The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Oct 112010

I have argued before that “Mad Men” is a fundamentally unhistorical rendition of how most Americans felt and behaved in late First Turning (the High) America.  To summarize, my point was basically that most of the roles are played by Generation X (born 1961-1981) who meticulously “look” like circa-1960 business-world people—but who fail to reflect the authentic mood of the era as it was lived and experienced.  Instead, the actors come across as Gen-Xers dressed in 1960 clothing and trapped in 1960 social mannerisms.  Let me put aside all instance in “Mad Men” where the script is simply impossible—like characters telling each other to “get in touch with their feelings.”  Even aside from such obvious anachronisms, most scenes (to my eye and ear) are suffused with a sense of oppressive tension and cynicism.

Well, in this columnStepanie Coontz (well-known author and first-wave Boomer) begs to differ.  She says that “Mad Men” is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the period.  Yet she says so for reasons which I think pretty much support my own assessment.  She says the show accurately portrays the suffocating gender chauvinism that prevailed in America just before the sexual revolution began to set things right.  I agree that it does this.  And, I would argue, it does this so effectively because the cast is so clearly ill-at-ease in the world they inhabit.  To take contemporary Gen-Xers and thrust them back into 1960 life roles would be tantamount to physically throwing just about anyone into a jail cell.  No one looks comfortable when they are locked up.

I would argue that to portray a period in which everyone feels out of place is probably not an accurate portrayal.  Coontz, of course, may disagree.  She may say that most Americans really were, objectively, miserable in the 1950s.  Most likely what she really means to say is that most Americans, men and women, *should* have felt miserable if they had only known how they were being abused by their own social norms.  But then again most Americans didn’t really come to this understanding until after the ‘60s were over… and after Coontz had launched her writing career.

Ponder the epistemological question.  To what extent should the mood or tone of an era be judged by standards not widely held until after the era was over?  The best way to think about this question is to imagine how Hollywood, in the year 2060, will portray our own America circa 2010.  (The Washington Post Outlook section had a recent essay on exactly this question.)  What horrible injustices will we be accused of tolerating daily?  One can imagine many candidates.  To the left, what may come most easily to mind is how we all routinely ravage the environment; to the right, how we routinely terminate the lives of millions of the unborn.  (Both candidates were mentioned in the Post piece.)  I submit that no one really knows and that to subject our own present-day world to such a radical perspective, which might require each of us to confess crimes to a tribunal organized by the new regime, would not be an accurate representation of what it actually feels like today to live in our world.

Let me bring this discussion back around to generations, turnings, and cyclical versus linear time.  One thing Bill and I discovered many years ago, even before The Fourth Turning appeared, was that most people who really do not like our perspective on history have fairly strong ideological motivations.  These tend to be people whose ideology colors their perspective on history, who see history moving from absolute error toward absolute rectitude, and who (therefore) are really bothered by a view of history that is not linear.  In this view, the idea that there might be something archetypal in a bygone generation or era of history seems bizarre, even perverse.  There can be no archetype for social dysfunction and blatant injustice.  It’s like a disease.  When it’s over, you hope and expect it never returns.

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  • Your last paragraph is noteworthy. You and Strauss effectively argue that there’s yet another dimension to our social life which we are not in control of: the pressures building before we were born and our shared life-phase experiences.nnMany among us have accepted that history, cultural pressures, social traditions, and genetics hem in our options. But, to be told that we’re playing a part in a corkscrew of recurring, cyclical history may seem too far only because we hate the *idea* of it. There’s that ideological motivation you noted.nnMy hope, though, is that in another few decades – if and when your thesis gains further validation – we will accept yet another aspect of our lives which we seem scarcely in control of, but must recognize.

    • Sean Love

      Matt, back when the 4T website was new, there was a poster named Steve Philpot who mused about what would happen when a critical mass of people come to understand S&H’s theory so that the saeculum becomes “self-aware”. What effect would that have? Bill Strauss called it the “Philpot Conundrum”.

      • Hi Sean. Do you know of anywhere that I can find mention of the self-aware saeculum? I did a search for “Philpot Conundrum” but *this* post came up as the first result. Perhaps it’s misspelled or there’s some other reference I’m unaware of?

  • James Goulding

    Your “Ponder the epistemological question” paragraph is brilliant. IMO this is a piece of your work that will be discussed long after you’re departed. It’s so far over many of our heads it will have to make its way around the academic circuit and deconstructed for a long time before we can get a sense of just how brilliant it truly is. There aren’t many people who can think that way. There are many who won’t understand what you’re trying to say, Neil. However, it’s brilliant and will be categorized as the way a futurists thinks, whether you were trying to come through as a futurist or not. nnI’ve always looked at you and Bill as futurists because that’s the way I want you to be! That’s honest. I’m in the business of predicting the future. What you and Bill do/did is very similar to what I (we) do in the trading community. That is, look at history to try and predict the future. nnLastly, the vast majority of people I’ve come across who do not agree with your work, in the 13 years I’ve been studying Strauss & Howe theory, are Boomers. Coontz is a first waver. They’re well read and well publicized not to mention the vast majority of our therapists. If you want to take on someone really difficult, I’d like to see you debate a third waver! Perhaps I’ll send my brother (Deacon Bill) your way. n:-)nnTake care,nJim Gouldingn n

    • Nathan

      I would agree with your reverence of Neil’s musings.nnI would add to your assessment of persons who resist the theory many Gen X’ers that I have introduced the ideas to. We Xers are the “independents” because we have an automatic defense reflex against being labeled or being lumped into any group whatsoever. When I describe to my Xer friends about the archetype, they debate me about the idea of free will. I just tell them that their resistance to what I am describing is proving their nomad archetype!!! nnBest wishes,nnNathan Santosn

  • Neisha ’67

    Actually, not all the characters on Mad Men seem miserable. Bert Cooper, Ken Cosgrove, Trudy Campbell and some others seem to be having a grand time. What makes for good drama is the inner turmoil of the characters, because, let’s face it, there’s not a lot of action in Mad Men. In that way, they are no more uncomfortable than characters in, say, The Good Wife or any other well-written drama. What’s so great about Mad Men is that it takes place during a turning change, so the audience knows exactly what’s coming, but the characters don’t. Roger is uncomfortable because in a lot of ways he’s still haunted by WWII, Don is uncomfortable because he has secrets, Pete is uncomfortable because he has been rejected by his family and because his wife is the one with the money . . . The women are the ones who are written to be constrained by their roles. But not all of them (Trudy, Bobbie Barrett) seem bothered by it. The ones who do are more interesting and make for better television.

  • HKA

    Art always says more about the time in which it is created than the time it may seek to portray. There are aspects of Mad Men that may be historically accurate, and the sexism is probably one of them. (It has certainly cured me of my “wouldn’t it be lovely to be a ’50’s housewife” fantasy.) However, Mr. Howe is correct that the characters (especially the female characters) react to the sexism in ways that are not culturally or historically accurate. But, would we want to watch the show if they did? The G.I/mid-century/American High optimistic, can-do, there’s nowhere to go but up, and no need to complain mentality would seem so alien, even downright freaky, to most Americans today (particularly Gen-Xers.) We’d be scratching our heads, thinking “Who are these people? I don’t get them at all.”

    • judy garland’s ghost

      Not to all Americans. Or at least not to alot of Millenials. Turn on Glee or Disney channel and that American High optimism is exactly what you see.

  • Owen Meany

    Don is my father…perhaps a higher functioning businessman of the 50s and early 60s…but very much like many of my father’s cohorts who survived WWII and Korea with the help of alcohol, tobacco, and the power that they earned from those wars. In my family’s case, it wasn’t very pretty.

  • Rachel Rott

    I don’t

  • Rachel Rott

    Doh. Sorry for the comment flub. I can’t delete it, so I’ll just comment here. I
    don’t watch “Mad Men” so I don’t have an opinion about it per se, but I
    wanted to add that I think we Gen Xers are portrayed “out of
    generation” somewhat frequently in current pop culture. The Twilight series (and you have to set aside any opinions you have about its value as an art form, which, undoubtedly, is dubious) features a GenX teen archetype — Bella Swan — in the Millennial era. One look at her parents and it’s obvious she wasn’t raised by GenXers. Mom ships her off to her previously absentee dad, so that Mom can freewheel with her new husband. That is a much more common experience to Gen Xers *as children and teens* than it is to the children we are raising.

    I think this is just a function of GenX writers using their experiences as character archetypes, but I do think it is interesting and worth pointing out, since it can affect the perceptions of the wider public in terms of the persona of the generation being represented on screen.

    And I wanted to say I am reading The Fourth Turning now. Very much engrossed in it, and somewhat freaked out!

    • Anonymous

      Rachel – I agree that the it is the dominance of Gen-X writers that results in anachronisms, It’s something that will probably determine what shows are successful later in the Fourth Turning (get on board with Millennial values or die!).
      BTW, if you are reading Fourth Turning I would suggest checking out some of my charts that can serve as a guide to the book. You can find them at: 

      Look in the “Charts” section for several ways of visualizing the generational research of Strauss and Howe. I created these while reading the Fourth Turning to help me make sense of all the dates, archetypes and turnings. They really are meant to go along with reading of the book…

  • I’ve examined a lot of entertainment material and I’ve come to the simple conclusion that certain stories are better told a certain times. A good example is that the musical The Music Man, as a Satirical Comedy on an Unravelling doesn’t work when it’s actually portrayed by an Unravelling alignment cast–because they come off as too sincere, when they need to be winking at the audience about how ridiculously corny the entire thing is–as the original High-era production did. Compare the 2003 movie version with the 1960 version and you’d quickly see what I mean by “everything falls flat when the appropriate generations are portraying the correct ones” and that’s because the point of The Music Man, isn’t to capture the era honestly, it’s to poke fun at the era as much as hold nostalgia over it (it should be noted it takes place in the GI chosen nostalgia year of 1912–everything nostalgic for the GI generation seems to centre around that year typically). So there’s some cases where the version of the story they want to tell requires a different generational alignment than the seeming “correct one”. In Satire, it’s typically an opposite alignment. However I also find that opposite alignments when they put their hearts & souls to it, can really bring to life the opposing archetype if they so choose (much better than neighbouring archetypes do). However, again I say that has to be the point of the story.

    So having established that, I’ll say that Mad Men is an Xer’s view of the 1960’s it is true, and as such the show is EXTREMELY cynical about an optimistic time period. But then again that’s because it fits the story they want to tell which is clearly a tragedy, because that’s how most Gen Xers view the High’s turn into the Awakening. As a tragic story, it’s about a man’s fall from grace. I remember in one interview Weiner gave several years ago on NPR about how he wanted to be doubly sure there to be consequences for his characters and he wanted to explore how those consequences would eventually tear down his main character. A lot of comparisons have been made in reviewing circles about how the show is “Eden-like” in its portrayal of the 1960s–some going so far as to say that Weiner is the “baby” of the show and the show is merely an exploration of the Eden his “parents” fell from. That again supports the notion of tragedy in this show, and often times moments of Tragedy (like the JFK assassination, the MLK assassination, the RFK assassination, etc.) mark the show more than the moments of success do. But then again what we’re seeing is an Xer interpretation of how one man’s “fall from grace” in the 1960s represents the entire nation’s fall from grace in the same period. To the Xer viewpoint, the Awakening is a great tragedy that occurred that they wish never had. And as much as some Xers might agree how the early 1960s were “too controlling and stifling”, they still see that what’s to come is probably worse than what came before, and if given the choice, they’d probably choose to take “controlling and stifling” rather than the shit show of the Awakening to come (especially in this season’s portrayal of 1968), because the people tragically didn’t know that what they were throwing away was worth more than what they were getting in exchange.