The Second Turning, called an Awakening, typically starts out feeling like the high tide of a High, with signs of progress and prosperity everywhere. But just as everything seems to be going along swimmingly, large swaths of society begin to chaff under the social conformity of the High, beginning to gravitate to more individualistic pursuits and demanding that their personal interests come first. You may recognize the "Consciousness Revolution" of the mid-1960s through early 1980s, correctly, as the Second Turning.
Next up, the Third Turning, which Howe calls an Unraveling, is much the opposite of a High. To wit, individualism dominates, while institutions are increasingly weak and discredited. Quoting Howe on the Unraveling...
"This is a time when social authority feels inconsequential, the culture feels exhausted, and people feel bewildered by the number of options available to them. It is a time of celebrity circuses and a tremendous amount of freedom and creativity in our personal lives, but very little sense of public purpose.
The most recent Third Turning began in the mid-'80s with Morning in America, and continued through the '90s. Previous periods of Unraveling in American history were also decades of cynicism and bad manners. Think of the 1920s, the 1850s, the 1760s. And history teaches us that the Third Turnings inevitably end in Fourth Turnings.
Finally, there is the Fourth Turning, called a Crisis.
The recent Third Turning appears to be winding down, and we are currently on the cusp of a Fourth Turning. This is a time of great turmoil, when society's basic institutions are torn down and rebuilt, and seemingly insurmountable problems are addressed.
During Fourth Turnings, America engages in a struggle for its very survival and redefines its identity as a nation. Large wars are often a part of this process. The American Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II were all features of past Fourth Turnings.
In sum, Howe's research has shown that, with remarkable predictability, history is not a straight line extending toward a better and brighter (or increasingly awful) future, but rather a repeating cycle of the four distinct social eras.
These four turnings have recurred with remarkable consistency
throughout Anglo-American history, as Neil Howe outlines at length in Generations and The Fourth Turning. It is therefore no accident that America has experienced great cataclysms or "Crises" about every 80 years. Travel back eighty years from Pearl Harbor Day, and you land in the middle of the Civil War. Eighty years before that takes you to the Revolutionary War. If the rhythms of history hold, America is now poised to enter another Fourth Turning.
Bad News, Potentially Good News
You don't need me to tell you that the United States and in fact the world are now facing a plethora of intractable problems. The world's former powerhouse economy, the U.S., is now the world's largest debtor nation – and by a wide margin. The nation has trillions in unpayable liabilities coming due on Social Security and Medicare, to name just two of many broken government programs weighing on the country. And our much vaunted democracy is increasingly dysfunctional – rotten to the core, truth be known – thanks largely to entrenched special interests and a voting public clamoring for their own piece of the pie, while trying to hand the bill off to somebody else.
Meanwhile, the economy – despite rigorous jawboning by the government and its many friends in the large banking institutions -- is in serious trouble, with the housing market buffeted by tsunami-like waves of defaults, foreclosures, overvaluations, historic levels of personal debt, and tight credit that has left the U.S. government as the sole lender in many markets.
Bernanke and his ilk may see green shoots, but what they're really seeing is the deep, green sea rising up once again to bury the economy.
That's the bad news.
The potentially good news, if you credit Howe's research, is that the Crisis we're now entering will change pretty much everything. While this change will entail a great deal of pain and a reduced standard of living for a large number of people, by the time the Crisis subsides, society will have pretty much remade itself in ways that no one can predict at this point.
Put another way, today's intractable problems will be solved... one way or another.
When discussing what's likely to follow next, Neil Howe turns to his generational profiles and points out that the rising societal power today belongs to the generation he calls the Millennials, individuals born between 1982 and 2004. They are a "Hero" generation, just like the G.I. Generation that coped so well with the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II
-- the last Fourth Turning. Coddled as children, the G.I.s were ultimately called upon to help society through a dark and dangerous period and rose to the occasion. Again, quoting Howe on the Millennials...
"These are today's young people, who are just beginning to be well known to most Americans. They fill K-12 schools, colleges, graduate schools, and have recently begun entering the workplace. We associate them with dramatic improvements in youth behaviors, which are often underreported by the media. Since Millennials have come along, we've seen huge declines in violent crime, teen pregnancy, and the most damaging forms of drug abuse, as well as higher rates of community service and volunteering. This is a generation that reminds us in many respects of the young G.I.s nearly a century ago, back when they were the first boy scouts and girl scouts between 1910 and 1920.
Unlike the Baby Boomers, who are largely individualistic and anti-establishment, the Millennials are good team players. We hear a lot these days about working together for a common cause, volunteerism, and the need for stronger government institutions, largely because these are the new priorities of the Millennial Generation.....
As you may recall, out of the devastation of World War II, a spate of transnational political and economic institutions were born, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. By the time the current Fourth Turning is over, expect more of the same -- but probably even bigger and more ambitious.
What Does This Mean to You?
Most importantly, if Howe is right, this crisis is far from over. In fact, when I asked him where we are today on a scale from 1 to 10 -- with 10 representing as bad as the crisis will get -- he replied that we are at either 2 or 3. In other words, the worst is very much yet to come. And, per above, he expects this period of turmoil to take 20 years to play out. Thus, if nothing else, you may want to continue approaching matters of personal finance cautiously.
Secondly, if you're the type of individual that tends to get steamed up by larger and more intrusive government programs, you may want to take a few deep breaths and resolve yourself to the fact that this phenomenon is likely to get far worse before we see a return to celebration of individual rights. (And the cycle shows that we will see such a return -- about 40 to 50 years from now, when the next Second Turning comes around.)
If it is any consolation, the Millennial Generation places a great deal of weight on teamwork and the notion of doing things "smart." That doesn't mean, of course, that the various programs that are kicked off in an attempt to fix the many problems now confronting society will in fact turn out to be technically smart. But they will almost certainly be better thought out than some of the numbskull initiatives we've seen over the last 20 years.