To understand where I believe American society to be today, I recommend you read Strauss and Howe’s Generations. But for this conversation, you can get an extremely abridged exploration thereof from Vsauce in the video below (Start at 16:25 to get straight to the point).
Put simply, there exists a theory that all human society tends to follow an approximately 80 year cycles with four 20 year “turnings” within them. They include a “High,” an “Awakening,” an “Unraveling,” and a “Crisis.” Strauss and Howe believe we are in a once in a lifetime crisis period today.
The theory posits that early this millennium American society entered into another period of crisis. If yearly predictions are to be taken strictly this would have begun around 2005 and will peak in the year 2025 before ending shortly thereafter. To understand how we got here, let’s quickly recount our most recent turnings.
The most recent crisis climax before the current one is generally accepted to be the end World War 2. During that time Western society came together in the face of the threat that fascist states posed. We came together convinced that the elements of western society we most valued – Freedom, Free Trade, Individual Liberties, and Self-Determination – together were the reason for our success and cultural superiority. Those same values became the core of the identity with which American society moved forward into the 1950s (as can be seen by examining the US in world history during this period).
During a high, we can expect orthodoxy within a generally accepted line, and jingoism directed towards all things alien. It’s not surprising that the next chapter in American culture would inevitably be the Cold War in which we faced an intense period of “Us vs Them” discourse.
By around 1964, however, the children of those amongst the young working class during the “High” found reason to question the strict adherence to the values of the past. Even more, they began to question the manner in which they were pursued. What good was Freedom if women weren’t free to work, if African Americans weren’t free from persecution, if LGBT individuals or anyone for that matter weren’t free to love whomever they wanted to love? What good was Free Trade in a society ruled by stark income disparities? What good was Self-Determination when men and women were expected to adhere to strict confines within their life paths?
In that spirit the Millenial Age’s “Awakening” period began. The Baby Boomers showed up in force for the Summer of Love, for Woodstock, for Anti-War Protests, the Million Man March, and more. This generation forged their identity with the spirit of revolutionaries taking the values their parents fought for in the 40s and fighting for them anew in the ways that made sense to them.
Yet, this generation grew older and had children as well. These children were raised by hippies, by Black Panthers, and by students of Kent State. These children learned to question authority from the masters of questioning authority. But when the authority tells you to question authority what naturally arises is a generation decidedly bereft of direction. They turned to budding technology, to alternative music and culture, to video games, and to the cultural centers of the day. This is my generation.
My generation grew up with parents debating the influence of Marilyn Manson, of normalized LGBT sex and gender norms, of pharmaceutical solutions to societal problems. We grew up more unsure about who we were than anyone in the Millennial Age. So we fractured and gave rise to a society more polarized than anyone in recent memory can recall.
Now I see on Facebook all my friends have had a number of children already – the Millennials or the Post Millennials depending one which definition you're using. This generation cannot be neatly contained with year limits (as to be fair no generation save for the Baby Boomers can). But Millennials cannot remember a time before the internet, before social media, or indeed before September 11th. Raised by parents with weak ties to cultural identity, Millennials grew up notably idealistic because they were empowered to be. We call them now lazy, entitled snowflakes and scorn them for the participation trophies they grew up with. But this is only because they grew up relatively devoid of limitations from their parents. They are now watching politics closely as school shooting after school shooting elicits nothing but thoughts and prayers. They watch closely as race riots thinly veiled with proponent names like “Alt Right,” “Feminist,” “Antifeminist,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” etc. shake up American society without any apparent solution. They watch as politicians refuse to acknowledge Global Climate Change, Implicit Bias, Campaign Finance Corruption, Fanatical Nationalism and Xenophobia. They will inherit our society with a renewed sense of purpose. They have perhaps already learned the values which will define the new “Us” in the coming Age.
But until then, my generation will struggle in the current period of crisis we find ourselves in. We believe in the rule of law but find example after example where current laws don’t prohibit rampant corruption within the political and economic sphere. We believe in maintaining civil liberties but find them harder and harder to justify as the 1% race off into the distance leaving a very squeezed middle class to figure out how to afford Healthcare, Housing, and Energy. We are reaching a fever pitch where the two extremes of Left and Right are racing ever further away from each other threatening to rip the very fabric of American Society. Indeed if Strauss and Howe’s models are consistent, it will take extreme ends for us to see the choice inherent in the phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Many argue with Strauss and Howe’s vision of American society. As Michael Stevens on V Sauce admits, the theory is unfalsifiable and we can find patterns to support just about any perspective or narrative. Yet, few would argue that we are a deeply divided nation struggling to define the boundaries of “Us” and “Them.” The Them is no longer an external force outside of the United States. It is the dangerous other within. Few would argue that we are a generation especially prone to arguing – or worse – not. We would rather not start a conversation with the seemingly fanatical Right/Left/ Christian/ Muslium/ Gay/ Straight/ Cis/ Trans/ Racist/ Snowflakes/ Impoverished/ Fat Cats we all too eagerly would call “Them.” Few would argue that our society is not tackling the core issues of our time effectively. Few would fail to argue what those core issues of the time might be. Lastly, few would argue that this society can and will get a good deal worse before it will get better.
Strauss and Howe used some fascinating math plotting out the Crisis/Awakening climaxes to estimate that this Crisis will climax in 2025. The math itself is admittedly dubious and inconsistent when measuring out the apexes of previous ages. But how many plausible climaxes can you imagine now? I won’t bother to flavor your mind with all of the vivid, messed up scenarios that keep me up at night but nuclear war, constitutional crises, widespread racial violence, subjugation of the American political system by foreign powers, escalating natural disasters brought about by tipping point events in global climate change all should not be unrealistic possibilities for anyone reading the news closely.
In every instance, however, one could appreciate how the most critical first step in response to and containment of any such crises would be unification behind a common cause. The flavor of the disaster and the flavor of the response would stand to flavor the common cause we align ourselves behind. Nevertheless, I have a few suggestions for the coming generation whose job it will be to pick up the pieces.
We have seen what happens when we refuse to listen to the “crazy others” out there. There’s a reason so many were shocked by Trump’s election in 2016. Many of us have felt alienated, disrespected, unheard, demonized, and marginalized. Many of us channeled those feelings into aggressive rejection of the validity of others’ perspectives. Many of us have suffered in the ensuing cycles.
We will need to learn to recognize and overcome the personal biases we all possess to seek out the voices of those we would rather not listen to because both sides are weakened by the lack of dialogue. Our society is founded on the principle that while one may be mistaken, the many is much more likely to see the wisdom that will lead us. But for this, we must be able to access the wisdom of all of our community. This starts when we begin to approach every conversation with respect as a pre-requisite.
We have unprecedented access to information and the discourse of the entire globe. Yet we have so far been unable to fully appreciate what resources we have in the Information Age. Pointing fingers at biased news sources, interfering foreign powers, or excuses of our own smallness as justifications for our own victim-hood, helplessness, and ignorance will always deny us our full potential. The majority of people around the world recognize that global climate change is a critical issue that must be addressed, yet the majority of us also insist that we have no compelling influence to change the outcome of our future. It’s so much easier to throw our hands up and blame economic incentives, entrenched lobbyists, providers of dark money, and decisions made behind closed doors for the ongoing disintegration of our planet’s equilibrium. It’s too easy for us to forget that droplets of water make up the ocean and if even the simple majority of the world’s population began making tough decisions on where to spend their money and where to invest their energy, human society would change unrecognizably for the better in an instant.
Imagine a society in which we held ourselves responsible for our own education. Imagine a society where ignorance was no longer someone else’s fault. Imagine a society where the full force of the information age could be harnessed for us to pull together as one and solve the conflicts of our age. This will not come from governments built on flawed contests for power, or from economic incentives which consistently encourage what is easy over what is right. This comes only when the mindset of people around the world changes to say, “Even if everyone else on Earth chooses to turn a blind eye to what’s needed, I will not.”
This one I believe is the hardest of the three. We have deluges of reasons to abandon all hope. We have a wealth of history in which greed persistently wins over reason. We have our own personal accounts of struggling to pay bills, keep unsatisfying jobs, and tolerate tyrannical bosses, world leaders, and special interest groups. We have all of us been victims of so much and the threats around us are not negligible. There is so much that can go wrong resulting in the decline of mankind. Even if we magically discover how to hold hands and get along as a planet agreeing to help our fellow men and women while ending poverty, war, pestilence, even mastering sustainable living and eliminating every last ounce of our carbon footprint, even then – a meteor could end it all in an instant with little to no warning.
The very possibility of Humankind surviving to get off this rock is so slim as to be laughable. But when things get their darkest, that’s when it’s most important to fiercely affirm that there is reason in fighting.
Dylan Thomas insists:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
We as a society have to believe again that things can get better before there’s any chance of true improvement. Today cynicism is hailed as a mark of intelligence, depression – the mark of genius. The man with the highest IQ on record (Hawkings) insisted before he died that we need to get off this planet or we are doomed. Being “woke” today is equivalent to being outraged. We have no model for the serene wise-person calmly going about their business of bettering the world. We have to write this part ourselves.
These are tall orders for humanity and for our global society. They are unlikely to be achieved in our lifetime or perhaps for many many generations. Perhaps they will never be achieved at all. Yet, the same was true for my grandparents’ generation who fought for Freedom and Democracy. The same was true for the members of the Gilded Age who fought for Progress and Enlightenment. Arguably the same has been true for every set of ideals endorsed in every age throughout human history. But that didn’t change our ability to unite around a common understanding not of who we are but who we ought to be.
Recently I visited Liberty and Ellis Island for the first time on a family trip to the east coast. As I sat under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty my thoughts were with my fiancée in Hong Kong whom I having been fighting to get a visa for. I read the lines I know well now, “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,” and shook my head at the blatant falsehood regarding our treatment of legal and illegal immigrants in recent times. Yet, I left the Ellis Island laden with cheesy souvenirs and gifts to commemorate my visit there not because the ideals they espouse are true but because they are worth believing in.
I believe a time is coming in which society will need to decide what ideals are worth believing in, and what assumptions must be left behind in the archives of history. I believe in us despite our species’ and our society’s many failings and place my faith not blindly but deliberately in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”