Intergenerational culture is like a standing wave

A standing wave is a curious physical phenomenon where instead of rushing forward with the water that it comprises, the structure of the wave stands still while water flows ever forward.^1(

Like a standing wave, intergenerational institutional culture maintains the same shape despite different people passing through and being shaped by it. <Institutions shape how individuals interact>. Most institutions that maintain long-term cultural continuity seem to have developed this phenomena.

Coherent intergenerational culture feels like one of the hallmarks of institutions that stay relevant for significant chunks of time. It’s likely worth digging into how strong intergenerational culture works if you care about building long-term institutions. Alexander Rose seems to have done some good work here. There’s of course a question of causality <Counterfactuals are hard>, but I suspect that even if strong intergenerational cultures don’t directly add to institutional longevity, the actions you need to take to create an intergenerational culture will contribute to institutional longevity (and cultural consistency is just aesthetically appealing for some of us!)

Counterintuitively, cultures where people have a shorter tenure may maintain coherence longer. You can observe this phenomena in research labs staffed mostly by grad students, DARPA, and British-style university house systems (think Harry Potter) to name a few.^2 In many these cases, cultural coherence has lasted more than half a century. One reason for this may be that short tenures mean that the organization is forced to refresh itself to get new people more often and in turn those people refresh the organization. Universities are able to maintain relevance because they are forced to reinvent themselves for new generations of students. Contrast to organizations that feel like they’ve outlived their usefulness — they’re characterized by sitting in a niche that doesn’t change much and bureaucracy. The latter point is crucial because Bureaucracies are human algorithms, so people are fungible and you don’t need to update to appeal to them — you just get people who want a paycheck.

Marissa Weichman independently asserted that the transient nature of graduate students also makes people want to make the most of their time.


Is it possible to tease out shared attributes?

What are the things that enable it?

  • Explicit culture building
  • Exclusivity
  • Culture keepers
  • A way to update to new contexts

It’s also worth asking, what are organizations with the most robust cultures?

Is it important to have a few people who have been around for a long time so that the cultural wave behaves like a Small world networks in time? Long lived organizations need culture keepers


^1:<sidenote> For completeness it’s important to note that standing waves can happen in many materials besides water and don’t always involve flows (like when they happen in strings or air.)
^2: Weirdly, people tend to stick around for an average of ~4-5 years in all of these examples. Coincidence? 🤔 Human timescales

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