You’ve no doubt heard lots of talk about Baby Boomers, Xers and Generation Y or the Millennials. People are supposed to have different values and attitudes depending on the year when they were born and the period of history in which they grew up. For example, at work, Xers expect more autonomy and consultation from their bosses than Boomers do.
But there’s another way to look at generations: as anyone who is are alive and active in their adult years at any one point in history.
That’s how Roy H. Williams thinks about generations and trends, in terms of forty year cycles. For Williams, it doesn’t matter how old you are during a particular cycle. If you’re an adult at the height of a cycle, you’ll share its core values. If you’re living while a cycle is ending, you’ll share your society’s doubts about the beliefs that are passing away. And if you’re around while a cycle is on the upswing, then you’ll participate in the enthusiasm of most everyone you know for the new ideas which are coming into their own.
Yes, there will be exceptions to the rule. But talking about historical cycles is all about making generalizations in hopes that they’re more or less valid across the population.
The end of “Me” and the start of “We”
Now, Williams says we’re at the beginning of a “We” era, a time when community, cooperation and making the world a better place are more important than the older values of individual ambition, material success and wanting to be Number One. Society began the new cycle in 2003, when a 40-year-long “Me” period that began in the sixties finally came to an end.
But the more things change, the more things change, as Williams explains:
“Me” and “We” are equal-but-opposite attractions that pull our perspective one way, then the other. Western society swings like a pendulum from one set of values to the other every 40 years with the regularity of an old and reliable grandfather clock. “Me” and “We” values are equally good, but we always take a good thing too far.
Look for things to go too far in the “We” direction after a couple of decades, leading to a stifling culture of conformity. After that, things will start to swing back towards “Me” and personal freedom.
Meantime, whether you’re in business or trying to do good in the world, you should now be appealing to the “We” generation and the value of living a meaningful life over the value of trying to be happy by buying more stuff.
Generally this trend will favor people who provide services and experiences over businesses that offer products. Of course, people will still need products. But those that offer value and quality over glitz and bling will have an advantage.