... Howe and Strauss have written many books on how generations determine the course of history and how they will shape America's future. Their forecasts on a wide variety of indicators have turned out to be amazingly accurate. They were among the first to predict (back in the late 1980s) the rise of Boomer-driven culture wars and the simultaneous rise of Gen-X-driven free agency and distrust of government. And they were completely alone back then in predicting, for the post-X "Millennial Generation" (a label they coined), a decline in youth crime and risk taking and an increase in youth civic engagement that would first become apparent around the year 2000. Guess what? For the last ten years, everyone has been noticing exactly these trends among teens and 20somethings.
Howe and Strauss also made extensive predictions, based on generational aging, on how America's entire social mood would likely change, in dramatic fashion, during our current 2000-2010 decade. To quote Doug's prescient 1997 article, which was reprinted in Outside the Box late last year..."... an excellent case can be made the U.S. is approaching another time of secular crisis, a Fourth Turning, with an expected due date of 2005 – seven years from now – plus or minus a few years in either direction.
The Stamp Acts catalyzed the American Revolution, the election of Lincoln catalyzed the Civil War, the Crash of '29 catalyzed the Depression/WW II era. What might precipitate the elements now floating in solution? The answer is practically any random event that's sufficiently traumatic. Any of the theses of current disaster/action novels and movies will do nicely. Perhaps the accidental or intentional release of a super plague vector. The crashing of an airliner into the Capitol during a joint session. An all-out assault on the IRS computers by an armed group – or perhaps the computers just melting down due to the Year 2000 Problem. Perhaps a financial disaster that cascades into the Greater Depression. In any of these, or a hundred other scenarios, the federal government would almost certainly act precipitously and with a heavy hand, which would bring on a whole other set of consequences.
There's no way of telling where the Crisis will lead, or how it will end. That's going to depend not only on exactly who's in control, but what they do, who they're up against, and a hundred other variables we can't even anticipate.
One thing that seems certain is that real crisis brings out strong leadership. Because of its age and size, it will come from the Boomer generation, and it will be in the mold of Roosevelt or Lincoln – both very dangerous precedents. 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. Admix that attitude to a time resembling the Revolution, the Civil War, or WW II, overlain with today's ethnic strife, urbanization, financial overextension, and powerful, compact new weaponry in the hands of foreign fanatics out to teach the Great Satan a lesson and it's a real witch's brew.
As eye-opening as Doug's predictions were, they brought us only to the onset of the current crisis. Consequently, we thought it both timely and important to check back with the source of much of the research he relied on. And so it was that I spent several hours talking with Neil Howe, co-author of the seminal work on generational cycles, The Fourth Turning, and, just recently, the subject of the DVD "The Winter of History." Howe is not just an historian, but also a Washington DC-based economist and demographer. While our conversation covered a great many topics, the overriding focus was on how things are likely to unfold from here.
Many bullish readers won't be thrilled to hear Howe's latest findings about the future, but given his predictive track record, dismissing them out of hand could be a costly mistake.
The summary outlook, according to Howe, is that we are in the very early stages of a 20-year period of economic and institutional upheaval – an era denominated by a crisis during which we'll likely witness the tearing down and reconstruction of many aspects of society as we know it. [emphasis added]
As individuals, understanding Howe's views and taking some reasonable precautions makes a lot of sense. As investors, those views also have the potential to make us a lot of money.
Following is my high-level recap of my long conversation with Neil Howe, along with some general thoughts on the investment implications of a 20-year bear market.
Remember the Sixties?
If you're old enough -- or possess even a rudimentary sense of history -- think back to the 1950s, with roller-skating waitresses, crew cuts, and nuclear families of the sort represented by the iconic Leave it to Beaver. Fathers worked, while many mothers stayed home. Life had a certain predictable quality and, as far as anyone knew, would continue along the same lines for time immemorial.
But then something happened... the 1960s. Literally no one saw it coming. It was as if someone had flipped a switch that electrified America and, quickly, the world. Most everything changed, and a society accustomed to conformity was blown away with a fierce individualism expressed with long hair, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, topped off with civil disobedience and bloody riots in the streets.
According to Neil Howe, in the mid-1960s, generational change pushed society around a dramatic corner as idealistic, individualistic young Baby Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) rebelled against the midlife leadership of their G.I. Generation parents (born 1901 to 1924).
These periods of transitions are part of a larger cyclical pattern made up of four distinct eras, or "Turnings," each lasting approximately 20 years. It can be helpful to think of the four turnings as you might think of the four seasons, repeating predictably in their own natural rhythm. A full cycle of turnings takes place over a period of about 80 to 90 years -- roughly the span of a long human life. A new turning begins as a new youth generation comes of age, bringing a new social ethic that compensates for the excesses of the midlife generation then in power.
While we don't have the space here to go into the full details of Howe's research, it's important to the topic at hand that we quickly recap the Four Turnings.
The First Turning is referred to by Howe as a High. As this follows a period of crisis, one of the hallmarks of a First Turning is a heightened sense of community and collective optimism, driven in part by the fact that the society has just come through a difficult and challenging time. Consequently, during First Turnings, societal institutions tend to be strong while individualism is weak. The post-World War II "High" of the mid-1940s through early '60s is the most recent example of a First Turning.
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. [emphasis added]
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. ...
Read the rest here for an interesting perspective on the future. During the interview, Mr. Howe was asked where, on a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being as bad as the crisis will get), where he thought we were on that scale today. His answer: we're at 2 or 3.
Mr. Howe's book, The Fourth Turning, co-authored with William Strauss and published in 1997, is available on Amazon here: The Fourth Turning
His earlier work from 1992, Generations, is available here: Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069