12. Generational and Phase Models of Social Values (Regular and Irregular Cycles)
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. Their model has also been occasionally oversold by journalists and marketing departments, ahead of strong evidence for its value, which has raised the ire of some of our more data-driven observers. For an acerbic example, see Joey DeVilla’s Why Millennials Suck (Okay, Not Really), (2013).
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 models. This nascent field will need a lot more funding and attention in order for its full foresight benefits to emerge.
Regular cycle models like Strauss-Howe’s are fine to propose, and my read on their evidence so far convinces me they do at least weakly operate in all cultures (with different labels for each generation in each culture, of course). Every new generation wants to differentiate from their parents, and some of this action-reaction is identifiable as a cyclic response.
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 wish Strauss and Howe had referred to him at least once in their work. The fact that they did not highlights just how underdeveloped 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 an adaptation 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 (Sorokin misses this one), 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 history shows phase cycling in Materialist values in recent US history, 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. Again, these phase lengths are “regularly irregular”, a hallmark of many cyclic complex systems, including the weather. I won’t propose the lengths and nature of the intervening Idealism and Conflict phases, or offer formal definitions or quantitative data, but I’ve guesstimated those phases and I think formal scholarship would be worth pursuing. Contact me if you’d like to collaborate on validating or falsifying the MIC model.
Of course, I may just be seeing a cyclic pattern where none exists. 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 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.