The Role of (generations and) Civility in Democracy

4 Oct

My local library is hosting a symposium this week; it’s titled, “The Role of Civility in Democracy.” With mid-term elections, the prevalence of nasty political campaign ads, and the library’s Choose Civility initiative, all these factors add up to a well-timed event. I also believe there is another reason this  event is well-timed, and it has to do with generational dynamics and cultural change. Now, I’m not a historian, but I am well-versed in the generational theory, so come with me on this path, if you’d like to see “the role of civility in democracy” through a generation-theory lens. Here goes —

There are four generational archetypes that appear in a fixed, repeating cycle. They are affected by and affect other generations. They each have their strengths, their value, their weaknesses and their paths. Each generation is approximately 20 years in length, or the equivalent of a phase of life (childhood, young adulthood, midlife, elderhood). Right now, the constellation of generations in America is this:

The Silent Gen are moving into elder-elderhood. Born 1924 – 1942, they are 68-86 years old in 2010, and their numbers, per the U.S. Census, are about 30 million. Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of pluralism, expertise and due process. This is the true Civil Rights generation that fought for rights from a perspective of sensitivity to the weaker among the community.

The Boomer Gen is moving into elderhood. Born 1943-1960, they are 50 -67 years old in 2010, and their numbers are about 62 million.Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of vision, values and religion. They are the “principled moralists, summoners of human sacrifice and wagers of righteous wars.”

The GenX Gen is moving into midlife. Born 1961-1981, they are 29-49 years old in 2010, and their numbers are about 81 million. Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of liberty, survival and honor. They are the get-it-done generation and are “cunning, hard-to-fool realists—taciturn warriors who prefer to meet problems and adversaries one-on-one.”

The Millennial Gen is moving into young adulthood. Born 1982-2004(ish), they are 6-28 years old in 2010, and their numbers are about 80 million. Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of community, affluence and technology. They are a bright, upbeat, team-working generation.

The Homeland Gen is being born now and just entering the K-8 system. They will, assuming the generational cycles repeat, have a life course that is similar to the Silent Gen.

All the quoted text in this post, by the way, is from Strauss and Howe’s work, e.g. Lifecourse Associates.

So, let’s look at “civility and democracy” through this lens … not just that there are generations, but in which phase of life each generation has been, and how it will impact the phase of life it is now moving into and the surrounding generations.

In the past 25 years, Boomers were the primary gen in mid-life. Mid-life is about power. Think about it: it’s the 42-62-years-old people. Families are mostly started and kids, if they are still young, are typically in elementary school or beyond. School is done. Professional capacity and community leadership are realms of directed energy for many in mid-life. Boomers in midlife, per @lifecourse, “preach a downbeat, values-fixated ethic of moral conviction.” In other words, they are argumentative, passionate, focused on their values (one does not negotiate “values”) and more interested in their convictions than they are in solutions. To have even talked of civility in democracy while Boomers were in midlife would have been an argument, in and of itself, about whose values were more civil.

In the past 25 years, GenXers were the primary gen in young adulthood. Young adulthood is about vitality, about serving institutions with energy and the excitement of a life to be experienced. GenXers in young adulthood are “brazen free agents, lending their pragmatism and independence to an era of growing social turmoil.” To have asked GenXers in young adulthood to speak of civility in democracy would have been seen as a joke. GenXers are not trusting of institutions, by and large, to do right by them as individuals or as a generation and, therefore, do not put a lot of faith in democracy and governments to solve problems. Nor would GenXers compete in Boomer turf to gain voice at that phase of life. Boomers were simply too culturally dominant then, both by phase of life and certainty that their values were more relevant and needing to be heard.

In the past 25 years, Millennials were the primary gen in childhood and have been “nurtured with increasing protection by pessimistic adults in an insecure environment.” Millennials in childhood have grown up believing that government is good. All they have to do is turn on the news to hear campaigning politicians proclaim that they are a more child-friendly candidate than their opponent. In their childhood years they experienced a stream of increasing child-focused programs and initiatives being funded. They have no memory of Civil Rights tensions, nor of the contentiousness around the Viet Nam war-skirmish-geopoltical maneuver. They have watched their next-elder GenXers scramble and tumble through McJobs, unreliable contract work and extreme sports-behaviors-attitudes that are a bit too edgy for their tastes.

In the past 25 years, the Silent gen were the primary gen in elderhood. They have lived life by the rules, keeping their heads down in young adulthood, and hitting phases of life at relatively uneventful times to be the age they were. So, in their elderhood, while midlife Boomers slashed society with their moralistic rants, and GenXers rapidly transformed the culture with their take-what-you-can-and-cash-out-quickly approach, the Silent Gen helped “quicken the pace of social change, shunning the old order in favor of complexity and sensitivity.”

OK, “so what,” you might be saying. Well, generations move through time, which is why unless someone is pinging to the archetypes, years and definitions of Strauss and Howe, they are really talking about “demographics” and not “generations.” But I digress. OK, so time has moved along. We are not 25 years back, but 25 years forward. Let’s look at each of these generations and their impact on “civility in democracy.”

Today, Boomers are moving into elderhood where they “push to resolve ever-deepening moral choices, setting the stage for the secular goals of the young.” In other words, Boomers (will) finally have a moment of realizing as a generation that they are the elders and that their legacy as generation is perilously close to being abysmal. And Boomers are about their moral legacy, so this dawning sense that their moralistic rants and red-state-blue-state politics are putting in peril not just the nation, not just the rising generation of young adulthoods (their beloved Millennials), but their l-e-g-a-c-y, as well … this is the wake-up call for Boomers to self-correct and align in a more civil, go-forward direction that is — while not-less-moral — less polarizing. Or perhaps I should say, the Boomers who wish to have their voices included in the coming dialogue about where our nation is going will do so. Those who continue to polarize will be marginalized, which will be a system-shocker for those Boomers who’ve come to believe that polarizing is how to get attention/focus/dollars.

Today, GenXers are moving into midlife with the first POTUS of this generation currently in power. GenXers in midlife “apply toughness and resolution to defend society while safeguarding the interests of the young.” The challenge for GenXers in midlife — long at the edge, the extremes, the fringes — is to come  in to power structures, bring their capacities to solve problems without all the bantering around moral direction and vision that Boomers have done, and to force change toward fixing broken systems, businesses, governments and more. GenXers in young adulthood have been a cranky generation, a grunge-y generation, a leave-me-alone generation. To be included in the public conversation about what needs to be changed and how it will be done, GenXers need to release much of their crankiness and instead lead and make things happen.

Today, Millennials are moving into young adulthood with a trust of government, institutions and corporations do not only do right by them, but do right by their generation, and — by their thinking and the cycle of generations — do right by the nation. Millennials in young adulthood “challenge the political failure of elder-led crusades, fueling a society-wide secular crisis.” Millennials don’t understand (don’t have any personal experience with) moralistic, values-based battles to which many Boomers still cling. Millennials don’t understand GenXers’ crankiness, as they have received the opposite treatment as GenXers got in childhood; they were precious to adults, while GenXers were forgotten. They are being exalted and talked about and supported while they are moving into young adulthood and new careers, while GenXers were met with temp jobs, contract work and a “no vacancy” job market in their young adulthood. More to the point, Millennials like team work. They are bright-eyed and upbeat. They believe their generation to be very capable of solving large-scale problems and don’t need experience to prove this: they already know it to be true about themselves and their generation. Heck, they’ve been getting awards, gold stars and adulation since they’ve been in kindergarten! In other words, Millennials don’t understand Boomers’ nastiness and GenXers’ crankiness. (Was I just cranky in my explanation here?)

Now, are generations the only influence making “civility and democracy” a timely issue? No, of course not. But generational theory does provide some clues as to why “civility” is becoming a more a desired and important value at this point and time. It is time to be civil once again in democracy and politics. Or at least for civility to start to have a stronger toehold in the conversations. Nobody except Boomers cares about Boomer values wars anymore, and, I’d add, some Boomers are growing tired of the same-ol-same-ol from their generation. Nobody cares about GenX crankiness anymore, except equally cranky GenXers. And Millennials are showing up in jobs, in politics, in communities and in organizations, believing that life and work and community and governance can all be balanced and good. It won’t change overnight, for sure, but — and perhaps — a bit more civility will get us there faster.

Rock on.

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3 Responses to “The Role of (generations and) Civility in Democracy”

  1. Richard Tryzno Ellsberry October 4, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

    Initial reaction — have long been curious about this kind of analysis & would like to learn more about it. Coming from a visual arts background, the world to me has always been filled with all styles of thinking, imagery, sub-cultures, religions, liberation movements, major & minor parties, etc. When I was a teenager I thought the phrase ‘free love’ (e.g.) came out of the 1960s. Many years later I was shocked to learn that the term goes back to the 19th century — at least.

    In any given culture, what is evident or measurable is what is allowed to be observed. In other words, it’s that which is not being suppressed. Today we are radically correcting our views on women, native peoples, gays, people with disabilities, & other oppressed minorities — all having played ‘immeasurable’ roles in the evolution of consciousness all along. (Interesting developments in feminist theory in the late 1970s, when historians began re-reading & re-evaluating the cultural record, to uncover past contributions of women).

    To me, a dominant culture consists largely of who the spotlight happens to be trained on, or perhaps, who large populations choose to obey or emulate, in any particular time.

    — I’m looking fwd to participating more in #theHoCo blog discussions. But my life is going through huge changes over the next few months.

    Thx 4 listening,
    Richard

  2. JessieX October 4, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    Hey Richard, I hope the “huge changes” mean you’re moving in and getting settled into The Hoco. 😉 I’m looking for a co-host for the next hocoblogtail party. (You don’t blog yet, right?) Re the generations stuff, thanks for your thoughts/perspective. In generational theory, generations alternate between dominant and recessive. So Boomers are dom, GenX recessive; Millennials, dom; Homeland, recessive. Left foot, right foot stuff.

  3. George Clack October 21, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    Great post and excellent lens through which to view the current civility crisis in our politics. Speaking as a Boomer, I think your analysis of the Boomers as a generation dominated by moral convictions is right on. Boy are Boomers ever dom. In some ways you could see the ferocity of the Tea Partiers as the silent demographic segment of the 1960s Boomers finding their voices at last. Meanwhile, age and middle-class success have mellowed the lefty would-be revolutionary Boomers of the 1960s and we don’t pipe up much these days. The Oct. 30 Rally for Sanity, in DC, has touched a real nerve in this crowd, however. It will be fascinating to see the demographics of that event.

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