the crisis of 2004 – 2025


W. Strauss and N. Howe wrote in Generations, published in 1991:“In 2004, thirty-five years after Woodstock, Boomers will range in age from 43 to 60. By 2026, the youngest Boomer will be 65, the oldest 82. In the intervening era, as this generation passes through its life phase of maximum power, history suggests it will encounter a secular crisis comparable to the greatest moments in American history… Boom principle–or righteous fury–will cast a long shadow over the entire twenty-first century. If the future follows the cycle, old Boomers will bring world history to a decisive turning point…

“In national politics… Boomers will force a dramatic turn in the politics of Social Security. In the 2010’s, they will lay the terms for an entirely new intergenerational ‘deal,’ snapping the chain of ever-rising benefits that G.I.’s insisted would never end. Boomer leaders will thoroughly recast–and probably rename–Social Security and Medicare. To avoid raising the burdens on younger generations, they will leave their peers with a purchasing power below what the G.I.’s and Silent will have enjoyed, exempting only the ‘deserving’ poor from the new regime of old-age austerity… Boomers will derive self-esteem from knowing they are notreceiving rewards from the community…

“In return for an austere elderhood, Boomers will demand sweeping moral authority–and, in all likelihood, will retain national leadership until they reach advanced old age and see their values locked firmly in place….

“By the 2010s, this aging generation will feel its collective mortality, along with a sense of urgency about unsolved problems in the outer world. Events that earlier would have elicited compromise or stalemate will now bring aggressive action pursuant to Boom principle. The Crisis of 2020 will be at hand…

“Responding to domestic and international challenges in ways unimaginable today, Boom leaders will be policy perfectionists, inclined to enforce principle even at the risk of toppling existing order. These elders will see in themselves a global mission–ethical, ecological, economic, and quite possibly military… They will define acceptable behavior of other nations narrowly and the appropriate use of American arms broadly. Like other old Idealists, Boomers will not instinctively dislike authoritarian regimes; indeed, they will be quite authoritarian themselves.”

I came across this book in the mid-1990’s, and it intrigued me. It is an analysis of patterns in American history that looks at psychological causes for major social and historical patterns. Their basic thesis was this: Cycles of crisis and enlightenment happen in American history because of cycles in generational personalities that evolve over time. When one generation grows up in a particular social and psychological climate, it gains a generational “personality”; this in turn influences the climate in which the next generation grows up, and so on. And when you have particular personalities in power, it shapes larger historical forces in the country.

Using this theory, they not only examine American history going back to before the American Revolution, but they also make predictions. They anticipate the next crisis, saying it should appear somewhere between 2004 and 2025. And the above quotation is part of their psychological analysis of what that crisis might look like, and how it might be fueled.

Of course, the authors knew to walk a line between too general and too specific. Their theory predicts that we will repeat patterns in circles: enlightenment, crisis, enlightenment, crisis. The details of the political and social order the first iteration of the circle will be different from the details of the order of the second circle, of course. But the overall pattern will be the same.

This book was published in 1991. The quotation is from the first edition. I copied it from the slightly-yellowed pages of the paperback copy I bought for myself when I was in college.

At the time that they wrote it, this book fell into the category of “interesting theory”. It could easily have ended up being grouped with so many other books that make predictions that turn out to be either wrong or so vague as to be meaningless.

So how did they do? We are currently in the midst of their predicted “crisis”, according to their timeline. How did their predictions fare?

Of course, we can’t really evaluate their prediction until the crisis is over. And there certainly isa crisis going on. But the lense that focuses on the present is always a bit myopic, being caught up in the flow. So everything I say and think now comes with a little bit of reservation: I’ll have to see what the landscape looks like in 2025.

But from this vantage point, right now, what strikes me the most about the above quotation is this: replace the general term “Boomer” with the more specific sub-set “leaders in the Republican Party”, and the paragraphs above could have been written this year. This month, in fact.

What Strauss and Howe did not include in their prediction was the fact that Boomers, while passionately ideological, have a deep split in the actual ideologies. Liberal leadership doesn’t just claim that universal health care would be nice, it is a basic human right. Conservative leadership doesn’t just think it might hurt our economy somewhat, it will destroy liberty and freedom as we know it.

I look at both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, and I see the epitome of the Boomer personality. And they are talking as if they are at war.

It gives me a bit of a thrill to know that a social-psychological analysis of history could do as well as the prediction above, 20 years prior to the events we see today. And in fact, if the conservatives end up winning the arguments of today, what the history books eventually show might be exactly the paragraphs you see above.

I’ll leave it with a final quotation from the same chapter as above:

“Great peril might arise if Boomers find themselves confronting old religious fundamentalists whose inner zeal matches their own… The major question–indeed, the one whose answer may decide whether Boom leadership will end in triumph or tragedy–will hinge on this generation’s capacity to restrain (or let others restrain) its latent ruthlessness.”