Neil Howe has now published The Fourth Turning is Here. Neil was William Strauss's co-author of Generations(1991) and The Fourth Turning(1997), which identified the 80-year cycle in American history punctuated by great national crises and predicted that a new one would being during the first fifteen years or so of the twentieth century. They also co-authored books on Gen X and the Millennial generation. Full disclosure is in order. I became a close friend of Bill Strauss, who died after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer in 2007, and indeed of his whole family, after meeting him at our 25th Harvard reunion in 1994 (we had never met back then) and contacting him after the publication of The Fourth Turning, which I reviewed very favorably in The Boston Globe. I met Neil through Bill and have been friendly with him, but never close, ever since. And I regret that Neil gave Bill only one very brief mention in the new book, and that The Fourth Turning is Here lists eight "books by Neil Howe" on its frontispiece without any indication that Strauss co-authored six of them and had his name listed first in five.
As my regular readers know, I immediately recognized the importance of the historical scheme that these two amateur historians had developed and have incorporated them into two major books of my own, American Tragedy and No End Save Victory. I have frequently discussed their theory and how it is working out in these pages and much of what I have to say today will not be new to old-time readers. I have had various disagreements with Neil on the meaning of the theory that Bill and he developed over the years--especially as it relates to certain foreign nations--and I hope he realizes that after one publishes work, one loses the exclusive right to evaluate its meaning. I never disagreed with the fundamentals of their analysis of the previous great crises in American national life--1774-1794, 1860-65, and 1929-45. But I do disagree strongly with Neil about the history of the last 23 years, where we are, and where we are going. The disagreements involve fundamental conclusions of my own about where history is going--conclusions that I would never have reached without the work of Strauss and Howe. The next ten or fifteen years will show which of us is right.
Near the end of The Fourth Turning(1997), Strauss and Howe listed some possible events that might trigger the next great crisis. Their five scenarios included severe conflicts over money between federal and state authorities, the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States, a stalemate over the federal budget between the president and the Congress, an outbreak of a new communicable disease, and a threat of war in the former Soviet Union. Variants of all those have come to pass, starting of course with 9/11 in 2001. In addition, the world in 2008 suffered the worst financial crisis since 1929-33.
In the previous great crises, the country pulled together under strong political leadership to solve the great crisis, which invariably involved winning a major war. One party--the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans in the early republic, the Republicans after the Civil War, and the Democrats after 1933-45--emerged as by far the stronger party in the next few decades. As Strauss and Howe showed in their earlier books, the great crises changed social relationships at home and created a new national consensus on various issues. That is what they called the "regeneracy" that succeeded the death of the old order. Nothing like that, needless to say--and here Howe and I do not disagree--has happened in the last 23 years--and as readers of my post from July 3, 2010 can confirm, I concluded a long time ago that nothing like that was going to happen. He disagrees.
Howe's new book tries to keep the original model alive. He dates the beginning of the current fourth turning to the financial crisis in 2008. That was 15 years ago. The previous crisis also began with a financial crisis in 1929--exactly 79 years earlier. Fifteen years later, however, the world found itself in the last year of the Second World War--and nothing comparably decisive has occurred in the years since 2008. Howe uses several historical strategies, if you will, to suggest that the climax of the great crisis still lies some years ahead.
To begin with, Howe has developed an idea of a "double regeneracy." That refers in our first national crisis to the victory over the British in 1783, and then to the adoption of the Constitution in 1788, and in the most recent one to the New Deal and then to the victory over the Axis in the Second World War. Now, having begun the crisis in 2008, Howe defines the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as "the first regeneracy." He does not really explain how this could count as a regeneracy, and I on the other hand regarded that election as evidence of the bankruptcy of our old political order, since neither party had come up with a candidate who could beat Trump. It is true that Trump in the subsequent six years has utterly transformed the Republican Party, but I don't see how that is going to lead to anything comparable to the regeneracies in the three earlier crises even if Trump wins again.
Secondly, to make a longer crisis possible--one that he anticipates will last about ten more years--Howe has changed some key generational dates. His earlier books with Strauss defined generations as lasting about 20 years--although they gave the Silent generation (born 1925-42) and the Boom generation (1943-60) just 18 years each. They estimated Gen X (whom they originally named the Thirteenth generation) as 1961-81--dates with which I agree--and assumed that Millennials (a term they coined) were still being born when The Fourth Turning came out in 1997. The Millennials, critically, were what they called a Hero generation, parallel to the GI generation (born, in my opinion, 1904-24--they said 1901-24.) They expected effective Boomer leadership to mobilize the Millennials in the coming crisis in the same way that FDR has mobilized the GIs. Now Howe argues that Millennials were still being born in 2005, making them a 24-year generation. He argues that generations are getting longer, which allows him also to argue that the crisis may last 25 years or even longer before a real regeneracy is achieved.
There is a major problem with this that he tries to gloss over. Gen Z is the generation after Millennials. Howe argues that only marketers have defined Gen Z as having been born beginning around 1997, and says that they were wrong. However, a number of college professors, led by Jonathan Haidt of NYU, have insisted and documented that they observed very important changes in the freshmen who began arriving in 2014 or 2015. They showed the anxiety and effects of overprotectiveness that characterize Gen Z, and a new hostility to free speech. And a 1997 start date makes perfect sense if one regards 9/11/2001--not 2008--as the start of our current crisis. The oldest Silents were 4 when the stock market crash, and the 1997 Millennials were 4 on 9/11.
And this leads me to the biggest, critical difference, between the last 23 years and the corresponding period--however one might define it--of the last saeculum or 80-year period that culminated in the Depression of the Second World War. The GI generation became a Hero generation after it was mobilized for the Second World war, in which about ten million of them served and millions of women worked in factories. By 2012, if not earlier, it seemed obvious to me that while the Millennials might willingly have submitted to such a mobilization after 9/11 or to a different kind comparable to the New Deal's jobs programs after 2008, no such mobilization had taken place. The youngest Millennials, in my opinion, are now 26, and no such mobilization is going to take place. The Millennials have a distinct generational identity and have much to contribute to American life, but they are not going to create a culture parallel to that of the 1950s and early 1960s, as the GIs did. And that, broadly speaking, is the kind of culture Howe still expects to emerge from the crisis. He expects society to move from individualism to community, from privilege to more equality, from "deferral [or postponement] to permanence"--that is, a long overdue willingness to solve serious problems--and from "irony to convention," with convention a synonym for consensus. I wish I could agree with him, but I can't.
In 2001, Bill Strauss was a very active participant in an online forum about the fourth turning that he and Neil Howe had stood up when the book of the same name had appeared. I was an active participant as well. Howe rarely contributed. I remember that in the aftermath of the Fourth Turning Bill treated it as the onset of the fourth turning--even though it had arrived ahead of schedule--but when the country only became more divided under George W. Bush, he, and I too, both changed our minds. Now, after having finished my new book detailing the political history of the US through presidential addresses, I think we were right the first time--but with a critical twist.
In the wake of 9/11 and for most of the rest of his term, George W. Bush used the language of crisis in ways completely reminiscent of Lincoln and FDR. He spoke of a whole new generational worldwide struggle against terror that would spread democracy around the world and make America safe again. I don't think that he had read The Fourth Turning, but I would be amazed if Karl Rove had not, and Rove seized upon 9/11 as a chance to create a new Republican majority. The problem, however, was that while Bush talked the talk, he couldn't walk the walk. He did not reinstitute a draft--turning many military over to mercenaries instead--and he lowered taxes instead of raising them. Worst of all, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually turned into disastrous failures. Rather than create new confidence in the federal government like the Civil War or the Second World War, they further undermined it.
Barack Obama also used the language of crisis, but he made similar mistakes dealing with the financial crisis. In contrast to Franklin Roosevelt, he did not suggest that the stock market crash reflected moral flaws in our financial community or required truly sweeping reforms. He failed to mobilize the anger in the country as Roosevelt had, and while Roosevelt gained in the Congressional elections of 1934, Obama suffered disastrous losses in the House in 2010 and eventually lost the Senate as well. Significant segments of the electorate moved away from the Democrats, leading to Trump's election in 2016.
Trump, of course, divided Americans as they had not been divided sine the 1850s--and that trend has continued even after Biden defeated him in 2020. Much of the country refused to accept Washington's leadership in dealing with the pandemic, and some of the response to the pandemic--led by school closings--has been disastrous. Joseph Biden--oddly, the first Silent generation president after two Boomers and a Gen Xer--has never gotten his approval rating above 50 percent. Strauss and Howe expected their "gray champion," the aging leader parallel to Lincoln and FDR in earlier crises, to come from the Boom generation, but no such figure ever did--and Trump is the last Boomer with any chance of being elected to the presidency now.
Howe takes very seriously, as I do, the possibility of the breakup of the United States, but he does not think that the country would tolerate secession, and thus, a new civil war would follow and perhaps lead to a regeneracy the way that the first one did. I frankly doubt that. Red and blue states do inhabit different cultural and political worlds now, but I don't think either would care enough to subdue the other. He also compares the foreign scene to the 1930s--another worldwide confrontation between democratic and expansionist authoritarian states, which has already led to the indirect confrontation between Russia and NATO in Ukraine. He argues that in the past, violence has been key to regeneracy--and I agree with him about that too. I doubt however that this can happen again.
The reason is that I believe that during my adult lifetime, the United States and the world have experienced a profound change that has undone the political achievements of the first two hundred years or so of American history. This began with my generation's revolt against authority of all kinds in the late 1960s. That revolt produced the antiwar movement, the woman's movement, the shift in the civil rights movement away from colorblindness into racial identity, and the LGBTQ movement--all of which have gradually grown into challenges to fundamentals of western civilization. On the other side of the political fence, the Republicans in the 1980s began an all-out attack on the authority of the federal government--especially in economic questions--that has only gotten worse from that day to this, and which has created a permanent, huge deficit. All of us now claim, and through social media now exercise, the right to define reality and the needs of the nation as we see fit. Much of the left regards the idea of a national consensus as racist, sexist, and homophobic, while the right now views the federal government as hopelessly evil. Those factors prevented a truly national and sensible response to 9/11, the financial crisis, and the pandemic, and in my opinion they will prevent us from getting together to solve other problems as well. That includes climate change--a topic, by the way, which Howe's book almost entirely ignores.
There is another reason for this. In earlier crises both Lincoln and FDR specifically appealed to the examples of previous crises and emphasized the need to keep the American experiment alive. Now it seems that our history--including the history of the founding of the nation--has lost the capacity to inspire us. That is largely the fault of my own profession, which since the late 1960s has concentrated on establishing its own moral authority in place not only of older historians, but of our political leadership class. Very few Americans have any idea in particular what FDR established at home and abroad--making it much harder to emulate his example.
For about 200 years after 1776, the example of the American and then the French Revolutions led to new relationships between modern governments and their peoples. Together they accomplished extraordinary things both domestically and in war--some great, and some terrible. That relationship, for many reasons, was not destined to last. It was within that earlier context that the crises and regeneracies that Strauss and Howe described so well in Generations and The Fourth Turning took place. We may indeed face secession, domestic collapse, or foreign war again in the next ten years, but I very much doubt that we will be able to respond in the same way. Once again I must thank Strauss and Howe for helping me to understand so much, even though I do not agree with Howe on the implications of their findings today.