©2011 Hampton Bush
The following article is an except from a chapter in Quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling. It is the result of much research, and covers a somewhat heavy topic, but should prove useful to writers struggling to sell their work.
All generations have heroes and all heroes are similar. The problem for a writer is to understand how the heroes of one generation differ from those of another.
—Quote from the The Golden Quill of Storytelling
Write a million words and you, too, can succeed. After all, all it takes to win is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration! Right?
Maybe. . .and maybe not. The sad truth is that too many inspired writers pound out their million words, yet somehow continue to fail no matter how skilled they become at their chosen craft. Why?
The answer is they may be suffering from a serious malady I have dubbed heroic synchronitis—a devastating, yet seldom diagnosed disease that is particularly destructive to would-be story writers. Unfortunately, heroic synchronitis is an insidious disease that always strikes without warning and too often remains unnoticed in your system for the rest of your life, silently destroying your ability to succeed.
What is heroic synchronitis? The short answer is that it’s writing about heroes who are “out of sync” with the current editorial generation . The long answer is much more complicated and is what this article is about. At the moment, however, it might be helpful to find out whether or not you’re afflicted by it before trying to explain the cure.
Diagnosing Heroic Synchronitis
Determining whether or not you’re suffering from heroic synchronitis is easy. Just ask yourself the following questions and be sure to answer them as honestly as possible.
Question: As a writer do you sometimes feel you are frozen in time while the tastes of the reading and viewing public keep changing with mind-numbing speed?
Question: Are you afraid the book you started two, five or ten years ago is no longer relevant and that you may be wasting your time working on it?
Question: Do your heroes seem to care about the “wrong” kinds of things or have attitudes that are different from those in contemporary books and stories?
Question: Does your rationale for continuing to work on “the book” sound like, “Well, as a minimum it’s a good exercise that’ll help me do a better job on my next one?”
Question: Are you having trouble figuring out how or where the things you want to write fit in the seemingly helter-skelter mishmash of work currently being published?
Question: Do you secretly fear you’ll never be able to succeed because the publishing world no longer seems to care about the things you do?
Question: If you’re a younger writer, do you feel “turned off” by the stuff you see being published right now?
Question: If you’re a younger writer, do you sometimes wonder whether or not the publishing world will ever care about the kinds of things you want to write about?
Self-diagnosis: If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, there’s a 99.9% certainty you’re suffering from heroic synchronitis.
And what’s the prognosis for this terrible sounding disease?
Well, the bad news is that the disease has serious consequences for writers who are not willing to understand its causes and then make the intellectual and psychological adjustments necessary to cure it. The long-term consequences of the illness are that you probably will finish out your writing life with little or no success.
The good news is that, if you are willing to recognize the illness for what it is and to learn enough to take the cure, you can go on to achieve whatever success your talent deserves. The really good news is that, as serious as heroic synchronitis is, it can be cured with a little bit of learning and a big dose of that perspiration stuff.
The purpose of this article is to explain the disease and its causes and then offer a do-it-yourself cure. So onward. . .
Okay. Let’s ask the question again. What the heck is heroic synchronitis anyhow? Basically it’s this: the affliction of writing stories filled with heroes, attitudes and problems that are not of the generation currently in charge of making the editorial buying decisions.
All right, let’s try it from another angle.
Did you know that at any given time in history there are at least four distinct generations alive and interacting? Further, did you know that at any given moment in history one of those four generations will hold most of the power in publishing, politics and business and that it will give its attitudes, values and problems “first crack” at being published? Or how about this? Did you know that the generation “in charge” changes every twenty years or so?
You didn’t know those things and hadn’t really thought about them before? Well, that probably explains why you’re suffering from heroic synchronitis.
Generic Case Study:
Here’s a generic case of heroic synchronitis. Let’s say you were born some time between 1925 and 1942 and you’ve been working for years learning to write (news, sports, technical, advertising, short stories, whatever). Let’s further stipulate you’ve really perfected the techniques of fiction: good story, good character, interwoven description, excellent dialog, great action and pace, and yet you can’t even give away your work.
Let’s go a step further. Let’s say you show your work to your friends, and they read and love it. When it comes back from the editor either unread or with some nasty comment, they cluck-cluck right along with you and say they don’t understand it.
“Your hero would be a perfect role for John Wayne or maybe Gregory Peck,” they say. “People these days just don’t know a good story when they see one. Poor dear!” they say.
You turn away from your friends bewildered, discouraged, ready to cry. After all, you studied the magazine before you wrote the story. You made your hero the right age and had him driving the right kind of car and even wearing the right kinds of clothes, so why didn’t the story sell? Why? “It’s not fair!” you mutter.
Assuming that you’re accomplished enough as a writer to sell, the simple answer probably is that despite “dressing” your hero in modern clothing, he/she may not have been a modern hero at all. Most likely she was your kind of hero, not the kind the editors wanted to see, and they saw right through your deception.
Possibly your hero had the attitudes, morals, manners and speech patterns of your generation, not those of the generation in power, or their readers. The fact is that clothes and cars and other externals do play a role in shaping a character and a sale, but there are things far more important and far more subtle you need to understand if you really want to cure yourself of heroic synchronitis.
Question: can a sixty-year-old or an eighteen-year-old writer sell stories to a forty-five-year-old editor? Again the answer is “yes,” if the writer learns to replace “market research” with “generational research.”
“Theory of Generations” For Writers
Quite frequently we all hear such references as “our” generation, “their” generation, the “older” or the “younger generation,” but what exactly is a “generation?”
According to authors William Straus and Neil Howe in their 1991 trade pocketbook, Generations, The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (a William Morrow Quill book, ISBN 0-688-11912-3) a generation is a peer group born during a given period (roughly 20 years) of time whose collective personality is shaped through sharing similar upbringing and major and minor social experiences (war, spiritual awakening).
Each generation has parents from the two preceding generations. The oldest in a generation have parents from two generations back. The youngest have parents from the oldest members of the preceding generation. However, a generation, regardless of its parentage shares similar values and attitudes, because its members share similar upbringing and social events as they grow up together.
The Strauss and Howe book is a somewhat controversial approach to viewing (through a generational filter) the history of the U.S., but controversial or not, the work contains a concept of great importance to writers—that each generation has a discernible and distinct personality that is different from that of preceding and succeeding generations.
In fact, during their research, the authors made the amazing discovery that four distinct types of generational personalities have followed one another in perfect sequence over and over again for the past fifteen generations. These generational personality types have been named by the authors to be: civic, adaptive, idealist, reactive (definitions later).
Four Life Phases
To clarify matters, the authors note that, regardless of the generation type to which they belong, all human beings go through four life phases: childhood (0-21 years); rising adulthood (22-43 years); midlife (44-65 years); elderhood (66-87 years). Each generation passes through each of the four life phases intact and with each movement the oldest generation disappears and is replaced by the next younger generation, which, in turn, is replaced. The youngest generation moves up from childhood and is replaced by a new “child” generation. (Common sense, eh?)
A common mistake made by many writers and historians, say Strauss and Howe, is to assume that the personalities of people in each of these life phases are the same from generation to generation. For instance, it is frequently assumed that a 13-year-old in one generation is much like a 13-year-old in another generation. In other words, many writers assume that attitudes are a result of age group (life phase), rather than other factors. Not so, say Strauss and Howe.
To find a generation of 13-year-olds similar to the current one, you will have to move back in time four generations or forward four (repeating pattern). This means that thirteen year olds in the years 1981 to 2003 (called by authors the Millennial generation) are much more likely to be similar to 13 year olds growing up in the years 1901 to 1924 than to those of Generation Xers born between 1962 and 1981.
How do the authors explain this phenomenon? It is because both the Millennial and the 1901-1924 generation belong to the repeating generational personality type they call “Civic.” Civics, they say, regardless of the eras in which they are born, have more in common with each other than with the other three generational types, no matter how close the generations are in time. (One practical proof of the truth of their assertion is that living generations do battle about virtually everything—politics, moral values, music, clothes, you name it. If generational attitudes didn’t differ, there would be no battle.)
An important consequence of this idea (for writers) is that each generation will have its own heroes who reflect its goals and values. And though all heroes tend to be similar in many ways, they also differ in many ways from generation to generation. A hero admired by your parents or grandparents may seem silly and naive to you, just as your heroes may seem old-fashioned and foolish to your children. Your problem as a writer seeking to sell, therefore, is to understand the kinds of heroes currently in demand by the editors in charge in your target market and how they may differ from your own.
What causes the heroes of one generation to be different from those of another, and why would certain patterns repeat themselves over and over again?
Strauss and Howe report that the four recurring generational personality types are formed through a combination of influences, mainly style of upbringing and major social events that occur during childhood (wars, economic turmoil, spiritual awakenings).
Style of upbringing seems to be the primary influencer. Each generation, because of its own personality and because of the major social events it faces as rising (child bearing) adults, has its own style of child rearing, which, in turn, influences the personalities and child-rearing style of the next generation of parents.
Civic generations tend to overprotect their children because they themselves have faced economic crises in their childhood and are facing external social crises, such as Civil War, and World War II (the current white-haired WWII G.I.s are Civics). This produces a conforming (adaptive) generation (currently called the Silent generation) that grows up in relatively good economic times and facing no social event requiring heroics.
In turn, lacking heroic challenges, this Silent generation turns toward studying the processes of “how” things work and, reacting against their own “smothered” upbringing, tend to indulge their own children, creating a spoiled, inward turning, idealistic and rebellious generation (current Baby Boomers).
This self-centered, idealistic generation tends to neglect the upbringing of its own children (Generation X), who, in turn, tend to swing again in the opposite direction and “dote” on their own children (the current ‘baby on board” Millennial generation). This is the final swing that leads to the cycle repeating, because the Millennials are being raised in much the same way (with love and attention) the earlier civic generations were.
Other patterns also significantly influence the formation of a generational personality, according to the authors. One main pattern is the repetition of two types of social events, what Strauss and Howe call “secular crises” and “spiritual awakenings”. The Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II are examples of secular crises. Alternating invariably with “secular crises” are “spiritual awakenings,” examples of which are: the Puritan Awakening (1621-1640), the Great Awakening (1734-1743), the Transcendental Awakening (1822-1837), the Missionary Awakening (1886-1903) and the Boomer Awakening (1967-1980).
An odd fact is that major secular events do not follow each other, nor are there ever two awakenings in sequence. So far in our history the pattern has remained an alternating one. Also, a close look at these alternating crises shows that none of the four generational personality types ever escapes being influenced by a social crisis.
Adaptive (Silent) generations are always in childhood (0-21 years) during a secular crisis. Reactive generations (Gen Xers) are always in childhood during an awakening. Civics (G.I.s) are always in rising adulthood during a secular crisis and get the opportunity to be cannon fodder and do heroic deeds. Idealists (Boomers) are always in late childhood and rising adulthood during (and are the principal catalysts for) a spiritual awakening.
At any given moment in history, members of five different generations can be alive and interacting. As this is written, the five still going in the U.S. are (using the Strauss and Howe labels) the G.I. (Civic: 1901-1924), the Silent (Adaptive: 1925-1942), the Boomer (Idealist: 1943-1960), Generation X (Reactive: 1961-1981) and the Millennial generation: (a new Civic: 1982-2003). The next generation, as you can guess, will be another Silent Generation.
The following material, taken from the Strauss and Howe book, presents the personality types and shaping events of the four adult generations still alive and buying books and magazines. Any modern, realisitc hero you write about will be taken from one of these generations. (The Millennials are historically too young to profile.) For that reason it is useful to profile these four generations.
Civic (G.I.) Generation (1901-1924)
Parents: Missionary and Lost Generation
Personality: “Can-do” typified the attitude of this heroic generation. This attitude was developed by having survived the great depression and by defeating their enemies in World War II. World War II was run by elders and members of the previous generations who taught this generation to fight and act as teams and who sent the young of this generation into battle with great fanfare and received them home with much celebration as conquering heroes who had saved the world.
The G.I. generation was the first to name its members “senior citizens” and the first to create a retirement community (Sun City, Arizona). On the whole the G.I. generation was (and is) a civic-minded, group-oriented bunch of doers, not too much interested in “the vision thing.” Its members were the very first Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. This generation also produced an unprecedented seven presidents with George Bush, who had trouble with “the vision thing,” being the last.
Shaping and Major Events: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were founded; the first transatlantic flight occurred (Lindbergh); Roosevelt got 85% of the vote from the under 30 crowd; Benny Goodman and Glen Miller; the great depression; attack on Pearl Harbor followed by a draft of all men from 20-44; World War II; Hiroshima; VE and VJ-Day; the G.I. Bill, McCarthy hearings; Kennedy assassination; Apollo 11 moon landing; LBJ’s great society; Watergate scandal; Ronald Reagan; defeat of the Soviet Union (Berlin Wall comes down); Reagan-Bush push the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe.
Achievements: After World War II, the G.I. generation retained its conquering spirit and set about building and settling suburbia, launching the space program, building the interstate highway system we all use today, winning more Nobel Prizes than any other generation, becoming the first astronauts with the “right stuff” and creating Disneyland. Others of its legacies include: the landing on the moon, the death of the communist threat from the Soviet Union (along with a gigantic federal deficit), Vietnam, Watergate and suburban sprawl.
Believing in teamwork and its own ability to solve problems, it begat a highly conforming generation (the Silents) and created the huge social programs and Vietnam War rise in spending during the 1960s. Strauss and Howe declare that in spite of being the generation of “Rosie the Riveter” of World War II, the G.I. generation truly believed “Father Knows Best.”
One telling anecdote has it that when asked by a youngster how his generation felt about growing up without TV, spaceships and computers, Ronald Reagan quipped something like, “Well, I don’t know. It’s true we didn’t have those things. We just grew up and invented them.”
Rewards: Not only did this generation contribute grandly to the world in which it lived, it has certainly reaped more rewards for its efforts than any previous generation. This generation has received more money and attention from its fellow taxpayers than any other— “gaining benefits from the first child labor laws, the New Deal, the G.I. Bill, mortgage deductions, Social Security and Medicare,” report the authors.
Famous Members: Walt Disney, Charles Lindbergh, John Steinbeck, Bob Hope, Robert Oppenheimer, John Wayne, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, William Westmoreland, Lee Iacocca, Billy Graham, Katharine Graham, Judy Garland, Walter Cronkite.
Silent (Adaptive) Generation (1924-1942)
Parents: Lost and G.I. generations
Personality: If the G.I. and Boomer generations are the bread, (the Generation Gap was between them) the Silent generation is the shapeless hamburger meat that filled that gap (only 49,000,000 of them, less than the previous generation and less than Boomers). Suffering from exquisitely bad timing, the Silent generation was too young to be heroic in World War II and too old to take part in the liberated sexual abandonment of the 1960s and 1970s. Like good boys and girls this generation married early (men averaged 23, women 20) and became highly conforming professionals who initially, say Strauss and Howe, “saw their mission as refining and humanizing the world built by their elders.”
This generation was raised to be good corporate gray-flannel suiters. As a generation it has concentrated on “arbitration” (between Boomers and G.I.s) and enabling the wishes first of their fathers and then the wishes of their children. The Silents took orders first from the G.I.s and then later were so unsure of their own beliefs they caved in to the demands (orders) of the radical Boomers.
Strauss and Howe report that only 2% of the Silent generation wanted to be self-employed, while the rest saw heaven as a secure job in a big corporation and a nice house and car in the suburbs. As rising adults (22-43 years old) the Silents were a generation who dressed right, wore the right haircuts, learned to have good manners and do and say the right things at the right times.
Having sat in awe at the feet of their elders as children during a time of great crisis, the Silents carried along into rising adulthood their habit of obedience and reverence for their elders. Having no great challenges of their own to face (therefore not much chance to become heroes or learn to be decision makers), they concentrated less on “doing” and more on finding out “how” things worked (the processes), and became heavily committed to implementing bureaucratic “systems” in all phases of life from government to business.
As it grew into its midlife phase, this generation began rebelling against its earlier conformity and began to partake of the sexual revolution. One outcome of this was the invention of no-fault divorce (once it got into power in the state legislatures) and the beginning of rising divorce rates that peaked at two out of three marriages ending in divorce. In its own generation, the divorces usually came after many years of marriage, often when they reached their mid-forties, leaving devastation in the families. This generation, say Strauss and Howe, fits the “artist” archetype in temperament and action.
More than almost any other generation, the Silents, who began in childhood poverty, (early Silents who experienced the great depression) have enjoyed a steady rise to late-life affluence and have always taken economic prosperity for granted. At present the Silent generation has one foot in and one foot out of retirement. By the year 2010 the last of the Silent “bosses” will either be dead or retired, leaving little behind them, except confusion (created by its indecisiveness) to be sorted out by others.
Shaping and Major Events: the great depression for older members; Snow White set box-office records; attack on Pearl Harbor; World War II; Hiroshima; VE and VJ-Day; the appearance of TVs in the home; McCarthy anti-communist hearings; Korean War; the Cold War; Russia beats U.S. into orbit (Sputnik); rock and roll becomes popular; founding of the Peace Corps; Kennedy assassinations; publication of The Feminine Mystique; Armstrong lands on moon; the great society debate; Watergate scandal; Vietnam; the Boomer rebellion; stagflation of the Carter administration; energy crisis; Iran hostage crisis; defeat of the Soviet Union; Boomer Clinton defeats his own party’s Silent candidates and wins the Presidency.
Achievements: Caught in the battles between the G.I. (builders) and Boomer (destroyers) generations, the Silents never really got their own culture off the ground. This generation’s principal contributions have been in boosting what Strauss and Howe label the “helping professions (teaching, medicine, ministry, government).” It also provided the principal leaders in the civil rights and feminist movements (Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinem and others). It can take credit for embracing the nation’s cultural diversity, the rising encroachment into private lives by government bureaucracy (process trying to solve problems), the skyrocketing number of lawsuits and the devastating rise in broken families.
Having spent its generational energies on “process” the highest-achieving Silents have become advisers instead of leaders, the most successful of whom have been Bill Moyers, John Ehrlichman, James Baker and John Sununu. Though they have tried for the Presidency on several occasions (Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Jack Kemp), they have never made it, having been skipped over when Boomer Bill Clinton was elected. If they continue to fail, they will become the first generation in history never to produce a president.
Rewards: None really, except security. The Silents are the wealthiest, most financially stable generation in history, say Strauss and Howe.
Famous Members: William F. Buckley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gore Vidal, T. Boon Pickens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Elvis Presley, James A. Baker, Colin Powell, Phil Donahue, Woody Allen, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Streisand, Hugh Hefner, Bill Cosby, Geraldine Ferraro, Ted Koppel, Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, Clint Eastwood, Walter Mondale, the Chicago Seven.
Boom (Idealist) Generation (1943-1960)
Parents: G.I. and Silent Generations
Personality: The Boomer generation got its name because of its size—it produced a bumper crop of babies (baby boom). And, born to a world where market-size has clout, this generation has definitely reaped the benefits of size, both in the attention it has received and in its ability to help mold the culture of our times.
During Boomer childhood, predictions were that the generation was on the fringe of a golden age, that it would build beautiful, smog-free cities, lift up the underdeveloped world and put an end, once and for all, to poverty and war. As they grew, the country was “child-obsessed” with Dr. Spock and his theories running rampant. Every twitch and spasm of their growing pains were covered in detail in the media through the sixties and the seventies.
Boomers were idealistic, loud, inward-turning, know-it-alls out to tear down the materialistic world built by the G.I.s, but with nothing concrete to put in its place. Their rebellion carried them into drugs, communes, casual sex, flowered VWs and a lifestyle where idealistic symbolism was more important than substance. According to one writer, to be seen and heard protesting was more important to Boomers than to be seen actually doing something about a problem.
Now that they have reached midlife the Boomers have tended to take this symbolism into politics (and publishing) where saying or appearing to do the right thing still seems more important than obtaining a desired outcome. Boomer politicians frequently can be heard declaring, “We care!” while ignoring or brushing aside as irrelevant the actual outcomes of the policies they have instituted.
In high school the Boomers kicked off such statistical patterns as increasing drug abuse, elevating crime rates, increases in drunk driving and plummeting SAT scores. In rising adulthood the Boomers rebelled against virtually every value in sight, noisily questioning and debating such subjects as Vietnam, the military, guns, sex, race, religion and drugs. Where the Silent generation had earlier created many of the prototype protest organizations (Students for a Democratic Society, for example), extremist Boomers radicalized most of their causes. A popular book in the seventies was called The Organizer’s Handbook, a do-it-yourself manual on bringing the establishment to its knees. The Vietnam War served as the focal point of the Boomer rebellion, but because they belonged to a generation of idealists, they would have found something else if Vietnam hadn’t been there.
In midlife, Boomers have continued to be “self-centered” enough to get themselves labeled the “me” generation. They have remained wealthy enough to become “yuppies” and have carried the self-improvement craze to extremes. Advertisers love them.
Shaping and Major Events: Dr. Spock; 1 million TV sets; the Salk polio vaccine; Brown vs Board of Education; Sputnik; U.S. promotes science education in schools; the Berkeley “free speech movement”; summer of love; race riots; student strikes; moon landing; Woodstock festival; Kent State and Jackson State massacres; Earth Day; McGovern tries for youth vote and fails; Woodward and Bernstein help topple Nixon; beginning of Reagan era; Al Gore runs for President; Dan Quayle is elected Vice President.
Achievements: The main achievement of this generation has been the destruction (with the weak-spined complicity of the Silents) of the “values” legacy of the G.I. generation, which was the Boomer’s loudly declared goal (Burn, Baby. Burn!) as college students and rising adults. This destruction has been followed by an ongoing and agonizing struggle to find substitute values. During their rise, the Boomers gained a stranglehold on the popular culture that is only now beginning to diminish. (Some of the Gen Xers and the new-Civic Millennials are turning to alternative music stations. Swing bands are once again appearing on the scene.)
As Boomers exercise both political and financial power in their midlife they still seem to be searching for values, report Strauss and Howe. This time, however, it is they who are trying to impose their values on the younger generations. The generation that once vociferously disobeyed the law by embracing drugs, long hair and other accoutrements of the hippie culture, is now consistently using the force of government to “get its way”. Through their leaders, Boomers are advocating children’s uniforms in school, trying to control the size of cars and are trying to ban smoking if not drugs. For this reason their political enemies accuse them of being hypocrites and a generation who replaces destroyed values with government mandates.
Rewards: Too early to tell.
Famous Members: Oliver North, Janis Joplin, Joe Namath, Angela Davis, Steve Martin, David Stockman, Donald Trump, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lee Atwater, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, David Letterman, Spike Lee, Al Gore, Jane Pauley, William Bennett, Bill Bradley, Garry Trudeau, Bob Woodward, John McEnroe.
Generation X (Reactive) (1961-1981)
Parents: Silents and Boomers
Personality: Generation X has reaped the harvest of misery planted by the Silents and the Boomers. One out of three members of this generation never got born, either due to birth control or abortion. This generation has been forced to live with the divorce epidemic started by the Silents and carried on by the Boomers. A huge number of Gen Xers were raised as latchkey kids while juggling an incredibly complex family structure. In spite of being left alone with TV as babysitter, however, this generation finally ended the free-fall in SAT scores, all the while being attacked for being worse students than the Boomers. Because they were left alone, they have developed excellent adult interaction skills and the ability to “negotiate” for what they want. They are less college educated than the Boomer generation.
Though they have never been faced with the draft or a battlefield war, as children and young adults Gen Xers have had to learn to exist on a sexual landscape booby-trapped with near-and-real pornographic films, AIDS, herpes and try-before-you-buy courtship rituals. Having witnessed the miseries inherent in the hasty marriages of their parents, they tend to be cautious in their dating and marriage habits, often marrying much later in their lives than earlier generations. “They are not afraid of risk (they embrace it, in fact),” report Strauss and Howe. They are faced with disappearing corporate loyalties, downsizing, fewer plum jobs and frequent job changes in a climate of high taxes and high interest rates.
Unlike the Silents, who knew a non-ending rise in economic health, and the Boomers who were indulged and had an easy financial time, the Gen Xers are the salmons of our time, having to struggle hard upstream for any financial gain they make. As a consequence, they have tended to stay at home longer (one survey showed 3 out of 4 were still at home between ages 18 and 24).
While Steven Segal battling “evil” oil companies to save the environment might typify the hero of the Boomers, the heroes of Gen Xers are generally hard-charging individualistic competitors out to become wealthy or “numero uno” by beating a system that is stacked against them. The non-conforming Tom Cruise character in Top Gun out to overcome his father’s stained record by becoming the best of the best is a nearly perfect prototype Gen X hero. But the Tom Cruise character was no accident. Strauss and Howe report that when choosing government service, Gen Xers prefer military service to the civilian bureaucracy, which is a sharp turnaround from the Boomers. According to Strauss and Howe, Gen X college students cheered at a special 1979 University of Georgia showing of the movie Patton.
Because of the decline in their living standards (from that of the previous two generations) Gen Xers have developed as both cynical and pragmatic with a fragmented culture the authors say ranges “from grunge to hip-hop.” This generation, perhaps because it works so hard for its dollars, yet pays the highest percentage in taxes in history, tends to prefer the Republican Party’s “smaller, less intrusive, lower taxing government” rhetoric to the Democrat Party’s “we care, government can fix anything if you’ll only keep paying the taxes” rhetoric. This generation tends to believe more in flying saucers than it does in its ability to collect on social security taxes when it retires.
Spot a young man or woman with the muscled physique of a Greek god or goddess and there’s a good chance you’re looking at a Gen Xer. For this generation there are no “idealistic” goals, only a non-ending forage for the materials of survival. Status for Gen Xers comes from money, the right clothes, the right car, beepers and cellular phones. For boys, to avoid being considered a nerd or a wimp, “being cut” (a lean physique) is almost a must. For girls getting a $5,000 “boob job” paid for by credit card is an “in” thing to do. Multiple earrings, navel rings and other “oddities” are common in this generation.
This generation, which, according to Strauss and Howe, fits the “nomad” archetype, is the most “bashed” generation in history—and yet it is the generation that will have the practical decision-making know-how to guide the country through its next secular crisis when it occurs.
Achievements: too early to tell
Rewards: too early to tell
Shaping and Major Events (so far): U.S. government approves public sale of birth-control pills; the Baby Boom comes to an end; bad child films become popular (Rosemary’s Baby); Roe v Wade abortion case; Iran hostage crisis; long gas lines; youth vote supports Reagan; military enlistment’s rise; A Nation At Risk (report on educational status) attacks students; the Grenada invasion; school children watch the Challenger explode on TV; surge in gang killings; Berlin Wall is dismantled; rock lyrics are censored; U.S. troops go to Persian Gulf.
Famous Names (so far): Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Brooke Shields, Eddie Murphy, Michael Jordan, Tracy Chapman, Madonna, Quentin Tarantino, Deion Sanders, Alanis Morissette, Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Bon Jovi, Bret Easton Ellis, Moon Unit Zappa, Tiger Woods.
One important concept for writers is that of “the generational constellation.” As I mentioned earlier, at any given moment in history there are at least four (currently five due to increasing longevity) generations alive and interacting. Strauss and Howe call this mix of living generations a “constellation”. And, because there are four distinct generational personality types, there can be four different types of constellation, depending on which generation is in midlife and in charge at any given time. (Remember that the generations always occur in the same sequence.)
Currently, the constellation is made up of fading-away G.I.s, Silents (ages 56-73) now in elderhood, Boomers (ages 38-55) in midlife and in charge (mostly), Generation Xers (ages 17-37) in rising adulthood and the Millennials (ages 0-16) in childhood.
The Cure for Heroic Synchronitis
How can having all this information help cure you of heroic synchronitis? There’s no magic involved, but just by becoming aware that heroes differ from generation to generation you gain several major benefits.
1. You can do more intelligent story market research.
2. You can create heroes who are “in sync” with the demands of your markets.
3. You can create more realistic characters.
4. You can improve your ability to create realistic “conflict.”
For a complete discussion of this somewhat weighty topic, be sure to have a look at Quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling when it is published in January 2012