Archive | March, 2015

Generational Dyanmics: Predicting the Future and Seeing Today

3 Mar

Do you look at generations other than your own and see differences beyond just growing up with more technology?  There is a theory called generational dynamics that suggests that each generation grows up in the shadow of the one before it and thus we see very big differences between generations.  Since all generations die off, we tend to repeat these cycles every 70-100 years or so and knowing where a country/culture is at in a generational cycle provides a tremendous amount of insight into events. While it is not something I use exclusively, it’s the best theory I’ve found to put a framework around events ranging from politics to economics to large societal issues, etc going on all around the world.  The blog/website Generational Dynamics by John J. Xenakls has become a daily read for me and has helped me filter out a lot of the nonsense you get from much of the media and politicians from both sides.  There is a free book on the site explaining the ideas in more depth, but here is an overview.

Limits of the Theory  I think generational dynamics is the best large scale societal theory I’ve seen anywhere (including any of my college political science classes) and have come to have a great amount of respect for its ability to project future pushes.  That said, it’s impossible for any large societal theory to completely cover all of reality, and I believe generational dynamics is best looked at as a very good guideline to events rather than something absolute.

Basic Idea Individuals vary tremendously and it’s impossible to come up with a theory to explain how any one person is going to end up.  While that’s true, generations as a whole grow up with shared experiences and those experiences are very different from their parents.  Because of these shared experiences, we see traits/results that follow along generational lines.  If we follow these patterns through enough generations, we start to see patterns. Once we see the patterns we can better understand events around the world and make better guesses of future directions.

The Cycle Our starting point in looking at generations are crisis events.  There are usually both financial and military aspects to this.  A crisis war is not just any war (which can break out at any time).  Crisis wars see the larger societal needs very much trump individual wants/needs and the war becomes seen as a struggle for the very survival of the wider society/culture.  With these events, nationalism rises to its highest points and, by the end, victory is vastly more important than individual human lives. Our last crisis war for America was World War II.  Before that was the Civil War and before that the Revolutionary War.  In these events, we see a tremendous amount of national unity  (with people either rallying around the union or the Confederacy/Britain).  We also saw wars where human loss of life was accepted on scales it wouldn’t have been at other times.  By the end of the Civil War, the north was burning down Atlanta and everything in its path (unthinkable at the start of the war).  In World War II, we see Dresden, Germany virtually destroyed by fire bombs, huge forces thrown into possible complete destruction in Normandy, and nuclear weapons against Japanese cities.

The crisis event also has a financial component.  Often there are big bubbles/over speculation leading to large financial busts.  These events in fact are before the crisis war and help bring it about. After the crisis event, according to generational dynamics, we go through a cycle until the next crisis event.  Usually this is 4 generations, but if a crisis is forced early it can occasionally be earlier and sometimes we muddle through an extra generation or two.  The standard format though is to go through the following 4 generations: hero, artist, prophet, nomad.

If we start with World War II, we see The Greatest Generation (hero generation) become adults during the Great Depression and be the ones who fought in World War II.  Collectively they never want to see any of this happen again.  Laws are put in place to stop the over-leverage we saw that allowed for the depression (while at an individual level, many are not trusting of banks and remember to avoid wasting anything).  Meanwhile, there will not be another mistake like “peace in our time.”  Appeasing Hitler helped lead to the most destructive war in human history.  America would be much firmer with the Soviet Union and would respond to threats to global stability.

The next generation is the artist generation.  They grow up during a crisis era, but mostly become adults afterward (I think of this generation being the shortest time frame generation although it’s really not put as such).  This generation is somewhat traumatized by what they grew up with and is much more risk averse and indecisive as a result.  This indecisiveness helps them to be able to paper over differences later in life (looking for compromise), but also leads to very costly outcomes. Those who grew up during World War II are sometimes called the Silent Generation.

The world the baby boomers (prophet generation) grow up in is very different from their parents.  They grow up in post-war prosperity and come of age during a national awakening.  They do not directly remember WWII and its costs, but know it as a story.  The overwhelming need for strong nationalism isn’t as great for them and having not lived through the depression, they aren’t as frugal.  This is a very sharp contrast to their parents and the result is that there is a very big opening for some of this generation to be at strong odds with their parents.  We see this strong rebellion with the hippie movement and the strong anti-war movement that was so big on college campuses (and comparing the Vietnam protests to Iraq protests, you see big generational differences).

The next generation is the nomad generation.  Mostly recently for us, that is Generation X.  They grow up in the shadow of the big generational divide of the awakening.  The result is more anger and through American history, this is the generation (nomad generations; not specifically Generation X) with the highest crime rate.  This can include vastly increased amounts of fraud (recently think the housing bubble, lack of corporate responsibility to customers/shareholders, etc).   They come of age during the unraveling era as many of the post-crisis war actions are undone.  They continue a trend of becoming more and more individualist rather than nationalistic with the larger society becoming less important.

By this point, you see most of the last hero generation having retired or passed away and with them, most the direct memories of the last crisis.  This leads to a great reduction in the “outdated” rules.  For us in the past 2 decades, we have seen financial laws, like those separating investment and commercial banks and laws limiting leverage, reduced, eliminated, or often just plain ignored.  Meanwhile, the thought of another war like in the past are not thought of as seriously possible.  All of this helps lead the nation into a new crisis era and repeat the cycle again with another crisis war (although it should be remembered, sometimes you can get an extra generation or so).

What’s the Point of this? Looking at where a people are at (this does not have to strictly follow national borders, but can be on a tribal/ethnic level) tells us a lot about responses.  First let’s go back and look at the Vietnam War.  At that point, Vietnam was in in a crisis era (long removed from its last crisis war).  This meant that you would see fighting among Vietnamese until there was near total victory or defeat for one side.  The US however was in a generational awakening era which meant the war was  a political war that would go on only so long as the politicians were willing to let it.  The end result of that was the US underestimated how much fighting would be involved and then left before the fighting was over.

Now let’s look at Iraq.  According to generational dynamics, it’s in the Awakening Era.  The last crisis war was the Iran/Iraq War which was a major full scale war between both countries.  This does not mean that wars in Iraq are impossible, but a full civil war where both sides are strongly mobilized and citizens committed to complete victory is highly unlikely. That’s also exactly what we have seen.  Al Queda in Iraq relied mostly on foreign soldier for suicide bombers and was never able to create the massive war it wanted.

If we look at ISIS now, we can be tempted to dismiss the theory as this looks like a major civil war.  If we look closer, we see things really still fit with the theory however.  The Iraqi army greatly outnumbered and outgunned ISIS at Mosul, but what happened?  The Iraqi army was unwilling to risk their lives and retreated.  Even now with plans working on retaking the city, there is strong doubt at the Pentagon that a Shiite army is going to risk their lives to retake a mostly Sunni city.  All of this is something you’d expect in an Awakening era much more so than a crisis era.  In an Awakening era (like the US during the Vietnam War) individual deaths are treated much more tragically and it’s much harder for a society to be fully behind a war.  It also needs to be noted ISIS is strong partly because a great number of foreign fighters.

If we look at Afghanistan, we see the opposite.  Ten years ago, while the media was focusing very much on civil war in Iraq, Afghanistan was largely forgotten. John J. Xenakls from generational dynamics predicted that the civil war in Iraq at the time would peter out, while Afghanistan would intensify.  Afghanistan was in generational crisis era, long removed from their last crisis war, and this meant it was ripe for things to get worse.  That’s pretty much as things played out with things in Iraq cooling down until the rise of ISIS and things in Afghanistan continued to get worse.


This Points to a Bad Future, Why Use It?

Going by these cycles, it’s pretty easy to see that predictions for the next 30 or so years are pretty bleak.  Most of the major countries are long past their last crisis event (especially in much of eastern Europe where the last one was World War I).  With that in mind, why should it be a theory we look to?

My answer to that is that we see the patterns discussed in it regularly repeated through modern history.  If we stand any chance of altering it, we need to understand it first.  Is it possible that changes in technology (including nuclear weapons) and global connectiveness has altered the cycle already?  Yes, it is possible, but at the same time, that’s exactly what could have been argued a century ago when technology seemed to be progressing faster than ever and global trade was at an all time high.

In the meantime, we are still seeing many results expected in generational dynamics panning out.  The price/earning (p/e) ratio of stocks is quite a bit higher than the average historic level which has set us up for an enormous stock market crash even if we just return closer to the norm (and for something to be the norm, we actually have to fall below it as well).  Meanwhile, we see increasing aggressiveness from countries with China taking control of territory traditionally belonging to a great number of other countries and with  Russia expansion in Eastern Europe (Georgia, Ukraine).  They have assumed the West won’t do anything and for now they are right, but the danger is the West eventually decides it has to act and they still assume it will back down.

My personal projection is that we are probably going to have a major war in the next few decades.  It will be one everyone is stunned by, but in history books it’s looked at as something that was easy to see.  The future is not written  in stone though and can be altered.  It can only be altered if we are willing to take a hard look at our own reality though and that’s what generational dynamics helps us do.