Generational Cycles: Staying Aware Helps You Connect

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 are generational cycles? How do they influence our society and our viewpoints?

Generational cycles are the psychological shifts that occur between generations. These shifts tend to repeat and depend on different generations pushing back on one another.

Keep reading to find out more about generational cycles and how they work.

Generational Cycles and Awareness

Generational awareness is a knowledge of how our time shapes us, and more generally, how generations shape everyone. We can acquire this awareness by studying generational cycles and collective spirit.

Generational Cycles

Each generation has different art and thinking styles, and these styles alternate and repeat throughout the generations. Even what might appear to be surface-level (such as fashion) is in fact related to underlying psychological shifts. For example, when looser clothing became popular in the 1780s, this coincided with a desire for fewer societal constraints. 

Generations follow a four-phase cycle:

  1. The first generation is revolutionary—members change the existing conditions, usually creating some instability. The instability isn’t necessarily violent—it could also be a major shift in values. This generation usually includes strong leaders.
  2. The second generation seeks stability because they came of age during revolution. Members band together for safety.
  3. Members of the third generation are individualistic because they never experienced revolution and don’t feel the need to gather allies.
  4. The fourth generation feels that society is plodding and valueless. This attitude leads to some sort of crisis, often because when we lack values, we turn to demagogues or scapegoats, or tribalize. This generation usually includes a group of people who want to go back in time.

The cycle always includes the new generation pushing back against the values of the previous generation. The author thinks this might be because we develop our generational perspective when we’re young and tend to think absolutes. Additionally, this pattern is probably somewhat responsible for our survival—if we continued by getting wilder and wilder, or more and more conservative, humanity would probably die out.

  • For example, the silent generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II and craved stability. The baby boomers found this stability boring and were adventurous and idealistic. 

Technology is speeding up the generational cycle. These days, there are more crises, and it can be hard to identify which ones are notable turning points in the cycles.

Generational Cycles: Staying Aware Helps You Connect

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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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