Remember the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and their sloganeering? In the beginning of the story, when they overthrow the humans, they lead with the chant, “four legs good, two legs bad!” By the end, they’ve become human-corrupt, and lead the chant, “four legs good, two legs better!”
Just one word changed, and the new and old words both begin with b, bolstering the illusion of continuity and natural evolution.
Let’s call such a slowly shifting narrative, simple enough to be captured in a slogan, and designed to help a small predatory class dominate a larger prey class, a Pig Narrative. The American Dream is a Pig Narrative. For the record, in case you are immediately curious about my politics, I think this Pigs-and-Prey structure of the world is the natural order of things. You can mitigate its effects, but not change it in any fundamental way. If I had to pick, I’d side with the pigs. Moving on.
You can compare Pig Narratives on the basis of the degree of prey liberty (or conversely, predator control) they represent, allowing you to plot the evolution over time. If you plot the course of the American Dream through its many rewrites (9 so far by my count, each associated with a major coming-of-age event that defined a generation), you get something like the picture above.
The Rate of Change of Pig Narratives
For Pigs (I’ll capitalize from now on, to distinguish my pigs from Orwellian pigs and real pigs) to remain secure, Pig Narratives must not be shifted too quickly, because they provide the functional logic of dominant institutions. So if a key piece of the narrative is go to college and get a good job, the narrative allows colleges to exist. If the Pigs change it to go to college to learn entrepreneurial skills, they get to keep existing institutions. But if some renegade Pigs want to stage a coup, and successfully rewrite it as drop out of college and found a startup, universities face an existential threat.
Ideally, changes should be so small that the prey barely notices.
Fortunately for the Pigs, Pig narratives are naturally hard to shift. We imprint on the dominant one during the crucial coming-of-age window of 15-21 say, just as baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see as “Mommy.” And like Mommy Ducks, Pig Narratives are essentially sources of authoritative and trusted parental guidance.
Unfortunately for the Pigs, there is also a dynamic which forces rapid shifts despite their best efforts. This is the impact of the defining events for each generation, which provide the motivation and raw material for each rewrite, and therefore constrain the level of spin achievable. For the generations that came of age during the Great Depression or the 2000-01 boom-bust/9-11 period, the pig narrative had to shift rapidly, even with the most creative damage control on the part of the Pigs. Things get garbled during such times, leading to widespread anomie among those waiting and expecting to be programmed by a Pig. It’s like being a duckling faced with no stable shape to imprint upon.
As another way to understand why pig narratives must change slowly, you can apply the Milo Criterion (products must mature no faster than the rate at which users can adapt) to the body politic as a whole. The pig narrative is a normative behavior at the scale of the average life, and it can change no faster than the rate at which generations displace each other from the population. The American Dream in this interpretation is merely the core user experience of “America” as a product sold by Pigs to prey.
The 9 American Dream Rewrites
The phrase American Dream was apparently coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 and was defined by him as the idea that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Except that that isn’t the definition. That’s merely the brand. Here are the actual premises of the 9 scripts between the 1870s to the 1990s, and the archetypical life stories they informed. I am playing fast and loose with generational and cohort analysis here to make a broad point, so please don’t hold me to very precise sociological details.
Note that the dates are the coming-of-age windows for each generation (i.e. when they were between 15-21 and impressionable), not birth decade. Subtract 15-21 years to get the birth year range.
- Civil War generation (1870s): If I Go West as a Young Man, and work hard, I have as good a chance as anyone else of making it (gold miner, wildcatter)
- Gilded Age generation (1890s): If I work hard, I can make it (Horatio-Alger-inspired young people working for Robber Barons)
- Gatsby generation (1920s): Anybody can make it (Gatsby type easy money)
- New Deal generation (1930s): Together, we can make it* (worker building Hoover Dam)
- GI Bill generation (1940s): Any American can make it if he fights hard (WW II veteran, college-educated and starting high-responsibility job white collar job with young, growing American post-war companies)
- Organization Man generation (Silents, 1950s): I already have it; if I don’t screw it up, I can keep it (employee of mature, wealthy post-war company)
- Peace Corps generation (Boomers, 1960s): Americans already have it; we should share it (progressive, generous child of Cold War prosperity)
- Deregulation generation (X, 1980s): We’re losing it. If I keep my head down and step around the falling rubble smartly, I may escape (entering workforce among layoffs and uncertainty in manufacturing)
- Net generation (Y, late 1990s): We’re losing it. I don’t know what to do, I’ll go Occupy Wall Street (this generation lived through a boom and a bust and 9/11 while coming of age, turning the pig narrative into garbage at the starting gate, leaving a harsh, anomic landscape)
- Next generation (coming of age right now ): If I Go East as a Young Person, and work hard, I have as good a chance as anyone else of making it (lifestyle entrepreneur in Asia or Eastern Europe — this script will likely take shape with the 2016 election, when the generation is first courted by politicians).
[*My reading of the New Deal is from FDR campaign rhetoric: "Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth... I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms."]
Notice how messy the trajectory has been, despite my smooth sketch of overall shifts in liberty. The gold miner script comprehends both risk and effort and has a fair amount of liberty. The Gilded Age script drops risk, and keeps effort, trapping the prey more comprehensively. By the time of Gatsby, effort is gone as well.
Then there is a big reset with the New Deal, and a new element is introduced (while keeping the unexamined “make it” premise): collectivism and solidarity.
The GI Bill generation keeps the solidarity (forged under enemy fire in their case), in the form of nationalism, but adds individualism, previously implicit in I statements, back into the mix explicitly.
Like the Gilded Age generation, the Silents hit a maturing economic landscape and became followers rather than leaders. But there is a hugely crucial shift now. From prosperity being something to be achieved, it becomes something that can be lost by risk. So risk makes a reappearance, but with emphasis on downsides.
With the Boomers, this natural assumption of abundance turns into an assumption of surplus and a rather arrogantly presumptuous desire to spread American prosperity.
Then there’s my gang: Generation X, whose American Dream slightly resembles that of the New Deal generation, in that it was scripted during a downturn, though not as severe as the Great Depression, and lacking the emphasis on collective solidarity. It is a gloomy and pragmatic, and somewhat fatalistic, kind of individualism.
(Generation X in 1980s India was defined not by deregulation, but two assassinated Prime Ministers, two terrorist uprisings and a slowly collapsing Soviet era industrial landscape, culminating in a near-death experience for the economy in 1991; post World War II, Pig Narratives march in lock-step to a fair degree, thanks to increasing global integration, which is why I am comfortable calling myself a Gen X’er).
Perhaps it is arrogant of me to presume that X’ers represent the “liberty turn around” generation. By dropping the delusions of the Boomers, the X’ers made themselves more free, but their environment made them use that freedom in fundamentally cautious, risk-averse ways.
The Net Generation is one I feel truly sorry for. Somebody born in 1980 would have been 17-20 during the boom, 20-22 during the bust and 9/11 and then endured the mess that has been the past decade. It’s a recipe for schizophrenia, and that’s what you get. You have triumphalist stories like those of the Web 2.0 superstars, as well emerging adults (people in their 20s) living in their parents basements, stuck in anomie and despair. I haven’t seen any reliable data on the Occupy movement, but I suspect it is a mix of Generation Y and Boomers (X’ers in the middle probably are too busy to take time off, even if they support the idea; they are now the heart of the workforce and raising kids).
But despite their sorry state, their American Dream is more liberating than anything seen since the Gilded Age. Simply because it is so completely garbled, it is not a very effective control instrument.
And to wrap up, the generation that is coming of age now will obviously be a downturn generation (like the X’ers and New Dealers). We can also predict that their script will be even more liberating, likely incorporating risk in the same sense that the post-Civil-War script did, where you only get a shot at making it, not a guarantee.
The Key Narrative Variables
Hidden in this messy evolution, you can spot a few key variables that change value as the narrative gets tweaked generation by generation. Here are the main ones I can see (you can think of them as on/off variables or sliding scale).
- Risky vs. risk-free
- Effort-ful vs. effortless
- Individualist vs. collectivist
- Upturn vs. Downturn vs. Cusp
- Scarcity vs. Abundance vs. Surplus
- Mine to Make vs. Mine to Lose (Make/Lose) framing
Using these variables, you can code the 10 narratives in a parametric form:
- Civil-War: risky, effort-ful, individualist, upturn, scarcity, make
- Gilded: risk-free, effort-ful, individualist, upturn, abundance, make
- Gatsby: risk-free, effortless, individualist, upturn, surplus, make
- New Deal: risky, effort-ful, collectivist, downturn, scarcity, make
- GI Bill (WW II vets): risky, effort-ful, collectivist-individualist, upturn, abundance, make
- Organization Man (Silents): low-risk, medium effort, collectivist, upturn, abundance, lose
- Peace Corps (Boomers): low-risk, effortless, collectivist, upturn, surplus, lose
- Deregulation (X): risky, effort-ful, individualist, downturn, scarcity, lose
- Net (Y): risky, schizoid on effort, collectivist, cusp, schizoid on abundance/scarcity, schizoid on make/lose
- Next Generation: risky, effort, unclear, downturn, unclear, unclear
I won’t try to do this, but I suspect you could even turn this coding into a meaningful numerical scale, code up life-narrative transcripts (such as those in Dan McAdams’ The Redemptive Self, or those studied by George Vaillant), and draw a real version of the graph I started with.
The Institutional Landscape
Several key institutions have designs that reflect the structure of the dominant script, and react to different variables with different degrees of sensitivity.
Higher education, for instance, is most sensitive to changes in the first two variables (risk and effort) and the last one (make/lose). People want degrees when risk is low, effort is likely to be rewarded, and prosperity is yours to lose rather than yours to make.
I imagine a sort of acid bath of narratives within which institutions are dipped.
Working out how the other key social institutions — work, entrepreneurship, family and religion — respond to script changes, would be an interesting exercise. I believe you can predict future patterns of institutional disruption using such analysis. If I had money, I’d be researching this stuff.
Pig Views and Prey Outcomes
Though I’ve characterized the American Dream as a Pig Narrative, I am more Pig than prey, at least in how I think, if not in how effective I am (not very, I am a pretty lousy Pig).
The Pig-side view is frankly fascinating to think about.
One way to fingerprint Pig views is to make up archetype descriptions for each generation as viewed by Pigs. To do that you have to first identify the pig class. For the post-Civil-War era, the Pigs would be the Robber Barons. They would have viewed the prey as foolhardy: daring, adventurous, but fundamentally stupid and easily conned out of any gold or oil strikes. The Gilded Age prey, living in less risky times, would have been merely fools, rather than foolhardy.
Another way to fingerprint the pig views is to list the consequences of following Pig Narratives. This is not as simple as it seems. Even though they are scripted to favor the Pigs (in heads-I-win-tails-you-lose ways, a concept I explored recently), depending on whether a given age is actually prosperous or not, the prey may do quite well. You have to characterize the before/after condition of the prey.
- If the script is positive, but there is a downturn overall across prey lives for that script, denial or disillusionment follows. Silents, who began retiring amidst the 80s turmoil, I suspect are largely disillusioned.
- If the script is positive and the prey get lucky, an unfounded sense of redemption follows. That gives you the boomers and early X’ers who made piles of money in the 90s and got away with it.
- If the script is negative and outcomes are negative, you get fatalism. I think that’s where we X’ers are headed.
- If the script is negative and outcomes are positive, I don’t know what happens. I suppose the New Deal generation (say somebody who was 20 in 1930 and 35 in 1945) sort of qualifies. They would have come of age amidst depression and looming war, rejoined the post-War boom economy as older veterans, and possibly mellowed out and became more positive.
I’ll stop this post now. For those of you who have read Tempo, you’ll probably recognize this post as an attempt to take the narrative analysis models in the book to the collective level, in an effort to get at Grand Narratives, which many of you have asked me about.
I am not yet sure how best to define Grand Narratives that might exist beyond Pig control levels, so I thought I’d start with the easier case of Pig Narratives. I suppose Pigs (Orwellian or otherwise) are economy-level Sociopaths in the Gervais Principle sense. That’s another thing I am starting to think about: what happens to Sociopaths in the open economy, outside the walls of individual corporations.
Apologies for any sloppiness in analysis or the writing in this piece, I am writing it in a break between things out here in Sunnyvale, CA. I am here for the next days for some work.