2-minute version first, 13-minute version below for those interested (and I’m disclaiming this for you sticklers!)
I once got a high school term paper extension in a bar. It’s a great story. Partly because it’s just funny, and partly because it highlights what I view as one of the most valuable skills a person can possess: the ability to talk to anyone.
Anybody. All ages. To be confident but not cocky, in any setting. Productively and just for fun. Conversationalism.
I think you can hone this skill better, faster, and more effectively if you understand this thing called “generation theory.”
Here’s me trying to explain it in my piece for Epsilon Theory, “The Time I Got A High School Paper Extension In A Bar: The Fourth Turning (But Not In The Way You Think)“:
Our personalities are formed within our cultures. Cultures shift over time. One generation’s artifacts (re: music, movies, institutions) can cause another generation to evolve or revolt. If we understand where we came from, we can get a better handle on where we’re going. If we understand our position in relation to people in other generations too, the insights become even more powerful.
Generations stack. At home, at work, and definitely in a local bar. If you can understand how personalities are formed in relation to the cultures they came up in, you can understand how (and often why) the same personalities are likely to act in relation to the cultures they currently find themselves in.
If you feel disconnected, or like you want to make stronger connections – especially across generational lines, take some time to read this piece (especially the table 2/3rds through!).
The Time I Got A High School Paper Extension In A Bar: The Fourth Turning (But Not In The Way You Think)
It’s 11:30 on a Thursday night. I’m a Junior in high school and at a local bar. I have class the next morning, and so does my 11th-grade teacher – who at this very moment is standing in front of me.
I don’t know how you got from being in my class this morning to on this stage tonight, but I do know that if you can keep these girls on the dance floor, I’ll owe you one.
He was properly buzzed. Not trashed, but in full “I came to start my weekend on Thursday” mode. He was one of those first or second job out of college high school teachers, who’s still figuring out his authority by title without having outgrown the “friend’s cool older sibling” vibe.
17-year-old me is playing guitar in a cover band with a group of (older than I was) local musicians. Up until this point I’d been mildly amused observing a teacher in the wild. I liked the thought of us staying anonymous in this situation though. The “you’re not supposed to be here” buzzkill threat was too real. Literally for him and metaphorically for me.
Plus, up until him calling out to me on stage, I was queasy over another problem with him being there. It had to do with the class he taught. This Casablanca meets Ferris Bueller mashup was not what I was expecting –
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine. Leaving us both to wonder, how could we possibly be expected to handle school on a night like this?
I showed up to that gig A. ready to stay up way too late only to get up way too early, and B. fully aware I had to write a paper after the gig. A paper that was due tomorrow. A term paper. For this same teacher. Yeah.
The paper was assigned weeks ago. As the bumper stick wisdom goes, “I used to crastinate, but then I went pro.” And at 17, I’d tragically and definitively committed to the profession.
Patterns are funny like that. They can be freeing and they can be limiting. They can give power, like when you’re playing a song for the millionth time to a packed dance floor, or they can take power away, like when a bunch of expectations and roles all get turned on their head unexpectedly.
The point of patterns is they repeat. Maybe not exactly. Maybe they only rhyme. But they’re there. And once your mind’s cracked open to seeing patterns, you start seeing them everywhere. And the professional opportunities you start to uncover next? They’re limitless.
That night at the bar, the patterns got all funky. But if my teacher could play tonight’s situation and not tomorrow’s patterns, I could too. I just had to see this chance encounter for what it was: an opportunity.
The pitch that finally got me to read The Fourth Turning was, “Guess what same book Al Gore and Steven Bannon both handed out to members of Congress?”
How could that NOT hook you? An overlapping area in the Gore/Bannon Venn diagram? I had to know.
I ordered a copy and prepared myself to be conveniently truthed or Breitbartled or worse. My assumption was this would be a Meyers-Briggs meets Astrology-type of pseudosciencey tome, but as an INTJ Sagittarius, I was (only semi-ashamedly) curious. What can I say – I’m a sucker for a good pattern.
When you grow up obsessing over music, people will try to tell you about how music and math are closely related. Then, when you’re retaking Algebra II and old enough to declare BS, you’ll reframe the lesson in your mind to reflect how lots of people can’t tell the output of a bull’s sphincter from the output of their own mouths. Even the adults. As the era-appropriate philosophers Blink 182 lamented, “I guess this is growing up.”
Noticing BS is a big part of what music teaches you. Listening to music is auditory pattern-matching. When patterns don’t match, it can be (subjectively, and sometimes objectively) good or bad. When patterns do match, it can be magical, transcendent, and even algebraic. Don’t even get me started about juxtapositions.
The “music is math” bunch aren’t wrong in this way. There’s plenty of absolute and relational logic in music. But you don’t need a physics degree to know Al Green and Algebra are different types of sexy. I have proofs. Pun intended.
When I (finally) finished my math requirements in high school, they let me add more English and Social Studies classes to my schedule. This is where I first encountered the philosophical pattern analysis of Joseph Campbell, and in a certain previously mentioned teacher’s class, the flip-turned-upside-down histories of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and a host of other cultural anthropologists.
As it turns out, music is math, and history, and english, and religion, and gym, and even recess. Especially recess. Because when you learn music, or any of these other disciplines, you’re learning to notice and play with patterns. The more you love your area of study, the better at pattern-matching, story-telling, and BS spotting (and generating) you can become.
History might be the ultimate exercise in BS spotting. And there’s no better way to learn how to spot the BS in history than by BSing your history teacher…
Can you keep them dancing?
So you know that paper due tomorrow?
He shoots me the “Are you seriously bringing up school now” look. More specifically, it’s the, “Are you seriously reminding me you’re a student in my class when I so plainly need you to be the guy I know in the band who can keep these girls I’m working on the dancefloor” look.
Yeah. Wait. Holy sh…(turning his head). You didn’t start it yet did you.
A statement. Not even the dignity of a question. He’s cracking half a smile, which I take as a good sign.
In hindsight, this is him recognizing some of himself in me. It’s the Bueller-Bogart double helix twinkling in my eye. He recognizes it and knows the audacity of an ask like this because he’s tried something similar in the past. Turns out, he’s just as much a sucker for a good pattern as I am.
I shoot my shot.
Well, fffff… Matt…
When Neil Howe and William Strauss’ The Fourth Turning was released in 1997, it made waves for predicting how the United States would “pass through a great and perilous gate,” enter a “crisis era” climaxing in the 2020s, and see the newly named “millennials” emerge into adult power. With the 2023 release of The Fourth Turning Is Here, these ideas are experiencing a resurgence of attention, because… well, all those parts.
“Those parts” sell books. But we’re not talking about that stuff here. Turn on cable news if you’re looking for endless end of the world coverage. We have a world to save. Or maybe a world to be saved by. I asked my Magic-8 Ball and it said, “Reply hazy, try again.” So let’s do that. Let’s accept the hazy and try. Again and again.
At its core, the most useful parts of The Fourth Turning books study what happens as each generation grows up with their own individual and shared experiences. As a kid turns into an adult, to a midlifer, and then a senior (possibly with kids and grandkids of their own along the way), their experiences are going to bump into the experiences of every surrounding generations.
Any parent who’s ever said, “Hey, I was a kid once too!” already gets it. Howe and Strauss just mapped it way back across history and noticed some overlaying patterns as well. Critics will say it’s not an absolute science, while a bunch of others will hijack it to argue about what it means for our future. But I’m not concerned with any of that here. All I want to say is, “Wow, these fourth turning books have some intuitively useful patterns. Just not in the way everybody talks about it.”
Strauss and Howe’s core concept is “Generational Theory.” Generational theory examines how generations mix and act across historical cycles. If you’re willing to step back from the aforementioned apocalyptic arguments, these books are some of the most practical, big-picture studies you’ll find about how multiple generations interact, over time – at home, work, and in the broader culture.
What generational theory has that other more pseudoscientific patterns lack (astrology, I’m looking at you) is an intuitively grounded logic. Our personalities are formed within our cultures. Cultures shift over time. One generation’s artifacts (re: music, movies, institutions) can cause another generation to evolve or revolt. If we understand where we came from, we can get a better handle on where we’re going. If we understand our position in relation to people in other generations too, the insights become even more powerful.
Strauss and Howe’s how-to manual changed the way I approached communicating across generations in my professional work. It also helps explain the dynamics between myself and my 11th-grade history teacher, as I attempted to negotiate a deal to get an extension on a paper I hadn’t even started, in the midst of performing in a local bar I was far too young to be in.
Well, fffff… Matt…
His head turns. He has the professional instinct to not swear in front of his student. I’m playing a dangerous game. We’re outside of school where our relationship is based. We’re gambling in a casino that isn’t supposed to even be a casino.
You better have a hell of a good song Mr. Zeigler. And paper’s due MONDAY. Not a day later. And only if you come through with something…
My turn to swivel my head. I’m interrupting him and yelling to my band. Without fully breaking eye contact, I’ve got their attention and most importantly, he knows it. I need him to see this part. I need him to keep good on this extension offer.
Let’s do “Play That Funky Music” next. My teacher here (I gesture to him), he’s willing to give me an extension on the paper I didn’t start yet that’s due tomorrow, but only if WE (gesturing to us) keep THOSE GIRLS dancing (I gesture to them and they collectively let out a “woo!”).
This is a Bogart move. Definitely a Bueller one too. I’m giving a performance that would make either character proud.
All that matters is my teacher is smiling and slinking back into the crowd as I stand up. The guys in the band are cracking up as I turn around. A bunch of them are teachers too and they think this is a riot.
Tommy, our drummer points a stick at me and says,
Ok “white boy.” Your intro.
I start the guitar lick. I see my teacher and his group of friends put their hands up in approval as they start dancing. The band’s singer launches in with the iconic,
Heyyyy – do it now…
Learning about generational theory is learning about where everybody around you, especially those in different age cohorts, are coming from. It helps explain behaviors and ideologies – and once you spot the patterns, it can even be predictive. Think of it as a shortcut for background research on any individual. It’s one of the ultimate “quickly find some common ground” conversational hacks to keep in your brain’s back pocket.
What generational theory doesn’t do is give you specifics. It doesn’t give you personal stories, or traumas, or any complete constants you can do physics with – including predicting the end of the world, ahem. That’s why we call it a theory. There are no laws here, just general rules to play in, around, and with. You can tell me, “Matt, you think like this because you’re an INTJ Sagittarius and Mercury is in retrograde.” And you can still be right, even though I might reply, “Funny, I never can remember what INTJ stands for, what the cutoff dates for my sign is, or what retrograde even means – but sure!”
Generational theory is generally theoretical. It tells us how everyone in a generation has had at least a handful of the same formative experiences. It’s what binds us to our peers and what puts us at odds across age-group lines (ex. “OK Boomer” vs. “trophy kids”). Most importantly, generational theory can help us forge relationships across generations if we learn how to use it effectively.
We won’t get deep into the terms, but below is the cheat sheet I made on a notecard as I worked my way through The Fourth Turning Is Here. It captures the labels defining the four generational archetypes (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist) – including the current as of 2023 names, the four stages of life (growing up, coming of age, midlife, and old age), and the four macro environments societies cycle through (high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis).
A quick note on the four macro environments: “High” refers to a time of great prosperity and strong institutions, but stifled-feeling individuals (ex. the early seasons of Mad Men, 1960ish). “Awakening” occurs as individuals begin to attack institutions in the name of personal freedoms (ex. Summer of Love, 1967ish). “Unraveling” happens as weakened institutions and fragmented cultures grow increasingly disconnected (ex. alternative rock destroys rock’s dominance while rap overtakes the charts, 1991ish). Finally, “crisis” is a period of complete social upheaval while the values regime of the previous “high” gets replaced (ex. 2020s America in a nutshell, hence the title of Howe’s latest book).
|Generation (Current Name, Year Range)
|Grow Up In A(n)…
|Comes Of Age During A(n)…
|Experiences Midlife In A(n)…
|Is Officially Old For A(n)…
|Prophet (Boomers, ‘43-’60)
|Nomad (Gen-X, ‘61-’81)
|Hero (Millenial’s, ‘82-’06, GI’s, ‘01-’24)
|Artist (Gen-Z, ‘06-’29, Silent’s, ‘25-’42)
Take a minute to trace yourself and your family on this chart. Or the people you work with. Or any network of folks you know.
I’ll do me so you can see it. I was born in 1981, putting me on the Gen-X/Millennial line. My parents are Boomers, and children of the Silent generation. The paranoid Depression-era peacetime of my grandparents’ households produced the slightly-less paranoid and more opportunistic Boomer household I grew up in. My sub-generation includes the first kids to have guidance counselors all through our school experience, and the fun of computer games about digitally traversing the Oregon Trail. Unravelings are so weird.
My professional life today includes:
- Hiring young Millennials and Gen-Zs while they come of age in a crisis-era of social upheaval.
- Helping Boomers carefully manage the transition from the unraveling of the old order, created by the adults who raised them, into the fledgling new order, being created in real time by their kids and grandkids who they helped raise. .
- Getting advice, input, and being productively collaborative across generational lines, means I’ve learned to hoard any and all cultural references to start conversations with older Boomers, younger Silents, and of course – my Gen-X and Millenial peers too. All that music trivia is starting to look more valuable now, eh?
Don’t you feel like you’re starting to know me? If all you did was guess my age – how much of this could you have started to fill in? What if, alongside knowing my likes and what I studied in college, you could ask even a few questions about where I grew up and what my parents did? Are you seeing the information form in layers yet?
Once you start practicing this, generational theory becomes a pattern to unlock patterns. It helps provide a wealth of context to any cultural situation. By learning to see cross-generational patterns, we can form and sustain cross-generational relationships.
We’re all just kids getting older.
It’s Friday morning. I’m in class and my teacher’s in front of the room, hiding any signs of a hangover well enough. Stages and audiences. Know your role. There really is a pattern behind everything.
I’m in my seat, anxiously waiting to see if he remembers granting the extension last night. I have not started this paper yet. And that’s when it arrives – the moment of truth.
He’s got one of those desktop organizer bins outstretched and he’s walking across the first row of desks. People are tossing their neatly stapled essays onto the pile.
One of my classmates notices I’m not moving.
(taunt singing) Ooooo – Zeig-ler did-n’t write – his – paaa-per…
I shoot him a death glance.
Zeigler’s fine. He and I already spoke, mind your own business. If you have a problem with that, see me after class.
Play THAT funky music. The look I’m getting back from my classmate screams,
What did you DO?!
I smile and look down, doing my best to blend back into the class.
I’m Rick walking with Captain Renault off the runway. I’m Ferris telling his parents not to let him miss any more school. I’m the product of all the generations who came before me, plotting to leave a mark on the generations behind me, through actions and art.
This is generational theory at work. It’s recognizing we’re all part of a bigger network, a larger and larger kaleidoscope of lives lived and lessons learned.
Whether you’re happily buzzing on stage or half-buzzed on the dance floor – it’s Thursday night and you know what to do. There’s music to make, dances to dance, and work that can wait until tomorrow. Or Monday even.
The generations before? They got us to this point. The ones behind us? We’ve got to bring them up.
This is the pattern. Less fourth turning talk. More forward turning and talking.
I’ve got so much more to say about generational theory and “The Fourth Turning” books. I see them for the hope they lay out, and their “we’ve been here before and we’ll get through this” reminders. I’ve already got a follow-up essay (or three) in the works on using generational theory to better communicate too.
So what about you? How do you use (or might you use) generational theory to help communicate? Where does it work? Where does it fall apart? Send me a message, I’m gathering thoughts for another piece on this.