Transcendentalists, Boomers, and Our Current World Crisis

Walden Pond - A Transcendentalist Haven - photo by Jesse Lee Tucker, from Wikimedia Comons

Growing Up as a Boomer

When I was a young Boomer, my mother took me to a Unitarian fellowship where I learned about the Big Bang and evolution, studied the cultures of ancient peoples, heard myths from around the world, and played touch football. At camp, I was taught to meditate and smoke cigarettes. My GI parents provided well, encouraged my education, and gave me a lot of freedom. Like most of my generation, I embraced internal reflection, individual spiritual awakening, and social activism based on a moral code that emphasized our responsibility to and for one another.

Like my cohorts, I am one of what historians William Strauss and Neil Howe call an Idealist Generation.

Generational Theory

After a study of American history, Strauss and Howe noticed that every 90 years or so, the United States completes a predictable cycle in which a Spiritual Awakening is followed by a Secular Crisis. From this crisis, another cycle starts with a Spiritual Awakening, and so on.

Within each cycle, four generations are born, age, and eventually die out. First is the Idealist generation, born during a time of relative peace and prosperity. As they reach adulthood, they discover inner truths and spiritual yearnings that translate into religious fervor and a Spiritual Awakening. Along with values and religious truths, Idealists promote social causes and the equality of all people. Differences between the genders are de-emphasized, women take on leadership roles, and the needs of the “other,” such as immigrants or people of color or transgender individuals, are championed.

Thoreau - one of the Transcendentalists - photo by Jesse Lee Tucker, from Wikimedia Comons

Right after the Idealists, a Reactive Generation is born. Raised during a time of instability and left to fend for themselves at an early age, they live by their wits. They seek material comforts, tend to be bitter, to live hard, and to die young.

After them, the Civic Generation comes of age during a Secular Crisis. Typically, they fight great wars that solve serious problems: the Revolutionary War, for instance, and World War II. Unlike wars fought during other parts of this repeating cycle, such as the Korean and the Vietnam Wars, Civic men (and sometimes women) fight wars that end in victory. An invigorated generation is then ready to rebuild the structures of its society.

The next generation is the Adaptives. Protected and docile, they mediate between their Civic elders and the Idealists who follow them.

The Transcendentalists

Like the Baby Boomers, the Transcendentalists were an Idealist Generation. So were the Puritans who fled Europe in order to practice their own religion in peace, and the Awakeners who preached fire and brimstone, built hundred of churches, and espoused stern moral values. Like other Idealist generations, they accepted women and people of color as leaders. The idealistic Missionaries came next. They eschewed material and worldly concerns in favor of cultivating the mind and spirit. Moralistic and religious, they again redefined the role of women in pubic life.

Then there were the Transcendentalists. These Idealists also searched within for wisdom, truth, and morality. Unlike previous generations, however, they were more spiritual than religious and less moralistic. They emphasized individual truth, internal reflection, and personal connections with a Source. Like all Idealist generations, the Transcendentalists changed the cultural landscape, transforming people’s inner world.

The Problem of the Civil War Cycle

Transcendentalists weren’t just focused on their inner spirituality, however. Like other Idealists, they understood that every individual has worth and divinity, so they championed social causes. A feminist movement started, and abolitionism raged. Transcendentalists spoke out against slavery and oppression in all its guises. Some, such as the abolitionist John Brown, gave their lives for their causes.

When the Secular Crisis struck, these Idealists, like previous generations, led the country into a war. But this time things didn’t turn out well.

Unlike the Glorious Revolution of the late 1600s, the American Revolution, or World War II, the Civil War resulted not in triumph and renewed energy, but in anger and bitterness. Rather than coming out of the war ready to build a new and vibrant society, the soldiers of the Civil War felt disillusioned, angry, oppressed, betrayed, and fatalistic. The schism that arose as a result of that era’s Secular Crisis still not healed.

Our Current Crisis

Why was the Civil War different from other Secular Crisis wars?

Strauss and Howe suggest it’s because the crisis came too soon, when the Idealists were still in middle age. Previous generations of Idealists were elders by the time they led the nation into war. Softened with age, improved by wisdom, yet still firm in their values and willing to die for what they believed in, these older Idealist elders were more measured in their response to the crisis. They defended truth and freedom with less waste, anger, and violence.

It’s about time for our current cycle’s secular crisis to hit. Probably it already has. Did the crisis start when the Twin Towers toppled? Certainly the populist revolt that is allowing fascism to sweep across Europe and threaten our own country is part of the crisis. So are terrorism in general, mass murders, racial profiling, the uproar about immigration, and global warming.

Solving Our Current Crisis

What will our new Civic generation, the Millenials, do to solve our problems? How will the aging Boomers guide them?

War has been the answer in the past, and I suspect war will be part of our current solution. We have been fighting a senseless battle against terrorism, and our president seems quite happy to escalate the war.

But is war inevitable? So far, it hasn’t solved our current problems. Can we find another way out?

Like the Transcendentalists, we Boomer Idealists preach a gospel of inner wisdom, religious truth, and a message of acceptance, inclusion, and love. We value peace over war. We endorse compassion and equality. Surely these values can teach us to communicate with one another, to resist oppression with nonviolence, and to set boundaries that can be enforced with something other than bombs and missiles.

The Swing of History

The Transcendentalists changed their society, and they continue to influence us today. However, according to Strauss and Howe, the generations that immediately followed them reacted angrily to their elders, dismantling their advances they’d made and rejecting their spirituality. Will Generation X, the Millenials, and their children dismantle all we Boomers have created?

Perhaps. It’s part of the swing of history. If, like the Transcendentalists, we blow this current crisis, we, too, may be vilified by our children and grandchildren. Yet just as the Transcendentalists were redeemed when the new generation of Idealists grew up, so may our own great-grandchildren grow up to appreciate what we Boomers have offered the world.

The Cycle Continues

Regardless, it’s not only Idealists or Civics who impact the world. Reactives and Adaptives are also important. We need them to balance the Idealist tendency to get lost in internal reflection and the Civic tendency to reduce everything to mechanistic parts. Reactives force us to look at the gritty underbelly of life. Adaptives mediate between the Civics and their Idealist children. This four-cycle pattern that oscillates between Secular Crises and Spiritual Awakenings seems to be a necessary part of our country’s coping, growing, and evolving. I don’t know what kinds of cycles other societies go through, but pendulums swing everywhere.

Twenty-five years ago, Strauss and Howe predicted our current secular crisis. To help our country respond effectively to the problems of our day, we need the wisdom of every generational cohort: the calm of the Adaptives, the values of the Idealists, the practical effectiveness of the Reactives, and the strength and eagerness of the Civics.

Hope for Future Generations

The Transcendentalists were unfortunate. Not mature enough to effectively lead a response to the crisis of slavery and a nation divided, they grew old watching all they’d worked for disintegrate. It seems that everything we Boomers worked for is also disintegrating. Yet we are in the middle of the crisis. For the Transcendentalists, everything fell apart at the end, after the crisis was supposedly over.

We don’t know how our own cycle will play out, because we’re still in the middle of it. Yet if history can be a guide, there’s hope we’ll make our way through this to another victory, with healing and a new cycle of prosperity on the other side. Of course, unless we destroy ourselves in the process, that prosperity will not be the end. Another crisis will come. Human nature is like that. And new generations will seek their own way to survive and, hopefully, thrive.

In faith and fondness,



Photo: By Jesse Lee Tucker – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Strauss, William and Neil Howe, Generations, New York: William Morris, 1991.

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