The Generation Game

Imagine coming to a beach at the very end of a long summer of big crowds and wild goings-on. The beach bunch is sunburned, the sand shopworn, hot, full of debris - no place for walking barefoot. You step on a bottle, and some cop cites you for littering. That's how 13ers feel, following the Boom."

The "13ers," according to a new book called "Generations" (538 pages. Morrow. $22.95), are those young Americans born between 1961 and 1981, defined here as the star-crossed 13th generation since the founding of the republic. They are the punkish part-time clerks at the video store who roll their eyes when the "Boomers" (born between 1943 and 1960) rent old Woodstock videos. They are a new "Lost Generation," convinced that "the real world is gearing up to punish them down the road."

Imagine that Samuel Eliot Morison's "An Oxford History of the American People" had been written by Gail Sheehy, author of "Passages." The subtitle, "The History of America's Future: 1584-2069," conveys the book's presumption. William Strauss and Neil Howe, both Washington policy analysts (Strauss is also the director of the Capitol Steps satirical group), have written an elaborate historical horoscope that will never withstand scholarly scrutiny. But it is also a provocative, erudite and engaging analysis of the rhythms of American life.

Strauss and Howe are themselves (need it be said?) boomers, who create their own world of arcane categories and pop theories. They divide American history into "Colonial," "Revolutionary," "Civil War," "Great Power" and "Millennial" periods. Within each period they name generations (e.g., "Transcendental," born 1792-1821, or "G.I.," born 1901 to 1924). Four distinct generational characteristics repeat themselves in order throughout American history. Thus every generation is either "Idealist" (those who made the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal and the 1960s' counterculture), "Reactive" (those who created governments, oil companies and the literature of the 1920s), "Civic" (James Madison and the World War II crowd) or "Adaptive" (cynical pragmatists, from Daniel Webster through Michael J. Fox).

These sequential "peer personalities" are often silly, but the book provides reams of fresh evidence that American history is indeed cyclical, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others have long argued. Strauss and Howe are far more sweeping in the connections they draw between social forces separated by hundreds of years. "Like the peers of John Winthrop or Ralph Waldo Emerson, you perceive that within your circle lies a unique vision," they write of the boomers, for instance. Then they establish the connections with lots of historical and sociological data. The exercise is most original when applied to the "13ers." Finally someone has come up with a name for American youth now in their teens and 20s, the ones so belittled for not being able to find Chicago on a map. "The tag is a little Halloweenish, like the clothes they wear - and slippery, like their culture," the authors write. These kids faced twice the risk of parental divorce as a "Boomer" child in the mid-60s and three times the risk of a "Silent" child in the '50s. Only 7 percent describe their parents as "strict." The 13th generation, the most heavily incarcerated ever, will also be the first since the Gilded (born 1822-1842) to be less college-educated than its predecessors. "I got no plans. I ain't going nowhere," the authors quote singer Tracy Chapman. "So take your fast car and keep on driving."

The generational boundaries are plainly arbitrary. The authors lump together everyone born from 1943 to 1961, a group whose two extremes have little in common. And the predictions are facile and reckless: "The same 'Can't Buy Me Love' lyric that may remind an Old Boomer of carefree self-exploration will come across to a 15-year-old in the year 2025 as a severe, even smug message of self-denial." Why? Because those teenagers of tomorrow are linked to Teddy Roosevelt's similarly "adaptive" generation of 100 years ago? Oh, please.

In their unrelenting determinism-by-birthday, Strauss and Howe deny the significance of any objective economic or international conditions in shaping generational identity; the only thing that matters is their inflexible cycle. They don't prove, for instance, that the G.I. generation would have necessarily turned out "civic" had World War II been somehow averted. And the exceptions they avoid mentioning are legion. Norman Rockwell in the "Lost" generation? Jesse Jackson in the "Silent" generation? Harry Truman in the same "reactive " boat with Tom Cruise? In real life there is plenty of selfishness among the supposedly "civic" G.I. group, and plenty of cynicism among the supposedly "idealist" baby boomers. However fun and informative, the truth about generational generalizations is that they are generally unsatisfactory.

The book views historical figures as products of their "generational cycles."

"The colonial Glorious Revolution stamped them for life as public persons, institution founders, collective builders and secular dreamers."

"Trying to make the best of a dangerous world and then getting damned for it." Twain's "The Gilded Age" "described the metal and muscle."

Scott Fitzgerald said they were marked by "the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead."

"Frenetic, physical, slippery. These kids sensed that adults were simply not in control of themselves or the country."