The philosopher Lewis Mumford said that “Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”
That has certainly been the case in my own life. I love my father, but grew up really idolizing my grandfather, and the whole World War II generation he was part of. In fact, my admiration for that generation was a huge part of what inspired and continues to inspire the Art of Manliness. The mission of AoM has been to bring back some of the best values of our grandparents’ generation that got lost at the end of the 20th century.
According to the historian and demographer Neil Howe, there’s a reason Millennials tend to identify more with the Greatest Generation than with Baby Boomers. In fact, there’s a whole pattern that generations, and history itself, cycles through again and again, much like the changing of the seasons.
In the 1990s, Howe, along with co-author William Strauss, published two books, Generations and The Fourth Turning, which set out a bold and fascinating theory: that history can be broken down into 4 phases, and 4 generational archetypes that repeat themselves over and over every 80 or so years.
What are the characteristics of the generational archetype you belong to? What historical phase are we in now, and what does the Strauss-Howe theory predict is likely to happen to the geo-political and economic landscape in the next decade?
Stay tuned for the answers to these questions and much more. This is an utterly fascinating podcast you definitely won’t want to miss, and will be talking over with your friends and family.
- How Neil and his co-writer stumbled upon the generational theory of history
- How the cyclical approach to history differs from the way most historians approach the subject
- Why looking at people throughout their entire life is useful in analyzing history
- The predictions that Neil made about Millennials back in the 1980s
- The four “turnings” we see over and over again in American history
- Which turning are we in right now?
- How the changes in hip hop in the past decade are similar to the changes in jazz during the 1940s
- How our current political mood in the U.S. is similar to that of the mid-19th century
- How Howe determines what makes up a generation and the four different generational archetypes
- What the generational theory tells us about how moods towards gender differences vary from generation to generation
- What Millennial women want in men (and how it’s different from what Boomer women wanted in men)
- Can millennials really be the next Hero Generation?
- How millennials will use technology to re-shape public life
- What happens when societies don’t solve the crisis’ of fourth turnings
- The limitations of the generational theory of history
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- The Generations of Men (our post summarizing the Strauss-Howe generational theory)
- My podcast with Steven Mintz about the history of adulthood
- Generation X
- My podcast with Angela Duckworth about grit
- Whig party
- Second Great Awakening
- Time magazine article about the Silent Generation
The Strauss-Howe generational theory of history is one of the most fascinating mental models I’ve ever come across. It puts history in a whole new light, and once you understand it, you’ll pay attention to current events and cultural changes in a closer way. Neil and I just scratched the surface when it comes to the theory, so I highly recommend picking up a copy of Generations or The Fourth Turning so you can delve deeper into the subject. For a good summary of the theory, check out the article that we wrote on it a few years ago.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The philosopher Lewis Mumford said that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers. That has certainly been the case in my own life. I love my dad, but I grew up really idolizing my grandfather and the whole World War 2 generation he was a part of. In fact, my admiration for that generation was a huge part of what inspired and continues to inspire the Art of Manliness. The mission of AOM has been to bring back some of the best values of our grandparents’ generations that got lost at the end of the 20th Century.
According to the historian and demographer Neil Howe, there’s a reason Millennials tend to identify more with the Greatest Generation than with Baby Boomers. In fact, there’s a whole pattern that generations and history itself cycles through again and again, much like the changing of the seasons. In the 1990s, Howe, along with his coauthor William Strauss, published 2 books, Generations and The Fourth Turning, which set out a bold and fascinating theory that history can be broken down into 4 phases and 4 generational archetypes that repeat themselves over and over every 80 years.
What are the characteristics of that generational archetype you belong to? What historical phase are we in now? What does the Strauss-Howe Theory predict is likely to happen to the geopolitical and economic landscape in the next decade? Stay tuned for the answer to these questions and much more. This is an utterly fascinating podcast you definitely won’t want to miss and you’ll be talking over with your friends and family. After the show is over, make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/howe, that’s H-O-W-E, for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Neil Howe, welcome to the show.
Neil Howe: Oh, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: I’m glad to have you on the show because I’m a big fan of your work. We’ve referenced 2 of your books, Generations and The Fourth Turning on the site several times. It’s all about this generational approach to history. Before we get into the details of your theory and your coauthor’s theory, let’s talk about how you came up with this or how you went down this path.
You and your coauthor William Strauss have become known for your work on generational cycles in American history. You’re also the individuals who coined the word Millennials that has become part of the cultural zeitgeist. What led you two down this path of approaching history and sociology from a cyclical perspective?
Neil Howe: That’s a good question. Bill and I, this is really in the late ’80s when we were looking at this. It was not actually originally our intention to be cyclical. We were simply interested in some of the huge generational shifts that we’ve seen in our time, particularly with the Boomers as a generation, how they’re so different from their parents, the GI Generation, the famous the Greatest Generation. They had D-Day and Boomers had Woodstock. The same age our parents were building battleships and founding families, Boomers are keeping our lives on hold, right? You think about it, taking voyages inside themselves, exploring a new kind of exploring values and cultural space, very much revolutionizing the culture. All of these focus utterly unlike the generation that raised us had.
It got us to thinking just broadly about these kinds of generational shifts throughout American history. We simply went back in time and looked at these. We were simply interested in just how it happens. We weren’t interested in a cycle. When we went back and looked though, we saw certain patterns, certain kinds of generations following others that seemed to recur time and time and again. These patterns were linked to some of the broader kind of systole, diastole of history that we’re all familiar with.
The most obvious is some of the great nation forming, shaking crises where outer world crises where we reconstruct politics and empire and the economy and so on occur about once every long human lifetime. A lot of people have remarked on this. You go back and you look at the War of Spanish Succession and the Glorious Revolution right around the end of 1600s, around 1700. You go forward a human lifetime, you get to the American Revolution, you get to the Civil War, you get to World War 2 and the Great Depression. You get to where we are today and roughly happened halfway in between these turning points you have the Great Awakenings of American History, which have been often expressed in religion, in spiritual life, but also throughout the culture generally. In fact, many historians call the late ’60s and ’70s America’s fourth or fifth Great Awakening.
These are patterns which are really linked in our view to the coming of age and the coming of age of different kinds of generations. That just gives you a broad look. I guess this is something that emerged from our investigation. It’s not something we set out initially to show.
Brett McKay: Okay. How does this approach to history differ from the way most historians view history?
Neil Howe: Most historians, it’s interesting. When we wrote Generations, we called it a history of America’s future. We wrote sequential biographies, collective biographies of generations going back all the way into the 17th Century. The way we wrote it is really interesting. We were amazed that no one had written history this way before. What we did is we started, I think, in that book, at least, we started at other points in other books, but in that book, we started with the so-called Puritan Generation, the first large migration of Old World settlers onto the New World, and the Great Migration, particularly to New England in the 1630s and also to the Chesapeake a little bit earlier.
The idea is we took a single generation, a group of people born over about 20 years or so, and have a distinct location in history, and we told the story of their childhood, coming of age with courtship or war or whatever happening to do, the phase in which they’re rising to power, raising families, their leadership years, and then finally, into their old age. We looked at that as a single, collective biography. We followed that group throughout their life and then we went back and we started with the next group in childhood.
One way of looking at this, if you think about history as a chart, you think about if age is the Y-axis and years are the X-axis, we all live a diagonal, right? We all live a diagonal line. We grow older as time goes forward, right? This is what we were doing. We were taking each diagonal and then we’re starting with the next diagonal and we kept on.
It’s kind of like Emile Littre, who was a famous French social writer in the mid-19th Century, said that generations are like tiles on a roof. You can see that pattern. Any single event in time is a vertical line through all those diagonals, which means that the same war that I may experience as a young cadet or soldier coming of age or participate in, the next generation sees as children. They probably will have a very different view of that war and internalize a very different understanding of what it means and what lessons you can draw from it.
That is how we do history and it required a lot of work. I think Bill and I, the two of us spent at least 3 years on that first book because we had to kind of reconstruct history the way people don’t ordinarily see it. If you look at most books, almost all books of history that we read tends to talk about what everyone’s doing in every year. Oh, 1856, what were Americans doing that year? All these different things and we go to the next year.
Usually you focus on what people in midlife are doing because they tend to be the leaders, but you might have a history of childhood at which each year you’re talking about what 18-year-olds are doing or 12-year-olds or whatever. No one bothers much to connect, as they’re moving forward in time, they’re narratives of the same people. You see where I’m coming from here? It seems obvious to us that in some important way, that is the way you want to tell history. You want to follow the same people over time and that’s what we do.
Brett McKay: Exact. I guess one difference is, I guess, most historians, they approach history from a very linear perspective because they’re just focusing on that one, the mid-lifers, the leaders, and that’s all they focus on. It shows history as this linear progression. It’s always getting better or it’s following this determined path.
Neil Howe: Yeah. It means you really don’t have any way of explaining what happens next because you’re just dealing with this one age bracket and there are always new people moving into it, so how then can you predict anything? We see this constantly. Everyone is taking an age bracket, making linear projections on it from whatever they’ve seen in the recent past, and assuming those will continue. That’s never a good way, never an accurate way to look at the future.
A good example of that, you mentioned Millennials earlier. We made a number of predictions when we first introduced Millennials as little kids back in our first book, which was really in the early ’90s. No one was talking about Millennials then. In fact, no one was even talking about Generation X then. Gen X at that time didn’t even have a name yet. Doug Coupland’s book, novel, Generation X, came out about a year later.
Here is the interesting thing. We saw clearly what was happening to young adults in the early ’90s. We looked at their culture. We looked at how they were looking at life. Many of your listeners will recall that that was a time at which the crime rate was reaching near it’s all-time historical peak. It was still rising and the crack epidemic we had, which would peak in around 1994, the murder rate and all kinds of serious violent crime. Kids were all wearing black. The popular pop music genres were probably grunge and gangster rap.
There’s a certain image of youth that was later stereotyped as Generation X, which was extreme risk taking, very dark view of the future, culturally alienated, alienated from their parents. There was the whole anti-work, anti-achievement ethic, which became known as slacker, which is ironic for a generation that would later go onto work harder than anybody, trying to keep up in a bad economy.
Here’s the interesting thing. If you would talk to people at that time about where young adults were going from the vantage point of the early 1990s and just view straight lines, which is what people were doing, people were predicting super predators on American streets by the year 2000. You’d need an armored car to go downtown. In other words, everyone was drawing these straight lines. Everything would get edgier. We would disassociate as a society because everyone thought those extreme individuals would continue. Families would dissolve. It was an interesting way to look at the future back then.
Here’s what happened. Of course, that didn’t happen. We, meanwhile, looked at Millennials, the generation coming after them, who were being raised as little kids in the 1980s. We saw that starting in the early 1980s, the style of child nurture in America completely changed. It was a radical shift. There was suddenly a moral panic over children. This was the time the Baby on Board stickers in the minivans and all the child-friendly gadgets. The culture was turning toward cuddly baby movies instead of child devil movie. Everything was changing for little kids. That change began to age with them as we moved into the 1990s.
We looked back in history and we sought did we ever see this dark to bright sudden shift in the style of childhood nurture and the answer is yes. We’ve seen it before. We saw something similar around the year 1900. We’ve seen it before in earlier eras. We thought we knew what the result of that would be. We’ve looked at that generational shift before.
The result we saw we thought would be a very different kind of generation who would be coming of age by the late 1990s, so we made a number of predictions. We said this new Millennial Generation, when they begin to move into their late teens and early 20s, late ’90s and early ’00s, we said that personal risk taking would decline. The crime rate would come down. These kids would be much closer to their parents. They don’t think of themselves as special, which is part of the reason they wouldn’t take as many risks. They’d be more achievement-oriented and they’d be hugely more community and peer-oriented. Of course, that gave rise to trends that we predicted, which would transform IT, which is the rise of social media.
Now again, you want to recall back in the early ’00s how alien the very word, the term social media was to older generations. It’s like what’s social about that? We all go on the internet with avatars and just do whatever the hell we want. What’s social about? It took Millennials to come along and show us how that can become a sort of infrastructure for a very new sense of sharing everything, total transparency of your life, having your friends look at everything you do.
To some extent, I think today, when we look at Millennials, we worry about almost the opposite things that we worried about with Generation X. We worry about where’s their grit? They’re sharing everything. They have no more individualism. Where are we going to get leadership? Where are we going to get creativity? No one worried about those posits back with Boomers and Xers. It’s interesting, of course, how we always worry about what the rising generation does not have. We so rarely reflect on what the rising generation has that those of us who are older did not have. We generally don’t look at the positive. We generally tend to focus on the negative.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s fascinating. Let’s get into the nitty gritty, so how you and Bill were able to make these predictions about Millennials because as you said, the reason you’re able to do that because you saw something similar in America’s past, a similar pattern of this dark, angsty generation followed by an upbeat, social conformist, do-gooder generation. The idea of your theory is that …
Neil Howe: You could’ve …
Brett McKay: Oh, go ahead.
Neil Howe: You could’ve predicted that, I think. You could’ve if you had truly looked at who these Millennials were as kids and you just simply reflected on how that would manifest itself as those traits got older. A generation raised to be super special, close to their parents, all of trusting their parents, wanting to trust big institutions like government to protect them and take care of them. You could’ve predicted it had you not known history. It’s just history gives you an added degree of confidence. Having seen it before truly does help. It gives added maybe confirmation is the word to say.
Brett McKay: Okay. The way you guys approach your theory is that you look at a time frame about the period, as you said earlier, period of a long life, which is roughly 80 to 100 years. You call it a saeculum. Is that how you pronounce it?
Neil Howe: Yeah, saeculum.
Brett McKay: Saeculum, okay.
Neil Howe: Those who still go to Latin Mass, saeculum saeculorum, so it’s right there in the Catholic Church. It’s a Latin word that means long human lifetime. It probably comes from Etruscan. It’s very interesting. We don’t really know where the origin of that word is, but it is a key unit to what we do.
Brett McKay: Okay. The saeculum, yeah, because you can see these different generations at different points in life all at the same time, so you can see a generation in childhood, a generation in young adulthood, a generation in midlife, and a generation in elderhood. Then you divide a saeculum into what you call turnings, 4 turnings. What’s a turning and what are the 4 kinds that we regularly see in a saeculum throughout history?
Neil Howe: I think looking at that kind of structure, I discussed briefly earlier this idea that the entire cycle has 2 polar ends. You might think of them in seasons of the year, this would be the winter and the summer. One is this period where we reconstruct our outer world of institutions. These are the periods when we have dramatic changes in public history. We think of the great wars, the total wars, the civil wars, the reconstruction of our economy and infrastructure and so on. Those are what we call fourth turnings.
Then at the other end, these great awakening periods where we reconstruct the inner worlds of culture, values, art, and so forth, religion. These are what we call the second turnings. A second turning is awakening. A fourth turning is a crisis. In between, we have 2 other periods and together, they make the 4 seasons of the saeculum.
The first turning we call a high, like the American high. This is simply a period which comes after a crisis. It’s typically a period when institutions are strong. Individualism is weak. Society feels a strong sense of collective progress. This is when the whole idea of the modern is rediscovered. We feel like we’re moving forward to ever greater heights of public achievement, even if individuals and minorities don’t really feel they can achieve respect in this period.
The second turning, awakening, is when people tire of that social conformity and that lockstep progress. They want to throw all those social obligations off, rediscover themselves, rediscover a new sense of authenticity. Typically fire, this is the cutting edge is always the rising generation of youth. This has been true for all of the great religious awakenings, as well, throwing off the glacier age of religion or whatever their stolid parents built. This is a period of great tumult. The society still is supplying a lot of social order, but suddenly, the people don’t want that social order anymore. This becomes a very stormy period, these awakening periods.
History shows that these awakenings issue then into the third turning, which is we call an unraveling. I should say, obviously, the second turning most recently in American history would be we’d certainly include the late ’60s and ’70s, perhaps the early ’80s, as well. This is our most recent awakening era, so that whole consciousness revolution period with all the great movements, the crusades, whether it was for feminism or the environment or, certainly, movements celebrating racial pluralism and ethnic pluralism in America. The great just splitting up, right? We no longer became so much the cohesive society anymore, but we came a society that we felt was more fused with individual enthusiasm and people feeling great about their own lives, even if they no longer felt very great about where the country was going.
The third turning is the sequel to that. You think of first turnings following crises, they take the lessons of the crisis. You’ve got to ban together and build things together to keep safe. The third turning takes the lesson of the recent awakening, which is you have to atomize and become individuals to truly thrive. The third turning is a time when individualism is triumphant and institutions are weak and discredited.
In many ways, we still are living in, in some ways, a third turning social mood. You go into a bookstore today and you look at all of the most positive, upbeat books in your local bookstore and they’re all about me, myself, and I. I can do anything. I can triumph. Everything is about me. I’m just great. Whatever I want, I can do. You ever take a look at all the books …
Brett McKay: Like Eat, Pray, Love, that memoir of the lady who traveled the world and ate good food and whatever.
Neil Howe: Whatever it is. Just look at the whole self-development movement about how if I try hard enough, I can do anything. It’s a celebration of self, a very positive one, that we got really coming that so much thrived and grew in the third turning, whereas everything about who we are collectively, the books are all downbeat. It’s the end of society, the end of family, the end of politics. You really do get this mood when you go in and just peruse what’s out there. No one has anything positive to say about who we are collectively.
History isn’t always like that. You can’t have a continuous trend forever in which social life is continuously discredited and individualism is continually championed. Ultimately, that leads into off the precipice. We forget that. We often draw straight lines given our recent experience and we don’t realize society has to regenerate. It can’t just go in one direction all the time, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Neil Howe: To some extent, this Millennial Generation, I think, is bringing back a lot of these social values that bother a lot of older generations. This is how this works. This is how this process of renewal works. You see these third turnings like the 1990s, earlier third turning decades would’ve been the 1920s, the 1850s, the 1760s. These are all decades of cynicism and bad manners, a lot of people with attitude, a lot of people acting out. My favorite slogan of the ’90s, which was really given a lot of run by Generation X coming of age, was it works for me. I love that expression. Yeah, it works for … I really don’t care if it works for you, but it works for me. I feel pretty good about that. This is third turning.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Neil Howe: History says that the third turnings always ultimately issue into fourth turnings and fourth turnings … Remember, third turning is when people don’t want any social order, but unlike an awakening, no one’s offering any social order either. We all feel great as free agents. It’s a time when actually the level of social strife is actually reduced compared to what it was in the awakening because we’re all pretty comfortable with this very individualized world.
In a fourth turning, you have a radical shift. No order is being offered anymore, but suddenly, people want order again. People feel lost. Their lives feel rootless, they feel. No one feels protected. No one feels secure. This leads into the fourth turning social mood, which is when we tear down institutions, which are now regarded as completely dysfunctional. We put new institutions to replace them and these are, as I suggested before, this is when public history moves really fast.
It suddenly matters now what goes on in the headlines of newspapers or the news websites, as it may be. We really follow what happens in our central institutional life. These are the great economic emergencies and the sobering reflection, but all of the total wars in American history have always been fought in fourth turnings. These are the time when we really do take on a huge public task. It tends to get bigger rather than smaller and we’re ordinarily invested with maximal public energy.
These are sobering times and in The Fourth Turning, we talk a lot in detail about the typical pattern of a fourth turning, how it starts. We talk about the catalyst, the regeneracy, the rebirth and refining of social trust and ultimately moving toward the climax and resolution. There’s a lot that can be learned by looking at these eras. They’re very distinctive and very generationally distinctive. There you go and, of course, as I’m sure you’re going to mention, for each of these turnings, there’s a different pattern of generations that are moving into different phases of life.
Brett McKay: Exactly, so just a recap. Let’s talk, like apply this. You’ve kind of done it throughout your explanation, so there’s recent history, sort of these cycles. You mentioned early the ’20s are this unraveling, lots of hyper-individualism. You had the rise of the lost generation, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.
Neil Howe: Yeah, and also a very “bad”, edgy culture. This is the rise of the age of jazz, which at that time was considered the equivalent of pornography today. It was absolutely shocking to older people. You had the Great Migration of the South, obviously, and the Harlem Renaissance, but it gave rise to jazz, which popular across America. Everyone loves this kind of thing.
The interesting too how African-American culture has resonated with these turnings. That’s a whole subject in and of itself, but as we saw with say something like the rise of hip hop in the ’90s, the rise of jazz in the ’20s, and what happened to jazz? What happened to jazz in the ’30s? You know what happened to it? It didn’t go away, but its most popular form morphed in the hands of the rising GI generation into big band music, swing music so that the music bigger, more collegial, kind of happier and more orchestrated until finally, by World War 2, you had the Glen Miller bands and you had that kind of sound, which is the kind of sound that Boomers remember as kids after the war. I often reflect on that when I think of how hip hop has changed now as it’s generationally moving on. I often remark a lot of us who recall hip hop in its early days, we look at it today and we wonder where’s the desperation? Where’s the edge?
Brett McKay: Where’s the edge, yeah.
Neil Howe: Where’s that survival of it? It’s all gone now.
Brett McKay: New World Order, right.
Neil Howe: It’s the blanding of the pop culture in the hands of Millennials.
Brett McKay: Oh, all right. We have the ’20s, the unraveling, that third turning. Then the Great Depression hit, set off a crisis in America, which as you said, there’s this rapid mobilization of society wanting to work together. That’s exactly what happened with the New Deal, right, so we’re in that fourth turning. Then World War 2 also happened there and again, they went from very individualized to very collective, like we’re the home front. We’re all in this together.
We got through the crises and I guess after the crises would be the first turning, the high, so the 1950s. Everything’s bland, everything’s …
Neil Howe: Yeah, late ’40s, ’50s, early ’60s. That’s all American high.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s the thing we nostalgize. We’re like, “Oh, those were the days.”
Neil Howe: Yeah, that’s the classic, right, vintage, we often use the word vintage to talk about that.
Brett McKay: Right. Then after that, starting in the late ’60s or mid-’60s into the ’70s you have the awakening, so this is where you said the consciousness movement, rise of feminism, the hippie movement, this self-actualization that the Boomers brought on, which followed the unraveling, which began maybe the late ’70s into the ’80s, so yeah, as you said, sort of again atomizing our culture. People are more individualistic, more risk taking, etc. and so we’re at this point now according …
Neil Howe: The big difference … No, this is excellent the way you’re going through it. I think one of the big differences by the time we hit the late ’80s is that the individualism was ratified by the larger culture. It was no longer fighting institutions anymore. You remember it was Ronald Reagan who finally brought the Beach Boys to the White House. People don’t remember that until then, rock music was considered almost like a communist conspiracy. Official institutions did not accept that culture and suddenly, we embraced it, even at the highest level. Suddenly, rock music was legitimized at the very height of our institutions.
The other thing Reagan did, which is one of the reasons why he got lots of Boomers ultimately voting for him in 1980 and particularly 1984, when he won in a landslide, is that he basically said what do you expect in an era when we’re sort of saying you don’t need institutions to run our lives. You remember his famous remark, “Government isn’t the answer. Government is the problem.” You got the president himself saying that. That really is sort of the official inauguration of the third turning. Even at the various highest levels we don’t believe in that social order that we used to impose.
Brett McKay: Don’t believe in institutions, so now we’re, as you said earlier, we’re still that unraveling, that third turning mood, and according to the theory, we’ll be transitioning to the fourth turning.
Neil Howe: Yeah, the mood is still third turning-ish, but I do think that in terms of dating eras, we’re definitely into the fourth turning now. I would date that really beginning in 2008. I think the election of Barack Obama, but even more importantly, the global financial crisis has caused a real rupture in the social mood, which has taken us this year to Trump versus Clinton and God knows what we’re going to see now. The realignment of political parties which is now going on, I think one of the most rapid and significant realignment of politics we’ve seen, perhaps, since the Great Depression, with the realignment of politics in the elections of 1932 and ’36. This could be as significant as that.
Parallels that come to mind to me are the death of the Whig party just before the Civil War in the 1850s when the Whigs completely disintegrated. The Democrats took over and then the Whigs recombined in the late 1850s as the Republican party, which obviously barely won in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln and then went on to rule the country for the next 7 years. This is also characteristic of a fourth turning, radical and rapid political realignments. We’re seeing one right before our eyes.
Brett McKay: Right. We’ll get into that later on. We’ll do some prophecy at the end because I think it’s just …
Neil Howe: Ah, prophecy.
Brett McKay: Prophecy, right, you’re going to be Tiresias here, the blind prophet. Okay. We talked about the turnings. Let’s talk about how the generations connect to these turnings. First, let’s define what do you mean by a generation? How do you determine a generation cohort?
Neil Howe: A generation is a group of people born about roughly the length of a phase of life. We really define phase of life by … One can read our books to read about it in depth, but it’s really a period in your life just chronologically when you have both either biologically or socially defined roles. Childhood, for instance, is the period between being born and coming of age fully as an adult, which has roughly been a little bit older than 20 years through much of American history. That period has probably actually come down a little bit from actually being allowed to … I shouldn’t say it’s come down. It’s come down and gone back up. It’s fluctuated a bit, but that ability to be able to assume adult roles, for instance in voting and war and truly being perceived as an adult member is certainly a very fundamental timing period. It’s roughly around 20 years or a little more than 20 years.
Then another phase of life would be what we call young adulthood, which takes you from your early 20s up to your mid-40s. Typically, in the mid-40s is when the next phase of life begins, which is midlife. This is usually the age at which people are deemed competent to serve as the highest leaders of institutional life. That’s usually the Constitution says you can become a president at 35, but we haven’t had many in their late 30s, early 40s, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Neil Howe: Typically, midlife is considered the threshold for that kind of stature. Then we have a period of often pinnacle in terms of leadership, but in general, a certain withdrawal from public activity, which is elderhood, which is over age 65. Here’s the thing is that when a big event hits, it affects people in different ages depending upon their social role. A good example is Pearl Harbor Sunday. When a big emergency hits, suddenly, the whole social mood may change overnight as it did on December 7, 1941.
How do different people in different age brackets react to that? They react differently depending upon their age-related social roles. If you are just under the age of serving actively, for instance, in war, what’s the message? Stay safe. Get under the table. Don’t say anything. Don’t interfere. You’re going to be tightly protected. People are going to take care of you, but just don’t interfere with anything. If you’re just over the age, you have a very different role, rise up and meet the enemy, you know what I mean, organize. Help get this whole country moving. If you’re, again, in midlife, you’re a very different kind of role. Actually, that was a time at which that hit it really did divide generations at the time.
You think of the Silent Generation, which they were basically still in childhood in 1941. The GI Generation was all in young adulthood. They were the ones who went off to war and the Lost Generation, which was all in midlife. They were the midlife generals of that war. They were the Omar Bradleys, the George Pattons and the Dwight Eisenhowers. They become the elder leaders of the American High later on. Then you had in elderhood the Missionary Generation of Henry Stimson and FDR and Einstein. They provided a different role.
Here’s the thing is that just like turnings, which arrive in a certain sequential order, these generations themselves, since they’re shaped by their location in history, if history has a pattern, so do generations have a pattern. They almost have to when you stop and think about it. For example, what we call a Prophet archetype generation, which would be a generation like Boomers, is always born right after a great crisis. They are always the post-crisis babies. They certainly were even why we call them the Baby Boom. They’re the big boom that started in 1946, both in the economy and in hospital maternity wards. Those are the post-crisis children.
They tend to follow a very similar life cycle script. They’re increasingly indulged as kids. They come of age during a time of the awakening, the awakening era. They tend to become increasingly moralistic leaders in midlife. Ultimately, this kind of generation takes the country into and through the next crisis as elder leaders, as senior leaders. I believe that’s what’s happening today.
Other generations have a different relationship with history. For example, what we call the hero archetype, like the GI Generation, they’re increasingly protectively raised as children. They come of age during the emergency. Then they go on and they enter midlife during that post-crisis high period. They become resolute collective defenders of the social order. As they enter old age, they’re attacked by the next Great Awakening fared by the young. We’ve seen that repeatedly with these kinds of generations.
In fact, one of the most uproarious and colorful awakenings in American history was the Second Great Awakening that gave rise to Emerson and Thoreau and Longfellow and Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis that what we call the Transcendental Generation. They were commune founders and religious prophets. They gave rise to everything from the Mormon Church to Christian Science, completely evangelized both the northern and southern states in the 1830s and ’40s, an amazing generation of, again, feminist poets, just a cataclysmic generation in the culture. They, in their turn, took us into the Civil War as they grew older. These are patterns and that’s what we track.
Two other kinds of generations worth mentioning are what we call the nomad archetype. These are the children of the Great Awakening periods. A good example of that would be Generation X. We talk about the ’60s and ’70s as being this awakening, but who are the children of that? Who were the actual children? They were Gen Xers growing up at a time of maximum family disorder, maximum under protection of children, and they take their survivalism, their individualism and independence and survivalism and self-reliance with them then coming of age into the subsequent third turning.
Then one final archetype maybe worth mentioning is what we call the artist archetype. A good example of that would be the Silent Generation. These are the children of crises, very heavily protected as children. They come of age almost always in American history, they’re the ones that actually come of age right after the crisis. They are typically extremely risk-averse, extremely conformist, and they’re dutiful. The older generations have just taken the country through this huge crisis and the last thing they want to do is upset the social order.
It’s very interesting, in fact, that the very origin of the term Silent Generation is actually a famous Time magazine editorial that came out in 1951 about how these kids just seemed so cautious. Their first questions on job interviews were about pension plans. All they wanted to do is just get married young and lock in everything, lock in all these long term future facts about their life at the earliest possible ages. Anyway, a very distinctive, very interesting generation in their own right for what they’ve given to our culture and today, a very affluent generation. They are people when you think about people today in their late 70s and 80s, you’re looking at the Silent Generation in elderhood. Very affluent, very well-educated, very well-mannered, strong middle class. These are not things we’re going to associate with seniors at all 20 years from now.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this is a great example. I guess the next question is … I guess not a question, but a statement, so just to clarify, these generational archetypes, they follow a pattern because these turnings follow a pattern, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that an archetype will manifest itself …
Neil Howe: It’s a cycle that goes 2 ways. It’s a both a cause and effect. For instance, each generation is shaped by history young. That’s obvious. You’re born or you grow up during a period of war or awakening, whatever it is it shapes you. Then later on, as midlife parents and leaders, you then go on to shape history. Do you see what I mean? It’s a full circle of causation here.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess what I was getting at too is that these archetypes aren’t necessarily going to manifest themselves exactly the same way in different time periods. I guess a great one would be the Prophet Generation that comes to age during an awakening. Like you said, the most recent one, you talked about the Second Great Awakening was an example of a Prophet Generation. You have all these creation, rise of spiritual leaders, the evangelization of American culture. Then the second, the following awakening happened in the 1960s and that manifested itself differently, but there was, again, that same ethos of spirituality, inner values, etc.
Neil Howe: Actually, the following awakening is sort of the Third Great Awakening, which occurred in the very last decade of the 19th Century. That was actually the Missionary Generation, just born right after the Civil War. You’re missing one of the examples of a strong Missionary Generation. Look, it is true that for all of these things, you overlay secular trends, long-term trends. One of those trends is … You could think of something the long term trends our technology gets fancier and then more capable. We tend to live longer in generation after generation.
There’s no question that in the context of these awakening eras, the context in which an awakening plays out is increasingly less organized religion and it’s increasingly other areas of the culture. I think that’s where you were going to when you were talking about the late ’60s and ’70s.
When you look at the underlying … This is the thing. You have to back up a little bit and look at the underlying human drivers, the rage against authority, the liberation of the individual, the quest for inner authenticity. It’s amazing that if you go back and look, which I have and I’ve read all the literature surrounding even Jonathan Edward’s Awakenings, North Hampton in Massachusetts in the late 1730s. You look at all of those elements, they were all there, all of them, strikingly, and what were these traditional awakenings all in the name of? Obviously, Christian churches at that time, but very few Americans at that time weren’t Christian. You look at what were the underlying elements. All of those, exactly, to a T. Those basic social and emotional drivers are behind it.
To make sense of generations, you need to look beyond the outer context, the outer form of the institution, the outer forms of technology, and look instead at what purposes are the technologies serving and that’s what gets … I get so many calls from the media about every wants to know Millennials say, so they ask me how’s the iPhone reshaping Millennials? How is social media reshaping Millennials or Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever it is. Their perspective is always how does technology shape generations.
My usual response is is you really need to think causally in a different way about technology and generations. You should be asking the reverse question. How are these generations shaping the technology? Now that’s an interesting question and that’s a question that can actually allow you to make forecast, so to see, for instance, that so much of the social media, the advent of social media, was shaped and embraced by Millennials and created by Millennials. Just think of Mark Zuckerberg, for example.
You begin to realize it’s not like older people forcing this technology down the throats of young people who otherwise wouldn’t want it, but it’s rather young people. Even back in the 1990s, the little kids, they were all on their E-chat. They would come home and they’d go on their personal computers to E-chat. Older generations went, “What the hell are they doing? Why are they doing that?”
The point is is that they take whatever is possible in the technology and exploit that which serves their generational need. Do you see what I mean? We don’t pay enough attention to that. Generations will reshape the technology to suit their own purposes. The social mood in the turning will reshape the technology to suit its own purposes. I don’t think many people would’ve predicted back in the early 1990s that so much of our use of public internet technology would basically be to set up billions of cameras in every public place just to monitor people all the time. We always thought it was going to liberate the individual, all this stuff, and then ultimately, here we have a society in which any individual can be tracked down for the sake of what? What matters in a fourth turning? Social order, right, make sure that malefactors are caught, so there we are.
Brett McKay: There we are. I’m curious we’ve talked about how these turnings and these generational cycles can influence child rearing, things like that, but I’m curious. This is the Art of Manliness podcast, so let’s get into that. Does your generational theory tell us anything about moods towards gender differences between generations?
Neil Howe: They do. That’s a really interesting question. I’m sure you’re familiar we do talk a little bit about that in Generations and The Fourth Turning. We find that actually in fourth turnings, when you look broadly, from the very beginning of a fourth turning to the very end, these periods are generally periods in which gender role differences widen and during awakenings, gender role differences close. Okay. That’s our first approximation.
You think about it, what really influenced the Boomer Generation? What kind of exaggerated gender role had the big influence of Boomers growing up, little kids in the ’50s and then coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s? It was the superman, right, who was the GI Generation superman. You think of all of the GI Generation actors of that period. You’re talking about, gosh, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston and Sidney Poitier, John Wayne. Just go down the roster of male actors in the GI Generation, you can name one that wasn’t a man’s man. You know what I mean?
Brett McKay: Right.
Neil Howe: I just mean they were all just men’s men. They’re just real exaggerated. You even saw that in the presidential campaign in 1960, Kennedy against Nixon. It was almost phallic, like who had the longer missiles. Here are these guys who were taking a certain kind of masculinity and missive masculinity and really exaggerating that in a way which I think you could say, as many things did during the awakening, the Boomer Generation reacted very negatively to and so much of what we saw, guys growing long hair, singing in high voices, all the stuff that drove the GI Generation crazy and drove them, by the way, to set up their retirement communities in the middle of the desert, places like Senior World and Sun City where they just wouldn’t have to listen to this horrible, unmanly culture that their children are creating. This was a very important part of Boomers and it’s an important part of women’s liberation and what we now call second wave feminism that came out of that.
I think today, we’ve come a little bit full circle on that. What’s interesting to me is to see Millennials today growing up and what’s the big iconic, exaggerated gender role that people are most familiar with today? In the movies and in so much of the culture and what has been so instrumental in shaping this increasingly protective environment and more community and more socially-oriented environment for the Millennial Generation, it’s not the supermom. It’s not the superdad. It’s not the superman. It’s the supermom, right?
I think when you look at Millennials and you see particularly the precocious achievements of Millennial women, they’re now outnumbering men as undergraduates, probably around 60% to 40% when you look at those who are actually completing their degrees. They are now outdoing men now in attainment of graduate degrees. As young adults, particularly in urban areas, they’re on par with and in some places actually outearning men.
Now, we’ve seen … I know I’ve actually looked at this trajectory for progressive cohorts and it tends to peak in the late 20s, early 30s and then what you see is the women’s wages even among if you just isolate even college-educated men and women, women’s wages tend to decline in the 30s because more of them are getting married and more of them to some extent or one way or another compromise in following their career.
It is interesting to look at these revolutionary advances we’ve seen in just even Title IX, for instance, in colleges, where women could participate in sports and so on. This has been challenging to guys. Millennials have grown up in a period where the strong female has been celebrated and this has obviously been ushered in by Boomers at the highest level, I think, in a very positive way. I think it has been a very positive development.
I wanted to say this that we’ve now entered a fourth turning and I just see history suggest that throughout the periods of fourth turnings, it begins to shift the other way. Let me just give one interesting insight into how I think this is going to play out. If you would talk to women back in the 1970s, say, about what they wanted more in men … I’m not talking about young women, so Boomers in their 20s, what did they want more in men? I’ll tell you what they were saying at the time. Lots of books on this, lots of magazine articles, interviews, anyone lived through that period remembers women wanted men that were a little bit more the Alan Alda types. You remember that? Sensitive, caring.
Brett McKay: Right, sensitive nice guy.
Neil Howe: Sensitive nice guys, not establishment guys, not guys who were just always achieving and just charging, trying to achieve in that man’s world. They wanted nicer guy. They wanted guys who would open up, has a little more emotional, softer, more sense, all of that. There’s a rule, which is that young men ultimately become what young women want. That’s just my own observation, looking around my own life and just looking historically. Men, to some extent, became that in a very palpable way. Men became more like that, I think, because men follow the reward pattern that women set out for them.
Here’s my insight on that because I’ve actually talked recently and we’re looking at surveys now on this. We’re looking at talking to Millennial women about guys. You may have done this. If you have observations here, you chime in yourself, say something.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Neil Howe: I’ve talked to a lot of Millennial women and I can’t find any of them that wants a guy to be more sensitive, kinder, to pull back on the achievement side of his life and just be a nicer guy. Exactly the contrary. I’m encountering Millennial women everywhere that said, “I want a guy to step up to the plate. I want him to be ready for prime time. I want some drive in his life. I can’t find a guy who wants to achieve.” I hear that so often, so repeatedly today. A lot of Millennial women are wondering how can I find a guy that will give me what I need in my life? I don’t want to be the only achiever. You know what I mean?
Brett McKay: Right, right.
Neil Howe: I think this is interesting because I think it’s very suggestive again, as I said before, I think what young women want is definitely a social leading indicator.
Brett McKay: Okay. We’re going back, so they’re following that hero archetype, more widening of gender roles.
Neil Howe: Look at a balance of it. Obviously, yeah, it’s going to look different. The era is different. Everything’s different today, but I think we will see something like that emerge. I think that’s because young men will look for ways to fulfill that role, which is the role in which that they are now invited to play in a way that they weren’t 20, 30 years ago.
Brett McKay: Okay. That was fantastic. You just got a little bit prophetic there. Let’s get way more prophetic here. You wrote The Fourth Turning in 1997. You argue that we were due a fourth turning crisis by the middle of the ’00s. You just said earlier that the financial crisis of 2008 was probably that crisis that set off the fourth turning.
Neil Howe: Yeah, the catalyst, yeah.
Brett McKay: The catalyst. These turnings last about 20 years, so this will last about, yeah, until middle of 2020s.
Neil Howe: It’ll last probably about 22 years. This may last until the end of the 2020s, so we’re almost certainly not halfway through yet. There’s a lot of time and typically, the intensity picks up over time, so don’t be fooled by the extremely low volatility and high valuations in financial markets right now. I think it’s a calm before the storm. I think there’s a lot more coming in the years just ahead.
Brett McKay: How do you think these generational constellations are going to play out through the crisis? I’m talking about we have Millennials now in young adulthood. We have a generation that are in childhood, so like my kids’ age, my kids 5 and 3. We have Generation X, who are that Nomad Generation. They’re in midlife now.
Neil Howe: They’re moving into midlife, right.
Brett McKay: You have things like President Obama would be a great example of that and some other leaders. Then we have the Boomers who are now in elderhood. They’re in their 60s, some of them are in their 70s.
Neil Howe: Each of these generations is moving into the next phase of life, so Boomers are entering elderhood. Xers are entering midlife. Millennials are entering young adulthood, exactly. That’s exactly what happens. Each turning is, in a sense, triggered by each new archetype moving into a new phase of life. This is very much like what happened in the ’30s when you had that same kind of constellational shift going on.
Brett McKay: How is this going to play out? If the Millennials are the Hero Generation, how will they be heroes during this crisis? I think that’s hard for a lot of people to envision because Millennials get a lot of flack for being they think they’re special, they’re conformists, etc., etc. How will they …
Neil Howe: Remember that no one said anything about the GIs being the Greatest Generation until the very end of the last fourth turning. Okay. In the late 1930s, everything about young adults in America, they looked on them with pity. They didn’t have many jobs. They were joining these big, idealistic labor union movements and they were certainly galvanizing a certain kind of collectivism in America. They voted by huge, overwhelming majorities for FDR and the New Deal in 1932 and 1936. They were huge participants in the growing union movement, particularly the CIO and the sit-down strikes and so on. They were the ones who wore all the NRA badges. They loved the idea of the collective, okay, much more than older generations did. They embraced that, but no one thought of them as being powerful.
In fact, just like Millennials today, everyone thought these kids being much more protected. They had enjoyed all of the new child protection of the Progressive Era, all these new packaged foods with vitamins and all these new government agencies to protect kids. They thought of them … In fact, one worry going into World War 2 was that these kids were too soft. They were too protected.
I don’t know if anyone recalls where I think George C. Scott’s greatest movie was Patton. Have you ever seen the movie Patton?
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah.
Neil Howe: Just listen to the first speech, okay? That first speech by a Lost Generation general to all of these young GIs was exactly like an Xer today trying to put grit into Millennials. Listen to that speech and how he basically just kicks ass. Why did Patton almost be completely cashiered and demoted as a general during the campaign in Sicily? He slapped a GI soldier, caused a huge furor and really got him demoted. He was our best general, in my opinion, and the … could not believe that this guy was being demoted for that. He crossed the line there. He actually physically attacked one of these precious younger kids that America really kind of favored. They had mixed minds. They were kind of soft, but we really like them, too. We don’t want them to be brutalized.
These are how archetypes play out because you see the same thing happening today. I talk with Xers all the time and they’re saying, “My God. There’s no grit in these kids. They don’t know adversity. They didn’t live the hard knocks like I did. I was kicked to the curb as a kid. No one ever invited me or onboarded me into the workplace. You know what I mean? I just had to scrap around and try to make things work and look at these kids. We got to do this for them and that for them,” their voice dripping with sarcasm.
We replay these moments. This is not the first time we’ve been here. We judge the GI Generation by what they did at the very end of that. Okay, yeah, they went off to war and they managed with the help of older generals and older generations to conquer half the world. That’s a pretty amazing feat, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Neil Howe: Then they came home and they built the suburbs and the interstate highways. That generation poured more concrete than any other generation in American history. They built all these dams, which Boomers are actually trying to destroy. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, Boomers are actually tearing down these dams, trying to get nature to flow again, right? Anyway, they were an extraordinary generation. In retrospect, we create a myth of this generation. We do believe that we live in the civic shadow of that Promethean generation, which created so much of the institutional infrastructure that we enjoy today.
Here’s one other interesting thing about history and it gets back to awakenings and crises, that typically, we tend to date the era we’re living in when it comes to our outer world from the last crisis and we tend to date the era we’re living in and the culture from the last awakening. It’s very interesting. If you look at the IMF or Congress or anyone talking about American laws or American constitutional structure, we talk about post-war America. We still do today, post war, after World War 2 when we built up this very new way of running our economy with our government and everything else. When we talk about the culture in America, we usually talk about since the ’60s, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Neil Howe: That’s when all the new rules have, so these turnings, these endpoints actually define our self-understanding of the very era we’re living in. We don’t think what’s going to change, what we’re moving into, the rest of this fourth turning, is not a time at which we’re going to change our culture drastically. That happened in the ’70s. It’s going to be a while before that really switches drastically again. What we are going to do is we’re in a period now we’re going to change the outer world. That’s really the story of the rest of the current era we’re living through.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess the Millennials might be using technology to somehow revolutionize government participation or structure.
Neil Howe: Yeah. I think they’re already underway. I think the very way citizens will use and interact with technology, completely bypassing and rendering obsolete some of these old institutions, these completely sclerotic institutions we have today at all levels of government. I think these are going to be ways in which we will much more effectively have communities empowering themselves and creating a better world.
I think that when it comes to our public infrastructure, it is so out of date. If there’s one thing that has not changed much in our world, we all talk about these little personal gadgets that we have. They’re so amazing, but what hasn’t changed? It’s everything we share publicly, our tunnels, our harbors, our highways, our housing developments, utterly unchanged really since World War 2. It’s all kind of creaky and old and ossified. These are the eras in which we change that stuff. I think there’s going to be a lot of change coming up.
If you were to ask me, if you just ask me to look at, I think I’m looking for when you look at particularly further catalysts of rapid political change, institutional change, the 2 primary motive forces in history and usually one leads into the other and reinforces the other, is basically economic crisis and war. These are the 2 things. They’re like 2 pistons of crisis eras. I think the one that is yet to fully reverberate is the economy. I think the economy is way out of adjustment with this quantitative easing and ZIRP and NIRP and going into negative interest rates now is crushing the banks. The entire global economy is now on completely unsustainable steroids. I think we have not seen the other foot drop on that.
That’s what I’m looking at first and I believe that it always is true with these kind of economic crises that they impel and tend to push forward certain conflicts in the world. We see so many areas of the world today from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to South China Sea, places where we could have real … Places, let me put it this way, from a seismological view we see tensions rising. These will be breaking points.
Don’t forget the entire world is seeing similar kinds of generational changes. Around the world, leaders who remember World War 2 are no longer anywhere in power. You look, for instance, in Asia with Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi and Park Geun-hye in South Korea, all of these people, they are … Obviously Xi Jinping in China, these are all people who have no memory of World War 2.
They’re all similar to sort of a Boomer archetype. These are leaders who are infusing their nations with a new sense of confidence, a new sense of nationalism. They don’t just necessarily want to be self-effacing leaders who want to fit in and it’s creating rising tensions. We will see. We will see how that plays out, but combine those rising tensions with an acute economic downturn, you got real problems.
One last thing I should say and that is that the problems of a fourth turning, as they multiply and become more severe, typically tend to all join together into one big problem. You remember the 1930s the problem with the economy, threat of deflation, falling fertility, a lot of things we were worry about today. We just can’t boost employment. The economy then sank again in 1937 and it’s just despair. We didn’t understand how to do it.
Then, in the ’30s, of course, fascism started breaking out all over the world and so by the time we got into the middle of World War 2, it all became one big problem. We needed to create democracies around the world. We needed to create the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, Bretton Woods, a whole new monetary … We needed to solve everything, everything across the board, economic, geopolitical, everything was going to be solved at this new point of institutional creation, which happened actually even during World War 2 was when we first started negotiating that stuff. I think Bretton Woods was actually while the war was still raging. When the war was over, all of this wet cement hardened and that became the new institutional infrastructure for the new saeculum, from this new era.
Brett McKay: Right.
Neil Howe: We’re entering a period again where things are going to be crumbling and we’re going to have to shape new institutions and it’s chronologically close. We’re already in the era in which that’s going to happen.
Brett McKay: In the previous fourth turnings that you’ve analyzed, it always works out, right? The Revolutionary War was a crisis point and it worked out. We founded America. Civil War was a crisis point and we were able to save the Union. World War 2, the Great Depression, that worked out great. America became a superpower and we became an economic powerhouse. Can fourth turnings turn out poorly, like maybe it doesn’t go the way you think?
Neil Howe: It can. More recently, we look around the world at these patterns and obviously, many nations and societies can be crushed by fourth turnings or certainly their political achievements repudiated and their constructions torn down. It’s interesting, but it’s a nice lesson in that it’s both similar to and in some ways different than a victorious fourth turning. What’s similar interestingly is that the civic achievements of even the losing nation, for instance, in the Great War, tend to be pretty enduring. The difference is, of course, is that it surrenders its force to give up much of what it created, but the actual impact of that generation on governance continues to be pretty dominant, enough so to actually propel an awakening, 20, 25 years after the end of the crisis.
A good example is take a look at Germany. It was definitely a loser in that struggle and it was occupied by Allies and so on, but the generation that fought in World War 2 continued to be a very strong governing generation. They had the same ’60s rebellion that we did. In fact, it was a lot more violent. They had the Baader-Meinhof gang. They had young people out there actually blowing up and murdering business executives and government leaders back in the ’70s. It was a more serious version of the Weathermen. We had a little of it here, but that was a couple steps further than what we had.
In fact, throughout a lot of Europe, you had the same in the whole ’68s, the soixante-huitard is what they called them in France, the achtundsechzig in Germany. This was the ’68-ers very powerful generational reaction against those who had taken Europe through World War 2. You’d have to say certainly in Germany and to some extent even in France, you wouldn’t say these were exactly victorious. France was ignominiously defeated in 1941 and they kind of came back in the baggage train of the Allies. Certainly, Germany, the Axis powers were crushed.
We’ve looked at that. I think you’re right. Most of America’s fourth turnings have been resolved very favorably, ultimately. I’d say the only partial exception I would say was the Civil War. The Civil War was enormously destructive. One out of every 10 soldier-aged males in the North were fatalities, casualties, 1 out of every 4 in the South. We have had no war anywhere in the New World, or I shouldn’t say anywhere in the New World, certainly nowhere in North America on that kind of scale ever. As a share of the population, no, nothing in American history even comes close to that. That was a horrendous conflict.
I often ask people the next time we had our fourth turning, we basically got all of the smartest scientists in America, put them on the Manhattan Project to design a weapon of mass destruction and we used it. I often ask people when I talk to audiences, I say, “Gee, if we had had a weapon of mass destruction in 1864, would we have used it? Would the Union have used it?” I think the question answers itself. Yeah, of course we would’ve used it. Come on.
It does focus you on how the mood … We don’t understand these periods when we stand outside of them. We look back and we say, “My God. How’d we do these various things,” like interring Japanese Americans and these things. We just can’t put ourselves in the mindset of what it’s like to actually be in that and the sense, the palpable sense of public mobilization joined by fear. We understand outside of it it seems a little incomprehensible. That’s how history helps us because we can reenter these periods because we know sooner or later we will be back into ourselves.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess even if a fourth turning turns out unfavorably, the cycle will still continue. You’ll still have an awakening.
Neil Howe: Yeah. We do think so. I’m not an historical determinist, so if you wanted to say I can imagine total catastrophes of whether it’s a super virus or an asteroid or Yosemite, the caldera finally goes off and puts us into a global winter for the next 20 years, yeah, of course, that could change everything. I’m not stupid about any of this. I’m just going by what I observe.
I realize, of course, like all complex processes in nature, it doesn’t have an exact timing. It’s not like a planet revolving the sun. It’s more like a flower and the timing that it takes to grow and then unfold or when seasons come. Sometimes they come early. Sometimes they come later. They’re harsher. They’re not as harsh. Nonetheless, like many complex systems, there is a pattern. There is an order. This order is a great organizing principle for thinking about the future. Yeah, you could just kill the flower or just bulldoze over nature and you say, “Well, we got rid of that cycle.” Yeah, I suppose. I’m just observing what I observe.
I would say that to completely eradicate these kinds of rhythms in our culture and this kind of way in which generations learn from their predecessors is enormously powerful. I think to change it would require something to truly efface it for a period of decades. It would require something truly catastrophic. That’s, I guess …
Brett McKay: Right, like a mass kill off like an asteroid or something like that.
Neil Howe: Yeah, exactly, some horrifying thing.
Brett McKay: Neil, this has been a fascinating discussion. We’ve literally scratched the surface of this. There’s so much more we can get into detail with over all these things, but where can people learn more about your books and your work?
Neil Howe: There’s a lot of … I do a column in Forbes. I talk about contemporary events, current events. I have a lot out there on the web. I think if people are interested in our theory of history, I think you mentioned the 2 books. One is Generations, which Bill and I wrote in 1991. You can find that Amazon. The other one is called The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. That was written in 1997. We have many other books on other generational topics, but I would say those are fundamental.
I would just say keep your eye out for a new version of Generations. I do have plans, actually, to come out with a new Generations and Fourth Turning together that we could bring everything up to where we are today. I get asked that a lot, obviously. People want to know so when did the fourth turning start? Where are we? How are these different generations aging and all of that, so I would love to do that. I do expect, I would say people should look for that within the next year. That’s probably the single biggest project that I would like to undertake at this point.
Brett McKay: I can’t wait for that to come out. Neil Howe, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Neil Howe: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure, as well.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Neil Howe. He’s the author of the book Generations and The Fourth Turning. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check it out. It’s a really fascinating read. You can also find more information about Neil’s work at lifecourse.com and make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/howe, that’s H-O-W-E, for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or whatever else you use to listen to the podcast. Helps us out a lot. As always, I thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017