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William Strauss
William Strauss
Generations: The History of America's Future
ISBN: 0688119123
Generations: The History of America's Future
The authors discussed their book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." The book is about the effect of generational trends on history and American culture. The authors sort Americans into 18 generations, and then distinguish among four life cycle types. Each generation seems to take on one of the following characteristics: idealist (moralistic), reactive (pragmatic), civic (selfless), or adaptive (compromiser). The past, they said, showed there are often significant parallels between the "new" movements of each generation. "American society had pulsed to rhythms both within the family and within the world at large." They postulate that the four life cycle types can be used both to explain history and predict the future patterns of American culture. Their vision of the future is based on their study of America's past influences. They call this book the "full story of America around the 18 generations of our history."
Generations: The History of America's Future
Program Air Date: April 14, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Neil Howe, co-author of the new book "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584-2069," what's it all about?
NEIL HOWE: Well, "Generations" is a whole new way of looking at how the past shapes the future. Our book retells the entire story of America from the perspective of separate generations moving through time. We follow each of these generations from childhood to old age, starting with the first Puritan colonists and going through the small children of today. Along the way we discovered some outstanding patterns in history that seemed to be recurring in the appearance of generations. We found, for instance, that every generation belongs to one of four life-cycle types that seems to repeat in the same order over time. The appearance of young war heroes is almost always followed by the appearance of a young generation that appears indecisive and conformist to others. The appearance in history of passionate, young moralists is always followed by a generation which appears wild and uneducated to elders. So, what we do is take these patterns and try to use them to show America where we're headed in the future.
LAMB: William Strauss, co-author of the same book, where did you get this idea?
WILLIAM STRAUSS: I wrote a book about 15 years ago called "Chance and Circumstance" that was a history of how the Vietnam War affected my generation, which we call here the boom generation. Back then I was quite interested in how we were growing up so unlike our parents. The late 1960s and early '70s were in many respects a broad-scale attack by my generation against the institutions built by what amounted to our parents who had so indulgently raised us back in the 1950s. And I was wondering, had this ever happened before in American history. Back in the early '80s when I was working in the Congress for Sen. [Charles] Percy [R-IL], I was noticing the tremendous harms that were happening to the next generation of children, how the mantle of America's poorest generation, the most poverty-prone generation, passed directly from a previous generation of elders to a new batch of children without ever touching any of the generations in between. I thought this was a wrong of historic proportions and I, again, was curious whether something like this had ever happened before in American history. As I looked more closely at it and as Neil joined the project about five years ago and the two of us began working, we discovered that, yes, indeed, this had happened before, that American society had pulsed to rhythms both within the family and within the world at large. That's how our idea of writing the full story of America around the 18 generations of our history first came about.
LAMB: How did you two guys meet?
HOWE: Well, we met about five years ago. Basically we were just following the same interests. In addition to Bill's book about the Vietnam generation, I had written a book with Pete Peterson called "On Borrowed Time," basically about how today's old-age entitlements programs may not be there for today's younger generations when they retire. I became interested in how we think about allocating resources between the young and the old. Why is it that some generations when they reach old age are rewarded for a lifetime of great achievement, and why is that other generations reach old age and they slip into poverty and no one seems to care about them? So, I became interested, too, in looking at patterns in the past. What was remarkable is that when Bill and I got around to looking through history, we found that there were patterns, that these things rise up again in a predictable manner.
LAMB: Where are you from? Where did you go to school?
HOWE: California. I went to school in the Bay Area -- Palo Alto.
LAMB: How did you get out here in Washington?
HOWE: Well, that's a long story. I first came out to Indianapolis, Ind., where I was a managing editor of a magazine. I went to graduate school at Yale in history and economics. I worked for about eight or 10 years as a policy analyst. I finally came down to Washington and continued writing and joined Bill on this project.
LAMB: And before I ask Bill the same questions, who is Pete Peterson?
HOWE: Pete Peterson is former secretary of commerce, former chairman of Lehman Brothers, Kuhn, Loeb, now chairman of the Blackstone Group in New York.
LAMB: You mentioned Sen. Percy earlier, and anybody that's watched this network has seen your work with The Capitol Steps. What is The Capitol Steps, and how did you get to Sen. Percy's office?
STRAUSS: Well, I, like Neil, am a boomer who grew up in the 1950s out in California and then went to Harvard in the late '60s in the middle of that campus turmoil. Graduated from law school and the Kennedy School there and came to Washington; worked in variety of jobs in addition to writing that book about the Vietnam War. I started working with Sen. Percy right around the time Elaina Newport and I formed The Capitol Steps along with Jim Aidala back in 1981. Over the past nine years with Elaina, I have written about 400 song parodies about the foibles of Washington -- many of them the same foibles that Neil and I write about in a very serious tone in this particular book. I guess I'm one of those unusual people in the entertainment industry who after the show is over I'll go home and read Emerson and Steinbeck and write notes about what happened in the 1870s rather than what some other people in the business are known to do after shows.
LAMB: If someone has never seen The Capitol Steps, what would they see and where do you entertain?
STRAUSS: Well, we have a musical-political satire show. We perform all across the country. We do public shows here in Washington, D.C., at Chelsea's Cabaret once a week on Saturdays. We do about 300 shows a year.
LAMB: And it used to be for fun?
STRAUSS: It used to be strictly for fun and for charities. After Sen. Percy lost in 1984, we decided we would go pro and we now are a professional troupe. We have nine record albums.
LAMB: You don't perform with The Capitol Steps?
HOWE: I don't perform, no. I don't think I'd dare to.
STRAUSS: When I team with Neil I try to be historical. When I team with Elaina Newport, I try to get at least a little bit hysterical.
LAMB: I want to show our audience a chart that's in your book. I don't know if we can get any closer on it than we are right there, but you can see that you have labeled generations. "Missionary" means that you were what?
STRAUSS: A "missionary" is a peer of Franklin Roosevelt. These were the children who were born in the aftermath of the Civil War. I would say that it was a time when the family was a warm place in American society. It was the first time Christmas in the modern sense was celebrated in America with a jolly Santa Claus and Christmas cards and a tree.
LAMB: So you were born between 1860 and 1882.
STRAUSS: Well, you'd be over 109 right now, and there are about 1,000 of you out there in America and I hope at least some of them are watching here today. We remember them mainly as the wise men of World War II, the elders who steered America through the twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.
LAMB: Neil, how about the "lost" generation?
HOWE: Well, the lost generation, born between 1883 and 1900, was first noticed in America as the exploited street urchins and "newsies" of turn-of-the-century America. These were the kids who suffered from the highest child employment rates in American history. They came of age labeled as "bad" by older generations who considered them a little bit wild and uneducated. They were tarred a bit by the 1920s and some of the bad people who came out of that decade. After the Great Depression when they were the one age group in mid-life that never received any subsidy from the government, they settled into a rather reclusive old age, an old age in which in the post-war America they restrengthened the American family, they paid back the national debt and slowed down the culture and gave generously to the younger generations that came behind them.
LAMB: Bill Strauss, what does "G.I." stand for?
STRAUSS: Well, the G.I. generation were the first G.I. Joes -- as the missionary Gen. Marshall described them, "the best damn kids in the world," from World War II. We remember them swarming ashore on the beaches at Iwo Jima and Normandy. America first met them with Charles Lindbergh and Walt Disney and the first Boy and Girl Scouts that America ever had. These were team players and good kids, smart kids -- a little unlike the lost generation bad kids of just a couple of decades before. They felt their major brush with history and with heroism when young, and coming out of the war they felt a huge generational slingshot which energized them and the country. They have since then held the presidency of the United States longer than any other generation in our history, from Presidents Kennedy through Bush, and they also upon entering elderhood found themselves attacked by the boom generation and have since then separated into a senior citizen community. We never before used the term "senior citizen" widely until we associated that kind of busy, optimistic, upbeat atmosphere with this generation in elderhood. Of course, over the past two decades, America has funneled an enormous amount of resources into health care and retirement subsidies for this generation -- enormously beyond what the lost generation knew and far beyond what Neil and I expect will be available for other generations.
HOWE: Let me just add here that an important theme of our book is how certain personality traits follow a generation from youth to old age. One of the characteristics of the G.I.s back in the 1930s and 1940s, from "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "Accentuate the Positive," is the incredible confidence about the future and a passion to be busy, to be building and to be constructive.
LAMB: What about the silent generation, 1925 to 1942? That's when people were born, during those years.
STRAUSS: Well, the silent generation were the ones who refined and added nuance to what the G.I.s were doing. They, too, felt the pressure of what the initials G.I. stand for, which is "general issue" -- the regularity of the society. They came of age in a world that they felt was overly conformist and set about on a life mission of adding nuance and complexity and other directedness and cultural pluralism to a society that when young felt over-simple to them. They fused the white and Afro-American cultures to produce rock 'n' roll. They were the leading early proponents of the civil rights movements, the non-violent movements. Virtually all of the prominent African-American leaders of the civil rights movement from the first children who desegregated the schools at Little Rock up through the Jesse Jacksons and Douglas Wilders of today have been members of the silent generation. But they had the misfortune to reach mid-life -- all the silent generation did -- at a time when the consciousness revolution of the 1960s hit. This is when they were the guardians of the family, and it splintered families on their watch. It resulted in a substantial weakening of the protection afforded to the young. Then in the last couple of decades we've seen the silent generation be the dominant generation in the Congress. This has been a time when public confidence in the ability of the Congress to actually solve the nation's problems has eroded. They are zero for six in runs for the presidency. They could very well be the first generation never to elect a president.
LAMB: Neil, boom.
HOWE: The boom generation, born 1943 to 1960, first arrived as the victory babies of World War II. They were also the first Dr. Spock babies, who told parents to raise their children a bit more indulgently, with a bit more relaxed style of nurturing. Give them what they want materially so these kids could think about deeper values and deeper meanings. The '43-cohorts--those born in '43 -- we later met during the free-speech movement at Berkeley in 1965. This was the same college class. They went on to add passion and violence to the protest movements of the '60s. During the 1970s when everyone expected the boomers to become a great new political force in American politics, they instead entered a political remission. By 1980 they had become the yuppie, and they concentrated on a certain cultural perfectionism. Rather than involving themselves with politics, they detached themselves from institutional life, from having families, from having steady jobs. Today they're beginning to enter mid-life, and they're beginning to show a puritanical streak. The same generation that 20 years ago trusted no one over 30 is today beginning to police the morals of everyone under 30. Now, this is a pattern, as with all these generations, that we see in every previous generation of this type. We expect to see a lot more of that sterner tone from the boomers as they move into their 50s.
LAMB: Both of you are boomers, right?
HOWE: That's right.
STRAUSS: That's right. I was born in 1947 and Neil in 1951. Now, you see, we define the boom generation differently from demographers. You often hear reference to the years 1946 through 1964 as mapping the baby boom. We think that's an interesting statement about the fertility patterns of American parents during that time, but it doesn't tell you about the personality of the generation. The most important thing to look for in defining a generation is how the members of that generation define themselves. If you ask people who were born between 1943 and '45 whether they feel like boomers, whether they've always felt like it, generally they'll say, "Absolutely." Similarly, you ask members of what we call the 13th generation -- born from '61 through '64 -- whether they are boomers, and they say, "Please, God help me, no."
LAMB: And those you also refer to as "thirteeners?"
STRAUSS: The 13th generation in American history dating back to Benjamin Franklin. These are the 13th to know the American nation and flag. They also are faced with a real hard-luck life cycle reminiscent of what the old lost generation knew. The number 13 is a good reflection of that. It's also a slippery label, something that the kids themselves like because they're tired of being criticized by elders, being told that they're part of a baby bust group that is disappointing when compared with the boom.
HOWE: One thing we talk about with the 13th generation is how attitudes toward children changed very dramatically in the early 1960s and through the 1970s. The 13th generation are the first babies people took pills not to have. As the 1960s went on we saw a new kind of movie come into national popularity -- the "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist"-type film which depicted the child as devil, as bad, mean and selfish. Many of the thirteeners today in their late 20s remember that period, and their sense of identity, their sense of self, has in some ways been permanently shaped by that. Today, by contrast, since the early 1980s, we've had a whole new batch of cuddly baby movies. Today, with the emergence of yet a new generation, babies are to be protected. We see "baby on board" bumper stickers everywhere, and people think that children must be given a better national mission and must be given structure as children.
STRAUSS: And we call them the millennial generation.
LAMB: The ones that were born between 1982 and the year 2003.
STRAUSS: Kids who are presently in third grade and younger.
HOWE: It's when we saw a sudden change in people's attitude toward divorce, toward family, towards a structure in discipline in schools -- a re-thinking of many of the assumptions in the education experiments that many people in retrospect believe went wrong during the 1970s.
LAMB: There is available for anyone who wants to read it -- and I'm going to bring it up here -- wide swings in the way people feel about your book, as you well know, from reviewers to the jacket. One of the strongest statements made on the jacket about this book comes from Sen. Albert Gore, Jr. Before I read it, why Sen. Gore? Why did you pick him?
STRAUSS: He asked to see an early manuscript of the book a couple of years ago and we passed it to him, and he felt that this book told the story of history in a way that people his age could connect with. It was unlike anything else that he had encountered.
LAMB: I'm not too sure this is an easy answer. How would he know, for instance, that you were doing this book? Is this something that everybody around town has known for a while?
STRAUSS: Well, because he appeared onstage with The Capitol Steps, and I chatted with him about it. He actually has a wonderful singing voice, too, as well as being a good judge of books.
LAMB: I bring him up because his statement is very strong. "Generations"--this is the name of your book -- "is the most stimulating book on American history I have ever read." Does that surprise you?
HOWE: Well, it pleases us. We hope it doesn't surprise us too much. We try to bring history alive and tell it from the vantage point of the people who actually lived it. Most historians don't tell history that way.
LAMB: He says, "As Thomas Kuhn predicted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" -- who was Thomas Kuhn?
HOWE: Well, he was a historian of the history of science who wrote that disciplines are periodically transformed by sudden paradigm shifts, for instance, when Copernicus suggested that explaining planets as revolving around the sun could simplify and improve explanations of how the universe worked.
LAMB: Let me finish that quote: "As Thomas Kuhn predicted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all disciplines of learning are periodically transformed by great works of interpretation, capable of producing a paradigmatic shift in thinking. I think Generations is such a work in American history." Why all of a sudden has the word "paradigm" become so used in this town?
STRAUSS: Well, people are looking for a new way to connect themselves to the larger story of America. That is the problem. We've felt adrift over the past 10 years, and we think that the way history has been presented over the past couple of decades has been more in terms of the little pieces and people are not as interested in the little pieces now. They're looking for a unifying vision. We haven't had unifying visions of the story of America for decades now, and we're trying to provide it in this book.
HOWE: There's a generational dimension to this. I think "paradigm" is an especially popular word among boomers like ourselves.
LAMB: What does it mean?
HOWE: It means a single pattern which puts all the pieces in the proper relation so it's easily understandable. We have a theory here of a cyclical pattern of child-nurturing, coming-of-age experience, which explains, we believe, a lot about why American history fluctuates back and forth -- for instance, between periods of national emergency and period of spiritual awakening.
STRAUSS: For example, there was another paradigm of American history that people all remember from the 1890s, and that was Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier theory. That at the time was a simplifying point which changed the way people viewed themselves and their country. They realized the frontier was ending, they were grappling for something that's new. If you're talking about a shift in thinking, it's something that perhaps could change the way Americans approach the future. We talk, for example, about endowments. There's been a lot of writing about empowerment, what some people say is the paradigm of the Bush administration. I think we would argue that empowerment is what people were doing in the 1980s with the self-immersion. Endowment is what we are more likely to be thinking about as we move through the 1990s and beyond when we focus on how we can contribute to a better future for children about whom the country is beginning to care more.
LAMB: On the back of the jacket you have quotes from David Stockman, Jody Powell, Lawrence Mead, William Niskanen, Richard Neustadt, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Marilyn Fergeson and Cheryl Russell. If my memory serves me properly, they're all over the lot politically. Did you do that on purpose?
STRAUSS: Oh, yes. That's just the way this book is turning out. We could have added quotes by Newt Gingrich and Pat Schroeder saying essentially the same thing. Al Gore is sending this book to every member of Congress, he believes in it so much. We're finding that it doesn't matter whether you're Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, there's plenty in here that will please you and some things that will displease you. Our purpose is not to advance any political agenda, but to get people to think more seriously about themselves and how they fit into the long story of America -- past, present and future.
LAMB: One of the first effects you had on me was I noticed that in the first pages you kept mentioning Homer. I remember reading Homes years and years ago, so I went out and got a copy. One of the most interesting things I found is that it says on the back, "the greatest tale of all time." It sells for $2.95, which isn't a bad deal. Let's see what your book sells for today. It sells for $22.95.
HOWE: Yes, a lot of inflation there.
LAMB: Anyway, I want to ask you about Homer in a second. I also clipped the Washington Post review by Jay Dolan.
STRAUSS: That's actually the New York Times.
LAMB: I'm sorry, the New York Times. Do you know who Jay Dolan is?
STRAUSS: Well, Jay Dolan works -- or has worked -- for Father Hesburgh. Father Hesburgh thought our book was a monumental work. Jay Dolan is a professor of, I think, Catholic history, and he thinks that you can't find a unifying vision in American history. We just have a disagreement with him.
LAMB: What does it do to you when you read in the New York Times, "As history, Generations does not make the grade. It pretends to offer a new interpretation of the past, but it is too contrived to be taken seriously, and as a guide to the future it is about as reliable as a neighborhood fortune teller."
STRAUSS: Well, we also noticed in the review that he is concerned about how we cannot define a silent generation, that it's just too diverse. He says that there are probably are thousands -- even millions -- of people who do not fit into the pattern of ambivalence that we identify within generations. We've never tried to say that any individual generation is going to be monochromatic. It'll obviously include all kinds of people. But as you look at generations as social units, we consider it to be at least as powerful and, in our view, far more powerful than other social groupings such as economic class, race, sex, religion and political parties.
HOWE: Which, by the way, he takes us to task for not talking about class, race, sex, and so forth, which are probably generalizations not even as effective as a generation to say something about how people think and behave. One of the things to understand is that most historians never look at history in terms of generations. They prefer to tell history as a seamless row of 55-year-old leaders who always tend to think and behave the same way -- but they don't and they never have. If you look at the way America's 55-year-old leaders were acting in the 1960s -- you know, the ebullient and confidence of the JFKs and LBJs and Hubert Humphreys -- and compare them with today's leaders in Congress -- the indecision, the lack of sure-footedness -- I think you would have to agree that 55-year-olds do not always act the same way and you're dealing with powerful generational forces at work that explain why one generation of war veterans, war heroes, and another generation which came of age in very different circumstances tend to have very different instincts about acting in the world.
STRAUSS: The kinds of historians who are drawn to our book -- and I'm sure it will be very controversial among academics because we are presenting something that is so new -- but the kinds who are drawn to it are the ones who themselves have focused on the human life cycle rather than just the sequential series of events. Some good examples of that are Morton Keller up at Brandeis and David Hackett Fischer. These are people who have noticed the power in not just generations, but the shifts that have happened over time in the way Americans have treated children and older people and have tried to link that to the broader currents of history.
LAMB: In this review he also levels some charges halfway through. He says, "When history does fit into their scheme, they make things up, as they have done on the Civil War epic. According to their formula, the Civil War cycle stretched from the 1820s to the 1880s, but only three generations emerged in this cycle rather than the four their theory requires. Why? Because the Civil War happened too soon according to their calculations and in order for their version of history to come out right in the 20th century, the authors are forced to argue that no generation of civic-minded people appeared in this era."
STRAUSS: Well, he's right that we say that there is only a three-generation cycle in the Civil War time, and we explain in the book why that is so. The cycle can be broken. That's the one thing that our history shows us. It was possible and it did happen, and it happened in the midst of the greatest national tragedy in American history. Professor Mead at New York University told us he thinks one of the strengths of our theory is its resilience, and he cites the Civil War anomaly as an example of that, in that it shows that if events go badly and if there's a tragedy of that kind of proportion that, yes, it does have a deep effect upon the way people behave in families and in communities. I would say that as we look to the future and we reflect on the possibility that someday we might have a tragedy of that proportion, I don't think it's a slight on our theory to say something like that can cause this kind of a problem.
HOWE: Many historians have told us that if you have 18 generations and you have a cycle that seems to repeat itself perfectly with that one aberration, that the aberration actually strengthens the theory. It means that you weren't simply trying to fit everything into a preconceived pattern, and it means that also our theory is not deterministic, that there are ways in which the cycle can be broken or rerouted for a time. That's very important for people to know -- that we're not presenting here a clockwork universe which no matter how we try or what we do will always turn out the same.
LAMB: The cycle is 22 years? I mean the generations.
STRAUSS: Generations average about 22 years, but they range from 17 to 33 years. We let the generations define themselves, and one of the things we've tried to do with that chart that you're looking at right now is to show the total flow of generational history in America and how their life cycles have evolved over time.
LAMB: I've done a lot of "Booknotes" here, and I've never seen anything quite like this. Was this hard to do in book publishing, to get a chart that literally flips out three pages worth?
STRAUSS: Actually, that was what the publisher was initially interested in. They saw our early version of that chart and they thought, "My goodness, here's a brand-new way of looking at American history."
LAMB: How hard was this to do?
STRAUSS: Well, we had to have an understanding of that in our minds before we could write the whole book.
HOWE: It was the result of a lot of thinking, re-thinking, reading, research, reconfirming some of the dividing lines between generations. Looking at prominent people, born in different years. It was really the summation of most of the research we did for the entire book.
STRAUSS: You see, what this shows is what we call the generational diagonal. You see the same event, the Civil War, hitting each of these four different generations at a different phase of life -- youth through rising adulthood, mid-life to elderhood. The progressives is youth, the gilded generation in the rising adulthood ...
HOWE: Abraham Lincoln's transcendental generation in mid-life and Henry Clay and Daniel Webster's compromiser generation.
LAMB: There's just a lot of things in this book and a lot of language, a lot of terms and all that. Did you worry that there might be too much?
HOWE: No, we didn't. This book is not a light read. It has aspects of it that are challenging, but what people have told us is this book repays the effort they put into it. Many people have told us this is a book they go back to again and again and that it's also fun to read. I think that the way we tell each generation as a life story -- we start with their childhood and we go to their old age and we try to show the continuities in personality and the way their minds develop and the way their attitudes toward the world change. This is something that historians simply have not done.
LAMB: I want to go back to Homer, which I have not gotten through, by the way, since I've bought it. This book's enough right here. The only reason I went out is that you kept mentioning it. I went back and counted. You mentioned Homer on 12 different pages, I think. Why? What was it about Homer?
HOWE: Well, we looked at people who had glimpsed parts of this four-part cycle before. We went back through sociologists and historical writers in the 19th century, and we discovered that a few of them -- some of them rather obscure like Guiseppe Ferrari who was an obscure Italian historian -- actually had described a four-part cycle that was applicable in Italian history over the centuries, going back to Renaissance times. We went back and looked at important pieces of literature including the Old Testament and the Odyssey and the Iliad and looked at what others have said about them, and we discovered that even some of the great seminal works of literature in Western civilization seemed to describe something that approaches a four-part cycle of generations. It's interesting, for instance, in the Bible they often talk about curses and sins lasting through the fourth generation. They usually don't say three and they never say five. We find that a cycle of four generations which completes a period of empire-building or a period of spiritual prophecy until the next prophecy or the next empire-builder arrives is a very common pattern used, long before we ever thought about modernity and long before America was founded.
STRAUSS: And Brian, there's a reason for the four generations, too, and one of the reasons that the book is as substantial -- 500 hundred pages long -- as it is, is we try to show not just what the cycle is but why it is. At the core of it is the very thing that traditional historians overlook and that's the cycle of nurture in families. We give as much importance to what happens in childhood and in the coming-of-age years as we do to what people do when they are in their peak of political power. When you look at the cycle of nurture you see an ebb and flow between over-protection of children, which tends to happen during times of spiritual awakening, and the over-protection of children which happens during a time of national crisis like World War II. Through the late '60s and '70s we had a period of underprotection, and we're heading back towards a period of re-protection. We expect that, if history is a guide, reach a point of over-protection in another 20 or 25 years. What this does is it lines up with the same patterns in history that other historians have seen. About 80 or 90 years since the very beginning of the story of America we've seen great hinges in history -- what we call crises -- that reshape the public world, and roughly halfway in between we have what are commonly called by historians "great awakenings" where a new values regime comes in. It's happened every since the Puritans first landed.
LAMB: Let me ask you a question about that New York Times review. We've seen lots of stories -- as a matter of fact, I think "60 Minutes" did a thing on Frank Rich and his impact on Broadway. When he does a bad review, some of those shows close. Do you worry that the review that you had in the New York Times will affect your book that way?
STRAUSS: No, not at all.
HOWE: I don't worry about it, no.
STRAUSS: No, because we find with this book that the word of mouth is very important. You have to read this book and you have to read it carefully to understand what our point is.
HOWE: Even among the academic community, which is obviously always a concern of ours because we do present this as a legitimate work of interest to historians, we've been gratified by the response we get among many historians who say, "It's about time that my profession begins to look at the big picture."
STRAUSS: Some of the big-picture books of the past 30 or 40 years have not come from universities, whether you're talking "Feminine Mystique" or "Megatrends" or "Future Shock". Derek Bok, as a matter of fact, last year was complaining how within the disciplines of the social sciences at major universities so few paradigmatic books have emerged over the last half century.
LAMB: Each of you go back to where this all started. Where did you get your first interest in history?
HOWE: My interest in history probably goes back to the time I was an undergraduate in college. I was a typical boomer in that my G.I.-generation parents were all interested in the physical sciences. They were educated materialists, you might say, out exploring the stars and quantifying matter. As a typical boomer, I grew up interested in values. I grew up interested in how culture develops, how civilization improves upon itself. I think many boomers were taught as kids by their war-veteran parents that "we sacrificed so many of our years to build all this for you, but we're leaving it up to you kids to find out where to take it -- to make the decisions between right and wrong, to figure out the right values." So this took me in the direction of history and looking back to find out how people in the past have figured out the difference between right and wrong, which is always an issue with the boom generation.
LAMB: What line of work were your parents in?
HOWE: My father was a physicist and my uncle was an astronomer. My grandfather also was an astronomer, actually. But a family of scientists, definitely, I come from.
LAMB: Could you point to anybody in your family or in your school work that got you interested directly in history or did you do it yourself?
HOWE: I did it myself. Again, I think, typical of my generation, I didn't follow directly the footsteps of my father. I chose a somewhat different path.
LAMB: Are you surprised you ended up in Washington, D.C.?
HOWE: Now, that does surprise me -- not that I became an historian but that I'm here.
LAMB: Why does it surprise you?
HOWE: It's a long way away from California. I think many people out here don't realize that Californians tend to stick to themselves, and they regard Washington, D.C., as three-quarters of the way to Europe.
LAMB: Is it a place you'll end up, do you think, or will you go back to California?
HOWE: Well, I've lived on the East Coast here now for nearly 20 years. Pretty soon it'll be longer than I ever lived in California, so I think I've made it my home.
LAMB: Mr. Strauss, can you tell us where it all started with you?
STRAUSS: I felt my first real brush with history back when I was a high school junior. I was a page at the United States Supreme Court. That was the year that John Kennedy was assassinated. I remember sitting in the judges chambers. I was with Justice Brennan and Justice Goldberg and Justice White when the news came. Then within the next couple of days I watched on Pennsylvania Avenue as the funeral procession passed by. It caused me to reflect a little bit on the fact that this was the shining knight of my own parents' generation. Through the rest of the 1960s while I was at Harvard -- the same class that exploded in riot and strikes; although I didn't participate in that I saw it and it saddened me -- I was well aware of what my peers were doing to attack the institutions of their elders. Then as I wrote the book about how the Vietnam War affected my generation, I saw really quite a tragic relationship developing between what we call the G.I. generation and the boomers. Right after that, of course, the G.I.s separated into their own culture, basically abandoning the culture for the boomers in return for a substantial reward in the form of entitlements programs in return. It wasn't a very happy ending to the generation gap that we all remember. I think that that's how I came both to the question of generations and to a way of looking at American history a little bit differently -- starting in families and looking at people moving through time.
LAMB: How did you get to the Supreme Court page job in the first place?
STRAUSS: Well, that was the result of the hard work of my G.I. parents, especially my mother who was very typical of the "Leave It To Beaver" kind of household that we saw in the 1950s -- a mother who couldn't do enough for her children. It was also typical of the kindnesses that people showed towards children back in those days. I certainly felt as I was growing up that the schooling that people my age received was the most important task that our community had, and I daresay in the decades since then, children haven't had that same attitude.
LAMB: What did your parents do for a living?
STRAUSS: Well, my father received his greatest pleasure and triumph in World War II, like many people in his generation. My mother, like many women of her generation, only was able to discover relatively late in life her abilities in the public world, and since then she's become a masterful expert in public relations out in San Francisco and she's still working hard.
LAMB: All right. How did you do this book? How did you physically write 500 pages and split up the work?
HOWE: Well, it was a problem with logistics, also a problem with the calendar. Bill and I often joke about how we're on completely different sleep-wake cycles. Since he's a performer in the evening and since I get up very early in the morning, our days overlap for about four hours. But we worked with faxes, constant car transportation, on the phone daily, which is quite something when you have a project that goes on over a number of years.
STRAUSS: We were breaking new ground in a lot of areas. We have about 60 pages of very small-type footnotes in the back, and we felt that we wanted to give other people a chance to carry on with this kind of work. There are many generations like the G.I. generation of senior citizens. Nobody has ever written a biography about this generation before. It's remarkable when you consider their own strong connection to history. There have been dozens of biographies of boomers, and a few of the silent, but none of the G.I.s and none of the 13th generation. We had to sort through all of American history, and we found only the very, very isolated example of someone who had taken a peer group from birth and followed them all the way through old age.
LAMB: Let me go back, though, to the basics. How did you do it? In other words, how did you split it up?
STRAUSS: Well, to write the history of Abraham Lincoln's generation, for example, you had to find a history of childhood and see what was going on around the 1800s and 1810s. You had to find a history of youth or religion or great spiritual and abolitionist movements to find out what young people were doing in the 1830s. You had to look at histories of the family to find out what people were doing in forming families around the 1830s and '40s. Then you'd look at a traditional history book to find out what they were doing at the peak of power. And then you would look at histories of old age to find out how they were treated when old. We had to take all of those pieces and write a completely separate story.
HOWE: To come back to this whole question of reconstructing history along what we call the generational diagonal -- following the same group through time -- you know, you can read a lot of books, and some of them very fine books, written about the history of childhood. They'll describe the street urchins of the 1890s, and then suddenly a couple of chapters later you'll get the Boy Scouts of the 1920s. But, of course, these aren't the same people. These are different people. What we had to do was take the histories of childhood, the histories of adolescence, of marriage, of old age and refit the pieces together so that they're talking about the same people over time. This is really at the core of what the whole purpose of this book is about.
LAMB: Again, though, did you write one chapter and Bill write another?
STRAUSS: We really both worked on the whole book. We really did. Some of us would write first drafts of different chapters. I guess you could say I wrote more of the first drafts of the 19th and 20th century generations and Neil of the 17th and 18th generations. But we both worked on all of it.
HOWE: By the time we got to the end I don't think you'll notice any stylistic gaps as you read through it.
LAMB: Did you ever disagree on anything?
STRAUSS: Not very much. We worked it out. Well, there was a kind of a creative process in which we each would come across something new and we always had to test it against our idea of the theory, and our own idea of the theory, of course, evolved over time as we saw what was actually happening out there. We divide the book into really three parts -- one part to explain what the generation is, why it's important and how it connects with people in their daily lives; a second section and it's the longest section in which we tell the entire story of America as a biography of 18 generations.
HOWE: And we divide each of these generations up into phases of life. We have a little section on their youth, coming of age, rising adult, mid-life, and we deal with history always from the prism of this life-cycle framework.
STRAUSS: And it's important to say we spend as much time on their childhood as we spend on how they behaved as presidents.
LAMB: Bill Strauss, you said that you started seven years ago, and, Neil, you joined him five years ago. When did you actually start writing this book and when did you finish it?
STRAUSS: Well, we had to spend years doing research for it and collecting clippings about the modern generations and doing a tremendous amount of reading. We probably had to consult ...
HOWE: Our houses are still littered with hundreds of photocopies of articles, copies of books, binders filled with material because, again, piecing this together along this diagonal was arduous work. It required going through many books just to work out one point of history.
LAMB: Did you computerize all of this?
STRAUSS: Oh, of course. This book could not have been written longhand, I assure you.
LAMB: Is there something that the computer made available today to be able to do this that you wouldn't have been able to do this 30 years ago?
STRAUSS: Well, there's one very important thing the computer made available, and that's what we have in the appendix. This is something that's very new data. It's part of our second appendix where we show the generational makeup of the national leadership by year. There are some startling things that you discover in that. For example, if you go to the next page, you'll find the largest generational landslide in American history happened in the years immediately following the Civil War when the transcendental generation, which held the largest generational plurality ever seen -- 90 percent of all the members of Congress and senators and governors were transcendental at the outbreak of the Civil War -- in 1869 there was a 19-point swing from Abraham Lincoln's generation to Ulysses Grant's, the biggest ever seen, and it showed the exhaustion that American society faced.
HOWE: Basically voters were throwing out the older reformers who had brought such tragedy to the country and putting in the younger pragmatists.
STRAUSS: Then when we look at more modern generations, we can see in our own time that the gray 89th Congress -- what sometimes is called "the grandfather of entitlements programs" -- was right when the G.I.s were at the peak of their power. Seventy-five percent, approximately, of the members of Congress and Senate and the state houses were G.I.s, and they used that power enormously to enact the Great Society agenda. The silent emerged into power right around the time of Watergate and the Ford and Carter years, right around the time the country was beginning to feel that it was spinning its wheels and unable to solve problems. When you look at the boom generation, you can see that we're still at only 21 percent but we're at approximately the same phase of life as Franklin Roosevelt's missionary generation was around 1910, and over the decade that followed they swept into office and with it they brought a very stern new morals regime to the country. That's one of the things that we predict will happen in the 1990s.
LAMB: You talked about Sen. Gore earlier. He saw the book, he read it, he gave you a tremendous boost here on the flap. Let's say he's thinking about running for president, and he picks up your book and looks at it. What does it tell him? He's a boomer?
HOWE: He is a boomer, yes.
LAMB: What does it tell him about his possibility of being elected president?
STRAUSS: Well, so far the silent generation has not done a very good job of electing presidents, and we may very well go from a G.I. to a boom. Whether it's Democratic or Republican, I don't know.
LAMB: I guess I'm in the silent generation.
STRAUSS: If you're between 48 and 65 you are in the silent generation.
LAMB: I am. I'm 49.
STRAUSS: You came of age just too late to participate as a hero in World War II and just too early to feel the heat of the Vietnam draft.
LAMB: Again go back to Sen. Gore because I assume there are a number of boomers that are out there. We don't have to use him necessarily by name, but Sen. Kerry ...
HOWE: I think what it's going to tell people of the boom generation who are in politics or interested in entering politics -- incidentally, one of our predictions is in the 1990s we are going to see a lot of boomers coming into politics from other professions, other walks of life. The long-time incumbent politician that is very characteristic of the silent generation may become a fading artifact, and we may begin to have a swifter turnover in congressional seats. But what it's going to say is that his peers, who are going to begin to dominate the electorate in terms of voting clout, are going to take a sterner, more values-oriented approach to the problems of the country. Everyone is already talking about the 1990s as the decade of austerity, the decade of savings, the decade when we have to sort of pay back for some of the sins we've made in the 1970s and '80s. A lot of this is boomer-driven, we think. We think this is characteristic of this type of generation moving into mid-life. One of the targets both intentionally and accidentally of the morals campaign, you might say, of the boomers will be younger people to clean up the world or to rectify the mistakes of youth. And, of course, this is part of what we talk about in creating this new, safer, more protected nurture-of-the-young millennial generation.
STRAUSS: The boomers tend to look upon thirteeners as an army of aging Bart Simpsons -- the brat pack, the kids who are a little too wild, not well educated and don't have that much to offer. The kids who are now in their 20s, the thirteeners, resent this as they try to find their own way in a world that they perceive as very difficult for them.
HOWE: As a matter of fact, Sen. Gore's wife, Tipper Gore, is actively involved in the movement to an extent to clean up some of the lyrics and some of what's going on in the youth culture. Boomers feel very strongly about that because they felt to an extent they were burned by that, and they feel the damage it can do to children in a way that the silent generation, who has been running our culture since the early 70s, never felt that damage because, of course, they had an extremely conformist -- almost a smothering -- childhood, and they have no first-hand experience of what the danger of under-protection can do to children.
STRAUSS: What we think that politicians or marketers -- in particular product salesmen who are concerned about how to reach generations -- should think about as they read our book and try to decide how to either get elected or launch a new product line is look real hard at the section of our book that will certainly be the most controversial with historians, and that is we have a whole section on the future, a 50-page chapter, on what we say the cycle tells us about what the future will be.
LAMB: This is chapter 13?
STRAUSS: It's chapter 13 and we call it "Completing the Millennial Cycle," and what we do is not try to predict specific events, but rather how the national mood will shift and how each of today's generations will behave as they grow a little bit older. In the past what people have done is tended to assume that there won't be any change in the way older people will behave or that 25-year-olds will still be like 25-year-olds used to be. That has not happened in the past couple of decade. It's never happened in American history. Today, for example, if you were to reflect on each phase of life, it's completely different from what it was back in the 1960s. Our elders are busy and active and happy. People in mid-life are sensitive, compassionate, caring, concerned about cultural pluralism. The people in their 30s, the boomers, are self-immersed and uninclined to follow the directions set by other people, very much unlike the silent. In the next 20 years or so, you're going to see changes just as dramatic.
LAMB: What's your biggest surprise as you go around and do these shows? What questions are you asked that you don't expect, or what are the ones you're asked the most often?
STRAUSS: Well, one thing that we've noticed as we've talked to people is the different response that people give us based upon what their generation is. We find, for example, that G.I.s, today's seniors, are very history-absorbed and they are quite concerned about their place in history, and so they're interested in this. They also have noticed that no one has ever written a biography of their generation before, and they're interested in what we have to say.
LAMB: Again, G.I.s are what age?
STRAUSS: They're 66 on up.
HOWE: Born between 1901 and 1924. Just to add to that, the way we tell the story of the G.I. generation is we explain what they became as adults and in the 1950s and '60s by looking at how elders saw them as children, ow special and good and deserving they saw them as children. A lot of G.I.s today understand that. That's a story that makes sense to them.
STRAUSS: We also try to show the G.I.s -- and something that they really are drawn to -- that today's little millennial children so far look like a generation much like their own and, most importantly, that the boomer yuppies that so many seniors today find distasteful -- those cultural perfectionists we all know about -- are very, very similar in personality to the G.I.s' own parents, the missionary generation of Franklin Roosevelt. The problem was, you see, the G.I.s never knew them when they were young adults.
LAMB: I'm in the silent generation so what kind of questions have I asked you that would fit my generation?
STRAUSS: Well, the silent generation come much harder to the notion that there is such a thing as a generation because silent people tend not to perceive of themselves as much as being part of a bona fide generation. They look at the powerful G.I.s just older and the self-absorbed boomers younger, and they're more inclined to say, "Well, everybody's people and we're all diverse and we have to be concerned about all these different cultures and fragments of history."
HOWE: We also find just in general among the silent generation a strong impulse towards making things complex. They don't like labels, they don't like generalizations. This is part of their whole-life mission, to take a culture that was so simple and to break it up -- to show how people are different, to show how people each have their own tendencies, their own desires and basically to bring out the variety in humanity. This is what's made the silents so effective in dealing with people.
LAMB: I've got to ask Bill Strauss. As the leader of The Capitol Steps, when you go in to entertain a group, based on this book and your knowledge of history, can you tell in advance, depending on what age the audience is going to be, what their reaction is going to be?
STRAUSS: To some degree I can, yes. I think all of today's generations have an appreciation for humor. The spin is a little bit different. I will say one thing -- the silent generation has produced the greatest-ever American comedians. If you trace from the Little Rascals through Shirley Temple to Jerry Lewis, Stan Freberg, Tom Lhear, all the way up to Mark Russell and many of the other comedians of today, they're born very nearly at the same time.
LAMB: But what's your favorite audience, though? I know it's hard to label.
STRAUSS: They're all good, Brian. You do have to have a sense of who your audience is, but as long as you have that sense and you know what they're looking for, they're all good.
LAMB: Neil, last question again: any other questions that you're surprised about being asked as you go out and talk about your book on the circuit?
HOWE: I think what Bill was talking about -- the generational division among our response -- is often ...
STRAUSS: The boomers in particular. The boomers understand what a bona fide generation is, and they also are looking for simplifying visions, very much unlike the silent. They know that they're moving somewhere beyond hippie and yuppie. They also are intrigued by the idea that they are not the first generation of hippies and yuppies. You can look back at Abraham Lincoln's transcendentals or Franklin Roosevelt's missionaries and you see much the same life path. And they're intrigued by the notion that when they're old, they'll become what we call "gray champions."
LAMB: Time's up. William Strauss and Neil Howe, co-authors of this book "The History of America's Future, 1584-2069." "Generations" is the name of the book. Thank you both for joining us.
HOWE: Thank you.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1991. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.