THE FIRST TURNING – THE HIGH (Spring)
The American High in the 20th century began in1946 with unconditional victory in World War II. According to Strauss and Howe:
A HIGH brings a renaissance to community life. With the new civic order in place, people want to put the Crisis behind them and feel content about what they have collectively achieved. Any social issues left unresolved by the Crisis must now remain so. The need for dutiful sacrifice has ebbed, yet the society continues to demand order and consensus. The recent fear for group survival transmutes into a desire for investment, growth, and strength--which in turn produces an era of commercial prosperity, institutional solidarity, and political stability. The big public arguments are over means, not ends.
The mood of the country after World War II was joyous. America was left as the sole global power. Its industrial power was unsurpassed. Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union lay in shambles. The country settled into a period of prosperity and conformity. America was brimming with confidence. We were confident that our democratic principles could be spread throughout the world. The American High lasted from the Truman presidency through the Kennedy presidency. As the youthful President Kennedy took office in 1961, anything was possible. We could put a man on the moon, defeat communism, and eradicate poverty. The symbol of this period would be the Disney World ride Carousel of Progress, a sterile world inhabited by animatronic people. This time period also gave life to the Baby Boom Generation. Their mouseketeers ears and Leave it to Beaver lives of the 1950’s were brought to an abrupt confidence shattering end with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
THE SECOND TURNING – THE AWAKENING (Summer)
The Fourth Awakening of the great American Republic began in 1964. This episode is known as the Conscious Revolution. Strauss and Howe describe these phases in history:
An AWAKENING arrives with a dramatic challenge against the High’s assumptions about benevolent reason and congenial institutions. The outer world now feels trivial compared to the inner world. New spiritual agendas and social ideals burst forth, along with utopian experiments seeking to reconcile total fellowship with total autonomy. The prosperity and security of a High are overtly disdained though covertly taken for granted. A society searches for soul over science, meanings over things. Youth-fired attacks break out against the established institutional order. As these attacks take their toll, society has difficulty coalescing around common goals. People stop believing that social progress requires social discipline. Public order deteriorates, and crime and substance abuse rise.
The upheaval of the 1960’s took the country by surprise. The Vietnam War, assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, campus riots, Kent State massacre, drug use, and promiscuous sex marked a vivid departure from the High. The older establishment was outraged by the personal liberation youth culture. Baby Boomers rebelled against everything their parents stood for. The Cultural Revolution was shocking to the older generation. Previous Awakenings in U.S. History were religiously based. The 1960’s and 1970’s were a tumultuous period that tore the fabric of American life apart. Instead of being led by mainstream religions, this Awakening was led by a Baby Boom generation that had been coddled and spoiled by their parents. Instead of turning to religion, they turned to self actualization. They became the self absorbed “Me Generation”.
The New Age teenage hippies of the 1960’s grew into selfish adults, more concerned by their professional careers, obtaining a Harvard MBA, acquiring the biggest McMansion, and graduating from a 200 Series BMW to a 300 Series BMW. As the country moved out of the 1970’s into a new era, individualism and ego enrichment became the dominant themes. The end of this Awakening period in 1984 was marked by the classification of the then 25 to 35 year old Baby Boom Generation as Yuppies. Young upwardly mobile professionals were characterized accurately in the movie The Big Chill, the novel Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and the TV show Thirtysomething. These were not flattering portrayals.
THE THIRD TURNING – THE UNRAVELING (Fall)
The latest Unraveling period in U.S. history began during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His theme of “Morning in America” convinced most of the country that a new era of prosperity would lead to all boats rising. Strauss and Howe describe the traits during these periods:
An UNRAVELING begins as a society-wide embrace of the liberating cultural forces set loose by the Awakening. People have had their fill of spiritual rebirth, moral protest, and lifestyle experimentation. Content with what they have become individually, they vigorously assert an ethos of pragmatism, self-reliance, laissez faire, and national (or sectional or ethnic) chauvinism. While personal satisfaction is high, public trust ebbs amid a fragmenting culture, harsh debates over values, and weakening civic habits. The sense of guilt (which rewards principle and individuality) reaches its zenith. As moral debates brew, the big public arguments are over ends, not means. Decisive public action becomes very difficult, as community problems are deferred. Eventually, cynical alienation hardens into a brooding pessimism. The approaching specter of public disaster ultimately elicits a mix of paralysis and apathy.
The period between 1984 and 2001 was a period of peace and prosperity. President Reagan cut taxes, Paul Volcker defeated inflation, the Soviet Union collapsed, the stock market went up 1,000%, and MBA yuppies elevated to senior management positions on Wall Street. This interlude echoed the High of 1946 to 1964. The self involved Baby Boom Generation kept busy accumulating stuff. Their personal satisfaction is what mattered most. Gordon Gekko, the John Thain of his generation, uttered the words in the movie Wall Street that reflect the mood of the 1980’s. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
The 1990’s were dominated by cultural wars. The Republican Party and Democratic Party debate become extremely partisan. Public deliberations became harsh. Moral certitude was exuded by all sides of every issue. Hard driving overachieving narcissistic yuppies wearing Brooks Brothers suits and Rolex watches dominated corporate America. As twenty-eight-year-old Rob Lewis, a yuppie profiled in Newsweek, noted, yuppies were often willing to sacrifice "marriage, families, free time, relaxation." He added, "Our marriages seem like mergers, our divorces like divestitures."
The internet was going to change the world. Fraudulent IPOs were rolled out to the unsuspecting public. Day traders could get rich without working. Government did what it does best, spend money and defer all tough decisions to the distant future. A tough unpopular decision deferred is the path to reelection for a professional politician. The unwillingness to work together towards solutions that would insure that future generations weren’t left with the debts of the Baby Boom Generation, led to the current crisis being worse than it needed to be. As yuppies dashed down the streets of New York City, beating away on their crack-berries, on a sunny cool Fall morning, little did they know that their materialistic egotistical frenzied lives were about to change forever. With the tragic murder of 3,000 Americans in the Saudi-led terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Fourth Turning had arrived.
THE FOURTH TURNING – THE CRISIS (Winter)
We know how this Crisis period in our history began. We don’t know how it will end. Previous crisis periods in American history included The American Revolution (1773-1794), The Civil War (1860-1865), and the twin crisis of The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945). All three period included wrenching highly destructive total wars. Will our current crisis period result in World War III?
Strauss and Howe describe the commonalities of most crisis periods:
A CRISIS arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice. People support new efforts to wield public authority, whose perceived successes soon justify more of the same. Government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside. A grim preoccupation with civic peril causes spiritual curiosity to decline. Public order tightens, private risk-taking abates, and crime and substance abuse decline. Families strengthen, gender distinctions widen, and child-rearing reaches a smothering degree of protection and structure. The young focus their energy on worldly achievements, leaving values in the hands of the old. Wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.
Every crisis period has been initiated by a catalyst. The passage of the Stamp Acts started the American Revolution, the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked the Civil War and the Stock Market Crash of 1929 initiated the Depression/WW II crisis. If history is our guide, the Iraq and Afghan Wars will not be the only wars during this crisis epoch. Many challenges lie ahead. I don’t think the majority of Americans are ready to meet these challenges.
Winter Has Arrived
Strauss & Howe wrote the following words in 1997:
America feels like it’s unraveling. Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within. The America of today feels worse, in its fundamentals, than the one many of us remember from youth, a society presided over by those of supposedly lesser consciousness. We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.
The Prophet Generation is the elder statesmen as we begin this secular crisis. George W. Bush was born in 1946. He is the eldest of the Prophet/Baby Boom Generation. Barack Obama was born in 1961 at the very end of the Baby Boom Generation. These two men have or will lead the United States through most of this crisis stage. George Bush and his cohort of neo-conservatives and their drastic overreaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, have set the stage for the most dangerous crisis in U.S. history. A Crisis always results in the appearance of strong leaders. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt rose to the occasion during our previous Crisis episodes. Strong does not always mean wise, thoughtful or right. George Bush exhibited strong leadership during his tenure. Wisdom and thoughtfulness were not two of his better traits. Barack Obama is a smart man and has exhibited some strong leadership skills in his initial weeks in office. He has also exhibited an ability to exaggerate threats to get what he wants. Will he rise to the level of Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt?
On the day George Bush took office, he inherited an annual budget surplus that was the result of gridlock in Washington and PAYGO restrictions on Congressional spending. The National Debt stood at $5.7 trillion and our unfunded future liabilities for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid stood at $20 trillion. We had not been at war for nine years. Today, our National Debt is $10.7 trillion, poised to rocket above $13 trillion in the next year. Our unfunded liabilities now total $53 trillion as President Bush signed a prescription benefit plan expansion that added $8 trillion to our grandchildren’s burden. Since 9/11 almost 5,000 Americans have died in battle, with 50,000 Americans wounded. We’ve spent $800 billion, so far, on a war that didn’t need to be fought. Untold thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded, despite the fact that none of the 9/11 terrorists were from Iraq or Afghanistan. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from our “staunch ally”, Saudi Arabia. The acts of a terrorist organization consisting of less than 2,000 members resulted in actions by an American President that resulted in declining American moral influence throughout the world, increased terrorism around the world, budget deficits that threaten the very existence of our capitalistic system, and an American public that is angry, disillusioned and confused. Doug Casey in 1997 described the future actions of George Bush to a tee. “The Boomers in Elderhood will be dogmatic, harsh, puritanical, and quite willing to burn down the barn in order to destroy whatever rats they see.”
Domestically, the period from 2001 to 2008 could be described as “Boomers Gone Wild”. Boomers in their 40’s and 50’s now dominate society, as they have assumed the positions of power in government and business. Based on what they have accomplished so far, I truly fear for what comes next. After 9/11, President Bush urged Americans to spend to defeat terrorism, while Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates to historically low levels. This was like waving a red cape in front of a bull. The materialistic, self actualizing, individualistic Boomers went on the grandest borrowing and spending spree in the history of the world. Their mission: Save the world from terrorism by buying a 6,000 sq ft McMansion, the largest HDTV, the biggest Hummer, and most expensive Rolex. Boomers running Wall Street were happy to oblige with loans and complex derivatives to finance the Mardi Gras like celebration of capitalism.
The aftermath of the eight years of partying is, not surprisingly to some, the greatest hangover in the history of the world. There are 19 million vacant homes, 10% of all homes in the U.S. are in foreclosure, 20 million homeowners are underwater with their mortgage, $30 trillion of consumer wealth has be obliterated, the savings rate dropped below zero, consumer debt levels are at historic levels, and the banking system is insolvent. The Boomer economists, like Paul Krugman, are sure they have the answers (they don’t) and the current bank bailout tab has already reached $9.7 trillion. You have to hand it to Americans, we truly believe bigger is better. If this is the easy part of the twenty year crisis, I’m not looking forward to the hard part.