to help us self-determine and periodically reassess those choices, as a republic.
That means we ourselves will have to collect that data, enumerate those real choices, and write our preferred rules in our nonprofits and our collaborative digital platforms, and then get increasingly active in making our society better, rule by rule. As Lessig points out, nothing is more fundamentally broken than the representativeness of our government, so that is the most important group of rulesets to fix over the next generation. As a nation of voters, we may or may not recognize this today, but I am convinced that our sims will get smart enough to present this evidence to us, and the obvious solutions we want to enact, in coming years. As we’ll discuss in Chapter 8, our personal AIs are now already (as our mobile and web software), and they will always remain, the fastest learning aspects of ourselves. It won’t be long before we have PAIs that statistically understand our interests and values, and are able to help us better organize, purchase, learn, lobby, and vote.
So we need to keep our priorities in order, and keep working with the best tools on the most important jobs. Telling false stories is just diverting us from the real problem, and Sinek needs a better education in American economic and political history, and our current plutocratic state of affairs.
Promising Phase Models of Social Change
Social cycle theory also has many Phase Models, not Generational Models, in which each social values phase, which may be long or short, provides the seeds for generating the next phase in the cycle. In Phase Models, individual social values phases may thus be short or long, depending on the adaptiveness of each phase’s set of values to the contingent environment in which it finds itself when it emerges.
To me at least, Phase Models seem more likely than Generational Models to be found in more cultures and contexts. As in Generational Models, the irregular-length phases in Phase Models are likely to relate to each other only in a weakly causal and statistical manner, operating more clearly in some eras and contexts and more faintly in others. I believe that once statistical social cycle models have been a bit better defined, developed and quantitated in coming decades, we will find that some of them can be validated across many cultures and historical eras.
My favorite Phase Model social cycle theorist to date is Pitirim Sorokin, founder of the Sociology department at Harvard in 1930. I find Sorokin’s work excellent, and had hoped Strauss and Howe would refer to him at least once in their own work. The fact that they did not highlights just how underdeveloped and underfunded the field of social cycle foresight is today.
In his masterful Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937/1985), Sorokin looked back across all global cultures with then-known history, and proposed that human cultures cycle irregularly through three classic phases, each generating conditions to birth the next phase:
- Ideational, a phase where ideology or belief is proposed as the most important social reality,
- Idealistic, an interim phase where ideology conflict (including ideology vs. materialism) grows,
- Sensate, a post-conflict phase that focuses again on material pursuits
While reading Sorokin during my masters in foresight at Houston, I developed a minor variant of his theory that I call a Materialism-Idealism-Conflict (MIC) model for social values cycles. I provide it here as a tentative hypothesis for your consideration. It is basically Sorokin’s model, updated with new phase labels and a few other minor changes. Here are the three phases of the model:
- Materialism, a phase when political apathy reigns, and the focus is on self and material gain,
- Idealism, a phase when various ideologies and belief-based agendas grow stronger in parallel,
- Conflict, a phase when conflicts help resolve competing idealisms in favor of a few winners.
I find the MIC model a more believable cyclic model than the Strauss and Howe model, and the fact that it has one less stage in the cycle makes it much more likely to be dynamically stable in many cultures and environments, in my view.
The first values phase in the MIC model is Materialism (the Sensate phase in Sorokin’s language), a time when political apathy reigns, idealism is weak, and the social focus is almost entirely on enjoying oneself or gaining material wealth. This phase often births economic bubbles (manias), which eventually saturate (get excessive or unsustainable).
The collapse of this phase triggers the second, Idealism phase (Ideational in Sorokin’s language)—a time when various ideological and belief-based higher purpose agendas (old or new) are undertaken, and each gains new adherents in parallel for a while. The increasing social influence of a few of these competing ideologies eventually saturates. Their mutual coexistence gets increasingly stressful, and their tenets get more excessive, polarized, or competitive.
The stress of growing ideological competition, combined with an opportunistic crisis (small or large) then triggers a Conflict phase (called “Idealistic” in Sorokin’s model), where internal or external social or political conflicts help the majority “decide” the leading ideology-belief struggles in favor of a few winners, and where some factions in the struggle actively seek internal or external enemies to fight politically or militarily. This phase then saturates, the public gets exhausted or bored, and society moves strongly back into Materialism again, temporarily forgetting or minimizing their ideals and focusing again on material gain, self benefit, and entertainment.
We start the MIC model with the Materialism phase because it seems the easiest to define and to quantitatively identify in sociology research. We all know what Materialist values and behaviors are, but Ideology and Conflict are harder to pin down as precisely. Careful definitional and independent data-collection work needs to be done if we are to validate this cycle.
Nevertheless, I think US history does show obvious phase cycling in Materialist values, and I would cite 1865-1900 (the “Gilded Age”), the 1920s, 1945-1959, the 1980s, and 1997-2020’s (predicted) in the US as our last five clear examples of Materialist phases in American social values. The Materialist phase lengths above are “regularly irregular”, a hallmark of many cyclic complex systems, including the weather. It is possible that there is just a two stage model here, an irregular cycling from materialism to a combined idealism and conflict stage, but I would disagree. I can see signs of all three phases in 19th and 20th century American history, in the order listed by Sorokin. I won’t here propose the lengths of those phases, or offer formal definitions or quantitative data, but I think formal scholarship would be worth pursuing. Contact me if you’d like to collaborate on validating or falsifying the MIC or another phase model, or feel free to use this as inspiration for your own work.
Much better semantic and statistical tools and research budgets will need to be applied to social values cycle theory to see what, if anything, is real and what is mirage in these cyclic phase models. In the meantime, you can consider their merits and limits of social cycle theories yourself, prevent misuse of the ones based on just-so stories (ad hoc fallacies), and research the more promising ones with appropriate clients.