Long Waves and Historical Generation:
A World-System Approach

Carl H.A. Dassbach
September 1995
Department of Social Sciences
Michigan Technological University
Houghton, MI 49931

Abstract

This paper reviews the existing literature on generations and long waves and then examines 41 generational movements to determine if there is any relationship between generations, long waves and regions of the world economy. It finds that the majority of generational movements in the core occurred during A, or expanding, phases of long waves and the majority of generational movements in the periphery and semi-periphery occurred during a B, or contracting, phases of long waves. The final section speculates on the implications of these findings for both generational and long wave research.

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Much of the enduring appeal of the concept of generations, especially as formulated by Karl Mannheim (1952), can be attributed to the fact it links collective character, life cycle and social events. For Mannheim, the formation of a historical generation was not simply the result the proximity of birth dates. Instead, historical generation must be understood, to borrow a phrase from C. Wright Mills(1959), in terms of the "intersection of biography and history." Concretely, the formation of historical generations with their own distinct consciousness or entelechyis the result of the intersection of three types of location: location in life- cycle, or age, location in space, or geography, and location in time, or history. Yet, despite Mannheim's (1952) stress on the importance of these three types of location, studies of historical generations have devoted very little systematic attention to questions of spatial and temporal location. With a few exceptions, research has focused almost exclusively on age, or location in life-cycle, and tended to view geographical and historical location as incidental.

Given the absence of systematic considerations of space and time in generational research, this paper will examine if there is a relationship between geographical and temporal location and the coalescence of historical generations. Specifically, the paper will investigate if there is a relationship between selected generational movements, long waves, or long term periods of economic expansion and stagnation, and regions of the world-system - core, periphery and semi-periphery.

The analysis will address important questions in and for both generational and long wave research such as: when do distinct generations emerge, why do they emerge, why do they emerge in different parts of the world at different times, how do phases of a long wave manifest themselves in different regions of the world-system, is there a clear, identifiable and persistent relationship between this type of social movement and long waves. The basic premises of world-system theory are well known and will not be discussed here.1 Instead, the first section will review the existing research on generations and long waves to show that one of chief weaknesses in these lines of inquiry has been a failure to adequately conceptualize central constructs such as "generations" and "long waves." The next section will review competing conceptualizations of generations and long waves in order to identify those most appropriate for examining their interrelation. Afterwards, the relationship between historical generations, long waves and regions of the world-economy will be empirically examined by analyzing the timing and location of 41 generational movements between 1800 and 1980 identified by Braungart (1984b). The final section will reconsider the results of this investigation and speculate on its implications for both long wave and generational research.

Research on Long Waves and Generations.

While there has been considerable research on the relationship between class struggle, and long waves (Mandel 1980, Cronin 1980, Goldstein 1988, Screpanti 1984, 1987, Silver 1991, 1992), there has been little research on generations and long waves. Of the three recent studies which examine this question, two, Screpanti (1989) and Tylecote (1990), examine the effects of generations and long waves, while the third, Kearl and Hermes (1984), examines the effects of long waves on generations.

Screpanti (1989) and Tylecote (1990) investigate whether, how and if, the biological rhythms of life, i.e, birth, maturity, procreation and death, affect long waves. Although their reflections on these matters is tentative, they do reach some common conclusions. Both believe that there may be a relationship between the growth and contraction of a population and long waves but neither is clear on the direction of casualty. They also suggest that a "generational" lag in the replacement of political elites may affect long waves. Assuming that there is a difference of 20 to 25 years between the experiences that become the basis for a generation's consciousness and the ascension of this generation to power, the consciousness of a society's elite is always, so to speak, "out of step" with its time. This is especially evident, Tylecote suggests, during downswings when elites unsuccessfully attempt to ameliorate the downswing by using policies rooted in the previous upswing.

Kearl and Hermes (1984) investigate generations and long waves in an attempt to explain what they call the "generational gap." Citing several studies, they maintain that the generational gap is, in fact, twofold manifested in value dissimilarities between adjacent generations, i.e., parents and children and value similarities between skipped generations, i.e., children and grandparents. These gaps, they argue, are due to the "effects" of long waves. Because each wave consists of approximately 25 years of prosperity and 25 years of stagnation, adjacent generations encounter the wave at different phases. As a result, they experience dissimilar historical conditions at the same age and this produces a distinctly different consciousness in each group. On the other hand, skipped generations (grandparent and grandchildren) intersect the wave at approximately the same point in a phase and thus encounter similar historical conditions at approximately the same age. This produces "value similarities" between grandparents and grandchildren.

These are interesting contributions waves but all three studies share the same limitations. First, the concept of generations in these studies as in many other studies is subject to "slippery, ambiguous, usage that blurs distinctions which should be clarified."(Spitzer 1973, 1354).2 Depending on the context, the term "generations" is used in at least four different senses: a demographic sense to refer to a cohort or group of individuals born at approximately the same time; a biological-genealogical sense to distinguish between parents and offspring; a temporal sense as a span of years and finally, a historical sense, as a group which shares the same consciousness. Second, long waves are neither well defined nor explained. Although Screpanti and Tylecote have written on long waves elsewhere, they do not provide even the most schematic account of long waves in their discussion of generations. Kearl and Hermes, on the other hand, have no other identifiable writings on long waves and simply ask that we accept, at face value, their vaguely defined notion of the "period effects" of long waves. Finally, not one study provides any empirical evidence to support its conclusions. At best, they reflect on two cases, namely the last two long waves.

Conceptualizing Long Waves and Generations.

Although the Russian economist N.D. Kondratieff was neither the first to observe nor to discuss long term fluctuations in the economies of the industrialized nations, his work in the 1920's is generally seen as beginning the systematic and sustained discussion of long waves.3 Over the last sixty years, two fairly distinct conceptualizations of long waves have emerged.

One sees long waves as simply long term movements in price levels reflective of changes in the supply of gold and/or money.4 While this approach has several adherents and has been important in dating long waves, it is not useful for examining the relationship between long waves and generations because monetarists view long waves asnominal. In other words, monetarists see long waves as inflationary and deflationary `ripples' in the `monetary life of society', without the deeper social, political and economic consequences which are decisive for the formation of historical generations.

The second conceptualization maintains that long waves are real(Arrighi 1989, Schumpeter 1964, Mandel 1975, 1980, Wallerstein 1984, Goldstein 1988, Gordon 1980). Long waves are not simply ripples in the monetary life of a society; they are long term fluctuations in the economic, political and social spheres of the world economy.5 While some recurring mechanism is generally thought to be the cause of long waves, there is considerable debate about which mechanisms. For example, Schumpeter stresses innovation, Arrighi focuses on alternating phases in the competitive struggle between enterprises, Kondratieff points to the periodic replacement of capital goods, Mandel emphasizes fundamental changes in motive technology, and Wallerstein maintains that long waves are the result of periodic imbalances between world supply and world demand.

Long waves consist of two distinct phases of approximately 20 to 30 years in duration: a period of expansion, known as an "upswing" or "A Phase," and a period of contraction, "downswing" or "B Phase."6 Most authors also associate distinct processes and/or phenomena with each phase of the wave. Upswings, at least in core areas of the world economy, are associated with rising incomes, a growth in employment, a buoyant economy, the expansion of credit, increased investments, and the creation of new firms. Downswings are associated with the opposite conditions: contracting incomes, increased unemployment, a depressed economy, a `credit crunch,' decreased investments, and the elimination of firms. It should also be noted that the terms "upswing" and "downswing" only characterize the period, they do not describe it. A Phase may have recessions and B Phases, periods of prosperity but these are only brief interruptions in the overall character of the period. This conceptualization maintains that long waves represent the basic tempo of economic, political and social life and transformation. Schumpeter(1939), Gordon (1980) and Arrighi (1989) have suggested that each wave represents a distinct phase in the development of the world economy so that the society that "emerges" at the end of a wave is substantially different from the same society at the beginning of the wave. Clearly then, the ebb and flow of long waves represents "significant social events" in the broadest sense of the term.7 Two distinct conceptualizations of generations can also be identified. One, known as either the "pulse rate" model (Jaeger 1985), "interaction theory" (Huntington 1974) or "positivist" approach (Mannheim 1952), adopts a mechanistic view of historical generations. Tracing itself back to the work of August Comte and, his disciple J.S. Mill, this approach claims that the biological succession of generations produces both social continuity and social change. The succession of generations insures social continuity because the younger generation receives its values, attitudes and dispositions from the previous generation. At the same time, the younger generation does not simply adopt preexisting values, it also modifies them. Because the younger generation must wait for the death or passing from power of the previous generation before it implements its values, social change is determined by the biological rhythm of life and occurs with a fixed periodicity of 20 to 30 years.

The major weakness with this conceptualization is that it equates, and therefore conflates, biological and historical generations. It assumes that because biological generations (based on a proximity of birth dates) succeed one another,8 that historical generations also succeed one another. But historical generations are not identical to biological generations: what distinguishes the former from the latter is a generational consciousness or entelechy. Biological generations do not require a distinct consciousness to exist, historical generations can not exist independent of this consciousness. Hence, biological generations are successive: historical generations may not. Historical generations only develop when a group of individuals share, at a certain point in their life course, a distinctive set of experiences resulting from significant social events. By denying the importance of significant social events in the formation of a generation's entelechy, the pulse rate model denies the historical character of generations.

The second approach to the study of generations, known as the "imprint hypothesis" (Jaeger 1985), "experiential theory" (Huntington 1974), "entelechy" approach (Mannheim 1952) or "historical generational model"(Braungart 1984a) was first explicitly formulated by Mannheim (1936, 1952)9. It has been subsequently refined and developed by several authors, especially Braungart(1984a) and Braungart and Braungart (1984, 1986, 1989). This approach holds that generations are not simply coevals and that the biological duration of life is relatively unimportant in explaining social change. Instead, the crystallization of a generational entelechy is the result of individuals, between the ages of 17 and 25, sharing the experience of significant historical events within a bounded geographical area. Because events of such a magnitude do not occur regularly, there is no necessary succession of historical generations. According to Braungart (1984a, 115-116)

During so-called routine periods, youth cohorts come and go.., processes of socialization and role allocation serve as linkages between the young and social options, [and] youth are incorporated in the adult structure without major incident. However, significant historical changes can threaten the fragile character of these linkages and disparities may emerge between youth and elders, as well as within their own youthful age group.

For this perspective, the existence of historical generations can not be taken for granted, it must be demonstrated through an analysis of a group and its activities.

Given these diverse conceptualizations of both long waves and historical generations, it is necessary to identify which is the most appropriate for examining the relationship between generations and long waves. Clearly, the monetarist view which sees long waves as nominal can not provide any insights into the formation of historical generations. Likewise, the "pulse rate" model of generations, although amenable to long wave explanations because of its fixed periodicities, is unsatisfactory because it assumes precisely what should be demonstrated: the existence of historical generations.

Historical generations can not be assumed: they must be discovered and explained. Discovery entails identifying a distinct consciousness or entelechy associated with the generation.10 Explanation entails identifying both the geographical sites and the significant social events which have led to the formation of this consciousness. Adherents of the Manheimian tradition have been adept at uncovering several instances of "generational consciousness" over the last two hundred years but they have failed to systematically explore and explain the factors that have produced this consciousness. At best, their explanations have been ad hoc. The next section, which examines long waves, seen as "significant social events" in the largest sense of the term and viewed from the perspective a world-system, and historical generations will identify if there is any systematic relationship between these variables.

Long Waves, Regions of the World Economy and Historical Generations.

Despite some minor disagreements about the dates of the upper and lower turning points, most long wave analysts agree with Goldstein's (1988, 67) dating for A and B phases of long waves during the last 200 years. Braungart (1984b, Table 2) has identified forty-one distinct generational movements in various parts of the world from the beginning of the 19th c. to 1980. Eleven of these generational movements occurred in the core region of the world economy while the remainder occurred in the periphery and semi-periphery.

A comparison of the datings of the core generational movements with Goldstein's dating for long waves reveals a definite relationship between the two. Specifically, 10 of the 11 generational movements between 1800 and 1980 in the core region of the world economy occur during B Phases. A comparison of the datings of generational movements in the periphery and semi-periphery and the datings of long waves also reveals a relationship between the two but this is the inverse of what was found in the core. 26 of 30, or 87% of the generational movements in the periphery occurred during A phases.

Because these results suggest that there is a general relationship between phases of long waves, generational movements and regions of the world economy, it is worthwhile considering some conclusions from the analysis of long waves and class struggle. Studies of long waves and class struggle ((Mandel 1980, Cronin 1980, Goldstein 1988, Screpanti 1984, 1987, Silver 1991, 1992) have found that class struggle in the core is more intense during an A phase then during a B phase and tends to `peak' either near the end of an A phase or during the "T" or "transition phase" between two phases of the long wave. Some also conclude that class struggle is more intense in the T phase following an A phase then in the T phase following a B phase. 12

Based on these considerations, all cases of generational movements were correlated with long wave datings to determine if they clustered during a specific portion of a phase or during certain T Phases. No evidence of any clustering was found.

Conclusions.

While generational movements can occur at any point in an A or B phase and do not cluster near the end of a phase or during a T Phase, the other findings are significant. These show a strong relationship between generations, long waves and regions of the world economy. Of the 41 generational movements in the world between 1800 and 1980 identified by Braungart, 91% of the movements in the core occurred during a B Phase and 87% of the movements in the non-core occurred during an A Phase.

The prevalence of generational movements in the core during B phases is consistent with studies which demonstrate a connection between economic experiences and political attitudes such as Inglehart (1971, 1977, 1987) or Elder (1974) as well as older discontinuity explanations of social movements (Smelser 1963, Kornhauser 1959). Inglehart (1971, 1001), for example, maintains that "the degree of economic security that an individual felt during his formative years ... play[s] a key role in shaping his later political values." In the case of the core, it could be hypothesized that individuals who "come to age" under conditions of prosperity develop a distinctive weltanschauungen, largely independent of class position, and generational movements are a collective reaction to the stagnant economy and general economic insecurity associated with a B phase. These findings are significant for two reasons. First, they reconfirm observations about specific generations, such as the "children of the Depression." Second, they add to our understanding of generations by specifying one general type of shared "significant social event" which leads to the formation of generational entelechy, namely, the experience of an economy moving from expansion to stagnation. This was, in fact, implicitly suggested by Mannheim (1952, 303) when he argued that a generation can only become actualized if a "concrete bond" is created between individuals by "being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic de-stabilization." The relative absence of generational movements in the core during A phases is also significant. It suggests that the experience of an economy moving from stagnation to expansion for the generations which comes to age during the B phase does not have the same impact as the movement from expansion to stagnation for the generations which comes to age during the A phase. Admittedly, the generations examined had different purposes and consisted of diverse generational units - as a result of geography, culture, and national character - but the fact remains that there is a positive correlation between the emergence of historical generations and periods of economic stagnation in the core.

While the correlation between core generational movements and B phases is explicable by reference to existing literature, the correlation between non-core generational movements and A phases is more problematic. Why, in other words, should generational movements in the core appear during periods of economic stagnation while generational movements in the non-core appear during periods of economic expansion.

One possible explanation for the coincidence of non-core generational movements and A phases is suggested by studies of class struggle and long waves. As already noted, these studies find that class struggle in the core increases near the end of an A phase or in the subsequent T-phase. After reviewing various explanations as to why class struggle intensifies in the core at this time, Screpanti (1978, 110-111) synthesizes these into the following explanation. Economic expansion, he argues, promotes social instability. In part, this is due to the accelerated pace of change but the major reason for this social instability is the uneven distribution of the rewards and benefits of an expanding economy. The working class, in particular, does not share in these rewards to the same extent as other groups in society. Hence, the working class suffers "relative deprivation" during the A phase which results in tensions which accumulate and eventually explode in class struggle during either the end of the A phase or during the subsequent T phase.

With some modifications, this might explain the correlation between generational movements and A phases in the non-core. Instead of promoting stability and greater equality, rapid economic growth promotes the opposite conditions in the periphery and semi-periphery. At the political level, bids for state power among would-be elites and their followers deprive other groups of access to state power. At the same time, the ability of certain ethnic, kinship or status groups to claim the lion's share of the "fruits" of expansion increases the inequalities in society. As a result, during an A phase, some groups in non-core regions experience "relative deprivation" similar to that experienced by the core working class and these experiences become the basis for the formation of a generational consciousness.

The above explanation assumes however, that A and B phases have similar effects in core and non-core. Several researchers have suggested that this may not be the case: that A and B phases may have different, and perhaps inverse, effects in the core and non-core (Frank 1967, Rostow 1978, Research Working Group 1979, Wallerstein 1984, Boswell 1989). In other words, A phases are characterized by expansion in the core and contraction in the non-core and B phases, by the opposite conditions.13

If this were the case, then the coincidence between A phases and generational movements in the non-core could be explained by the same factors which account for the coincidence of generational movements and B phases in the core.

This observed correlation between A phases and non-core generational movements might also be relevant to long wave research. Long wave research has largely rested on, and generalized on the basis of, an analysis of the core, mainly because of the availability of continuous data for at least two, if not three, long swings. Non-core regions, on the other hand, have received little attention because of the lack of data and, as a result, very little is known about the effects of long waves in this region. If it is assumed that generational movements are, in fact, triggered by economic stagnation, the existence of generational movements in the non-core during A phases could be interpreted as new evidence to be added to the already existing slim body of evidence about the effects of long waves in non-core regions.

The coincidence of generational movements and B phases in the core can be explained by the existing literature while the coincidence between non- core generational movements and A phases is more problematic. Much of the problem in explaining this correlation is due to the uncertainty about the effects of A and B phases in non-core regions and further research is clearly needed on this topic. A second, more general difficulty with these results is that they are based on fairly limited data on generational movements. Although Braungart's compilation is wide ranging, not all generational movements in all countries of the world are included. An in-depth compilation of worldwide generational movements since 1800, similar to what the World Labor Research Group at the Fernand Braudel Center has compiled on capital-labor conflicts (Silver 1992) would be useful in order to further examine whether there is a relationship between generations, regions of the world economy and long waves.

Notes

1. Although Hopkins and Wallerstein have modified their position on certain issues, the best general statement of the World-System approach can be found in: Hopkins and Wallerstein, 1977. For a more recent summation of the World- System perspective, endorsed by Wallerstein, see Shannon 1989. Back to document

2. The "polysemous nature of generations" is a general problem in the literature on generations. See, also, Kertzer 1983. Back to document

3.An excellent summary and discussion of the long wave literature can be found in Goldstein 1988. Back to document

4. For an annotated bibliography of the early work on long waves, especially the monetarist tradition which is not extensively discussed in Goldstein 1988, see Barr 1979. Back to document

5.Among those who accept the existence of long waves, there is a debate about whether they existed prior to 1790. Generally, Marxists deny their existence prior to 1790 because they associate long waves with industrial capitalism. For recent empirical works which demonstrates the existence of long waves prior to 1790, see Goldstein 1988, Thompson 1992, Boswell and Misra 1995, and Dassbach, Davuytan, Dong and Fay 1995. Back to document

6. Here it should be noted that some long wave theorists such as Schumpeter 1939, advocate a four phase model of long waves - expansion, recession, depression and recovery - but this can also be understood as two distinct phases consisting of recovery/ expansion and recession/depression. Back to document

7. One example of this view of long waves would be to compare the period from 1945 to ca. 1970 to the period after 1970. Back to document

8. Even the assumption that distinct biological generations succeed one another is problematic and one of the criticism frequently raised against this tradition is: How does one distinguish discrete generation from the continuous flow of human life? Ortega y Gasset's proposal, that Descartes' 23rd birthday marks the beginning of the first generation of modernity and subsequent generations can be dated in 15 years intervals after Descartes' 23rd birthday, does not solve this problem. See, Marias, 1970. Back to document

9.Most discussions of Mannheim acknowledge the importance of "The Problem of Generations" (1952) but I maintain that important insights into Mannheim's discussion of generations can be found in Ideology and Utopia (1936).I also maintain that Mannheim's understanding of generations is significantly different from both Rider's concept of a cohort and Roundelay's concept of a political generation with which it is often equated. I have discussed this in depth in Dassbach, 1992. Back to document

10. See, for example, Wohl 1979 or Spitzer 1987. Back to document

11. The assignment of different countries to core, periphery and semi-periphery, is based on Arrighi and Drangel 1986. Back to document

12.I have borrowed this formulation from Silver 1992, 284. With the exception of the T phase from 1848 to 1853, the datings of the other T phases are from Screpanti 1984, 521. Back to document

13. Why this should occur is less clear. One possible explanation can be extrapolated from Rostow's characterizations of A and B phases. According to Rostow (1978), during what is generally called an A Phase the terms of trade in the exchange between core and non-core favor manufactured goods over primary and agricultural goods while during a so-called B phase the terms of trade favor primary and agricultural goods. Hence, during an A phase imports of primary and agricultural products for the core are relatively "inexpensive" (for the core) which means that the non-core is getting relatively little value in return for its products. During B phases, on the other hand, primary and agricultural products are relatively "expensive" (for the core) which means that the non-core is receiving more "value" for its products, hence the economy of non-core regions is stronger and more buoyant. Back to document

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