The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Neil Howe. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: It’s that time again why I ask our listeners to be sure to give the Jim Rutt Show a five star rating on your podcast app. Good ratings help to build our audience, which lets us continue to attract the top guests, which make this show so much fun. So thanks for your five star rating on your favorite podcast app. And if you have a minute or less, write us a nice brief review, that helps even more. Thanks.
Today’s guest is Neil Howe. Neil is Managing Director of Demography for Hedgie, an investment advisory firm. He’s also a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at the Global Aging Institute. Welcome Neil.
Neil: Hey, great to be here Jim.
Jim: This should be a fun conversation. This was really a damn interesting book. And unfortunately we will not be able to cover everything in it, so hopefully I can find a good trajectory through it. This is not the first book of Neil’s that I’ve read. Way back in 2008, at least according to Amazon, and I think that’s about right, I read Generations, which he co-authored with William Strauss. And in 2000, it was either 12 or 13, myself and about 10 other people read The Fourth Turning more or less together. So it’s great to have Neil on the show for the first time, but for me to return to his work. In his newest book, The Fourth Turning is Here, what the seasons of history tell us about how and when this crisis will end.
Neil: Well, there you go. Let’s get started.
Jim: Yeah, let’s get into it. As I usually do, and my listeners say they like it, I often start with some framing and definitions. One of the things you get into is that over history, time has had different metaphors, different ways we as humans have experienced it. And you lay out three varieties of ways humans have understood time as chaotic, cyclical, and linear. Maybe tell us what you’re getting at there.
Neil: Time is one of those mysteries, right? And I would say we look on time with a certain amount of foreboding. It’s the grim reaper, it’s Kali, it’s death. We know that time will bring about our end in the long term. And so when we look at time, we like to know what’s going to happen. We want mastery over it, right? We want knowledge when we not only wanna know what will happen, we also wanna know what should happen.
So it has both a normative dimension as well as simply a predictive dimension. And the idea is simply that one Aboriginal way of looking at time, maybe it’s simply the way that a child looks at time, which is chaotic. That is to say, as William James once said, a whirly gig succession of events, meaning nothing, they haven’t yet been in the world long enough to know what’s going to happen. They’re trying to work it all out. It’s still random to them. This is maybe the child’s intuition of time. And interestingly enough, it’s also perhaps the intuition of the Buddhist master who so transcends this order, that it becomes the point of ultimate wisdom.
I would say that very few societies or cultures overall have ever embraced chaotic time. We just can’t stand it. We can’t stand the uncertainty. So this has never been terribly popular. Even Buddhism itself, the way it’s actually practiced in most societies relies on the orderly reign of karma. Everything happens for a certain reason, and there is an order to time. So we really then move on to the two other ways of looking at time, and there really are two basic ways of looking at time. And the first way, which was adopted by most societies since the beginning of recorded history, is time as a cycle. This is a very old intuition. And it comes on the fact that people remember life as a series of repeating events. I mean, there’s birthing, there’s dying, there’s eating, there’s gestating, there’s harvesting, there’s reaping, there’s right. I mean, you get the idea. There’s chanting, there’s dancing. Things have a rhythm in life. And in fact, in the pre-modern schema, which really gave birth to the great epics in Western history, the ideal was to repeat some great deed in the past, right? What did a Greek hero want to do, but to emulate Hector or Achilles?
Jim: Funny you mentioned that, I just finished rereading the Iliad a couple of days ago. And it’s amazing how repetitious that thing is in both the short term and the long term, right?
Neil: And the long term. But this notion of living up to a paradigm, and it’s usually laid down by the first god at the beginning of time, right? They showed you how to plant, and the best you could do is plant as well as the first god planted. And all of life is being these repetitions, and it made everyone feel situated, and it made everyone feel they had a place. And as you saw, most of these ancient societies, once they became literate and left records, we find this enormous respect and even worship of the cycles of time, particularly the astral cycles, as we know, not just the sun going around the earth, but the actual procession of the earth’s rotational axis, you know, every 24, 26,000 years.
I mean, it was amazing how well they understood all of the nuances of these cycles and how often and how closely they studied them. This aspect of time, which is so predominant in the pre-modern world or the traditional world, has more recently been eclipsed. It’s been eclipsed by the idea of a linear time. Time is progress. And I think the earliest signs of this were probably both in certain civilizations, which had a long history and had long-term aspirations for their collective future. Ancient Rome, particularly after it became an empire and the idea of becoming a cosmopolis, you know, the idea of the world city. Almost a stoic idea that there was a destiny. Here we had a political state that wasn’t just going to repeat cycle after cycle, but it had a long-term destiny over time. Certain glimmerings of a linear cycle or Athens that famously worshiped Prometheus, right? And the idea that Prometheus gave certain gifts from the gods to man and man would progress with these things, right?
It would be better over time than it was in the past. Well, again, this was breaking away from the cycle. I will say that the definitive break with cyclical time was the birth of the great monotheisms in the West. And this was the birth of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, most of these being religions of the book, but they reconstructed time as a linear progress. The world was created out of nothing. Time began at that moment. It did not go back into the infinite past, as Aristotle might have suggested. It began at a certain moment and it was gonna end at a certain moment, Jim, and that was it. You had a linear time there and you had trials, tribulations, humanity be saved at some point and then we’ll all come to an end. The good would be sorted out from the evil and boom, it’s over.
And that was a huge transition and it became fully apparent really at the end of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, really going into what we call the early modern era in the 15th, particularly 16th, 17th century, particularly the rise of Protestantism, which I think made all the more urgent this idea that the second coming would happen, right? There was this renewed interest and how time would end. And ultimately by the 18th century, this was translated into the secular realm by Karl Becker, a intellectual historian I admire very much for his writings on a variety of subjects. But he wrote a famous book called The Heavenly City of the 18th century philosophers and it’s all about the philosoph and the salon around the time of the French Revolution, thinking about people like Condor say, thinking about the various stages of the future of mankind eventually achieving immortality and incredible secular advances in science and so on.
And he demonstrates how this is really a transmutation of the Christian idea, right? Of progress to the end of time to a secular realm, right? And so by the Victorian era, we’d become very used to the idea of secular progress. I think Lord Acton once said, this was next to God, if there was no providence, if there was no secular progress, there could be no God at all. And by that time, with the Industrial Revolution and all the big steam turbines and everything else, right? This was all part of the picture, right? Linear time meant progress. And we’d become very used to that today. Things will get better and better. Of course, when we get depressed, they get worse and worse. We think linear-
Jim: The other way, right?
Neil: Is really depressing. But my point is, is that the linear idea of time not only competes with, but I think in large areas of the modern world, is really dominated the cyclical view. And in fact, one of the things that they did in the Reformation was break down all of these ancient cyclical rituals. You know, you chop down may poles, you get rid of all these seasonal celebrations, right? In favor of something much more rigidly ascetic and linear. And that’s where we are today, Jim. We believe in linear progress, right? And I think that this actually gave rise to the mechanism through generational change, which gives rise to some of the more important cycles that I point out in the book, right? That’s this notion that if we all believe in progress, well, then if one generation believes in one thing and the next generation comes along and also believes in progress, but has a different viewpoint on that progress, you could actually push society in a different direction and paradoxically enough. A society that believes strongly in linear progress can actually give rise to social cycles, which would not be imaginable in a cyclical system.
Jim: Yeah, that I have to say was a real breakthrough when I read that in the book and finally understood it. We’ll talk soon about the diagonal, I imagine. My initial reaction back in 2012 or 13, when I started reading the original Fourth Turning, I go, yeah, it sounds like clockwork. Sounds like, you know, just like the Condrift cycles or something like that, bullshit people saw on the internet, right? But then when I got into it and realized there was a mechanism that obviously subject to random events and disruptions and random walks and ever, but you could see how the fact that different age groups and different cohorts experienced the same event differently and that they had a life trajectory, each of which had a different view on each of these essential poles in history, made me realize that, yeah, it is quite possible that as you say paradoxically, the more linear a society’s conception of time is, the more likely it is to set up something that you might think of like a standing wave that kind of gets built on top of linear times. Not that linear time goes away, but a wave gets built on top of it.
Neil: Exactly, precisely. And maybe it’s important to point out that when Bill and I first got involved in this whole topic in all of our books, this was back in the late 1980s, Jim, this generations did not come out in 2008. It came out in 1991.
Jim: I didn’t read it till 2000. It’s amazing, you’re quite present, right?
Neil: It was around in 1991. And here’s what’s interesting. Our initial idea in that book was not cycles of history at all. In fact, that was not our purpose in writing the book at all. Our purpose was to write about generational change. Our core passion when we started out writing was generational change. How does it work? Now, like a lot of boomers our age, we had been aware that we were leading lives completely different from our parents, right? A lot of boomers at the same age that their parents were founding families and building battleships. Boomers were putting their lives on hold, taking voyages to the interior. Maybe they had wood stock, not D-Day. You know what I mean?
Jim: Yep, absolutely.
Neil: An entirely different, not only life story, but even an understanding of their life story.
Jim: They didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them. It was…
Jim: I mean, I well remember being 15 years old and arguing with my World War II vet father, you know, about why I thought growing my hair long was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, right?
Neil: And I will say that at the time that boomers came of age, a generation’s became a huge topic in America. All kinds of books were written about it. Everyone talked about it. It was the time of the generation gap. There were talk of generational war. I mean, everyone was aware of this generational clash. And I think boomers became very aware of it too. We thought about it, we talked about it. And then later on, you know, late in the 70s and 1980s, it kind of faded away, right? But Bill and I had this in mind and we look back in history and we really wanted to say, how does this work? And what kind of overall lessons can we have? So we decided to write a book on American history that would tell the entire story of American history from the 1630s on.
This is the Great Migration to New England in the 1630s to the area around Boston. And we wanted to tell that story as a generational story, as a sequence of successive generations. And we were amazed that no one had written American history that way before. The way people typically write history, and I think we’re all familiar with this, is they say, let’s write about everything that happened that everyone is doing in 1851. And then they’ll just write about what everyone is doing in 1852 and then 1853. People of all ages, right? And no one bothers to connect what the same group was doing in each successive year as it gets older. I mean, that’s how you tell a generational story. And in fact, one way to distinguish our approach is to think about time in the following way. Think about age on the y-axis and think about time on the x-axis. And if you think about it that way, we all live a diagonal line, right?
Every year goes by, we get older. So we’re on that 45-degree diagonal line. Now, a generation is just a group or bundle of those diagonal lines. And when you think of history that way, you can understand that a single event is a vertical line drawn through all those diagonals. And now you may not understand why we react to an event and we absorb its lessons very differently depending on our diagonal, because our diagonal goes back to different earlier events, right? It re-emphasizes how we’re shaped differently. And that gives rise to the whole phenomenon of generations, which is that we are shaped by an event depending on which phase of life we’re in, because we’re expected to react according to different social roles. I mean, think about it. If a big war breaks out and you’re a child, right up to the point, before you’re coming of age as an adult, what’s your responsibility? What’s your social obligation? Keep on a danger. Stay out of the way. Don’t bother older people. Cower in fear if you must, right? But don’t bother anyone. Stay safe.
But if you’re just over that threshold, very different. Rise up. Meet the enemy. Organize, right? And you can see then how the intersection of phases of life and this diagonal, a single event can have very different effects on cohorts depending on how old they are, right? And that gives rise to the idea of generational definition. We define a generation as a group that’s born over a period of roughly a phase of life. And it’s defined by three things. It’s age, location and history, namely what age you are. In other words, do all of you generally feel that you occupy the same period of history as childhood? And did you come into adulthood in a subsequent phase of history? And that’s generally, by the way, how we define generations today. If you were to say, who belongs to the greatest generation or the GI generation, you would say, well, people who were probably at most children during World War One or maybe born after World War One. But most importantly, they came of age into adulthood during the Great Depression and World War Two. If you were to find the next generation, the silent generation, you’d say, these are people who remember that period of crisis as children.
They were just too young to serve, right? This is the generation of Michael Dukakis, Diane Feinstein, I’ll mention her because she just passed away. But even Joe Biden remembers World War Two as a child. But that generation, that was their location in history. And they remember coming of age as young adults, the American High, the Presidency of Truman and Eisenhower and John Kennedy, right? That’s their location in history. Boomers, well, what’s ours, Jim? We don’t remember World War Two. Not even the oldest boomer remembers World War Two as children. They were raised as children during the American High and they came of age during that period of what every boomer knows is that period of celebrated social and cultural change. You know, the consciousness of revolution, the late 60s, the 70s, maybe the early 80s, right but
Jim: On the other hand, the two traumatic ones for the boomers were the height of the Cold War. I mean, I grew up seven miles from the White House and we assumed there was at least a 50-50 chance that we’d be vaporized one day, right? I remember the duck and cover drills in the third grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then, of course, for boomers of a certain age, everyone can tell you exactly where they were when they heard about the Kennedy assassination.
Neil: Totally, yes. And actually, that’s a great differentiator to Generation X, who were children during that period of social change and obviously do not remember where they were during the Kennedy assassination, but came of age after that period was over, right? I mean, they came of age in the 1980s, late 1980s and 90s and the first ones that became very important in the media, you know, the Michael Jordan’s, the Michael J. Fox’s, you know, the very different persona that emerged in the early eighties, the breakfast club films and all the rest. They were clearly post-awakening generation in terms of their coming of age sensibilities, you know, all into the bottom line and famously into materialism. And with Michael J. Fox even had the Wall Street Journal under his arm, right? But my point is that, again, this is how generations are formed, age, location and history. Now, another thing you can look at, and we do in our writing, is look at values and beliefs, you know, and behaviors. Those two differ by generation. I mean, to give you an example, if you look at the UCLA freshman poll and look at boomers who were freshmen on college campuses in the late 1960s, overwhelmingly by three to one, if you ask them what was more important to them, developing a meaningful philosophy of life or being very well off financially, meaningful philosophy of life, overwhelmingly three to one, actually in 1968, 69, 70.
By the time you get to Generation X, 10 years later, it was two to one the other way. Right. And that’s what we’re talking about in terms of values and beliefs and behaviors, right? And then finally, Jim, you can look at self identification. There’s another thing, you know, what generation do you identify with? So anyway, all of these things is looking at generational membership. Now, what we found when we were just interested in generational succession, right? In American history, we started with the Puritans. We went forward, you know, there was the Cavalier and the Glorious Generation and the Enlightenment and you go into the awakeners and, you know, on, it’s a wonderful story. By the time we got to our 13th generation, that was Generation X. And the 14th generation were just a little children at the time we wrote. That was Millennials. And by the way, Jim, we coined the word Millennial Generation. That was in that book. So our chapter on Millennials was, I could have copyrighted it.
Jim: They were Gen Y for a while.
Neil: They were Gen Y for a long time. And that was coined by Advertising Age in 1993. And we always said they will never be known as Gen Y because Gen Y is an extension of Gen X. Every generation turns a corner on the next generation. That will never work. And indeed, about less than 10 years later, they threw in the towel and they said, OK, I guess it’s Millennials. So we had a little celebration back at our office.
Jim: All right. Did I send you a nickel every time they used it?
Neil: Yeah, I wish. I wish. I wish. Yeah, even a penny would be fine.
Jim: That’s a great introduction to the grand theory. And again, for me, as a system skies perspective, it’s that the aha moment came when I realized about that diagonal that because it’s a cluster of everybody moving through different things at different life stages with different antecedents in their life. But of course, we don’t see and feel the thing the same way. No wonder 15 year old Jim thought my father was a reactionary ass and he thought I was a degenerate. We actually had a good relationship. So I’m overstating it a bit, but we we didn’t really understand where each was coming from because we’d experienced everything at 15. He had dropped out of high school and was making his own living in New York City as a telegraph messenger boy for the railroad while I was fat, dumb and happy in suburban DC, going to a nice high school. So a very different perspective on life.
Neil: One thing we found as we went through this is not only are generational differences very marked going all the way back. This is not just something that started with boomers and Xers. You know what I mean? People have been aware of these generational differences, and that was one of the things we showed in our book.
Jim: Yeah, I love that part of the book, but we can’t go too deep into the history if we’re going to get done.
Neil: No, no, no. But this is key to actually explaining where we’re going to go.
Jim: Sounds great.
Neil: Because we found that certain kinds of generations always followed other kinds of generations. For example, following a boomer like generation of idealists and iconoclasts wanting to pull down the system always came this cynical, pragmatic materialist generation who didn’t talk a lot but got big things done. You know, following the transcendentals like Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau and Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln and all those reformers and commune founders and religion founders and feminists and so on came the Gilded generation. These were doers and risk takers. These are people like Ulysses Grant, George Armstrong, Custer. They just did stuff.
Jim: Yeah, Jay Gould, all those guys.
Neil: Exactly. And then after these, what we call the nomad archetype of risk takers and pragmatists, survivalists, you might say, comes a much more protected generation, Jim. And that’s another important part of the cycle, because then that’s when you decide to protect children again. And following them came a much more protected generation that was, you know, ultimately you end up with a generation raised just after World War One. That was the GI generation. And obviously after generation X came millennials, much more protected, much more regarded as special and risk averse and team and community oriented. And typically the coming of age of that generation corresponds with the next crisis. So this is the segue from the book on generations to the book on historical cycles. And that ultimately gave rise to the fourth turning, which came out in 1997 in the late Clinton years.
This book that I wrote just this summer is a 23 years later update on the fourth turning. But I do think that the patterns I see today are the patterns in many ways we saw back then. And those are what we can explore. What do they tell us about history? What is this cycle and where is it pushing us?
Jim: Very good introduction and catch up. I’m going to skip a few things and then go to Seculum, which by the way you use 261 times in the book, believe it or not.
Neil: I had no idea.
Jim: Very seldom do I have a little tool that lets me do that. So yeah, Seculum, 261 times, obviously a core concept in the book. And it’s an idea that goes way back in history and it corresponds to a long human life. And you know, if we buy what you laid out so eloquently about how this diagonal is the forcing function that creates the standing wave on otherwise linear time, then it’s not really surprising that the total period of multiple waves, the repeating pattern is around a long human life. Say more a little bit more about that because I think that’s actually really important to land this story.
Neil: It’s interesting. You look a lot at long cycle theories, you know, whether it’s the K wave in economics or I mean, I could go through, right? All these people who talk about long cycles in research and technology, innovation and culture, family life and religion and so on. But one thing that people often ask is what would give a periodicity to a long cycle? Right?
Neil: What governs its periodicity?
Jim: That’s why I doubt many of those things, right? Some of them have some validity, but this one actually does have a basis, right?
Neil: Yeah. In my opinion, what gives a basis to this kind of long cycle periodicity is the length of a phase of life and the length of the human life in terms of four phases of life together being sort of, you think of four phases of life of 20 odd years as being 80 to 90 years or so in length. And one of the great interesting features of sort of Anglo-American history, depending how far you want to go back, you know, beyond the colonial era is that, and it’s been noticed by many historians, is that we have these civic cataclysms about every 80 or 90 years or so. When you go back far enough, it’s a little closer to 90 to 100 years for interesting reasons. But we find that, for instance, in the colonial era, the time of revolution and war, total war, was the last quarter of the 17th century. This was the glorious revolution, Bacon’s Rebellion, King Philip’s War.
It’s what Jefferson later said, you know, a century ago was the first revolution in America, you know, occurred with his hero, was Nathaniel Bacon, you know, back in 1675. But my point is, this was the first real conflict or civic reconstruction period in colonial history. And then a lifetime later, you had the American Revolution, right? A lifetime later, you had the Civil War. A lifetime later, you had the Great Depression, World War II. A lifetime later, here we are today, Jim, right? That’s exactly where we are today. We’re in another fourth turning, and that’s a term I will return to in a second to see, you know, what that means, right? Roughly halfway in between these civic upheavals and these reconstructions of our civic life, and I should say a reconstruction of our outer world, the realm of economics, politics, community, infrastructure, what we think of as sort of the outer world out there in the community and in space, right? Roughly halfway in between these great reconstructions, we have the great awakenings of American history, which is the reconstruction of our inner world, right?
This is when we reconstruct culture, religion, manners, morals, values, we would say today, right? And these are the great awakenings, and very conveniently in American history, we numbered them. We call them the first great awakening, the second great awakening, the third and so on. Many historians call the late 1960s and 70s America’s fourth or fifth great awakening, depending on when you start your counter-revolution. With Jonathan Edwards in the 1740s or with John Winthrop back in the 1640s. So that is the pattern. Think about that. A series of periodic alternating, an idea of punctuated history, where we encounter these reconstructions every 40 years or so, either of the inner world or the outer world as we move through history. Now you can begin to see how generations intersect with those, right? Each generation is either born after a crisis and born and raised as kids after a crisis or it’s born and raised in kids during an awakening or again during the next crisis. So you see four types of seasons of history and four archetypes of generations and that is the overall kind of architecture of the cycle that we point out.
The saculum, which is this 80 to 90 year period is divided up into four seasons of time. The first turning, the second turning, the third turning, the fourth turning. The second turning is the awakening. The fourth turning is the crisis, right? We are now in the crisis. That’s kind of where we are at the present. But you know, in 15 years we’ll be in a first turning. And one thing we do in the book is we talk about what these eras all have in common. What are first turnings? What are highs all have in common? What is it likely that by the mid 2030s we will have in common with the early 1950s? Or what did we have in common, for example, with the 1870s or the 1810s? You know what I mean? Going back and so what we do is we look at homologies or similarities between similar turnings and we find remarkably that these eras have much in common and that we also investigate other kinds of rhythms in history. We look at rhythms in economics, the K wave, right?
The long term economic cycle. We look at repeating patterns in realigning elections, which throughout American history have always occurred only in awakenings and highs. Every awakening and every high we have a realigning election. And many people are beginning to talk about 2016 and 2020 as another set of realigning elections. Interestingly enough, political scientists are beginning to talk about Trump versus Hillary or Trump versus Biden as really inaugurating America’s seventh great realigning election, right? So in other words, where we see this fundamental realignment of partisan sympathies, in particular, we see in the last two elections is this large movement of less educated Americans, particularly working class Americans away from the Democratic Party toward the Republican Party and sort of vice versa on the suburbs, right?
So this looks like it may be enduring because we’ve seen it in every two year election since 2016. So this is what we look at. We look at broader rhythms in culture and demography and society and crime, substance abuse. Many of these things have been identified and we try to line them up with a larger cycle, which is generated by generational change.
Jim: Now, one more systems thing before we get into your actual architecture. Another thought that really stimulated me when you’ve laid it out is come guy named Madovsky laid out a theory of supply and demand for order, which seems like it fits fairly well within these dynamics. Why don’t you talk about that a little bit?
Neil: Well, think about this and this is easily illustrated perhaps by just thinking about post World War II history. Think about during a high or the first turning, what is the lesson of a war and particularly what got us into the war? Well, the lesson is we need big, strong community institutions that work very, very well. I mean, what’s on everyone’s mind, right? The war that we had, this danger, the vulnerability, we still may feel the kind of vulnerability we never want to experience again, right? So these first turnings tend to have a strong community focus, a strong focus on institution building and infrastructure building, making everything about our social world stronger and more fortified and conformity, having everyone fit in, making sure everyone serves the community well. And I think if anyone thinks back in the 50s, both for good or ill, that’s what they recall, the social ethic, right? Everyone was supposed to think about what their role was. I mean, if you were in school, you were a boy, you were going to be a breadwinner.
If you’re a girl, you were going to be a homemaker, you know and at work, you were expected to fit into your job, fit into your community. David Reesman once wrote the lonely crowd about all America just thinking about what was expected of them, right? And I will say one thing that boomers coming of age, growing up as children in that period, hated that, right? About the era. Everyone was a bunch of automatons. And that’s how boomers thought of the American high and the edge to the awakening, the violence, the radicalism of the boomer awakening had to do with how much they detested all of that conformity, all of that group think, and the other big achievement of the high, which was increasing equality of income and wealth. I mean, that was a huge achievement, not just a World War II, but of the high, we created much more equal society during that period. I mean, unions were strong, wage growth was strong, but boomers hated all of it. I mean, after all, what did boomers think of a strong middle class, pleasant Valley Sunday? Do you remember charcoal burning everywhere? I mean, what a wasteland that was.
Jim: I think that was a monkey song, wasn’t it?
Neil: It was indeed. It was indeed a monkey song. But my point was, is how negatively and how negatively boomers still today think about the suburbs, right? And all those identical houses all made of tickey tacky and all the rest. But here’s my point, is that you can talk to millennials today as young adults about the middle class and equal income and identical licking houses. And they think, that sounds just great. Where do I go to find it? Wait, where is middle class? Where do I sign up? And, you know, boomers have to tell them, oh, we got rid of it for your benefit.
Jim: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Some millennials are quite mad about that, actually.
Neil: Perhaps they have a right to be. But here’s my point, is that you have a high and then you have the awakening where, of course, we get rid of a lot of that order and we individualize society. Much more chance by the time of the end of the awakening for individuals to do whatever the hell they want. In the economy, they can become rich, they can go poor and no one’s going to care anymore. I think boomers have been much more tolerant of large differences in wealth and income than their parents were. And different strokes for different folks, right, Jim? Isn’t that what boomers are about? We not only got rid of, you know, the cultural values that brought us together, we also got rid of the regulations and taxes. I mean, this was both the right and the left, both conservatives and liberals, right? Participated in this destruction of sort of community standards. And then we entered what I call, that’s the second turning, you might call that the summer season, Jim.
Jim: One thing I want to lay out here for the audience is that you use the nice metaphor, first quarter equals spring, second quarter equals summer, third quarter autumn, and fourth quarter that we’re in now winter.
Neil: Exactly. So then we enter then after the awakening, the third quarter, that’s the autumn, that’s what we call an unraveling, right? The unraveling comes after the awakening. Now, what’s happening generationally during an unraveling? Well, the boomer-like generation, what we call the profit archetype is moving into midlife. The extra-like generation, what we call the nomads are moving into young adulthood, right? They’re coming of age. And this new generation, hero or civic generation, millennials is being born and raised as kids, right? In an era of generally greater family protection. Now, what’s happening in unraveling? Individualism triumphs. Institutions are discredited and weakened. And it’s much the opposite of a high. Remember that the high takes the lesson of the recent crisis. Institutions must be strong, individualism must be suppressed.
The way you sold a soft drink back in the late 1950s, you’d say things like, say Pepsi, please, be sociable, have a Pepsi. You didn’t say jump out of an airplane, screaming and have a do. You know what I mean? But you see, that’s the difference. It influences everything about how we think of life. Now, during these unravelings, again, the opposite of high, what do we take in an unraveling? We take the lesson of the recent awakening, which is that we all need to be individualists. The only way to get ahead in life is to be true to yourself. And in fact, you go into a bookstore anytime over the last 30 years, and all the most upbeat and happy books are about me, myself and I. You ever notice that? It’s like, I can do anything. I’m the center of my world, or whatever it is.
Jim: All those personal improvements, so-called books
Jim: Miles of selfish. I guess somebody must read those damn things, but they seem pretty horrible to me.
Neil: It permeates the culture. And all the downbeat books are everything we have in common. It’s the death of the family, death of the community, death of politics, death. You get where I’m going with this, right? And so these eras of weak civic authority, where people feel sort of radicalized, emancipated, individualized, these come back again and again historically. The Roaring 90s had much in common with the Roaring 20s, had much in common with the 1850s, which is a time of notorious among historians for very weak civic authority, or the 1760s. These were all decades of cynicism and bad manners. No one really caring about community or centralized authority in our country anymore. And history teaches that these periods, these unravelings, always ultimately go from fall to winter. Those are the great crises, right?
That’s when we have to remake the community again. So you see how this works. Now, to come back to your original question about supply and demand for order, think about it this way. During a high following the crisis, society has a big supply of order, and there’s a lot of demand for order, right? So people are pretty happy about it. I mean, you know, we supply a lot of structure, people telling you what to do to fit into the community, and people are actually pretty happy with that, right? During an awakening, society continues to supply order, but suddenly there’s no demand for order. You know, particularly among the boomers starting to come of age, right? The prophet archetype that was born after the last crisis, they’re starting to come of age. No one wants the order anymore. And that’s what creates all of the personal argumentation and chaos, social chaos, you might say, of the awakening is the fact that the order being supplied is no longer wanted. Now, eventually that order disintegrates. And so by the unraveling, you have a society in which the supply of order is low, and the demand for order is low.
You know, this morning in America, right? No more order being supplied, and you’re happy with that, right? And so that generally tends to be a time of satisfaction, right? Now, much more individualized Americans are being supplied, and it’s demanded, right? Particularly by the Xers who were coming of age during that time. During a crisis, though, society continues to deliver very little order. But guess what? The demand for order starts rising again.
Jim: The call for the man on horseback is being summoned.
Neil: And interestingly enough, it particularly goes up among the rising generation, right? And you look today, it’s millennials, more than any other generation, not just in America, but around a lot of the world that are voting for these new autocratic populist governments we see going up. And this really is a promise to deliver more order, more certainty, more security, less risk. And this is the common theme of fourth turnings. And the fact that whose order will be supplied, that’s what gives rise to the huge collective conflicts that define these eras, which I suppose is something you’re going to ask me about before this is over.
Jim: We’re going to get to it as soon as we can, because that’s just kind of like the punchline, right? Before we get there, though, just again to help the audience be grounded, very quickly the dates for this most recent cycle, first turning, second turning, third turning, and fourth turning from your guys analysis. And don’t go too much into how you got there. Just give us the numbers.
Neil: No, no, no, no. This would be 1946, end of World War II to 1964, sort of when the Contrast No. Revolution sort of revs up, LBJ takes over and the long hot summers begin and all the rest. 1964 to 1984 would be the awakening, going all the way through to Ronald Reagan’s second election, which I think was a decisive mood changer in America. Boomers went into their kind of yuppie chrysalis, you might say. They sort of shifted from hippity, yuppie definitively, and we had the big chill movies and all the rest.
Okay, so you got that. 1984 to 2008, that was the unraveling. And 2008, which is the GFC, through today and probably all the way through to the end of the 2020s, probably the very early 2030s will be the fourth turning. So we’re in the middle of the fourth turning. And it’s useful to point out that the most recent fourth turning started with 2008, which is a global financial crash, exactly the way the last fourth turning started with 1929 Black Thursday, which was similar a global financial crash. It’s interesting that as we move forward in history, one interesting secular trend is how, as we lead more sort of economically organized and centralized and integrated lives, that global financial collapse is becoming sort of an interesting theme, defining the beginnings of worth turnings as we move through history.
Jim: Yeah, it’s also kind of interesting. I was just thinking here out loud, 29 to 39 was 10 years, and 2008 to 2018 was 10 years, and we’ll come back to that one. Now one last thing before we actually drill into where we are today, the archetypical metaphors you use for the generations, you refer to the artist generation being equal to the silence, essentially, the profit generation being the boomers, the Gen Xers being the nomads, and I will say the nomads was the one I had the hardest time getting my head around, and then the GI generation and the millennials are both heroes. Talk a little bit about those archetypes and what you’re really trying to connote with those.
Neil: We wanted some way of drawing greater color and understanding and depth and nuance into looking at generations today by looking at earlier generations that experienced the same basic kinds of events at the same ages, right? That’s what we’re trying to draw. In other words, a premise of our theory is that certain generations, because they’re shaped similarly to ancestral generations, kind of have the same collective personality in many ways, right? And they play the same role of history as they move through life. So for instance, a very interesting parallel for the Generation X would be the Lost Generation. Why? Because they were both children during an awakening. The Lost Generation were children during the third grade awakening around the turn of the century, a time at which family life was largely regarded as in disarray and disintegration. Children were the original throwaway children were children that were kids around 1900.
That’s when Coca-Cola had the real thing, Jim. There was no protection of children back then, but the protection started just after them, right? That was the Progressive Era. And an important part of the Progressive Era, these are the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, was the protection of children. This is often forgotten, but a huge part of the Progressive Era legislation was protecting kids, getting them out of the workplace, protecting them against drugs, even against alcohol, right? Remember, we passed prohibition as well. But my point is, is that that’s how we look at parallels. And the Lost Generation famously with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway had this very pragmatic and somewhat cynical reputation as sort of survivors and individualists, right? Trying to get what they could out of life. And similarly, Gen Xers as well.
But this is how we draw parallels. And a silent generation, for instance, has much in common with other children of crises, right? How they’re raised. They tend to be over-socialized. They tend to be very deferential as young adults. We find that to be a common trait in this type of generation after a crisis. So this is how we draw similarities and partly how we forecast, right? So if we wanna talk about what today’s children will be like as they grow older, we don’t just say, oh, it’s just a total empty slate. We have no idea. No, we actually know something about children of crises, right? We’re trying to give them a little color and interest by talking about what kinds of characteristic contributions do they make to society and civilization of the long-term. If you’re gonna look at all these generations, we’re gonna take one type of generation and look at all of them for the several centuries going back, what kinds of contributions do they make? Well, that’s one of the things we notice about this kind of generation, the realm of art, sort of the highest expression of artistry and ornamentation of society, right?
You would look at artist generations. On the other hand, if you were to look at who best guarantees the survival of societies and it’s moment of greatest chaos, you’d probably say the nomad archetype, which is sort of at the opposite end of the cycle. So different archetypes are best known for different kinds of contributions. They’re known for different kinds of strengths and weaknesses, and that’s what we’re trying to bring to mind.
Jim: Gotcha. We’re not gonna put too much weight on the actual names, but the fact that they are clusters is probably more important.
Jim: Because there’s plenty of artists in every generation, there’s plenty of profits in every generation.
Neil: Well, no doubt.
Jim: And maybe the ratio is a little higher. So now let’s now turn to entering the crisis. You lay out a nice chart called, chart four dash three in the book, and it was called four turnings by social mood. And I’m gonna focus just on the last two columns, and let’s talk about this in terms of the current cycle. Let’s start with families. In the third season in the autumn, the unraveling, you describe families as weak and in the crisis period over the last 15 years, strengthening.
Neil: The danger of weakening during the second turning? No question about it. I mean, that was the divorce revolution. It was also the 1970s experienced the largest, fastest decline in the average size of a household in American history, meaning no one wanted to live with each other in the 70s. I mean, remember I talked to you about the individualizing trend of the awakening? No one wanted to live with each other. Boomers were leaving the house to head out for Wheeler Ranch or wherever they were, you know, wanted to pursue enlightenment.
Couples were divorcing, and seniors were adding to retirement communities in the middle of the desert with names like Sun City and Leisure World where they could all live together and listen to Benny Goodman. But my point is, is that it was a time when people wanted to be apart from each other and family solidarity and coherence reached its nadir. During the third turning, we began to see an interesting, I think you could say families were weak in terms of just overall authority and overall role they played in people’s lives. Although I think it’s fair to say that child nurture was strengthening. There’s no question that parents were getting much more protective. This was when millennials were being born and raised.
You had the baby on board, stickers in the mini vans and the child protective devices and the Ember alerts and the Code Adams. I could go on a long list, but my point is, is that millennials enjoyed a much more protective nurture than exers, even though families were continuing to be, I think, regarded as fairly weak presence overall. I think in this last crisis era since the GFC, there’s no question that families are beginning to strengthen. And I would say one important indicator of that is the huge growth in multi-generational family living, which is everywhere today.
Jim: I was gonna mention that I can think of nothing more horrifying than live with my parents when I was 22, right? What the hell, who would wanna do that? Yeah, that’s a very common pattern these days.
Neil: It’s very common. In fact, when you’re talking about all Americans under age 30, it’s nearly 50%. So that was not true. And it stems from two things, obviously. It stems from the fact that millennials are not able to start careers and gain the same improvements in living standards and affordability that older generations were at the same age. And it also stems, however, from the incredible emotional closeness that millennials have with boomers.
Here’s another paradox, Jim. One of the great surprises that the GI generation experienced in the 1970s is that they had been so close to their own parents in the 1930s. Anyone remembers the Frank Capra movies? You know, like, it’s a wonderful life where they had these big Victorian homes with different families living together. You know, no one is building houses, obviously, during the Great Depression. So a lot of families are living together. And by the way, that was the previous high point of multi-generational families. The last time it was about 50% was in 1940 at the end of the Great Depression, right? Just before World War II began to hit, it was very high. And I know this because the census has done to Kenneal surveys going all the way back to 1900. And yet when GIs finally began to retire and the awakening hit, what are their great surprises? They were so distant from their kids, right?
Kids like you, Jim, and me, right? We didn’t know what anything to do with them. And we wanted to invent our own culture. We really didn’t want them for advice. We didn’t count on them. We didn’t want them for even, you know, necessarily financial backup. And in a very bad recession in 1982 and 1983, I don’t think there was any boomeranging back home. Do you remember any boomeranging back home during that recession?
Jim: Hell no, if anybody did it, they wouldn’t admit it, right?
Neil: Exactly. You’d probably just as soon sleep under a bridge, right?
Jim: I mean, I literally slept under a bridge for a few months one time. And, you know, that was fine.
Neil: Think about today. One of the great surprises that boomers are having now that they’re entering old age, right? Now that they’re moving past age 65 is that they’re with their kids so much. They didn’t expect that because they weren’t with their own parents that much. So this is another very important aspect of generational compensation and correction. How very often our experience in one phase of life is the opposite of the generation that came along too before us, right? GIs to boomers and then boomers to millennials. It’s almost an inversion of each other. But the fact is, is that it’s not just that millennials live with their parents, is even if they don’t live with them, they text them every day. I mean, it’s extraordinary.
Jim: Yeah, I talked to my daughter about that. We’re quite close. But I said, you know, I had a good relationship with my parents, was never, you know, alienated from them. But, you know, we talked about once a month on the phone, right? And she would have a heart attack if, you know, we didn’t talk to her every other day. Well, are you okay? Are you, this is, of course, if there’s any millennial catchphrase, it’s, are you okay? And if she hadn’t heard from us in two days, you know, she thinks, oh, we’re definitely dead by the side of the road from one of our bad vices or something, right? And, you know, if I hadn’t heard from my parents in three months, I might have thought something was up, but not in two days, right?
Neil: This is how we look at these things. You got chart four dash three. I’m trying to keep up with you here. You’re looking through the book. But looking at the differences in families, child nurture, gender roles, institutions, and so on, we kind of track that. In other words, there are characteristic patterns we see.
Jim: Yeah, let’s talk about gender roles because if you just read the popular press, you might say that our gender roles are still contracting. And yet, you predict that going into the fourth crisis, they should be widening again.
Neil: This is something I think we’re going to see. This is more of a down card. You know, often when I look at what we predict, you know, from the beginning to the end of the fourth turning, some things are up cards, right? Polarization, decline in global trade, increased global conflict. A lot of these things are sort of up cards. I could go down a long list of up cards. Up cards are things that we predicted that are now flipped up. The down cards are still not quite apparent yet. But I think this is one we’re going to see. And I think it’s going to be driven largely by women, actually. One of the biggest complaints among women. I look at a lot of the reasons why millennials are marrying so late. And one of the biggest drivers is that women can’t find eligible men. And I often say that what women want, men eventually become. I look at the Global Value Survey and the complaint that men are too involved with their work, right? They try too hard to, like, you know, make their career used to be back in the 1970s, 80s, a huge complaint to men and women.
It’s virtually disappeared today. What they complain is that guys who just won’t get their act together and actually do something, right? And this is where I look at this this growing gender divide. I spend time actually looking at this later on when I actually talk about millennials. But the legacy of feminism in the 1970s is a double edged sword. I think is a mixed blessing in the eyes of a lot of millennials. And I point out how differently they look at the final result of that era very differently than say boomers look at it in retrospect. And I think one of the issues is that how do you create a gender that’s simply effective and they don’t see that among men? If that requires somewhat separate roles, you could say this is gender essentialism, but it’s gender essentialism combined with civic equality, which I think everyone takes for granted now in the sense of having equal opportunities, particularly in the household being essentially different. As long as it means you’re getting your roles done, you know
Jim: I am seeing some of that in the out in millennials, in particular, in the so-called trad movement, people moving back to explicitly more traditional but chosen roles. Because as you say,
Jim: nobody wants to go back and say every woman will be a housewife, but the trad say that some women actually prefer being a housewife and that’s OK, too. And I am seeing some of that in my circles.
Neil: I think also among millennials, the whole idea of sort of efficient and useful division of labor is a very favorable idea to millennials because they’re very community oriented. So if we all can work together in a way that really makes sense and we can all get our jobs done, why not? And I think this idea of integration and community, which was never important for boomers, Jim, we never cared about that. This is important to millennials and I have no doubt it will lead them in this direction.
Jim: Interesting. So now let’s go actually to the emergence of the millennial crisis. You talk about there being a precursor being 9-11.
Neil: Now you’re hitting that sort of the payload here of the book, right?
Neil: You’re looking at what we actually say about what, what the fourth turning is. And I spent a lot of time on that, obviously in the book and I identify almost a morphology or chronology of fourth turning. So in other words, how does a fourth turning typically occur? What stages does it have? And one thing that is not necessary in a fourth turning, but very often happens is the precursor. The precursor occurs not in the fourth turning itself, it occurs sometime in the preceding third turning and it points toward the fourth turning. It’s a brief moment in which we experience in advance the kind of community integration, sort of collective solidarity that we will later experience in the fourth turning.
And most of our crises, big crises have had these moments for the current fourth turning. It was 9/11, which occurred obviously several years before the GFC for World War II and the Great Depression really starting, you know, famously in 1929, it was a World War I. The civil war, it was the Mexican American war for the American revolution. It was the French and Indian war. And yeah, I can go back, but these were brief periods where the community coalesced and interestingly enough, the Nomad archetype as youth, right? Just coming of age into adulthood, experienced the combat, the struggle, the crisis that it would later experience again in the actual crisis in midlife, right? In other words, if you’re looking at Eisenhower, Patton and all those guys, you know, and Omar Bradley and so on, well, they were just coming of age in World War I, but of course they could develop that expertise and really bring it to bear during World War II.
Jim: Kind of like the Mexican war at the Civil War, right?
Neil: So all of the generals of the Civil War were young cadets and just first lieutenants in the Mexican American war. So in other words.
Jim: Yeah, exactly.
Neil: So and similarly, I think you can say that almost everyone who’s who’s going to be a general or an admiral in the next 15 years will be an exer. In fact, you can say that definitively in the military because their, their ranks are very closely graded to their age.
Jim: Yeah. Very, very lockstep, right?
Neil: There are no more boomers left, by the way, as generals or flying officers in the military anymore. I think the last of them is, if not the last, almost the last is about to retire. It will be an exer for the next 15 years and that exer will have been a junior officer during the wars right after 9-11, right? So will have probably served in Afghanistan and Iraq. So that’s what we’re looking for. And you know, if you want that same progression, that same pattern from World War One or the Mexican American world, we already see it in advance. How that’s going to occur.
Jim: I just looked it up. General Milley, who just retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs, born in 1958. So a fewer boomer.
Neil: Very a late wave boomer and he’s out now. Right. Yeah.
Jim: Now he’s done, right? So the next guys will come in and be younger. Yeah. So point taken.
Neil: So, okay. Then you have the crisis itself and it has the following stages. It all starts with the catalyst. And we’ve talked about the two most recent catalysts, the GFC, you know, Black Thursday, 9-11, Black Thursday, 1929. These were global financial crises, balance sheet recessions, which, which obviously had devastating effects on not just America, but much of the world. And for, you know, the Civil War in America, it was not just Lincoln’s election, but the South’s response to it, which was secession. And you go back and you look, you know, you probably find the intolerable acts and the Boston Tea Party and you can go back in history and find this is what sort of pushes us into this new era, right? And where we begin to see these essential changes and this new sense of danger, risk, uncertainty. And I will say for the early part of the fourth turning, a sense of profound pessimism, which I think America is still feeling today, right?
And the fourth turning it’s experiencing and which America experienced throughout the 1930s, you know, despite the new deal. And I often point out that as late as 1940 bond yields were at record lows. We still had deflation. Almost all Americans felt that the Great Depression was still there, right? Particularly after going back into the mess in 1937, right? So what we’re experiencing is not unusual. And then along the way, we experience what we call regeneracies. And these are times at which we begin to re find. We begin to re identify with a certain kind of community, a new kind of tribalism develops, right? In an effort to find some way out of this mess. And typically this coincides with periods of sharply rising partisanship in every single one of these episodes that happens, right? We think about rising partisanship today, you know, particularly following the 2016 election, but the same thing was true after 1932, following FDRs, you know, even a bigger landslide in 1936.
But these were big elections. And what happened in the 1930s is a pretty soon all of American were thinking about politics as a bifurcated choice, right? It was either the radical left or the radical right, you know, ultimately by the late thirties to a lot of people who was either fascism or socialism, right? There was no middle ground anymore. People who people also lose faith in the middle ground, right? It looked like liberal democracy and capitalism by the late 1930s had no future. Governments in Europe were being taken over by fascist putches. Dictatorships were on the march throughout much of the world. And so half of America looked at our country and said, you know, this is the red decade and the other half looked at it and said, this is the fascist decade.
We look at that today and we think this is new, but it’s not new. And similarly, obviously the civil war goes without saying. We were two enemy tribes fighting each other and similarly during the American Revolution. So these periods of rising community, but of course, different kinds of rising community, right? And it could be internal communities against each other, or it could be America versus a community elsewhere in the world, right? And interestingly enough, this distinction between internal and external conflict and how delicate that balance is and where we finally come out in conflict, either on an internal conflict or external conflict often remains undecided until quite late in the fourth turning era. And as I point out, the ambiguity there, particularly in the American Revolution, where we were fighting Britain, but most of the killing was actually a loyalist against patriots within the United States.
I mean, all the most vicious violence was was Americans fighting Americans. Generally, an era when referred to at the time, much more as a civil war than a revolution and Americans inflicting genocide against the Iroquois, the Indians who were fighting with the British and slaves who were leaving their masters to try to find safety with the British. I mean, you had all kinds of internal conflicts as well as external conflicts during that era. And this is typical of a fourth turning, but these periods of regeneracy are periods when we begin to reacquire tribal identities and it what makes the politics so such a zero sum game and one in which one side can gain only when the other side loses because each side sees the other side as being a mutual exclusive in terms of its values and its vision of the future.
Jim: Yeah, that certainly seems to be the case. Let’s talk about that just a little bit because it’s really important in your book, you talk about surveys show that political differences now outrank all other differences, including income, religion or race and day to day encounters that people wish to avoid. And it’s true. I mean, I think back to the 60s, you know, OK, Democrats and Republicans had different points of view about things, but they didn’t actively dislike each other. One of the more amazing ones is that parents are now more concerned about their kids marrying somebody from the opposite political party than they are from a different religion or a different race, which is like totally different than 1965 when that would have been considered about the 20th thing on the list for the spouse of a child. So that’s certainly a sign.
Jim: And then another one I read it in your book. Whenever I read this, I go, God damn it, don’t these people know American history? You say, since the 1990s, the share of Americans who say that violent action against the government is never justified has fallen from 90 to 62. My little aside is, shouldn’t that be zero? God damn it, we’re Americans. We fought a war against the government. So it would seem that every American should say that violent action against the government is sometimes justified. But anyway, the trend line is such that that’s another sign that things are getting a little sportier out there.
Neil: There’s so many things you can look at. Many of these are parallels to the 1930s, right? I mean, you think about the rise of populism and authoritarian governments around the world that has hugely gone up since 2008, just as it went up after 1929. Right. It’s just a direct parallel. If you look at VDEM or Freedom House, or look at any of these people tracking the share of population living in autocracies, it’s just gone up every year since 2008. And that really was the year when it all changed. Also, global trade as a share of global GDP peaked in 2007.
It’s been going down every year since. And so these are huge changes, right? And it’s particularly influencing the rising generation’s view of democracy. Millennials are less wedded to democracy and less optimistic about its efficacy than older generations at the same age, meaning millennials at age 30 are much less hopeful about democracy, believe in it, much less, less attached to it than boomers were at age 30. Also boomers today as well. Right. And so that’s a real sign of generational change. Again, if you’re an order seeking generation, you want order first, deliberation later. And I think no one looks to Congress and look at all these organs of democracy as a way to actually solve problems. I think a way a lot of millennials look at Congress and all of these deliberative institutions has a way of avoiding some of these problems, right? And that way boomers get to keep what they have because nothing ever changes. Isn’t that right?
Jim: Yep. And it is true that hell, we, you know, enacted the EPA, the ADA, the interstate highway system, go to the moon. You used to be able to do stuff, but look at the California high speed rail project, how many years and $9 billion and they haven’t even laid a foot of rail. What the hell? Right.
Neil: we’re tied up in process and a lot of this growing distrust in institutions simply heightens that sense of paralysis, right? And that sense of sclerosis. Also increasingly the government doesn’t do anything except pay out checks to individuals, you know, namely older people without regard to income and creditors because we can’t even come close to balancing the budget, even the peak of the business cycle, right? So these are ways in which millennials look at our current civic life and they just sort of tune out, right? Whatever we’re doing now does not work. And that radicalizes the public. And I think that that’s, you know, dangerous, you know, that’s increasingly taking us into a dangerous zone.
So in all these ways, we look at these parallels and we say, okay, we’ve got these periods of regeneracy. And ultimately what happens is, and we go through earlier fourth turnings, we look at how this has worked out, you know, what are the kind of regeneracies and the Great Depression World War Two and so on. But ultimately what happens is we reach a, what we call a consolidation, which is the crises mount and accumulate and suddenly actuate and become so bad that America suddenly understands that the survival of its political system, the survival of the United States itself is at stake, or its essential identity as a country becomes at stake. And at that point, the consolidation quickly leads to an understanding that whatever we do requires all of our effort. And that’s when you get the extreme mobilization of the public, right? Or publics. Let’s not assume there’s only one public here. You know, it could be more than one public.
Jim: This is exactly what I wanted to hit on next. Exactly.
Neil: That then leads to a climax. The consolidation is when the conflict is joined and fourth turnings always feature organized conflict. And I hate to say this or maybe I should just point this out, frankly, but all of the total wars in American history going all the way, well really Anglo American history going all the way back for six centuries have always been fought at fourth turnings. And every fourth turning has had a total war, right? And that’s sobering for us to think about. I think if we had had a weapon of mass destruction in 1863 or 1864, I think we would have used it, you know, to evaporate Richmond or Washington. I don’t think there’s much questioned about that. In the next fourth turning, we enlisted all the best and brightest of the rising generation, the GIs. We learned about that in the film Oppenheimer that came out recently, but they were all enlisted in this effort. The Manhattan Project, they worked 24 seven and they built one, which we promptly used, right?
Jim: The other major thing about World War II, and I’ve been researching this for a totally different purpose, was the intensity of the all in mobilization of society in Russia and Germany. Over 70% of the GDP was on the war effort from 1941 to 1945. In the UK, it was a bit over 50%. In the US, it was just a little under 50%. It was an unbelievable surge on one monolithic shot called from the top, which is mobilization for war.
Neil: By the end of the war, the United States owned roughly 50% of manufacturing capital of American’s corporations. I don’t think young people can possibly understand or comprehend how totally we were in to that war. The production of automobiles, appliances, everything else for civilians is completely shut down.
Jim: Yeah, no cars were made, not one from 1941 till 1946. It was crazy.
Neil: No one is building houses. No one is building appliances. No one is building anything except
Neil: the material that would get us through. Exactly.
Jim: Let me pause a second here because I want to just focus on this switch and point back to something you pointed out, which is that you guys predict, this is one of your down cards, that stalemate can’t happen all the way through the crisis period. And if we think about two of the ones you pointed to, the Civil War, we were in a political stalemate, Lincoln won in 1860 with less than 40% of the vote. There were four candidates that got electoral votes, as I recall, and we ended up with war. On the other hand, in the Great Depression, through some luck that Roosevelt happened to be a persuasive devil whose method of persuasion was the radio and the radio was just at its peak power then, he managed to produce an overwhelming political coalition, right?
Jim: We were lucky to have him. They avoided both the left and right errors. And you may argue about whether he was a little too much of this, a little bit too much of that, but he was certainly better than Huey Long or whoever the head of the Communist Party was. And then if you look forward to the next one, us, we are in a very closely deadlocked political situation. One or two percentage swings are what’s controlling our presidential elections. Both houses of Congress are extremely narrowly divided. What do you think that tells us about the next little period here as we move into this crisis and whether your strong prediction that this will get resolved is something you still believe?
Neil: So one side wins. It’s as simple as that. And winning, it defers or compromises or incorporates things that the other side wants to. This isn’t necessarily a steamrolling of the other side. So it needs to incorporate some of those things. But one side definitely wins on the domestic front. Right? It’s either because this is in a civil conflict where one side directly wins, or it’s because they have to band together for an external conflict, which is more the World War II situation where Republicans who were definitely the minority party went along. They had Wendell Wilkie, who actually campaigned in favor of mobilization in the draft. And, you know, Roosevelt thanked him for that. But ultimately, the Republicans who were part of the America first and so on, probably more sympathetic to staying out of the war eventually, right, joined. But they joined is definitely the minority party.
But I think going back, we don’t have a lot of examples. It is true of equal sides. Here’s the best parallel. I mean, going back, you know, the last four, four turnings, right? But here’s the best parallel I can, I can lay out for you, Jim. And that would be, imagine this, imagine something could well have happened. Imagine Lincoln winning in 1860 and the South not seceding. Remember that in the election of 1860, the South still had the majority of the Senate. They were close to half of the House and nothing Lincoln couldn’t have gotten to anything through that Congress had the South not seceded, right? I mean, it was still dominated, uh, antebellum politics.
I mean, the reason the South seceded is because they were so shocked and dismayed by the fact that they’d been thrown out of power from the domination they had experienced since the breakup of the Whig party, right? So my point is this is that keep in mind that Lincoln did not run on a platform to free the slaves. He ran on a platform for free soil and in the prevention of slavery and all the new territories and all the new states. He was willing to actually guarantee slavery in the South.
Jim: People forget about the Kerwin amendment. There was a constitutional amendment that was approved by Congress that guaranteed that slavery couldn’t be abolished. There’s only one thing in the Constitution that can’t be amended. Do you happen to know what that is?
Neil: I do not.
Jim: There’s one thing that reads article five. It is that no state may be deprived of its equal representation in the Senate without its permission. It’s explicitly in the amendment section and it says that’s the only thing that may not be amended. The Kerwin amendment added the abolition of slavery to that. So it will locked in slavery forever. It passed both houses of Congress with a two-thirds majority and was submitted to the states in early 1861 with the support of Lincoln.
Neil: Well, if the South had not seceded, you might have had it passed. This is another of the great paradoxes of history. It’s the 13th amendment. Instead of being the amendment to bar slavery, it would have been the amendment to guarantee slavery in the South, right? And with all the Juneteenth celebrations, we forget how differently that would have been. The point is though, is how differently that would have come out. That would have been a far longer crisis. It turned out that was probably the shortest fourth turning we’ve ever experienced. We actually talk about the Civil War anomaly because of certain real differences in how that cycle occurred depending upon, as opposed to earlier or later fourth turnings. But I think what you would have had is something much closer to our current situation to relatively equal, relatively equally powerful parties vying for a closely divided Congress, right? And you can imagine what the election of 1864 would have been like in a scenario like that.
It would have been like 2024. When you talk about fourth turnings, we have limited end size. I mean, if you want to talk as a statistician here, you’re actually looking at this as a model. We don’t have all different varieties, right, from history as to how this could work. But I think that’s the best way to think about a closely divided fourth turning. However, the dynamics of a fourth turning, which is that everything degrades in terms of civic function, and the public becomes increasingly alarmed and despondent about where the country’s going until one side takes over leads to an inherent instability, right? So eventually, things get so bad one side simply, even if it’s marginally elected, we’ll do something to acquire executive authority to actually get things done. And I sometimes wonder how close we are to that today.
Jim: It’s a hell of a lot closer. It’s never been in my lifetime. It certainly seems like, right? Nobody thought about the possibility of a government run coup in 1965, when I first started paying attention to politics.
Neil: What’s interesting, the last five years I’ve been following these surveys done on the American public, you think a civil war is likely. And eight, nine years ago, no one even did those surveys. It seems so off the wall. And today, it’s about half the public thinks it’s imminent sometime soon.
Jim: I’m going to ask you a question. I’ve been asking a bunch of people this question. You’ve been thinking about this, no more about this than almost anybody I know. This is how I frame the question. There’s a level of political crises and catastrophes and collapses happen on a power law distribution more or less. like earthquakes. There’s a relatively few big ones. There’s lots of smaller ones. The same is true about wars and all kinds of cataclysms. Let’s assume it’s also true about resolutions of the fourth turning. And I used two as an example of medium bad ones. The French Revolution and Pinochet in Chile. It turns out both of them killed about one tenth of one percent of the population, not counting the Napoleonic Wars, but just the white terror and the Jacobin terror, 10th to 1%. In the United States, that would be in today’s country, 330,000 people. What do you think the chances are that a endogenous, not from an external source, cataclysm of some sort, political, not a plague or an earthquake or an asteroid, kills 330,000 people in the next 20 years?
Neil: This is the kind of fourth turning scenario that’s possible. I mean, look, I look at the possibility of civil conflict, which again, was not on our radar screen. Now is, and I think actually is a plausible scenario. I look at three different ways in which we move through the rest of the fourth turning. One is another financial crisis, which would not end the fourth turning. That would simply take us further along the route to the other two ends. And that is internal conflict, which is the Civil War scenario. You know, I look at the work of Barbara Walter and many of the others who’ve worked recently on probabilities of civil war and how high they seem statistically in the United States today, as well as the idea of external conflict, which again, we see that rising too. We have a major land war in Europe right now. We have, I think about five or six books written on the coming war with China and the Western Pacific coming out over the last 18 months. So we’re all focused on these things now.
And we weren’t earlier. And how all of these things interact, particularly with the awareness among younger people that politics is increasingly a zero-sum game because of the loss of trust in social institutions. So, you know, my gain has to be your loss. That again, leads to a more conflict oriented environment. So I do think that’s in our future. And at some point before this is over, Jim, I want to talk about how that leads to a very different mood when the fourth turning is over and how that actually resolves a lot of our problems. You know, for all, I mean, this sounds pretty Armageddon-like as we talk about it here. But I want to talk a little bit about where that takes us by the end of the fourth turning.
Jim: So give me a number. What’s the chances of this 0.1% kill off from endogenous violence in the next 20 years?
Neil: I think it’s not over 50-50, but it’s a minority there, but it’s significant.
Jim: Yeah, my number’s 20. So, yeah.
Neil: Well, there you go. So I think we’re on equal grounds there.
Jim: And so now we’ve been talking about the endogenous. Now, another way out is the exogenous. My wife and I sometimes sit there, watch American politics and neither of us are lovers of either team red or team blue. And we say, why don’t the aliens just show up? God damn it. And so all the squabbling will stop. You know, that’s kind of a silly cartoon version of this. But the other alternative is an external conflict as the resolution, as you say, the isolationists and the internationalists all shake hands and say, let’s go fight the goddamn crouched and the japs, right? Talk about that as the other way that a fourth turning gets resolved.
Neil: That is how it gets resolved. And what’s fascinating is that we all have different ways in which in some ways we identify with our country against the other. And that’s unavoidably how we feel commonality. That’s anthropologically as we are as a species, right? We feel commonality to the extent we feel we’re different from another, you know, and I kind of go through some of the anthropological literature on this. It’s an ancient idea. And it goes all the way through to Robert Putnam, who wrote about it recently in Bowling alone, had to admit that this was certainly kind of a cornerstone idea in sociology and anthropology. And there’s a reason for it, you know, we’re pretty selfish people. And we’re only driven to act as community members because our survival depends on it, right?
This isn’t accidental. And in fact, there’s a reason why generations that go through a period of incredible community activity in order to save their country becomes so community oriented later in life, right? Always loyal to the system, always trusting the system. You think of boomers thinking of their GI generation parents late in life, you know, always thinking the government could do now wrong, right? Always thinking that the system worked. Well, boomers were raised in peace and prosperity. There was no reason to be so compliant with the system, right, Jim? Well, there’s no reason for us to be so compliant. So we became of ages individualists. And this is actually the inside of E. O. Wilson and many others. And that is to say that selfishness beats altruism among individuals, but among groups, altruism beats selfishness, right? And that’s the paradox, right? In other words, a group of altruists will beat another group of selfish people. But within a group, selfish people beat altruists. I mean, think about that for a second.
Jim: Yeah, sneaky fuckers have more offspring. right
Neil: Yeah that kind of thing
Neil: But it’s interesting to think about the fourth turning in this context and to think about why we have fourth turning and why they come down to group conflict, right? This is the reason. And how it’s out of group conflict that we rekindle and reinforce a new definition of community, which completely socializes the generation coming of age and the generation of children. And that’s why it lasts after the crisis, another two generations. I mean, think of what happened everything that was laid out in stone after World War Two, the UN, Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the IMF, all these rules, you know, all this bedrock, all these institutions that govern how the global community would behave, how individual countries would behave and think of all the prosperity and order that that created for the next two generations at least, right?
This is the payoff, right? If you will, this is why fourth turnings are not horrible accidents, right? This is why they’re part of a pattern, why it’s in these periods that community becomes reformed and actually creates a period of what we call golden ages, which always occur directly after these crises, right? So if you’re looking for a period of greater social solidarity and greater social trust, that’s what you need to get there. You know, everyone sort of wonders, how do we get back to any of such a trust? Well, I hate to tell you, but there’s no other way we do it. We go through this crucible, we call them fourth turnings. And that is one of the big lessons of the book, right? Is that there is something actually positive after that. And people will sometimes ask me, you know, isn’t this a terrible message? Isn’t this a message of pessimism? I say, what could be more pessimistic than everything in our society, you know, rich getting richer, poor getting poorer, people distrusting what we have in common ever more, people just worrying about saving their own skins, not about him. What about just having that trend on hold for the next hundred years? I can’t think of anything more depressing than that, right?
Jim: Yeah, true enough.
Neil: So in a way, the fourth turning is how we rejuvenate our public institutions in our civic life. And I’m sure you recall Jim, as I say in the book, you know, forests need fires, rivers need floods. This is part of a natural pattern. It’s nothing that should shock us or surprise us. We’ve seen so many periodic examples in our history of this. Why are we surprised?
Jim: Interesting. The exit question is going to be, what does your work tell you about this next, the coming spring? But right before we go there, in terms of the, what’s the fancy Greek word you had for the crisis?
Neil: Oh, ecpyrosis. Yes.
Jim: Ecpyrosis. New word for me. Never heard that one before. Talked about the endogenous, the internal civil war. We talked about, you know, fighting the Chinese or aliens showing up or something, an exogenous one. There’s another one, which is both, right? Somehow the, we get the civil war and somebody intervenes on one side or the other. You know, what does the pattern tell us about that as a probability or at least, is that something that fits into the pattern of how fourth turnings get resolved where both an exogenous and an endogenous thing come into play?
Neil: You know, you think of these as two totally separate courses, but they’re really not. They’re sort of half overlapping. If you had gone on to, you’ve gone anywhere in America, say in, in the 1930s, maybe 1939, and you had asked an American, you would have said, you know, we’re going to have a terrible crisis in America in the next few years. What do you think it’s going to be about? They probably would have said, I don’t know, probably fascism against communism. Right. I mean, that was the polarization that was everyone was talking about. We hadn’t really focused yet on, you know, the coming global issue, right? That’s suddenly, well, frankly, it didn’t hugely dawn on most Americans until the fall of France. I mean, that was June of 1940. That came a little bit later and suddenly everyone began to take sides. But I think that’s important to remember, right, as we look back, that much of this rising generation, we call the greatest generation, had been communists. Again, another lesson of the movie Oppenheimer, right? We can recall from that.
But this was a radicalized generation that was highly partisan in how they look to their future. And I think, again, that that makes us think how tenuous or difficult it is to predict kind of how we come out. Now, why we eventually all congregated or gravitated in that decision is something I actually talk about in my book. I also talk about, you know, what happened in the Civil War. In the Civil War, interestingly, shortly after Lincoln was inaugurated, the South had already seceded even before he was president. But he came in and his secretary of state, William Seward, sent him a famous April Fools memorandum, which has gone down much studied in history. But basically, Seward, who many people thought should have been president, you know, should have been the Republican candidate, sent him a memo saying, Mr. President, I think the thing you want to do right now is we have issues with France, England and Spain in the Caribbean. You should immediately declare war on all three of these countries. And that would distract America. So it’s interesting. That’s actually to the point you just raised, right? In other words, can the tail wag the dog, right? As we would have said, you know, late in the Clinton era.
Jim: The famous movie, the wagging the dog, right?
Neil: Exactly. But the idea is, in other words, can you artificially create a conflict? Well, I don’t think many people would want to create a fourth turning conflict, that kind of dire conflicts. It’s not the thing that anyone would voluntarily do. But it does create that interesting question, right? Now, as it turns out, Lincoln politely ignored Seward’s memo, just said, that’s completely crazy. This is far too advanced, you know, for something like that to work. And I think made us probably all thankful that Lincoln, rather than Seward, was president. So that becomes an interesting question. Now, what I do point out in my book is that the losing side of the side that appears to be weaker almost always invites in foreign allies, right?
That’s always a pattern. And in fact, the patriots, the patriots in the American Revolution, we desperately wanted aid from France. We got it and it probably changed the outcome of the war for us. It certainly wouldn’t have ended as soon and it wouldn’t have ended at Yorktown. And it wasn’t just because they helped us at Yorktown, but it got Britain involved in a worldwide war with France, where they had much deeper problems. And many of the areas of the world in the West Indies, which mattered much more to them economically because of the sugar trade and also in India and the continent. It hugely distracted Britain and made them ultimately sue for peace early. So that was critical, right? It worked. And earlier, civil war is the same thing. During the American Civil War, the South desperately wanted an alliance and diplomatic recognition from France and England was probably only one major battlefield victory away from that. And if Lee had won at Antietam, rather than lost, they may have gotten it. But fortunately for the Union, Lee lost and certainly he retreated back across the Potomac.
So I think everyone, you know, appeared the lost. And then immediately afterward, Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, which completely changed the terms of the war and guaranteed that France and Britain could not possibly support the South because now suddenly the Union was on the side of emancipation of the slaves, right? Which really sealed the deal, unfortunately, for the South. But we see this trend again and again. You look at the Spanish Civil War, you look at the Civil War in China, you look, I mean, you could go through all of these examples of Civil War. Losing sides always invite in foreign participants. If we have a civil conflict of that type, I don’t doubt that the same would be true in the future. But more importantly, Jim, and this is what I think is really different about this. There are things that are different today about America’s situation. One difference is that the entire world depends as never before on American presence abroad. Right. And if any kind of conflict required the US military to stand down globally for as much as six months, the entire world order would change. Right.
I think that is what I point out in the book. And ultimately, a really dire civil conflict in the United States could actually end up with a world war in which the US wouldn’t even be a major participant and would probably end with part of the United States occupied by a foreign power. I mean, you can imagine a truly dark outcome. And let’s keep in mind, 4th turning’s, and do not always end favorably. And, you know, you talked, you know, if you’re really looking at negative outcomes, I mean, you think of the 4th turning that Russia went through from, I don’t know, 1914 to 1945. How about the share of the population lost in that one, Jim?
Jim: That’s a big one. It’s over 10 percent.
Neil: That’s a big one.
Jim: Actually, it’s 20 percent, 10 percent due to the revolution, 10 percent during the World War II.
Neil: That goes way beyond anything that the Paris against the Federalists or something around too long or anything like that. I mean, we’re talking about something much bigger.
Jim: All right. So let’s move on past the dark and, you know, before to get the dawn, you have to have the dark. But what is your research and your thinking tell you that we might see in the new spring? What might that look like based on what we’ve known from the past?
Neil: Well, this is the idea of the golden age, you know, and at the end of these 4th turnings with all of the trials and tribulations and public sacrifices. So when you create a couple of new generations, which are now socialized to the priority of sacrifice for the community, right? And so they emerge from the crisis, laying down this much more community centric kind of world. And if you want to look at how these areas are different, it’s sort of thinking about how America changed from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Think about that way, right? I mean, think about the various ways it changed. And I talk about that. I think this is in chapter detail in chapter eight. You may recall it, Jim, but I said that the overall change is from individual lives in the community, right? And within that rubric, I talk about four basic kinds of change. One is from privilege to equality. These are all periods of huge increases in equal income and equal wealth. These are all equalizing periods in terms of social and economic privilege. You look at the the genie coefficient, either of income and wealth. It went down a little bit during the Great Depression.
It went out hugely during World War Two, and it kept on going down during the fifties and sixties, reached its low point in the late sixties and been going up ever since again, right? And that’s what, you know, I told you earlier, boomers hated so much equality. It made us all the same. But anyway, I think today millennials would really welcome that. We go from defiance to authority. Social authority becomes much more important at the end of the fourth turning as it was indeed at the end of World War Two, right? You know, people give orders, people follow them. And issues of coordination aren’t so fraught as they are today. And as I often say to people, you know, it’s who likes the 1950s and you say, well, conservatives like the 1950s, because, you know, there’s a lower crime and people stayed married and, you know, all the usual answers, right?
But it’s interesting, Jim, I think that progressives also have reasons to like the 1950s in retrospect. Imagine an era in which unions are strong, middle class wagers were growing. The society was becoming ever more equal in terms of their income and wealth. Upward mobility through colleges becoming more widespread. Discussion of civil rights was gradually increasing until at the end of that period. We passed the, you know, the civil rights bill and equal rights, a legislation, right? The voting rights act at the end of that high. In many ways, this is something that both sides, Red Zone and Blue Zone, have reason to think highly. Imagine too, Jim, a period in which when government leaders say something, people actually do what they say. I mean, imagine that. That’s a blue zone dream world, right?
Jim: I sometimes contrast the COVID experience with the rollout of the Saban polio vaccine when I was like nine or 10 years old.
Neil: Exactly. And you had teams of people. Public health was very strong back then. Teams of people who’d visit houses and tell people what to do and people would follow their advice. Amazing, right?
Jim: We all lined up in the line at the local junior high school and they gave it out on sugar cubes.
Neil: Exactly. So if you want to bring a smallpox back, well, I suppose if we really try, we can make it happen. The other thing we do is we go from a world of deferring to permanence. And there’s deferral to permanence, meaning today we do with problems by just deferring them. You know, we don’t solve anything. We don’t really invest in the future. We don’t resolve things for the future generations. Do things in favor, you know, get rid of debt or invest in something. Huge that maybe we won’t use, but our children will use. And this is one of the most amazing things I point out about fourth turnings is that huge, durable reforms in that structure and nature of our government are never enacted during times of peace and prosperity. They’re only enacted during times of huge crisis.
This is one of the another paradox, right? At the end of the 1780s, which is a horrible decade, right? Of hugely declining living standards. Good share of professional colonists actually left. There were Tories. Anyway, we were immiserated, poor and many of the colonies were trying to think of how they could get back with Britain or France or Spain or somebody. Right. And in the middle of that horrible crisis of violence and complete disorganization of the new states, we had the miracle in Philadelphia.
Right. We created a new constitution designed to last, you know, as Henry Clay used to say, for generations in memorial, for generations yet to come. And what an incredible, far-sighted act of statesmanship at a time of horrible crisis. Think of the decisions we made during the Civil War, you know, to create a national currency, national banks, an income tax system, Intercontinental Railroad, the state college system, the Morale Act. I mean, you could go down a long list of these huge reforms while DC was at risk of capture. Maybe think about it. Or at the darkest depth of the Great Depression is when we enacted the Social Security Act. I bring that point because we often despair of ever hugely changing the system. We do change the system, but it’s not at a time when you think it’s most likely. It’s a time when our backs are against the wall and ironically or paradoxically enough, that’s when we make these huge changes. And finally, the transition from irony to convention in the culture.
And that’s one of the most intriguing changes. After all, we have to give the next boomer like generation something to rebel against, right, Jim? I mean, we got to at least pass that gift on. So we’ll move back to convention in the culture. So all of that wooden Disney stuff we see right now is just going to get even worse. And then pretty soon we’ll give grist for that next awakening generation to want something to explode, right?
Jim: You have the Zoomer George Carlin. Who will that be?
Neil: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: All righty. Well, I want to thank Neil Howe here for a mighty interesting conversation where we dug in some detail. But let me tell you, there’s a whole lot more in the book that we didn’t talk about. Some elegant research, some beautiful charts, et cetera. So if you liked what you heard here, go get the fourth turning is here. What the seasons of history tell us about how and when this crisis will end. And as always, there’ll be links to the book. And most of the things we talked about on the episode page at JimRuttShow.com.
Neil: Great. Thank you so much, Jim.
Jim: That was a heck of a lot of fun.