Trump and the Generations Part 3: When Did the Fourth Turning Start?

In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we examined how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out. In Part 3 we will look at what is next based on that historical perspective.

America is headed towards an extreme crisis which will probably culminate in the next 4 to 8 years. According to “The Fourth Turning” written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, we are on track to repeat the historical cycle of Crisis that has gone on for centuries. But a big question remains in how this Crisis will play out: will it be a global war for domination or an internal war for control of the US?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Satayana

For a primer on Generational Theory, go to Neil Howe’s site Lifecourse.com

According to generational theory, we are now in a period called “The Crisis” which will culminate in a “Climax” that has historically been a military conflict. These world-changing events occur every 80-100 years:

  • 1929-1946 (17 years) – Great Depression and WWII
  • 1860-1865 (5 years) – Civil War
  • 1773-1794 (21 years) – American Revolution
  • 1675-1704 (29 years) – Glorious Revolution
  • 1569-1594 (25 years) – Armada Crisis
  • 1459-1487 (28 years) – War of the Roses

In most of the examples that “The Fourth Turning” outlines, the battles have resulted in clear winners and losers and the heroes are rewarded generously for their victory. This is true for all of their examples except for one: The American Civil War. This battle, fought on US soil with Brother against Brother, and the result did not feel like a victory for anyone, but rather defeat for all involved.

The reason that Strauss and Howe give for the quagmire that resulted from the Civil War had to do with timing. In the other Crisis battles, there had been adequate time for a “Hero” generation to form and prepare for battle. This was certainly true in WWII with the GI Generation as the heroes as well as the American Revolution with Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Generation. There were no such heroes in the Civil War because when the war started in 1860, the Progressive Generation of Woodrow Wilson were too young to fight.  The generation that did fight in the Civil war was the Gilded Generation who are more similar in character to current day Gen X’ers. They were not lauded for their role and were not interested in taking up the mantle of victors since survival was their main desire. Because the Civil War came too early, in generational terms, it also was extremely short, and brutish. All the other Crisis in history have covered from 17-29 years, enough for an entire generation to feel their full effect.

So the timing seems the key factor in determining the nature of the Crisis Climax. The timing of the current Crisis has been debated for some time in generational circles. There are three possibilities:

  1. The Crisis began 2001 with 9/11
  2. The Crisis began in 2008 with the Great Recession
  3. The Crisis hasn’t started yet

First we have to understand how the Crisis is broken down into sections. The Crisis starts with a Catalyst, which Strauss and Howe describe as “a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood”. Following the Catalyst, society should move quickly, typically from 1-5 years after the catalyst, into the regeneracy, which is “a new counter entropy that re-unifies and re-energizes civic life”. The Regeneracy should last from 10-15 years. And then finally we have the Climax which is a relatively short period of extreme conflict that leads to a resolution.

If we consider 9/11 as the Catalyst, we can certainly see that it was a startling event that produced a sudden shift in mood. But we would have expected 1-5 years later that the country really started to pull together. That would have been around Obama’s first term which got off to a strong start that seemed to pull young Millennials into a new civic engagement, but that energy was quickly lost after his first mid-term elections. The rest of his terms left most on the left and right feeling disillusioned not “re-energized”.

Perhaps the The Great Recession was the startling event that produced a massive shift in mood. Most in our society had never faced the degree of economic turmoil and worry that engulfed the nation. It was only the extreme actions of the Federal Government that staved off immediate disaster, and we are still deeply in debt from those actions. But once again, if we look 1-5 years after the Great Recession, the civic regeneracy did not seem to materialize.

It might also be possible that the Fourth Turning has not started yet at all. This seems very remote, given how Strauss and Howe characterize the Fourth Turning mood. Unlike the Unraveling it is a time of clear polarization between sides, not just a splintering of society into many pieces. Although today’s social mood is definitely split, it is primarily a battle between open or closed society, which is a new set of rules from the old liberal/democrat split. So it seems unlikely that we are still in an Unraveling waiting for the catalyst.

But now with the populist movement of Donald Trump, perhaps we are seeing the civic regeneracy that was going on, all along, unbeknownst to the mainstream media. The Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin’s popularity and the election of a large cache of extreme conservatives in State and Federal Legislatures should have tipped Americans off that something was changing. The American people, or at least the Electoral College, chose a decisive direction for the country during this volatile period.

But perhaps there is another possibility: that the Crisis began with 9/11, deepened with the Great Recession and finally forced its way towards a Climax when those who felt most ignored and repressed finally spoke their minds. This would put us on course to have a resolution to the Crisis sometime in the next 4-8 years, which would mean that we should be done with a massive decisive conflict sometime between 2021 and 2025. That is right in line with Strauss and Howe’s original predictions from “The Fourth Turning” and would make this Crisis total out at 20-24 years.

In Chapter 9 of “The Fourth Turning” Strauss and Howe outline how the prior Climax have occurred. In their analysis there is one striking similarity to each Crisis cycle: practically no one sees the climax coming, even less than a year in advance. This is very instructive for the situation today where most of our populace knows something feels very different than in the past, but they can’t imagine another World War or individual States rising up in defiance of the Federal Government.

But back to the original question: will the Crisis be an internal battle between Liberal States and Trump’s Federal Government? Or will it be a war between the US and some other Sovereign Nation(s)? We will answer that question in Part 4 of this series.

 

Trump and the Fourth Turning, Part 1

It has been over three years since I last posted to this blog, and a lot has changed in that time. The effects of this generational cycle are becoming clearer, especially with Brexit, Trump and other nationalist forces coming to the fore in 2016. I have been reluctant to talk much about it because I prefer to stay away from partisanship in generational research, but I think it is important to discuss the larger forces at play in the next 4-8 years. Understanding that bigger picture during this pivotal time will be critical to the health, safety and perhaps survival of your family and community. In part one of this post I will cover the relevant basics of generational theory. Part two will attempt to interpret recent events using this lens. If you are not familiar with the Strauss and Howe’s generational theories, I suggest you start by watching my primer on generational theory.

According to Strauss and Howe, we are in the midst of “The Fourth Turning”, the final, winter-like stage of a cycle that began in 1946 with the “American High” following WWII. It is likely we started the Fourth Turning in 2008 with the market crash and that it will continue until around 2025. It will be during the last quarter, the climax of the Turning, that we will see a fundamental shift in the nature of our society and the world. The most blatant shift, currently, is a political one. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump both signaled a significant shift in politics, certainly the largest most Gen X’ers have seen in our lifetime and, according to the theories, the largest since The Great Depression and WWII. The nationalism that these movements represent seem to be gaining steam around the Western World, along with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and other strident politicians threatening to overtake traditional styles of governance. While there are many reasons for these shifts, the often forgotten generational component is not insignificant.

There three currently active generations in our society. The first are our elders, the Baby Boomers who are, for the most part, our national leaders. As of 2015, About 58% of Congressmen and 73% of State Governors are Boomers. Baby Boomers are known for their strident, obstinate views and purist idealism. In the case of Donald Trump, that idealism focuses primarily around both American Exceptionalism and that the idea that world should be viewed as a Zero Sum Game.

The second currently influential generation is the middle-aged Generation X. Generation X has are notoriously pragmatic, individualistic and cynical. A majority of Generation X voted for Donald Trump. Generational theory suggests that many of them voted this way because they felt that the status quo has served them poorly for the last 20 years, prompting them to ask what they had to lose. Gen X’ers hold most of the remaining leadership positions (Paul Ryan is a Gen Xer) but they are not as well represented in government as the Boomers.

Finally, the Millennials. Millennials are young adults who were raised to be collaborative, idealistic and civic-minded. Many of them backed Bernie Sanders—at least on the Coasts—and did so because they believed that a new approach to civic engagement was needed. Although Trump does not personally appeal to many Millennials, if he starts to tout a message of stronger collaboration and working towards a common good, he could successfully woo followers in this group.

Each of these generations has an “archetype” which aligns with previous generations. Boomers are of the “Prophet” archetype, last seen in the Missionary Generation (FDR, Churchill). Gen X, the “Nomad” archetype, was last paralleled in the Lost Generation (Truman, Patton). Millennials represent the”Hero” archetype of which the GI Generation (JFK, Reagan) is the previous example. The last time that we saw these archetypes in this particular alignment was in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. This is the key insight of generational theory: that the life stage cycle of the various generational archetypes help to push societal shifts. For a visual of this cycle, take a look at this chart.

Based on generational theory we are at a particularly pivotal point in history where the “stack” of generations presents great risk and great possibility. In Part 2 I will examine more specifics consequences, especially in light of the recent nationalist movements around the world.

Boomers and Millennials today

An interesting interview with Neil Howe in The Atlantic. I particularly like the last answer:

Will Millennials become skeptical of government over time?

HOWE: When they say they are pro-government, they don’t mean that they like what Congress is doing. It means they think there are great things that could be done to bring America together as a community. A growing share of millennials live with their parents. This dovetails into some very positive resolution of the problem of older entitlements. Families will be much closer. That is going to be huge because it avoids some of the huge tax and fiscal drag of a third-party entitlement system supporting older people.

Arab Spring: Crisis or Awakening?

I have been thinking quite a bit about the “Arab Spring” recently. Back in 2007 our family spent three weeks traveling around Egypt (Cairo, Alexandria, the White Desert, Luxor and Hagarda) and we feel an affinity for the area because of our time there.

Strauss and Howe have pointed out that the Arab world (and Europe for that matter) lag behind the US in their generational cycle by about 5 years or so. But the changes going on in the Middle East seem a lot more like the [3rd] of the 1960’s rather than a [4th]. But that may just be on the surface. The “agitators” in the Arab Spring sound a lot like our [Mill] rather than [Boom]. The establishment they are forcing out or protesting against are [Silent] in many cases – which is different than our leadership in the US (we have never had a Silent Generation president and probably never will). This article from CNN implies that the Arab youth are like the Freedom Riders of the 60’s.

I do wonder whether they are on an entirely different cycle than the US. The outcome of the Arab Spring will be telling in that regard. If it continues to escalate and results in a remaking of the institutions in the next 10-15 years, then they are part of the same Crisis cycle we are in. If it degenerates into social chaos and prolonged instability then they are headed where we were in 70’s and 80’s. I certainly hope for the former.

A New Arab Generation Finds Its Voice – Video Feature – NYTimes.com.

Between Young and Old, a Political Collision – NYTimes.com

Although this recent article in the NY Times describes it as a collision between “Young and Old” I believe the Medicare debate is going to be about [Boom] vs. [X]. X’ers probably don’t expect to get much out of Social Security or Medicare (even though we will probably be the biggest contributors to the programs in our lifetime). Some of the proposals about cuts suggested a cutoff age of 55. If those measures were to pass in a couple years it would pretty much affect only Gen X’ers. No big surprise there, but interesting that the split would be so generational.

I am not sure if the [Mill] would really fight the battle against Boomers in the same way that X’ers would. I have a feeling that the Millennials might see it more of their duty to provide for their elders.

Boomers and the Washington War of Ideas

This article in the NY Times is an apt description of the challenges we are facing because of our predominantly [Boom] leadership:

Washington War of Ideas Overshadows Need for Jobs – NYTimes.com

I think we are still early on in the [4th] so this sort of bickering can still hold sway. The Boomers would still rather debate ideology than simply get things done. Contrast that with [X] leaders like Paul Ryan or Barack Obama who seem to be more focused on just coming up with a solution that will allow us to survive. I am not saying I agree with either Ryan or Obama or their proposals, but there is an interesting difference in the pragmatism you see from X’ers in leadership vs. the Boomers. The leaders mentioned in the story are Boomers (and one [Silent]) who are willing to argue and debate endlessly.

BTW, if you are curious about the generational makeup of our current leadership, take a look at the American Leadership Database on the Lifecourse site. You can view all sorts of stuff under the analysis section, including the breakdown of generations of the current congress (click on it for a larger view):

Martha Stewart Grumpy about Generation X’ers

Martha Stewart (born 1941, making her part of the [Silent]) seems to be quite judgemental about [X]. Listen to her comments about X’er Rachael Ray:

And next about X’er Sarah Palin:

I suppose the high moral ground that Martha occupies gives her right to judge her juniors. Her attitude seems more [Boom] than Silent to me.

Is Generation X Really Disengaged?

This article in City Journal suggests that the characterization of [X] as disengaged politically is not true. They cite a survey from National Conference on Citizenship (download the report in PDF format). It’s an interesting take on the civic attitude of generations. They have stats from their surveys showing that Generation X is just as likely to volunteer or donate as [Mill] and even more so than [Boom]. Their birth years for the generations differ from the ones I use (based on the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss), but they are close enough.

So what is going on here? Are we not the cynical, politically disengaged bunch that people believe we are? Well, I think we are certainly not as extreme as we are often portrayed, but the numbers for cynicism about politics and institutions is highest amongst Gen X’ers in the report. And as for the volunteering and donation rates, we should consider comparing Gen X’ers to Millennials when we were their age. I think the numbers would show that Millennials rate much higher in these civic activities than we did at their age.

Don’t get me wrong: I think a lot of the Millennial volunteer-ism has to do with looking good for colleges and following their parents expectations. And I definitely agree that painting Gen X as a bunch of individualists who don’t care about society is unfair. Be we certainly don’t aspire to be seen as the do-gooders that Millennials seem to be. It’s just not our style.

Sarah Palin of Generation X: No Jokes About My Kid!

What happens when a Boomer (born 1943-1960) makes fun of a Gen X’ers (born 1961-1981) kid? Watch what happened to (Boomer) David Letterman made jokes about (X’er) Sarah Palin’s daughter.

As Al Gore discovered a while back you can bash Gen X’ers, but DON’T mess with their kids.