Generational Archetypes

Not surprisingly, generations that experience similar early-life experiences often develop similar collective personas, and follow similar life-trajectories. While writing Generations, Strauss and Howe discovered a pattern in the way different types of generations follow one another in time. They identified a sequence of four generational archetypes—which they call Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist—that have recurred in that order throughout American history. The generations in each archetype have similar age locations in history, and thus share some basic attitudes towards family, risk, culture and values, and civic engagement, among other things. As each archetype ages, its persona undergoes profound and characteristic changes. Yet each also has an underlying identity that endures over the centuries.

Throughout modern history, the four generational archetypes have followed one another in a recurring cycle (for more information, see Historical Generations and Turnings). Many scholars have in fact noticed similar fourfold cycles personality types over the centuries, from classical literature (The Old Testament, Homer, Polybius) to modern scholars like Arnold Toynbee, Samuel Huntington, and George Modelski.

Prophet generations are born after a great war or other crisis, during a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order. Prophets grow up as the increasingly indulged children of this post-crisis era, come of age as narcissistic young crusaders of a spiritual awakening, cultivate principle as moralistic midlifers, and emerge as wise elders guiding another historical crisis. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age passion and their principled elder stewardship. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of vision, values, and religion. Their best-known historical leaders include John Winthrop, William Berkeley, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. These were principled moralists, summoners of human sacrifice, and wagers of righteous wars. Early in life, few saw combat in uniform; later in life, most came to be revered more for their inspiring words than for their grand deeds. (Example among today’s living generations: Boomers.)

Nomad generations are born during a spiritual awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas when youth-fired attacks break out against the established institutional order. Nomads grow up as underprotected children during this awakening, come of age as alienated young adults in a post-awakening world, mellow into pragmatic midlife leaders during a historical crisis, and age into tough post-crisis elders. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their rising-adult years of hell-raising and for their midlife years of hands-on, get-it-done leadership. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of liberty, survival, and honor. Their best-known historical leaders include Nathaniel Bacon, William Stoughton, George Washington, John Adams, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. These have been cunning, hard-to-fool realists—taciturn warriors who prefer to meet problems and adversaries one-on-one. (Example among today’s living generations: Generation X.)

Hero generations are born after a spiritual awakening, during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, laissez faire, and national (or sectional or ethnic) chauvinism. Heroes grow up as increasingly protected post-awakening children, come of age as the heroic young team-workers of a historical crisis, demonstrate hubris as energetic midlifers, and emerge as powerful elders attacked by another awakening. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their collective coming-of-age triumphs and their hubristic elder achievements. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of community, affluence, and technology. Their best-known historical leaders include Cotton Mather, “King” Carter, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. These have been vigorous and rational institution builders. In midlife, all have been aggressive advocates of economic prosperity and public optimism, and all have maintained a reputation for civic energy and competence to the very ends of their lives. (Examples among today’s living generations: G.I.s and Millennials.)

Artist generations are born during a great war or other historical crisis, a time when great worldly perils boil off the complexity of life and public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice prevail. Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the crisis, come of age as the sensitive young adults of a post-crisis world, break free as indecisive midlife leaders during a spiritual awakening, and age into empathic post-awakening elders. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their quiet years of rising adulthood and their midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of pluralism, expertise and due process. Their best-known historical leaders include William Shirley, Cadwallader Colden, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. These have been sensitive and complex social technicians, advocates of fair play and the politics of inclusion. (Examples among today’s living generations: Silent and Homelanders.)

One reason why the cycle of archetypes recurs is that each youth generation tries to correct or compensate for what it perceives as the excesses of the midlife generation in power. It is no surprise that Boomers (a Prophet generation, focused on values, individualism, and inner-life) have given birth to Millennials (a Hero generation, focused on actions, community, and institutional life). Archetypes do not create archetypes like themselves; they create opposing archetypes. Your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you; it’s like the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you.

This also occurs because the societal role that feels freshest to each generation of youth is the role being vacated by a generation of elders that is passing away. For most of its life, other generations counted on this departing generation to fill a particular social role. Now, with the passing of these elders, the role is available again to the young, and it feels new, functional, desirable, and even necessary for society’s wellbeing. In other words, each generation comes of age and defines its collective persona just as an opposing generational archetype is in its midlife peak of power, and the previous generation of their archetype is passing away.

Archetypes are an important part of the predictive power of the Strauss-Howe generational theory. By looking at how previous generations of the same archetype evolved, it is possible to make nonlinear forecasts about how generations—even at a very early age—are likely to think and feel and behave as they grow older. Most forecasters simply assume that the current attitudes and behaviors of any given age bracket will either remain the same or intensify in their current direction indefinitely. Yet every twenty years or so, a new generation ages into that age bracket and dramatically breaks the trend. By understanding generations, it is possible to see around these “corners” and correctly predict an entirely new behavioral and attitudinal direction.