Turning Toward

July 31, 2016

The Fourth Turning

A favorite historical device of the Western tradition is the timeline, running straight from the past to the future.  Cyclic models of history are less popular and circular models seem too formulaic, even primitive, for historical narrative.   Surely, Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the 1997 book “The Fourth Turning,” understood that their model might encounter a cool reception from the academic community.

Published a few years before the millennium and the Y2K scare, the book recounted the historical pattern of generations from 1500 through 2000, before taking on the ambitious task of predicting the pattern of events for the coming twenty years.  While researching a previous book “Generations,” the authors discovered a repeating pattern of responses to events.  They developed a model of four generational archetypes spanning the range of a human lifetime.  Every twenty years or so each generation passes into another phase of life, from childhood to adulthood, to middle age, then the elder years.  The authors called these passages “turnings.”

Every 80 years or so, every fourth generation, begins a period of crisis. The authors had projected this current fourth turning to last from approximately 2004 – 2026, understanding that these turnings are not fixed to a calendar. Although the authors trace the turnings back to 1500, previous crisis fourth turnings that we are familiar with are the American Revolution 1773-94, Civil War 1860-65, Depression and WW2 1929-46.

During a crisis period comes a pre-crisis strain that primes the scene for the main crisis.  Each crisis revolves around the social contract, the relationship between individuals and their government.  The resolution of the crisis occurs during the first turning in which a new version of the social contract is forged.  The leaders of these resolutions are the generation in middle age, approximately 42-62.  [So us Boomer parents better be nice to our kids 🙂 ]

In predicting the current crisis period, the authors pulled no punches.  Chapter Ten of the book is titled “A Fourth Turning Prophecy.” The time frames of these prophecies are approximate because they predict behavioral trends.   It has been almost twenty years since the book was published and it surprised me how well the authors understood the trends and ingredients of the crises that have occurred in the past decade.  Frankly, I hope that the authors are wrong about the coming decade when a generation of crisis intensifies and forces a resolution.

The authors predicted a financial crisis about 2005 and sketched a number of other plausible scenarios typical of a generation of crisis.  “The era will have left the financial world arbitraged and tentacled: Debtors won’t know who holds their notes, homeowners who owns their mortgages, and shareholders who runs their equities – and vice versa.” (p. 274 of the Broadway Books 1998 paperback edition)  Sound familiar?  Remember, this was written twelve years before the 2008 financial crisis.

The authors caution that these scenarios are archetypes, unlikely to happen in detail as written and yet the generalities are both scary and prescient. The hypothetical scenarios include terrorists blowing up an airplane, a government shutdown precipitated by a federal budget stalemate, the spread of a new communicable virus and an increasing aggression by Russia toward its former satellite countries. “All you know in advance is something about the molten ingredients of the climax,” the authors wrote.

Twenty years before the main crisis event, the nature of the crisis is difficult to see, the authors cautioned.  A series of crises weaken the social order and people’s expectations, creating tensions between groups in society.  We could use the analogy of tectonic plates to understand the economic and social frictions that build over time until the earthquake is finally triggered.  While a particular event is the catalyst for the main crisis, it is not the cause of the fracturing of the social contract.

The frictions can be promises made to one group that can not be kept.  Technological change may bring economic changes that favor one portion of a society and disadvantage others.  Political changes may pose constitutional challenges that are resolved with violence.  Long simmering military antagonisms may finally break out into war.  These are only a few frictions in a long list presented by the authors (p. 277).

The authors can be forgiven for a few incorrect predictions – that the government would hike taxes in response to a financial crisis or depression.  Perhaps they were misled by the economically conservative mood of the nation at the time when they wrote the book.  The authors did not anticipate that the Federal government would quadruple the Federal debt over fifteen years in response to 9-11 and the 2008 Financial Crisis.  They did not foresee that the Federal Reserve would add four trillion to its balance sheet to absorb the bad securitizations that contributed to the Financial Crisis.

Twenty years ago, the authors guesstimated the onset of the main crisis in the year 2020 followed by a six year period of resolution.  As I noted earlier, it is the middle aged generation that leads in the formation of solutions to these crises.  In this case, those leaders would be the children of the Boomers, the cohort labelled “Generation X” in sociological and popular literature.

Criticisms, controversy and praise for the generational model presented by the authors can be found at a Wikipedia article, which has been flagged for its lack of neutrality. Should a decade pass with no crisis, we could rest assured that the theory is totally bonkers pseudoscience.  There are a few problems, however, that could precipitate a crisis: 1) a federal debt approaching $20 trillion; 2) terrorist acts in the news each week; 3) many trillions of dollars in Social Security and  public pension promises that 80 million Boomers are beginning to redeem; 4) immigration, tax and other  policy disputes over who is entitled to what and who pays what.  These are some of the groaning sounds of tectonic frictions in our country.

Californians live with the possibility of a “big one,” a monster earthquake unleashed at the San Andreas fault that runs along the mountain spine of the state.  Each person silently hopes that the inevitable doesn’t happen in their lifetime.  Count me among that bunch.

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