As the United States falls deeper into the willful anarchy of intentional leaderlessness demonstrated by our elected officials, I’ve noticed a trend of uncertainty about how we should lead among people of my generation. We late-Gen-Xers/early Millennials (those of us born some time in the late 1970s-early 1980s) straddle the border between a couple different dynamics. If you subscribe to Strauss-Howe generational theory (some have called it pseudoscience – I value it as an observation of a pattern more than a predictor of things to come) then you’ll note that these generations are “Nomad” and “Hero” archetypes, respectively. What does this mean?
In Strauss-Howe, there are four Archetypes (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist) born during four different Turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis). These time periods are roughly 20 years each, and each Archetype experiences the Turnings at different times in their life.
The current Gen-X Nomads were born during an Awakening (the 60s/early 70s counterculture) and grew up during an Unraveling (80s/90s consumerism, the “me” decades). If the pattern holds, they/we should mature into leaders during a Crisis. Meanwhile, Millennials were born during an Unraveling (80s) and should be growing up during a Crisis.
For those of us in the borderland between these two twenty-year generations, it is confusing to try to define ourselves. Are we Gen X? Millennials? What is the Crisis? Did it start with the events of 9/11/2001? That seems like a good choice for a beginning. If we pick that crisis, it’s been going on for over a decade, with perhaps a decade left to work through. If the pattern holds, we should see Gen X stepping up to take leadership and action. I’m beginning to see signs of the Millennials stepping up to take team-oriented action in the form of social consciousness, entrepreneurialism and the new “Maker” ethic. Meanwhile, Gen X seems to have passed cleanly through its angsty, angry searching years and emerged into successful mid-level managers placed throughout the crumbling infrastructure of the free market economy – the monolithic driver of the last three generations of Western experience.
The economy, now an artifice of high-frequency trading, ponzi schemes and prop-ups from taxpayers, is failing. The next step in that decline seems to be the self-imposed freakshow Russian Roulette game being played out in Congress by the Randian private wealth warriors elected through a combination of corporatist influence (thanks, Citizens United) and xenophopia. If the debt ceiling is not lifted and the shutdown continues, the global economy is in for another big downturn.
Where is the leadership that Gen X should be demonstrating? There are no protests on the National Mall. No one is running for office on a ticket of constitutional amendments to ban gerrymandering and undo citizens united. We are getting fidgety. We see things like former investment bankers quitting their jobs in their 30s to race $500 Craigslist cars in the World Rally Championship, or buying abandoned trailer parks in New Mexico and becoming Makers. We are impatient to lead, but our furtive steps toward leadership seem disconnected with the political and economic reality of the times. Perhaps we believe that the next steps have nothing to do with government or the global economy. If that turns out to be true, I think the next 10 years will be an interesting and very challenging time.