Monday, November 21, 2005

The Fourth Turning

This book by Strauss and Howe proclaims itself on the cover as "An American Prophecy", and the book has the subtitle of "What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny". Those are strong words when speaking of the future. H. G. Wells commented that demography is destiny. I believe that. For example, we know a lot about all the 20-year-olds in the U.S. in 2025. Why? Because they've all been born, even those that will immigrate into the U.S. But when you couple demography with social trends, I become less sure. Humans have a nasty habit of doing the unexpected, as well as responding to events in unexpected ways. Strauss and Howe couple demography with sociology and add in some ideas about generations to produce a prophecy. In doing so I think they fall prey to a weakness we all succumb too occasionally, especially me, of pushing their insights too far into specifics and detail. However, if their prophecy is 10% right, they still deserve to be listened to, and maybe even to take actions to prepare for the America they prophesize.

The book begins with a summary of their prophecy in Chapter 1. Winter Comes Again. "America feels like it's unraveling. Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within.

Neither an epic victory over Communism nor an extended upswing of the business cycle can buoy our public spirit. The Cold War and New Deal struggles are plainly over, but we are of no mind to bask in their successes. The America of today feels worse, in its fundamentals, than the one many of us remember from our youth, a society presided over by those of supposedly lesser consciousness...We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment. Not long ago, America was more than the sum of its parts. Now, it is less."

Remember as you read this that the book was published in 1997 - before 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The authors' views have been developed through several books including Generations and 13th-GEN. To understand their work, I recommend that you read all three of these books. However, The Fourth Turning is the best of the three.

The fundamental building block of their paradigm is that there are cycles in history of society called the saeculum by the "ancients".

According to the authors, there are three ways of thinking about time*: chaotic, cyclical, and linear. "In chaotic time, history has no path. Events follow one another randomly, and any effort to impute meaning in their whirligig succession is hopeless."

*Authors' note: I think that their description of chaotic time is really confusing. There are really four ways of thinking about time - random, cyclical, linear and chaotic. The characteristics they ascribe to chaotic time really apply to random time. In chaotic time, there is order, events are not random, but follow a higher order of organization not easily perceived. I think that the paradigm progression is from random to cyclical to linear to chaotic.

"Cyclical time originated when the ancients first linked natural cycles of planetary events (diurnal rotations, lunar months, solar years, zodiacal precessions) with related cycles in human activity (sleeping, waking; gestating, birthing; planting; harvesting; hunting, feasting). Cyclical time conquered chaos by repetition..."

"...linear time - time as a unique (and usually progressing) story with an absolute beginning and an absolute end...The Persian, Judaic, Christian and Islamic cosmologies all embraced the radically new concept of personal and historic time as a unidirectional drama."
The saeculum is approximately 80 years long and, according to the authors, is observable in Anglo-American history for seven cycles since 1435. The saeculum is divided into four turnings, each about 20 years long - a generation:

1. "The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays." In the current saeculum, this was the American High (1946 - 1964)

2. "The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when civic order comes under attack from a new values regime." In the current saeculum, this was the Consciousness Revolution (1964 - 1984)

3. "The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants." In the current saeculum, this was, and still is, the Culture Wars (1984 - 2005?)

4. "The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one." In the current saeculum, this era is left unnamed but would start around 2005 and end around 2026.

If Strauss and Howe are correct, at this point in time, we are at the cusp of entering a crisis era. The previous crisis era was introduced by the great depression and W.W.II. Prior crisis eras also began with wars - Civil War (1860), American Revolution (1773), Glorious Revolution (1675), Armada Crisis (1569) and Wars of the Roses (1459). Are the wars we are in right now the catalysts for our next crisis era?

The second building block in Strauss and Howe's model is the concept of generations. "Of all the cycles known to man, the one we all know best is the human life cycle. No other societal force - not class, not nationality, not culture, not technology - has a predictable a chronology. The limiting length of an active life cycle is one of civilization's great constants...Biologically and socially, a full human life is divided into four phases: childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and elderhood. Each phase of life is the same length as the others, capable of holding one generation at a time. And, each phase is associated with a specific social role that conditions how its occupants perceive the world and act on those perceptions." And, each phase is about 20 years long:

  • Childhood (0-20) - social role is growth, receiving nurture, acquiring values
  • Young Adulthood (21-41) - social role is vitality, serving institutions, testing values
  • Midlife (42-62) - social role is power, managing institutions, applying values
  • Elderhood (63-83) - social role is leadership, leading institutions, transferring values

Late Elderhood (84+) - social role is dependence, receiving comfort from institutions, remembering values

In this model, only the first four are considered active in shaping American society. This assumption is certainly suspect as the late elderhood bracket swells and people remain mentally and physically active longer.

These two building blocks of the Strauss and Howe model, the saeculum and generations, act together to create the engine for social change. Consider for example childhood. A childhood spent during a first turning, a high, would be vastly different than one spent during a crisis or fourth turning.

But the key thing to consider is the mix of generations in any turning of the saeculum. For example, in a fourth turning, the crisis era the author's predict we are now in:

  • The Midlife generation, whose role is power, experienced Childhood during a second turning, an awakening
  • The Elderhood generation, whose role is leadership, experienced Childhood in a first turning, a high
  • The Young Adulthood generation, whose role is vitality, experienced Childhood during an Unraveling
  • The Childhood generation, whose role is growth is getting its first life expereince during a Crisis

The Late Elderhood generation, whose role according to the authors, is dependence is the only generation to have experienced the last crisis.

The third building block of the Strauss and Howe model is the naming of generations, depending upon their place in the saeculum at different life stages. The naming implies that we can, to a first approximation, group people in a generation and ascribe some common characteristics. This is a dangerous assumption, but useful if you're going to make any sense of generations and social change. The characterizations are general tendencies and do not apply to individuals within a generation.

The fourth building block of the model is the concept of archetypes. Strauss and Howe identity four archetypes - Hero, Nomad, Prophet and Artist. These four archetypes cycle through our society as generations.

The generations in play right now are:

  • The Silent Generation (1929-1946) - an Artist archetype, suffocated during childhood, sensitive during youth adulthood, indecisive during midlife and empathetic during elderhood
  • The Boomers (1946-1964) - a Prophet archetype, indulged during childhood, narcissistic as a young adult, moralistic in midlife
  • The Thirteen Generation (1964-1984) - also called GenX, a Nomad archetype, abandoned during childhood, alienated during young adulthood
  • The Millennials (1985-2005) - Hero archetype, protected as a child

If the authors are correct, we have just entered a Crisis that will last for the next 20 years. In this Crisis the elders will be Prophets, those in midlife will be Nomads, young adults will be Heroes and our children will be Artists. According to the authors, families will be strengthening and we will over protect our children. The gap between genders will widen. Ideals will be championed, new institutions will be founded and our culture will be practical. Our interest in community will be growing and our social structure will begin to unify. Our worldview will be moving from complexity to simplicity. What will motivate us socially will be a concern over blots in our record. We will develop a sense of urgency and a sense that we need to fix our outer world. If wars occur, they will be total.

The morphology of a crisis era will is:

  • "A Crisis era begins with a catalyst - a starting event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood"
  • "Once catalyzed, a society achieves a regeneracy - a new counter entropy that reunifies and reenergize civic life"
  • "The regenerated society propels toward a climax - a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and birth of the new."
  • "The climax culminates in a resolution - a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates the winners from the losers, resolves the big public questions, and establishes the new order."

While I am reluctant to present their recommendations, I do so for your own analysis. To me the recommendations appear to have a political bias. According to the authors to prepare for the fourth turning, or crisis, America should:

  • Prepare values - forge the consensus and uplift the culture, but don't expect near-term results
  • Prepare institutions - clear the debris and find out what works, but don't try building anything big
  • Prepare politics - define challenges bluntly and stress duties over rights, but don't attempt reforms that can't now be accomplished
  • Prepare society - require community teamwork to solve local problems, but don't try this on a national scale
  • Prepare youth - treat children as the nation's highest priority, but don't do the work for them
  • Prepare elders - tell future elders they will need to be more self sufficient, but don't attempt deep cuts in benefits to current elders
  • Prepare the economy - correct fundamentals, but don't try to fine tune performance
  • Prepare the defense - expect the worse and prepare to mobilize, but don't precommit to any one response

For individuals they recommend:

  • Rectify - return to the classic virtues
  • Converge - heed emerging community norms
  • Bond - build personal relationships of all kinds
  • Gather - prepare yourself (and your children) for teamwork
  • Root - look to your family for support
  • Brace - gird for the weakening or collapse of public support mechanisms
  • Hedge - diversify everything you do

It is incredibly important that we as a society understand the predictions in this book. We must decide not only if they are right or wrong, but also even if they are right, are we predetermined to this future, or can we through collective decisions and actions avoid the future they say is inevitable. Is technology a wild card in their scenario? Will it accelerate the Crisis or help us avoid it? And, for all the cases, what are we going to do about it?

The Fourth Turing - An American Prophecy
What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny
William Strauss and Neil Howe
Broadway Books, 1997


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