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STRAUSS AND HOWE'S GENERATIONAL THEORY: SOME IMPLICATIONS FOR THEOLOGY AND CHURCH[1]

Kenneth C. Harper

Description

It seemed as though the presbytery committee meeting would never end. From my "fortysomething" perspective, he issue had been thrashed out and talked to death. But the other committee members (including the moderator) were mostly "fiftysomething," and the meeting droned on. Weeks later, a light bulb went on when I began to delve into the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe.[2] The book's thesis was summarized in the December, 1992 issue of Atlantic Monthly[3], and its terminology is creeping into the popular press[4]. Neil Howe spoke to a group of Presbyterian Church National fund-raising staffers in New Orleans recently.[5]

Generations is breathtaking in its scope, ambitious in its purpose and provocative in its thesis. Strauss and Howe look back to 1584 and forward to 2069, seeing a pattern of generational cycles, each lasting 89-90 years. Each generation, while unique, has features which divide it from the previous-born and the next-born. It also has features which divide it from the previous-born and the next-born. It also has features which parallel those of four generations back. The generations which currently make up most of American society are four: G.I.'s, Silent, Boomers, and 13ers.

The G.I. Generation, with birth years of 1901 to 1924, came of age in time to wage World War II. It is civic-minded, successful, competent, and produced every U.S. president from Kennedy to Bush. It believes in, and invests itself in institutions--the family, schools, government, the church. For this generation, the preferred way of meeting its goals is to organize itself for action. Now seventy to ninety-three years old, this generation (as a group) is the wealthiest older generation in the history of humanity. The AARP lobbies hard for seniors funding and maintenance of social security's inflation-adjusted index.[6] G.I. belief in institutions is evident even in the existence of the Evangelical Theological Society. When a movement of Evangelical scholarship emerged following the modernist-fundamentalist controversy and World War II, what form did it take? An institution, with annual meetings, a journal, and regional gatherings.

The Silent Generation, with birth years of 1925 to 1942, has been compliant, process-oriented, and especially attuned to "fair play," toleration, and compromise. The "silenters" have two other demographic features which shape their characteristics: They are the smallest and the most homogeneous of all the generations now alive in America. This has meant an eagerness to welcome diversity as a way of breaking up the boredom, and it has meant seeking vehicles for including diverse elements without controversy or divisiveness--hence conflict management and inclusiveness. It was doubtless a "silenter" who penned the following verse[7]:

Oh, give me your pity, I'm on a committee

Which means that from morning to night,

We attend and amend, and contend and defend

Without a conclusion in sight.

We confer and concur, we defer and demur

and reiterate all of our thoughts.

We revise the agenda with frequent addenda,

and consider a load of reports.

We compose and propose, we suppose and oppose,

And the points of procedure are fun;

But though various notions are brought up as motions,

There's terribly little gets done.

We resolve and absolve, but we never dissolve,

Since it's out of the question for us.

What a shattering pity to end our committee.

Where else could we make such a fuss?

The Boom Generation, with birth years of 1943 to 1960, is now 34 to 51 years old. Precocious, idealistic, and narcissistic, it is very impressed with its own wisdom. The Baby Boomers were the first distinct generational entity to receive exhaustive attention. The subject of almost endless sociological research, the boomers have been made to feel pampered and special. They were raised under the permissive guidelines of Dr. Benjamin Spock and it shows. Though highly idealistic, they do exhibit inconsistencies. For example, though moral vigilantes (they were eager to brand the Vietnam War "immoral"), they have found it convenient to make exceptions for their own case.[8] Their sense of entitlement allowed them a sexual revolution, experimentation with "recreational" drugs, and the materialistic greed of yuppies. Their entitlement also has given them the perceived moral high ground in societal issues, ranging from environmentalism to sexual harassment. Their style of management is highly confrontational and ideologically driven.[9]

With that background, let us return to my "endless" committee meeting. The moderator and most of the members were from the Silent Generation (as are the majority of mainline denominational leaders) seeking compromise, fairness, inclusiveness, and process, however long it takes. As a "Boomer," I'm long on action and short on patience. Furthermore, we're cocky enough to know we're right, even when we're not.

The remaining generation is significant enough to warrant extended discussion. These are the members of "Generation X." The G.I.'s and Silenters have had their day; the boomers have been studied within an inch of their life. The next generation begs for understanding, especially by the church. Demographers have been so enchanted with the "baby-boomers," they tend to forget something: A generation following the baby-boomers, thirteen to thirty-three years old this year (birth years of 1961-1981), has grown up almost without notice. More numerous than the boomers, this generation doesn't even have a name: "Busters" (following "boomers"), "13er's" (the thirteenth generation since the American Revolution)[10], "Generation X" (coined by 13er novelist Douglas Coupland).[11] To research their struggles is to wander beyond the antiseptic world of established print media. Anthropological studies of Generation X are better served by logging onto computer bulletin boards[12], listening to music, and viewing their cinema.[13]

These are the chronic underachievers, the generation of Bart Simpson, Beavis and Butt-Head. They're more interested in the body (Air Jordans and pumping iron) than the mind (sinking SAT scores). If they use illegal drugs, it's more likely to be steroids than hallucinogens. Their music has migrated from traditional rock-and-roll to Metalica, Pearl Jam, Guns'n'Roses, and Nine Inch Nails. They may not be able to spell, but they can log on with their computer modems and track down what they need to know. Their language skills may seem underdeveloped, unless you include MS-DOS. They're the generation that's had a hard time finding a career, of moving out of Mom and Dad's. They likely will be the first generation of this century to enjoy a lower standard of living than that of their parents.

They're street smart and pragmatic. They've had to be; they've had the most ignored childhood of the century. They're the generation with more single parents and more latchkey kids than any generation alive. They're survivors in a world they perceive to be at best indifferent and at worst dangerous. Placing results over ideology, they're more likely to organize a work party to clean up a local park than circulate a petition favoring environmental legislation. They are a "can do" crowd, as Desert Storm proved.

They don't naturally gravitate to church; it's too predictable and too verbal. They're more likely to live their Christian faith through group-building activities, work trips, mission projects, and action sports. Committee work leaves them cold. It takes too much time and too much talk; 13er's are willing to cut procedural corners, even massage the system, to get the results they seek.

My hopeful prediction is that their energy will be harnessed for incredible good in the church and the world. If the friction between themselves and their boomer parents can be managed (and it may not be: this is the most serious generation gap since the 1960's), their pragmatism and savvy can help reach the environmental, social justice, and Christian mission goals of their elders. But they are leery of starry-eyed idealism and have (what writer Ernest Hemingway called) a "built in crap detector." A measure of Generation X's wry disenchantment may be found in this posted E-mail note[14]:

Boomers Busters

Lassie Snoop Doggie Dog

Talk of Beatles Reunion Talk of New Edition Reunion

James Dean Luke Perry

Mrs. Robinson by Simon and Garfunkel Mrs. Robinson by the Lemonheads

Drive-in-theaters Drive-by-shootings

The Brady Bunch The Brady Bill

The Supremes Salt-N-Pepa

Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane Somebody to Shove by Soul Asylum

Tom and Jerry Beavis and Butthead

Mood rings Nipple rings

Dr. Marcus Welby Dr. Dre

Gloria Steinem Lorena Bobbitt

The Graduate Reality Bites

The earlier allusion to Hemmingway is fitting. William Strauss and Neil Howe (Generations and 13th Gen) see this group as reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's "lost generation," the same generation that gave us the no-nonsense theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and the brutal efficiency of George S. Patton. Our current generation of leadership has paralyzed the denomination by its idolatry of process, fairness, and political correctness. The 13ers can bring us back to a refreshing look at the bottom line. Just let them be reminded that their pragmatism falls under Christ's Lordship, too.

Although the four generations just described make up the bulk of American society, a fifth generation is being born as the G.I. generation moves off the scene. These are the children born between 1982 and 2001; Strauss and Howe call them "Millennial Kids." The feature which distinguishes them from their older counterparts (Generation X) is that they're wanted.

These children were born to parents who really want to raise them right. Many children born into Generation X were seen as a drug to their parents' careers or pleasure. However, a significant number of Generation X'ers, now old enough to become parents, are rebelling against the inadequate parenting they received by opting for lower, one-job incomes, a rejection of consumerism, and a commitment to a simpler lifestyle and a building of relationships within families[15]. If Strauss and Howe's Generations thesis holds up, the Millennial Kids will be the G.I.'s redux. They'll be responsible builders, socially engaged, and institutionally minded. SAT scores will rise; juvenile crime will fall; drug and alcohol abuse will be socially proscribed.

Difficulties

But, however elegant this scheme may seem, it's unlikely to meet with universal acceptance. This section of the paper will focus on difficulties with the Generations theory through the raising of a series of questions.

1. How do blacks and minorities fit into this theory? Strauss and Howe admit that this is a majority view of history. Some may consider such an approach politically incorrect, slighting racial and ethnic minorities.

2. How does the theory account for exceptions-a contentious silenter, for example? There will obviously be individual variations within each of the generations. Not everybody will fit the description of a "typical" generation member. Two responses would likely be made. First, at an individual level, those persons who are/were untypical of their generation felt or feel like outsiders. We are "strangers in a strange land."[16] For example, as a young Christian college student, I did not have sexual intercourse until marriage nor did I use recreational drugs. However, as a boomer, I felt odd about it, i.e., out of step with my contemporaries. Second, the theory deals with trends and tendencies. If one were to take a measure such as the Edwards Personal Preference Schedule's scale for "affiliation," the theory would predict that silenters would score higher, as a group, than boomers.[17] In other words, the bell-shaped curve would still be present, but there would be shift in the whole curve if it were tracked by generation or birth cohort-group.

3. How can we verify Generations theory? An excellent cautionary note is sounded by those who might say, "This is an elegant theory, but is it true? There are three ways of testing Generations theory. The first is historical research. Strauss and Howe believe that the cyclical patterns of generations they uncovered extend back to 1584. Historians might well explore their use of historical material for past generations. Specifically, historians might ask if these patterns truly emerge from the data or if they've been imposed on the data. Those who have seen earlier grand schemes for deciphering history will be particularly leery of accepting Strauss and Howe's version uncritically.[18] As a cautionary note, however, historians sometimes resist frameworks or theories, tending to focus on specialty areas rather than on the "big picture." I, for example, am an iNtuitive (of the Myers-Briggs type)[19], so I resonate with sweeping, broad-brush, birds-eye perspectives. Historians tend to be Sensing-types, more attuned to detail and specifics, and may feel that any scheme will have to be imposed upon, rather than emerging from, the data of history.[20]

The second way of verifying Strauss and Howe's thesis is simply to wait. They have, by extending their book's theory to the year 2069, set up some criteria for testing the theory's predictive ability. For example, they contend that a crisis will emerge in the early years of the twenty-first century. While not (obviously!) able to describe the trigger in detail, Strauss and Howe are bold enough to predict the manner in which it will be addressed Time will tell. Or will it? There is a curious phenomenon of predictive schemes which I'm calling the "Heisenberg Indeterminacy" of the social sciences. Just as in nuclear physics, the act of measuring a subatomic particle changes its characteristics, so also it seems that the act of measuring social trends seems, by that very act, to reduce their predictive value.[21] It may be that Strauss and Howe's work will render itself obsolete.

A third manner of verification has already been implied. Psychological tests should show a generational bias along certain, predictable lines. Such work has not been done as yet, so the jury is still out.[22]

Application

Granting the legitimacy of the caveats articulated in the preceding section, and remaining open as to the verification issue, we now turn to applications first in theology and then in practical church life.

A discussion of a "theology of generations" logically begins in the context of apologetics where the task is to confront the issues which are the battle line in this culture and this society. The battle lines are always shifting; sociology can help apologists discern whether a battle is a minor skirmish or a major campaign. Sociology can also help theologians discern how best to utilize their time and energy. A societal trend which is on the wane may not require as much attention as one which is emerging.

In the field of eschatology, the extra-biblical evidence often adduced to buttress the premillenial interpretation of the Bible may, in coming years, diminish. The trends of declining SAT scores, rising juvenile crime, and increased drug use are likely to reserve themselves as the millennial kids reach adolescence and young adulthood. It is likely to prove increasingly difficult to point to alarming trends in society as a sign of the chronological nearness of Christ's return.

In the field of anthropology, therefore, it is likely that increased emphasis on the nobility of humanity will strike a responsive chord in the society, while talk of sin will have to be carefully interpreted. Mahedy and Bernardi, in their work, A Generation alone, argue that the generation currently on our college campuses reacts negatively to blanket theological words like "sin." They have been so long told by their elders that they're shiftless and unfocused, that sin needs to be carefully defined as a deliberate and intentional choice of the self over the common or God-ordained good rather than general badness.[23] The interpretive need shifts, of course, from generation to generation. As Wycliffe Bible translators render the inerrant Word into understandable language, so too do we need to interpret theological ideas of sin in such a way as to "connect" with the different generations. Generation X, suffering from borderline Post-traumatic stress disorder, doesn't need reminding of its own inadequacies[24]; the Millennial kids may be harder to convince.

The apologetic issue must be addressed as it always has. The evangelist and apologist must be a student not only of the Word of God but of prevailing culture. Only in such a way can we identify such generationally-specific issues as those sighted above, but others as well, as a way of speaking the truth in love. C.S. Lewis, in a talk to newly ordained Anglican priests, said that a requirement for ordination should be an exercise in writing theology in the language of the people.[25]

Another theological area for analysis is in the area of history and our theology of it. How, it might be asked, does one square an essentially cyclical schema with the linearity of Christianity, with its progression from Creation through Redemption ending at Consummation? An option would be to combine the cyclic pattern of Generations with the linear view of history. The analogy is of a wagon wheel rolling toward a destination, but presenting different sides of the rim to the road. The Bible itself does much the same thing with a recurring cycle of Sin->Judgment->Grace.[26]

When we turn to the area of practical theology, the points of application become both more controversial and more significant for the future of the church. Here we will once again spend relatively little space addressing the specific needs of the G.I. generation and Silenters. Of the former, I think the Spirit's movement of humility would be in order. By and large, the G.I.'s should be challenged at the stewardship level to be generous in sharing the resources with which they've been entrusted.

To the silenters I would say, "Cut at the joints, but cut!" The Silent Generation's fear of excluding anyone has been raised to an idolatrous principle of inclusiveness, especially in mainline churches, such that any vocal minority wields "veto by volume," and genuine theological heresy is permitted in the guise of "inclusiveness" and "honoring diversity." This much can be praised in the Silenters, however: they are gifted with patience. Their tolerance means that they have remained faithful to the church even when confronted with massive mediocrity and even incompetence

In the earlier-cited Presbyterian Outlook article, I wrote, "The second (more tentatively) positive note is this: Boomers are reaching an age where they'll start inheriting key leadership positions, especially as representatives of the Silent Generation retire and move off the scene. Boomer church leadership is likely to be less bogged down in process and structure, more active, more contentious, and less tolerant. But it's just possible that, out of that creative froth, the Holy Spirit will form a new vision and new energy for our church." Maybe. It is my prayer. But it also is possible that with the advent of boomer leadership (a more confrontational leadership style), the Church's coalition of impossibly contradictory special interests will fail and the church will be splintered into a thousand fragments. Boomer spirituality is more market-driven and needs-oriented. In the previously-cited editorial, Thomas G. Long uses the analogy of "channel surfing," the practice of using one's TV remote to sample the myriad channels on cable, pausing briefly when one's interest is piqued.[27] The boomers "church surf," switching allegiances, trying different offerings as their perceived needs change. In the religious consumerism of American Protestantism, is it any wonder that market research and target groups are center-stage? Worship must accommodate itself to a TV-shortened attention span, which is why such churches as Willow Creek Community Church use drama, contemporary music, and pop psychology cum Bible in its messages.[28] Educational options are more likely to appeal to Boomers if they are of limited and predefined duration; a four-to-six week study of "Christian Approaches to Stress Management" is more likely to attract students than a year-long march through the book of Romans. The crucial questions here are such issues as: How far should we go to seek success? Is numeric success equal to spiritual success? How do we appeal to people at the level of their perceptions when God's assessment of their needs may be very different? Where does worship stop and entertainment begin?

The Boomers, as a group, are more introverted than the generations which flank them. Hence, their spiritual journey is more likely to be interior and idiosyncratic, even monastic. It is less likely to depend on groups and fellowships, and more likely to be solitary.[29]

In contrast, Generation X will pursue its spiritual quest in the company of others. There is, among the X'ers, a thirst for belonging, a desire to make the family of God one's extended family, a sense of sacrament in koinonia. There may evolve theological justification for conflict between the two generations: Boomers will fault X'ers for their scholarly shallowness and their disinterest in theological issues. X'ers will fault Boomers for their enslavement to the materialism of the age and the sacrifice of their relationships on the altar of professional and financial success.

Both the later boomers and the X'ers will demand excellence for their Millennial Kids. Nurseries will have to be state-of-the art and antiseptic. Children's ministries will be a growth field in Christian Education.

Conclusion

The two biblical quotations on the Appendix are a fitting conclusion to this brief opening of the discussion of generational theory, theology, and church life. "One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts" (Psalm 145:4, NRSV) reminds us that God will have His witness in each and all generations. Each generation, being fallen, will need instruction and correction. Each generation, being faithful, will have unique insights and strengths. "A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever" (Ecclesiastes 1:4, NRSV) reminds us that the Word of God stands immovable as the earth amidst the changing tides of history.

**********footnotes**********

[1] Some of this material appeared in abbreviated form in The Presbyterian Outlook, May 17, 1993 and December 27, 1993.

[2]William Strauss & Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York: William Morrow, 1991).

[3]Neil Howe and William Strauss, "The New Generation Gap," The Atlantic Monthly (December, 1992), pp. 67-89.

[4]See, for example, John Leland, "Battle for Your Brain," Newsweek Magazine (October 11, 1993), pp. 49-53 and Jeff Giles, "Generalizations X," Newsweek Magazine (June 6, 1994), pp. 62-72.

[5]Related in personal conversation with the Rev. Mark Allen, who was present.

[6] Insight (March 2, 1987), pp. 8-10.

[7] Posted by Merrill Cook, at note 10974 of "Pnet Chat," a meeting on PresbyNet, the PCUSA electronic bulletin board.

[8] The capacity of Vietnam-eligible men to avoid the draft is documented in an earlier work of Strauss's. See Lawrence M. Baskir and Wiliam A. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, War, and the Vietnam Generation (New York: Knopf, 1978).

[9] Donald A. Luidens, Dean R. Hoge, and Benton Johnson, "Lay Liberalism Among Baby Boomers," Theology Today, LI/2 (July, 1994), 249-255.

[10] Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (New York: Random House, 1993)

[11] Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) or his more recent Life After God (New York, etc.: Pocket Books, 1994).

[12] For example, the "Generation X" meeting on PresbyNet. Strauss and Howe used the literary device of E-mail correspondence (replete with a hacker who "crashes" their correspondence) in 13th Gen.

[13] A sampling would include "Reality Bites," "Pulp Fiction," "Heathers," and "Natural Born Killers."

[14] Note 189 on "Generation X" of PresbyNet by "Miranda," quoting from Jamie Reno's article in the February 22, 1994 issue of USA Today.

[15] William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994), esp. 91-114.

[16] The phrase is from Exodus 2:22 and was used by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein as a novel title.

[17] Edwards Personal Preference Schedule, @ 1954 by Psychological Corporation.

[18] See, for example, the discussion of Marxist or Evolutionary Historiography in John Warwick Montgomery's The Shape of the Past: An Introduction to Philosophical Historiography (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Brothers, 1962).

[19] Or "N-type." See the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the interpretive book by Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing (Palo Alto, California: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1980).

[20] A similar debate emerged over the interpretive scheme developed by the late Francis Schaeffer. Much of the debate which followed was between those who believed that Schaeffer was forcing the date to fit and those who believed that the date did fit. See, for example, Ronald W. Ruegsegger (ed.), Reflections on Francis Schaeffer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986) and Lane T. Dennis (ed.), Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1986).

[21] As minor and humorous examples, researchers in the 1960's discovered a statistical correlation between the performance of the stock market and the length of women's skirts. More recently, published reports have noted a statistically-significant correlation between the political party in control of the White House and whether the NFC or AFC wins the Superbowl. Both theories lost their predictive value upon publication.

[22] The present author is currently engaged in work correlating results from couples who took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as part of premarital counseling with cohort-group. The research is planned for publication next year in the Journal of Psychological Type.

[23] Mahedy & Bernardi, pp. 53-70.

[24] Thomas G. Long, "Beavis and Butt-Head Get Saved," Theology Today, LI/2 (July, 1994), 199-203.

[25] C. S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 89-103.

[26] Montgomery, pp. 124-27.

[27] Long, p. 200.

[28] Norman Shawchuck, Philip Kotler, Bruce Wrenn, and Gustave Rath, Marketing for Congregations: Choosing to Serve People More Effectively (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

[29] The emerging interest in spiritual disciplines is a measure of this trend. Now that boomers have reached a point where they control such prosaic things as seminary curricula, they're appealing for the topics which resonate with their brand of spirituality.

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