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M.A. Nystrom

M.A. Nystrom

M.A. Nystrom is a private investor and consultant currently living near Boston. He earned his MBA from the University of Washington with a specialty in…

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The Fourth Turning - Part I

America is aging. Recently, considerable analysis has been devoted to the financial impact that retiring Baby Boomers will have on the American economy. Books such as Financial Armageddon, The Great Bust Ahead, and The Coming Generational Storm ponder such questions as: Have Boomers saved enough to retire on? Will there be a tremendous stock (housing) market crash as Boomers liquidate their assets in preparation for retirement? How will the government manage to make good on their implicit promises to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits to a growing elderly population? Who will take care of the aging population?

These are serious questions, but they are only half of the story. The other, almost completely ignored half, is the story of a new generation coming of age and ready to reshape the world as Boomers lose their cultural relevance. This generation, alternately known as Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (born 1982 - 2002), is an emerging force 'that will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls,' in ways that we have not seen since before the 1960's. In many ways, this generation has already begun to make its cultural mark, though this remains under-reported in the mainstream media.

Boomers understandably have their own perspectives on the problems they will face as they age, and are naturally much more interested in examining how their own lives will be affected. Since they occupy the powerful gatekeeper positions as editors, producers and writers in the MSM, it is these issues we hear the most about. But as their collective grip on the cultural reigns slip, a new generation will step up to redefine American culture the way Boomers did forty years ago. What will this look like? More on that in future installments (sign up here to be notified), but first the stage must be set for this transition of power.

The Times They Are a Changin'

Last week's article, Inflation, Dow 13K and the Second Great Depression, was by far my most popular ever, thanks to the attention it received on social networking sites such as digg and reddit - sites overwhelmingly frequented by younger readers. The article seemed to resonate deeply with young people, who have a very different - but as yet under-expressed - perspective on our world. This week I'd like to begin to establish a framework for imagining an emerging new world, and offer an alternative way to think about what is going on.

Rolling StoneThe next time you're near a newsstand, take a look at the latest issue of Rolling Stone. You can't miss it - it's the Fortieth Anniversary issue, with a sparkly red and silver holographic cover. The issue is a tribute to the times in which the Rolling Stone magazine was born, and is packed with interviews of influential cultural figures waxing poetic on the significance of the 1960's in America. The 60's were a unique time of growth, rebellion and exploration, and America hasn't seen anything like them since. The magazine and many of the interviewees wonder: What was it that made the 60's so special?

William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of the 1997 classic The Fourth Turning have an answer. It was the coming of age of America's largest and most privileged generation, who began questioning the world as they saw it, rebelling against the status quo, and rebuilding their parents' society on their own terms. Because of their sheer numbers, the Boom generation had the power to reshape society. They were and have been the dominant force in society ever since, driving American culture based on their own values and world view. While the Boomers believe they are unique, Strauss and Howe show that there are in fact repeating generational cycles in American history.

Linear vs. Cyclical Time

Even before the 1960's, Americans had gotten used to looking at time as a phenomenon of linear progression. To Americans, the passage of time means steady improvement, both economically and socially. Things in America get better, cheaper, and faster while civil and human rights continue to improve over time. But as I discussed last week for one of the few times in history, America's younger generations (X and Y) look to be growing up less better off than their parents: Good jobs are scarce and don't pay as well, inflation is making everything more expensive, and everyone - including the government itself - is in more debt than ever. If things don't change, it is the young who will ultimately end up paying the price for the extravagant living standards that Boomers have been charging to the national credit card for the past forty years. If time moves only in a linear fashion, then we face the unpleasant possibility that the new linear trend points downward.

But the linear view of time is not the only view, as this description of Eastern versus Western styles of thought (from The Geography of Thought) demonstrates. A Chinese Researcher explains to his American colleague:

[T]he difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it is a line...The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can't understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture, and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects.

In other words, a cyclical view of time believes that which is old will one day be new again, and many factors beyond our control are involved in shaping the future. The cyclical view is well known to many other cultures, and certainly to our agrarian ancestors. While it has been mostly forgotten by our post-modern, urban contemporaries, a simple example of cyclical time that even city dwellers are aware of (and take for granted) is the progression of the seasons. Winter leads to spring, which leads to summer, into autumn, and back to winter - which is both old and new again. The cycle continues through the centuries like clockwork. While there can be variations within the seasons themselves - a colder winter, a wetter spring, etc. - the seasons always recur in the same order.

And so it is, according to Strauss and Howe, within the social realm. There are social seasons are sure as there are climatic ones.

Generational Turnings

Strauss and Howe contend that the social seasons are determined by different generations passing through the four different phases of a human life: childhood, young adulthood, middle age and old age, each about 20 years in length. This constitutes a constantly changing generational constellation.

Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era - a new turning - every two decades or so. At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation and the future. Turnings come in cycles of four. Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly 80 - 100 years, a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum. Together, the four turnings of the saeculum compromise history's seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction.

Turnings, they note, also come as nearly a complete surprise in spite of their regular recurence.

In the current saeculum, the First Turning immediately followed the end of WWII. It was the era of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. America was newly triumphant, powerful and the most respected nation in the world. A First Turning is always "a High - an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays."

The Second Turning is the era currently being recalled fondly in the latest Rolling Stone: The Sixties. Second turnings are "an Awakening - a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime." You can see this quite clearly in the three years between 1964 - 1967. Anthony DeCurtis, in his interview of Paul McCartney points out that those three years were the difference between the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." If you are familiar with the songs, you intuitively understand the tremendous artistic evolution that took place between them in a span of just three years. If you aren't familiar with them, this is how that transformation appeared visually:

Beatles 1964-1967

In the above picture, you can practically see the conformist Eisenhower era (identical haircuts, suits, ties and cheerful expressions) dissolving away into the new values regime of radical individualism that defined the 1960's. No wonder the 60's were so much fun to those who lived though it! It was the end of something old, and the start of something completely new (they thought).

But all things must pass. Strauss & Howe date the start of the Third Turning to the mid 1980's, with Reagan's 'Morning in America' and the ensuing culture wars of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. (Uggh) A Third Turning, they say, is "a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants." If you think about it carefully, you may find that Bill, Hillary, Newt and George W, while at opposite ends of the political spectrum, all share certain Boomer generational traits in common, just as Truman, Eisenhower and JFK shared a different set of common traits.

Those who rode the wealth wave of the 80's and 90's may take issue with this period being a "downcast era." For some they were boom times, but it was also the era of working moms, latch-key kids, increasing poverty, debt, divorce and skyrocketing rates of emotional depression.

Nearly all cultural remnants of the Eisenhower 50's are now gone. Ravi Batra calls this the Acquisitor-cum-Laborer age, in which nearly everyone has been forced into laboring for a minority of greedy acquisitors for whom enough is never enough. Because of massive indebtedness and low salaries, many find themselves rushing madly, simply to keep from falling behind. The new Boomer values regime - characterized by Gordon Gekko's 1987 mantra, "Greed is good," is firmly implanted and looks as though it is here to stay. The legacy of the Summer of Love has strangely calcified into an era of empty self-love: narcissism, selfishness, and every-man-for-himself, resulting in seemingly unsolvable social problems: Poverty, depression, falling educational standards, global warming, excessive debt, and a lonesome society yearning for community but without the faintest idea of how to achieve it. From a linear perspective, these trends look like they will only get worse with time.

The Fourth Turning

But wait. A turning comes every 20 years, and the Fourth Turning is due right about now. All turnings cause society to change direction, but the Fourth Turning is the most powerful of them all. It is, the authors say, "history's great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another." It 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 other words, the current value system will likely be exposed, once and for all, to be morally and spiritually bankrupt, unable to solve the myriad problems that have been created by it. Chaos ensues, and from this chaos, a new values regime will be born that is able to effectively solve our seeminly insurmountable problems.

The most recent Fourth Turning was born of a time strikingly similar to these. It was when the Roaring Twenties gave way to the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Following that chaotic transition, the nation emerged into the first turning High of the post-war era.

What are we in store for in the coming Fourth Turning? In 1997, the authors predicted:

Around the year 2005 [give or take a few years], a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth. Americans will share a regret about recent mistakes - and a resolute new consensus about what to do. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.

The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule. If there is a war, it is likely to be one of maximum risk and effort - in other words, total war...

Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people. Many despair that values that were new in the 1960s are today so entwined with social dysfunction and cultural decay that they can no longer lead anywhere positive. Through the current Unraveling era, that is probably true. But in the crucible of Crisis, that will change. As the old civic order gives way, Americans will have to craft a new one. This will require a values consensus and, to administer it, the empowerment of a strong new political regime...By the 2020's, America could become a society that is good, by today's standards and also one that works.

Thus might the next Fourth Turning end in apocalypse - or glory. The nation could be ruined, its democracy destroyed, and millions of people scattered or killed. Or America could enter a new golden age, triumphantly applying shared values to improve the human condition. The rhythms of history do not reveal the outcome of the coming Crisis; all they suggest is the timing and dimension.

It must be stressed, that a positive outcome is by no means assured. It will take a collective effort for the country to create a successful outcome. And while it is not entirely clear from the above passage, the authors do make it clear elsewhere in their writings that it will be the rising generation that will be primarily responsible for realizing the future, be it positive or negative. In other words: Young people, your turn is coming. We're going to need your ideas, imagination and energy in the very near future.

- - - - - - - - -

More on Strauss and Howe's work next week, including a major sign that a cultural shift is already underway - sign up here to be notified.

Comments and discussion welcome. Do you believe a Fourth Turning is coming? Has the Crisis already been sparked? If so, what is it? 9/11? The War on Terror? Global warming? Or something else? What will our common outcome be? Part II will be based primarily on reader's comments, so post them here.

Special thanks, to the many readers who have written to me recommending this book. It is indeed a classic. Please keep the suggestions coming.


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