Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Fourth Turning

In 1998 I read a book that had a tremendous impact on my understanding of history, my view of the future and how the perspective of the American people will change over time .  That book is the The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  I recommend it often and I still re-read it and refer to it even though it was written 14 years ago.

The Fourth Turning refers to the cycles of history.  There is a pattern to history. There are four turns much as there are four seasons.  A new era -or turn- occurs about every two decades or so.  As the authors describe it...
At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future.  Turnings come in cycles of four.  Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly 80 to 100 years. 
The four turnings are much like the seasons.

There is a Spring which is a High where institutions are strengthening and individualism is weakening and a new civic order is implanting.  This was the period beginning right after WW II to the late 1960's

There is a Summer which is the Awakening.  This is an era of spiritual upheaval when the new civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.  This period began in the late 1960's with the flower children and Vietnam War protests and lasted until the late 1980's.

There is a Fall which is the Unraveling.  This is a period of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions.  The old civic order decays and the new values regime firmly implants.  This began in the late 1980's and the authors predicted that it would run for about 20 years.

The Fourth Turning is the Crisis.  It is a decisive era of secular upheaval according to Strauss and Howe. In 1997, they predicted that "sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning."

When I read this book in 1998 it seemed an audacious prediction.  America was riding high.  The stock market was booming.  The federal budget was in surplus.  The defense budget was being trimmed every year as there seemed to be no real threats to peace.  All seemed right in America.  It was hard to see what  they were talking about.  Yet the book gave me an uneasy feeling and increased my sensitivity to observing the changes that were going on around me.

Consider the news of the day.  Trillions in deficit spending and no end in sight.  US Treasuries downgraded.  The Dow down 1,800 points in the last 3 weeks.  A leadership vacuum in The White House and gridlock in Congress.  Three wars in the Middle East.

I hope you now understand why I believe that The Fourth Turning is one of the most consequential books of our time.  To read these pages today that were written a decade and a half ago is chilling.  There is no sugar coating it.  We are in for a period where the very survival of the society will feel as if it is at stake.  It will be high stakes and high risk.  Much like the days of the American Revolution, the Civil War or the Depression Years and World War II.  These were the other Fourth Turnings in American history.  If you do the math you see that these events were all separated by about 80 years.  We have entered a similar era according to Strauss and Howe.

What does it all mean?  We need to change our approach.  We need leaders that will lead.  We need to be decisive in confronting our problems.  We need to put the public interest ahead of special interests.  There will need to be political upheaval and public sacrifice.  There will need to be more personal responsibility and personal accountability.  We need to de-fund time-encrusted government bureaucracies.  We need to promote traditional virtues.

We also need to focus on reversing the decline of the middle class and focus more on children and less on senior programs.   We need less class warfare and find better ways to build bridges between the classes.  We need to understand it is about our country and not about us.

We need to understand there is a role for government to help us navigate the rough waters ahead of us.  There are many things that only government can do.  To get through this period government will have to be the force that can galvanize and unite us to meet the challenge.  We cannot survive the crisis if we are all going our separate ways.  To meet the big challenges of the previous Fourth Turnings like the Revolution, the Civil War and World War II it took a strong government to lead and to galvanize the people to meet the crisis and create a new sustainable civic order.

I am not talking about the type of government we have now.

Our Constitution specifically states that the key duties of our government are to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. It was not designed to pick winners and losers. Its role was seen to protect both and to see that both had a level playing field. It is supposed to be about the public interest rather than special interests.  It is about what is best for the United States rather than US as individuals.  This is the type of government that helped us survive previous Fourth Turnings.

We do not yet have the leadership or government in place yet to do what needs to be done.  However, I see the glimmer of true hope and change starting to emerge.

We are on a path for a rendezvous with history according to Strauss and Howe.  We have entered The Fourth Turning just as they predicted.  We now need to prove that we are as worthy as our forefathers in meeting the challenge in that rendezvous.  We each will have a role to play.  Are you worthy?

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