Collective Spirit: Understanding Shared Identity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a collective spirit? How do collective spirits occur amongst generations of people?

A collective spirit is a bond that people share with each other about their mentality and lifestyle. Over the course of our lives, we develop and shift our collective spirit.

Keep reading to find out how the collective spirit develops and how it works.

The Development of Collective Spirit

Collective spirit is a mood and way of relating to people. Each generation develops their own spirit and it morphs as the generation ages, but its core always remains the same.

  • For example, the 1920s included wild parties, lots of sex, and a cynical attitude. As the people who lived through this time grew up, they may have stopped partying, but they maintained their cynicism and brazenness.

Here’s how this spirit develops during different life stages:

Childhood

When we’re young, we’re impressionable and we’re highly influenced by our parents and teachers. We adopt their values, perspectives, and spirit.

Adolescence

As we get older, we start to connect more with our peers. By the time we’re teenagers, we have much more in common with the people our age than our parents, and we’re actively rebelling against our parents and trying to carve out our own separate identity. 

At this time, we start to develop collective spirit and we create our own culture—what we think is funny or cool or valuable is different from what our parents would characterize as such. The more we learn about the world, the more we realize our parents haven’t interpreted it very accurately, and we need a more relevant perspective.

The clash between generations is also part of the collective spirit. Usually, four generations are alive at the same time, and their relationship to each other (called the zeitgeist) shapes all of them. 

  • For example, in the 1960s, the older generation didn’t like the youth culture, and both generations were shaped by the conflict.

Sometimes, one generation’s collective spirit (usually the teenage one, because youth are more flexible and restless) is so strong it takes over the prevailing culture. 

Interestingly, today, because technology has aided globalization, people might have more in common with someone halfway across the world who’s a member of the same generation than someone in a different generation in their region. 

Twenties and Thirties 

As we hit our twenties and thirties, we acquire the power to start changing the world as we move into the workforce. We continue to develop our collective spirit as we conflict with the older generation, who judge us and see us as too young and immature to make changes. (Being judged by an older generation dates back to at least Babylonian times—an inscription on a tablet from 1000 BC complains that the youth of that time were “lazy” and “rotten.”) We judge them back.

None of us can judge objectively because we’re influenced by our generational thinking. Additionally, most generations see their flaws as values. 

  • For example, generations that don’t want to own cars might chalk this up to wanting to save the environment, when in fact, it’s generational cautiousness. 
Forties and Midlife

At this point in our lives, members of our generation have taken leadership roles and have even more power to change the world. Our collective spirit develops as we judge the younger generation, just as the older generation judged us. Typically, our attitude is that youth these days are a problem, though we might be secretly envious of their youth. 

Identify Collective Spirit

Consciously understanding your generation’s collective spirit will help you determine values related to success, failure, status, and expression. Assess the spirit by studying:

  • Major events that happened as your generation came of age. Typically, the events that happened when you and the members of your generation were between 10-18 would have had the most effect since you were both susceptible to influence and developing your own values during this time. If these events were crises, your generation will tend to dislike conflict and band together. If there were no major events, your generation will tend to be adventurous.
    • For example, the 1950s were quite stable and the generation that grew up during this time became restless.
  • Inventions and new technology that allow people to interact in new ways. 
    • (Shortform example: Smartphones became widespread as Millennials came of age and are a large part of social culture.)
  • How people socialized, especially in their twenties.
  • Attitudes around work. Some generations look for stable jobs right after graduating. Others go on adventures first or job-hop, exploring options.
  • Dominant parenting style. Permissive parenting tends to give children a wild attitude. 
  • Notable and admired people in a generation. These people’s values often represent the generation’s values, even if the average person is too shy to outwardly express these values.
  • Trends. It’s often easiest to identify collective spirit in the artistic creations of the times—such as movies or music—because trends and art represent values.
    • For example, liking jazz indicates free-spiritedness.
  • Shadow sides. Generations, like people, have shadow sides. These are often most visible in the type of humor that’s popular (because people use humor for release), gender relationships, and extremes behavior (because acting extreme is often a way of masking desire).
    • For example, young people in the 1960s appeared to dislike material goods, but over the next 20 years, it became clear that this generation was interested in material goods as they grew up to be yuppies.
  • Gender relationships. Some generations value balancing the genders, while others pigeonhole people.
    • For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, celebrities had a dose of the opposite gender. Rudolph Valentino was feminine.
  • Understand the zeitgeist, especially the relationship between the middle generations of people who are 22-44 and 45-66. Figure out which generation is most dominant and which currently has more influence. Also, determine where these two generations fit into the generational cycle.
  • Consider criticism from other generations. Instead of getting defensive or criticizing back, carefully consider what other generations have to say about yours. Try to look at your memories and values objectively.
Collective Spirit: Understanding Shared Identity

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  • Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
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  • Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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