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.

Generation X’er Child vs. Boomer Parent

The conflict between Baby Boomer Alice Walker and her Generation X daughter, Rebecca, paints a clear picture of the strained relationships between these generations

This article about Alice Walker (early Boomer), written by her daughter Rebecca (Gen X’er) is a poignant example of the challenge faced by many Gen X’er with their Silent (born 1924-1942) and Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents. As Rebecca describes in the article, her mother was focused on adult issues (women’s rights) and ignored her daughter in the process. The story is told from Rebecca’s point of view, so we are not hearing all sides, but it is a picture that applies to an entire generation of kids born in the 60’s and 70’s: Parents focused on ideology of the adult world and kids fending for themselves.

Some excerpts:

“My mother is very ideologically based, and her ideology is much more important in many ways than her personal relationships,” says Rebecca.

“I keep telling people feminism is an experiment. And just like in science, you have to assess the outcome of the experiment and adjust according to your results, but my mother and her friends, they see it as truth; they don’t see it as an experiment.

People don’t really understand how strong ideology can be,” she says. “I think sometimes of that group and that feminism as being close to a cult. I feel I had to de-programme myself in order to have independent thought. It’s been an ongoing struggle. When you have a cult, you have a cult leader who demands a certain conformity . . . And when you have a celebrity who has cultural-icon status, economic power beyond what you can imagine, you can’t resist that person — if you want to stay in their realm. Because once you start challenging them, they kick you out.”