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Neil Howe: The Fourth Turning Has Arrived

In 1996, demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe published the book The Fourth Turning. This study of generational cycles ("turnings") in America revealed predictable social trends that recur throughout history and warned of a coming crisis (a "fourth turning") based on this research.

Fourth turnings are defined by disorder and great changes brought on by a breakdown of the systems and operating principles that dominated the prior three turnings.

Our society has entered a fourth turning (consisting of the twenty-year periods leading up to and out of it immediately.)
It is a season you have to move through before you are born again -- so to speak -- as a society, and regain institutional confidence. You have to go through a crucible to get there.

I think the fourth turning started -- probably, if I were to date it now -- in 2008: the realigning election in that year of Barack Obama against John McCain. And, obviously, simultaneously with that, as we all recall, an epic, historic crash of the global economy from which we still have not recovered.

We are sort of hobbling along in kind of a low-earth orbit, with continued high unemployment and excess capacity -- not just in the United States, but around the world. And, of course, all the rules of economic policy seem broken and lie in fragments on the floor. People are wondering what the heck do we do in this new era?

Each of the generational cohorts living within this turning (e.g., Boomers, Gen X, Millennials) have roles to play.

This is a period when, in each of these turnings, each generation is moving in their new phase of life. Boomers are beginning to retire, they are beginning to redefine the senior phase of life. X’s are beginning to assume mid-life roles as the dominant parent generation and leaders. These are people born in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And, Millennials are fully beginning to come of age and redefine young adulthood. And, meanwhile, a very small generation is just beginning to come on stream, which remembers nothing before 2008.

We can already see these generational divisions forming, and it is interesting how each generation is to some extent defined by the thing they have, they just have no memory of, they just barely have no memory of (e.g., Boomers are defined by the World War II that even the oldest of them cannot remember).

History gives us patterns that predict how these generational archetypes will collaborate, compete, and collide with one another as we enter into crisis. Understanding these in advance will give us a big advantage on the types of policies and solutions most likely to yield success. And we sorely need these, as the problems we're heading into have no easy answers:

There are patterns here which we recognize, and it is very important not to have historical amnesia. To look back and see where we have been, see where we are going, and more importantly, to understand the dynamics behind these social trends have familiar parallels. We just need to have the historical imagination to look far enough backwards and forward to see where else they have happened or to see where they possibly will happen again.

I am nervous. I am nervous about the future right now. I think we have a lot more deep issues, deep crises, to save in the economy. I am also very nervous about what I see geopolitically.

We cannot possibly afford the government we have promised ourselves. And, that will be a painful process of deleveraging, and it is not just deleveraging the explicit debt that we have already actually formally borrowed, it is all the implicit debt. And, I think we will deal with it, because we have no other choice.

But, my point is this: No one simply solves a terrible problem on a sunny day when they can afford, at least for the time being, to look the other way. Problems like that are faced when people have no other choice, and it is a really grim day. And, it is white-knuckle time, and horrible things are happening with markets around the world, or horrible things are happening, at least historically; we have seen that geopolitically around the world. And, that is when people are forced to act.

Strauss and Howe's research provides another lens through which to view how the next twenty years will be remarkably different from life as we've been used to. It's one worth looking through.