The Fourth Truning, the fourth generation of the current saeculum is taking over...
November 14, 2011 5:56 PM   Subscribe

The Fourth Turning is a book written by Williams Strauss & Neil Howe and published in 1997. Watch this 1997 C-SPAN interview of the two authors describing their theory. It is pretty shocking looking back 14 years, the turning is happening, but will the results be like Strauss and Howe predict it? You owe it to your self to check it out.

There is a Fourth Turning blog for more reading and discussion on the topic.

Here is a nice description of the generational turnings.

What is a saeculum?

Previously on meta filter, posted on September 15, 2001;
Have we entered a Neil Howe and William Strauss have written a series of books (really, the same book rehashed three times, but who's counting?) on generational cycles. Their theory is that we are due for a "fourth turning" in the first part of the 21st century: a catalyst event that causes an extreme change in public mood, causing us to go through a decade or two of crisis. For example, the 1929 stock market crash was a catalyst, and the Depression and WWII were the time of crisis. Was 9/11 such a catalyst?
posted by analogtom (32 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite's very interesting but calls to mind the Hindenburg Omen and 2012 theories. We shall see.
posted by glaucon at 6:06 PM on November 14, 2011

Probably the best way to weather the coming uncertainty would be to hock an explanatory theory grounded loosely in a common-sense appeal to nature that could be adapted to changing circumstances and that would be amenable to publication in successive editions of books evangelized for by members of an active online forum.
posted by R. Schlock at 6:09 PM on November 14, 2011 [23 favorites]

The theories always seemed appealing to me, but it always felt like they just stopped developing them.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:11 PM on November 14, 2011

Well, it's not very hard to come up with 'grand theories' about history, that it goes in these big waves or whatever. This sounds like the kind of thing that you can make any actual data 'fit' the narrative.
posted by delmoi at 6:15 PM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I actually read this book in 2000, and found it pretty compelling. But I always wanted to discuss it with another skeptic because it seemed too elegant and attractive a theory for me to just accept it. I liked it too much to trust my own judgement.

But you know, this book was the first thing I thought of on 9/11. They practically predicted it.

Definitely worth a read. But keep your skeptic hat on. Maybe in another 100 years we'll have enough data to determine its validity.

What's really scary is if they are right, then the whole world may be becoming generationally synchronized. The next collapse could be Big.
posted by General Tonic at 6:18 PM on November 14, 2011

Have you ever really looked at your hand? You owe it to your self to check it out.
posted by DU at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2011 [12 favorites]

Any theory of history that makes as one of its major claims that the world is going to enter some sort of nebulous crisis in the near future is going to suffer the same sorts of problems of verification (or of falsification I suppose) that every doom and gloom prediction has: We, collectively, suffer from a stunning lack of perspective. The end is always nigh.
posted by selenized at 6:32 PM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah...not really a theory.
posted by clockzero at 6:33 PM on November 14, 2011

reminds me of Timewave Zero
posted by kuatto at 6:37 PM on November 14, 2011

This is my theory, and what it is.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:48 PM on November 14, 2011

Strauss and Howe were much more palatable in Generations, when they were tentative about their conclusions like good professional social scientists.

Since they embraced imposing paradigm as a lifestyle, I've gotten sorta cold on them.
posted by Mad_Carew at 6:51 PM on November 14, 2011

So, if I'm understanding this right, this turnings are largely dictated by a human lifespan - as people die off, we fail, as a species, to maintain an institutional memory and thus inevitably repeat the mistakes of the past. This theory suggests that we're in for another decade of shit (probably culminating in an enormous war) which will be followed by 25 or so years of awesome.

I don't know, I do believe in the cyclical nature of existence, and maybe its just really dark right now, but this sounds a little too much like religious prophecy to me. Or like the JFK/Abraham Lincoln similarities. Or what have you. We sometimes see patterns where none exist. You know, confirmation bias and all that.
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:55 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Grand, Sweeping, Theory of Everything Historical Interpretations?
The End Of History, you say this sounds like?
Everybody uses the word 'values' to describe our making of the world: capitalists and socialists, atheists and avowed believers, scientists and politicians. The word conmes to us so platitudinously that we take it to belong to the way things are. It is forgotten that before Nietzsche and his immediate predecessors, men did not think about their actions in that language. They did not think they made the world valuable but that they participated in its goodness.
What is comic about the present use of 'values', and the distinction of them from 'facts', is not that it is employed by modern men who know what is entailed ion so doing; but that it is used also by 'religious' believers who are unaware that in its employment they are contradicting the very possibility of the reverence they believe they are espousing in its use. The reading of Nietzsche would make that clear to them.

To repeat: the thought of great thinkers is not a matter for the chit chat of television and cocktail parties; nor for providing jobs for academics in the culture industry. In it the fate of our whole living is expressed. In this sense, the thought of Nietzsche is a fate for modern men. In partaking in it, we can come to make judgements about the modern project - that enormous enterprise that came out of Western Europe in the last centuries and has now become worldwide.
To illustrate: Nietzsche clearly uses the same language as the tradition in its eternal truth, when he says that the height for human beings is amor fati. Yet the love of fate which he would call redemption, is not in any sense a call to the passivity that some moderns falsely identify with words such as 'fate', or 'destiny'.
In him the love of fate is at one with his call to dynamic willing. The love of fate is the guarantee that dynamic willing shall be carried on by lovers of the earth, and not by those twisted by hatred and hysteria against the existing (however buried that hysteria may be in the recesses of our instincts).
(George Grant, Time As History 1969)

Skeptical readers might appreciate the discussion presented in the 1969 CBC Massey Lecture, "Time As History", by George Grant.
posted by infinite intimation at 7:05 PM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Read it years ago but since found another theory that is simpler and grounded in accepted demographics (math), that can explain the same observed phenomenon (cycles) without all the astrology-like trappings of S&H. See The Age Curve. Generations fluctuate in size, this one fact is all you need to know. Baby Boomer=big. GenX=small. Millenial=big. Right now, we have a large number of people 50+, a large number of people 30-, and a smaller number in the middle. This creates the dynamics of low tax revenues, high tax expenditures, etc.. it will take another 10 years to work through it, for the millennials to age-up into the prime working years. In the intern we have to be careful not to have any serious social unrest as debt accumulates - such unrest may even be inevitable. It makes total sense when you look at it from the mathematical size of each cohort, and where they are in the age curve, and what that implies. It impact everything from sovereign debt issues to computer game sales figures.
posted by stbalbach at 7:07 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

9/11 changed everything
posted by Renoroc at 7:29 PM on November 14, 2011

the problem as i see it is that the regeneracy after the catalyst hasn't happened yet - and increasingly, i have serious doubts as to whether it will happen - instead the unraveling period seems to be going from crisis to crisis with no apparent way forward

(apologies for not explaining this - if you've read the book, it makes sense)

this is a critical time for the proof of their theory - and it's beginning to look to me like it's not panning out
posted by pyramid termite at 7:45 PM on November 14, 2011

I read an interesting study about how famine affects the the next generation. The conclusion from statistics of the potato famine in Sweden, some time back, was the next generation did not live as long as the previous one or two generations. This seemed to say that on a genetic level, when times are bad, the next generation truncates so that their offspring have more food. We are an ancient species with many adaptations that no one has even thought of, yet.

Social observations like these are "reality lite." But I have been on a Hemingway kick of late, and it sure looks like facism is having a revival just now. I won't capitalize that word even if the spell checker doesn't like it. The Boomers all know the next generation doesn't want to carry our load. Already down in the Utah desert, Boomers come to vanish into canyons, taking the easy way out.

The fundamental relationship between humans and the planet is vanishing behind televisions, computer screens, cubicles, and relationships based on electrical impulses, proxied by machines. It will be easy to commit every sort of crime against the earth and humanity, by proxy warfare, computer, phone calls, everything short of being human is sold as living. With satellites using ground penetrating radar, the unreasonable search of every domain has happened. The seizure comes via orders of condemnation for the common good. Huge tracts of America are now off limits due to new rights of protection for the owners of "infrastructure." The 1% has bought Washington, in competition with many foreign corporations, and nations. They didn't buy Washington for our sake.

So as Americans are squeezed between "infrastructure" right of ways, fundamental privacy issues no longer exist because of ubiquitous data mining, our preschool to grad school dossiers are building via electronic records brokered by private data mining companies, posing as purveyors of education. Between the rail road, the power company, the gas pipelines, the flight ways, bombing ranges, secure areas, and private land holdings, what is left but urban, suburban, and the seemingly huge containment facilities they have become?

Watch "them" testing their new crowd control weapons with the handy OWS groups camped in parks, and ask not for whom the crowd control weaponry is, it is for thee. This is all a modeling process whereby the powerful, stay powerful, their children stay fed and educated, and everyone else is an expendable belt or cog in their giant, planet eating, Rube Goldberg death machine. At the current rate our non-obedient, non-compliant individualistic, children, will be replaced with very human-like robots, with an interchangeable set of voices, faces, skills and accommodations. No "have" will care what happens to the living others, the robots will be so real, and so whatever they desire.
posted by Oyéah at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2011

I'll stick to Spengler and Vico, and read them as literature. I don't owe it to myself to check this out.
posted by uosuaq at 8:10 PM on November 14, 2011

Cool! This is the Flex Mentallo* thread, isn't it?

* which I just finished reading. Thanks, Metafilteranians!
posted by sneebler at 8:43 PM on November 14, 2011

I totally just read this book and I kept looking back at the title page to check the publication date because so many of their predictions were eerily spot on.

"So, if I'm understanding this right, this turnings are largely dictated by a human lifespan - as people die off, we fail, as a species, to maintain an institutional memory and thus inevitably repeat the mistakes of the past."

No, their theory is that a generation raised during a war (Lost) is different than a generation raised in the victorious aftermath of a war (Boomers) which is different than the generation who fought the war (Greatest) and so on. And that the children of the victorious aftermath do certain predictable things, like have a spiritual awakening (60s, the various Great Awakenings in U.S. history). And the children born during a war do certain predictable things. And the generation who fights a war does certain predictable things. It's not about how we don't learn from the past; it's about how generations are inevitably shaped by the events of their childhoods in particular, and how that affects the years that generation is in charge of governance.

"the problem as i see it is that the regeneracy after the catalyst hasn't happened yet - and increasingly, i have serious doubts as to whether it will happen - instead the unraveling period seems to be going from crisis to crisis with no apparent way forward"

As I recall, they pegged the crisis moment around 2020/2025? We're still in the shitty decline part.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:45 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should not have said that "you owe it to yourself to watch the video", I should have said it is worth a look & what do you think? The "you owe it to yourself to watch the video" did grab your attention...

After I first saw the video, I read the book and looked deeper into critiques of the work. (I constantly read and research many books and topics. ) I can not dismiss the premise and it has grabbed me in some way. I love the MetaFilter community and wanted to see what the comments would be.

So, I do not think their "theory" is set in stone. I think the generational insights are spot on. I think the history is detailed and insightful and offer a perspective on our current conditions. We have had the 80 to 110 year cycles in this country of massive events. I am tampering my survivalist urges of building medical, food, fuel and general supply stocks and buying some gold & silver. I see a massive crisis coming down the road that will be the result of many issues and factors. I do not believe that our current government can or will deal with the issues at hand. The main issues are total bankruptcy of will, wisdom and money. A large number of others share my sentiments on this.

We came very close to not having milk on the shelves during the recent financial melt down, very close...
posted by analogtom at 10:17 PM on November 14, 2011

9/11 was bad and then cronyism fucked everyone. No condoms, no lube.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:32 PM on November 14, 2011

The only reasonable scientific approach is to gather observational data and average it out. I've done that with this list of dates predicted for apocalyptic events, so I can say with extreme confidence that the world will end on March 14, 1872.

You have been warned.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:57 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think the concept of 'generation' is much use anymore. Its not like humans all give birth at a specific age and then all the offspring grow up together. People of all ages have children at different times and they grow up in different ways. I think the world is too diverse and rapidly-changing now for any recongnisable 'generational' character to develop, apart from in the minds of journalists and pop-science writers.
posted by memebake at 12:05 AM on November 15, 2011

the world will end on March 14, 1872.

Blimey, Inspector!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:13 AM on November 15, 2011

I appreciate the post. After watching the vid I found a couple of chapters online and am really impressed with these guys social perception acumen along with their well-styled writing skills. They tell a good juicy story anyway and I'm intrigued to know how they feel their predictions are panning out today. By the way, they most emphatically do not predict the end of the world, only illustrate the inevitable cycles of history and give plenty of examples from our own time and others to bolster their arguments.
posted by telstar at 12:33 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a lengthy, sceptical article on "generational theory" (such as it is) here.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:58 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

@analogtom, that's interesting, because the book made me feel comforted, like, okay, only gotta get through 10 more years or so of this crap and things should start looking up. Like there's an endpoint. But I find most things more bearable if there's an endpoint.

@memebake: "I don't think the concept of 'generation' is much use anymore. Its not like humans all give birth at a specific age and then all the offspring grow up together."

Perhaps you should read the book before dismissing it with this criticism, as it is one of the very first objections they address within the book.

It's not about generations per se -- it's about how groups of people who grow up during certain formative events tend to react to other events at later times in their lives. For shorthand convenience, these can be referred to be generational names.

I don't usually get all "RTFA" cranky but there's a lot of "I have no idea what this book is about but I will complain anyway so it sounds like I have something to say" going on here.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:15 AM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can see that a lot of people are skeptical about Strauss and Howe, and rightly so.

That said, their work is interesting because it explores inter-generational conflicts in quite a detailed way and I found that their description of the different generations and the relations between them really resonated with me.

For example: "Generation X" they see as a generation that their parents demonised as evil but feared as precociously smart - and who responded by seeing the generation of their parents (the Boomers, for want of a better word) as spoiled, self-involved squanderers of wealth they inherited but did not earn and refused to pass down - people so busy contemplating their navels or fighting battles over moral purity that they neglect[ed] basic human decency.

That chimes well with a lot of odd little details in popular culture - the demonic child figure in horror movies (and video nasties in the UK); the common sentiment in 80s art that the new generation were all wrong; the sense that a lot of my slightly older contemporaries say they got from their parents - that their parents felt that they had somehow "done" youth properly and no later generation would ever do it as well as they did at Woodstock...

And then, too, Strauss and Howe seemed to me to have a lot of insight into what the next generation down from X felt - the desire for effective, collective action, where everyone contributes; the impatience with "cooler-than-thou" cynicism and defeatism (it's just sour grapes and posing); the willingness to organise to make immediate change in the real world, to "get things done", to see structures built, enemies put down and assimilated, goals accomplished... these desires resonate with me in a way that the "mirrorshades" aesthetic never did.

None of this is scientific. Most is just based on my particular feelings and experience. But I do find that the book resonated a bit with me.

Also, I did find myself a little amused by the way that Strauss (1947) and Howe (1951) were much more charitable about the boomers than about everyone else. Apparently the spiritually wisest of the boomers will be like the wizard Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi, guiding the young millenials... Really? Gosh. I wonder who those wise old figures might be...
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:43 AM on November 15, 2011

Sounds rather similar to Kondratiev waves
The phases of Kondratiev's waves also carry with them social shifts and changes in the public mood. The first stage of expansion and growth, the "Spring" stage, encompasses a social shift in which the wealth, capital accumulation, and innovation that are present in this first period of the cycle create upheavals and displacements in society. The economic changes result in redefining work and the role of participants in society. In the next phase, the "Summer" stagflation, there is a mood of affluence from the previous growth stage that change the attitude towards work in society, creating inefficiencies. After this stage comes the season of deflationary growth, or the plateau period. The popular mood changes during this period as well. It shifts toward stability, normalcy, and isolationism after the policies and economics during unpopular excesses of war. Finally, the "Winter" stage, that of severe depression, includes the integration of previous social shifts and changes into the social fabric of society, supported by the shifts in innovation and technology.
posted by titus-g at 7:31 AM on November 15, 2011

I should not have said that "you owe it to yourself to watch the video""...


posted by y2karl at 10:00 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Following a crisis, humanity will go through a period of change that lasts about 20 years.

Woah. First time for that!

Once societies (the things Thatcher, with assured authority, said don't exist) arose, it's been one thing after another. When I thought about what people did for news before them, I decided it could be worse.
posted by Twang at 10:03 AM on November 15, 2011

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