EPISODES / WEEKLY COMMENTARY

The Fourth Turning Is Here: Neil Howe

EPISODES / WEEKLY COMMENTARY
Weekly Commentary • Apr 10 2024
The Fourth Turning Is Here: Neil Howe
David McAlvany Posted on April 10, 2024
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  • Inflation Is Always The Policy Tool Of A 4th Turning

“Community life is reborn in fourth turnings in a moment of collective fear. Let there be no mistake, we did not enter a renaissance of community life in the late 1940s and 50s—we didn’t enter that because we just decided that would be a good idea. We were frightened into that through the Great Depression and then by World War II. We thought we were going to lose everything. And in fact, liberal democracy was dead. A lot of people in the 1930s are only two futures, communism or fascism. No, it was forged through this period of punctuated history that scared the hell out of everyone and required everyone to come up with radically new institutions at a moment of extreme crisis and duress.” —David McAlvany

Kevin Orrick: Welcome to the McAlvany Weekly Commentary. I’m Kevin Orrick, along with David McAlvany. Well, we have a returning guest Dave, Neil Howe, and I always love when he comes on because I think of the line, to everything there is a season. And he and William Strauss wrote a great book back in 1997 pointing out that that was actually true and could be documented throughout history.

David McAlvany: The first book that they wrote together, The Fourth Turning, is a look at 600 years of British and American history, and they look at the patterns between generations and how each of these generations respond to the generation that came before, and also the generations that come after, and how there ends up being a routine recurrence of certain themes. There’s certain archetypes within these generations, and again, it has to do so much with how one generation responds to the one that came before them. Just as I have a certain response to my father and he has a certain response to his father, and on an intergenerational basis, you can see things change. Life experience 80 years ago begins to impact the next generation, but then also begins to fade over time as you move downstream.

Kevin: Well, what amazed me is how often the number four shows up. We think of the four corners of the Earth, the four Seasons, and winter is the season that comes right before spring. Spring is a restart, and then you have summer, then you have fall, then you have winter. And strangely enough, we have those seasons that seem to repeat, maybe a hundred year cycle where each of the seasons generationally last 20, 25 years. But nonetheless, there seem to be definite characteristics that can be actually predicted ahead of time.

David: That’s right. To see this cycle or the seasonal shifts from one generation to the next to me is quite encouraging when you look at current events. If you find yourself frustrated with the unhealth of the body politic, you see that things do change, and they actually do not necessarily change for the better immediately, but they do change for the better eventually.

Kevin: Well, and sometimes we can look at the fourth turning, which is what they talk about the winter season as being a very dark time, war time, a lot of change. But there is a hope. And so I would hope that the listener would also listen all the way to the end of the interview because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And fourth turnings actually are critical for regeneration into the new spring.

David: Yeah, Howe says that seasonal winters are how nature reverses entropy. So to the observer, everything’s dying, but under the surface new seeds germinate. That suggests that as one generation moves on and moves out, there is a reformation within society that depends on that future generation. And that is what I look forward to discussing today, the stewards of this new life. When we look ahead to these generations, whether it’s the Gen X or the millennials or what have you, there is already those seeds of new life already planted.

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David: Neil, in 1997 you co-authored with William Strauss The Fourth Turning. That was based on your studies of generational interaction and change in earlier research projects. Social patterns and political and economic cycles which were averaging 80 to a hundred years became apparent. As you describe, we have four turnings or seasons, each 20-plus years in a longer secular cycle. Now, your latest book, The Fourth Turning is Here. It affirms your earlier work, it confirms the beginning of a crisis era beginning in 2008, and it prescribes a way for each aging generation to engage this transformative period. Welcome back. It’s been a few years.

Neil Howe: It has been. Thank you for having me on. And yeah, it has been a few years and as ever, time marches on, and here we are, 2024.

David: There’s a historian that you quote, Arthur Schlesinger, who says that, “a true cycle is self-generating, cannot be determined short of catastrophe by external events, war, depressions, inflations. They may heighten or complicate moods, but the cycle itself rolls on, self-contained, self-sufficient, and autonomous. The roots of this self-sufficiency lie deep in the natural life of humanity. There is a cyclical pattern and organic nature in the tides and the seasons and night and day and the systole and diastole of the human heart.” Give us a classification, Neil, of this self-sufficiency deep in the life of humanity according to generational archetypes.

Neil: It’s interesting, the topic of cyclical behavior in social affairs, political affairs, economic affairs, there have been so many of them over the last two centuries. And the fact that it’s over the last two centuries itself is interesting because it was really in the early 19th century after the French Revolution and the final arrival of what we call modernity. You know what I mean? Not just early modern, but truly modern. And I think a reader of our books will register something here because, as you know, the cycle that we talk about is a cycle that takes shape and form in modern societies. We’re very emphatic about that.

And that’s one of the paradoxes, actually, of our book, that traditional societies talk a lot about cycles. If you look at any traditional society, go back to the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians or Persians. It doesn’t matter, they all talk about cycles all the time. Repeating cycles of behavior for the month, for the year, for the dynasty. Then huge periods of time, everything cycles back. Certainly even the ancient Greeks believe that. All life is a circle. Really not a lot of idea of progress over time. And interestingly, it’s in first of all what we might say the historical West, and not just the West, you might say the East as well. But the birth of monotheistic religions, which posited a beginning and end of time.

And as well as some of the great empires, which lasted long enough that they began to become aware of actually improving the world as they went on. This is certainly true of the Roman Empire and the whole idea of a universal city, something that would actually transform humanity, this idea of actually transforming humankind over time in some fundamental way. But I think this really took off with the Renaissance and with the Reformation, where suddenly we became aware of time as something that was going to end soon. We were either going to become perfect or God was going to come again and take us all away.

Something was going to end. We were headed for what we would today call the singularity. We were headed somewhere. Humanity was headed somewhere. And interestingly, this growing faith, which became even stronger in the early 19th century, which I really began talking about the modern, actually began, and this is the paradox, to give rise to social cycles which were not present in traditional societies. And we just look at them all. Long-term or even short-term economic cycles. Cycles of fashion, cycles of traffic, cycles of dress, cycles of infrastructure, cycles of R&D, cycles of fiscal spending. Surrounded by cyclical behaviors that wouldn’t have existed in traditional societies.

And one deeper part of our book—and I should say this isn’t really the top-line takeaway of the book—but a deeper part of the book is to try to explain why when societies become really obsessed about progress, that they actually become more likely to generate cyclical behavior. And as we posit that, it gives rise to a very interesting generational dynamic. If you are a generation that comes of age thinking that this is what society needs, we need to go in this direction—maybe it’s more peace, more power, more wealth, more holiness, whatever it is—as you later on assume leadership roles as midlife parents and leaders, you will strive to push your society in that direction.

You will change history, which of course creates a different coming of age experience for the next generation to come along and cultivate different goals, which will have them push history in another direction. So the kind of cycle we suggest, and which is interesting because it has a very definite periodicity, is the generational cycle. It is definitely timed to the phases of life, of the human life cycle. And what’s really interesting to me is looking at all of these long cycles, whether it’s, again, cycles of family behavior, war and peace, political realignment.

Believe me, we go through them in the book, we talk about these cycles, that they all have a common periodicity. They all have common themes of yin and yang. They all have their plus phase and their minus phase, but they are all offshoots of a periodicity which is governed by the human life cycle, and this is what is actuated by generational formation. So it’s the human generation of a group of people born over the time of a phase of life, which actually gives a discrete periodicity to a cycle.

People very often, for instance, historically, just a random example, and by the way, this came up in Peter Turchin’s recent book called End Times. He mentions this as well. It was the 50-year war cycle, which was first described by Arnold Toynbee. People come up with a cycle like that, and you wonder, why 50 years? Why couldn’t it have been 200 years or five years, or what gives rise to that cycle? Carlotta Perez, when she talks about long cycles of technological innovation, well, again, why that? And hers, by the way, it was also about 50 years. But why that? And I think what you really have to think about is there has to be a governor. There has to be something in the world of nature which is actually determining the periodicity of the cycle.

That’s a long way of coming back to your opening quote by Schlesinger. In other words, what do we all share as human beings in the modern world? Well, we all live a certain length of time and we all have a very discreet and rather regular period of time between being shaped in our collective behaviors and attitudes, in our youth, coming of age, and then actuating that in our leadership of society some period later. And it’s that regularity which gives rise to a regular cycle of social behavior. And that’s what, we describe the actual details of that, and how that works is what we put forth in the book.

David: So when you describe these archetypes, it’s something that does repeat. What that implies is whether it’s today’s culture wars, if you look back, well, they’re not particularly new. Or today’s feeling of partisan disintegration, not particularly new except maybe the different characters, the different colors. De-globalization, again, not particularly new. There’s been these changes. These are evidence of change in social interaction and have corresponding periods which more or less echo similar dynamics from earlier times, 1760s, 1850s, 1920s, all analogs to third turning periods. Here we are, fourth turning. We’re in the midst of that today, similar to the decade of the 1770s, 1860s and 1930s. Now we’re in the storm, so to say.

Neil: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, just over the last several years we’ve seen so many people drawing parallels to what we’re going through today with the 1930s and the 1850s, and there’s a reason for that. Those were periods very similar to today. You can think about everything that’s going on, from the ideological intensity, the tribal divisions of the country into two groups, the polarization. You think of the kind of rampant individualism, certainly in the 1850s of America just flying to pieces a little bit. And the same feeling today, and the same feeling, of course, that that was what America was suffering from a hangover from that in the 1930s.

And particularly I think the ’30s parallel has been especially significant, a period that began in the aftermath of a huge global financial crash, similar to 2008, this decline in global trade, decline in in globalism generally, the rise of industrial policy, and the declining faith in liberal democracy as opposed to some more extreme collectivist ideology, whether the left or the right. I think certainly the populist ethnocentrism which is rising around so much of the world, Latin America, much of Europe, certainly southern and eastern Asia.

You see this rising in a younger generation which actually is looking for order, looking for institutions that work better, not like so many boomers were, back in the last awakening of the ’70s, looking for institutions which didn’t function as well, which had less power. And I think that’s actually an interesting similarity between the young adults of today and in the ’30s. These were both order-seeking generations, whereas boomers in the ’70s were order-destroying generations, giving rise to a period of individualism. We saw something different coming out of the ’30s, and I think we’ll see something different coming out of this era.

David: Walk us through the chronology of crisis eras, including the seventh such era we’re already in.

Neil: Well, they typically begin with what we call a precursor event. Not always, but typically they begin with this. Maybe you need a little bit of a background here, but obviously this is coming in the context of four seasons. You have spring, summer, winter, fall. You have the spring of strong institutions, weak individualism. You have the summer, which is the awakening, big collective confidence being undermined and destroyed and the rise of individualism. And then you have this fall season, which is an institution in which basically these typically feature decades of cynicism and bad manners and weak civic affiliation, weakening civic trust. Individualism is certainly a lot stronger than the belief that institutions will take care of you.

And I think what’s interesting that happens in these periods, there’s a lot of worries about that, as there was during the 1990s and the early ’00s, about what this would do to you. Francis Fukuyama came out with this book The End Of History, which is basically that all authority would just waste away. Governments would become ever weaker. We would all just be disaggregated individuals in the marketplace trading with one another. We’d just bring our laptops into a Starbucks and just trade with each other with virtual dollars or something like that.

And that was the end of history—as usual of course. We always think the most recent turning is the way the rest of history is going to be. That’s what we thought where the ’90s were going. And there was a lot of concern about whether all civic responsibility or civic feeling would die away. And typically what happens, of course, we are always moving toward the fourth turning during these eras. You think of the late fall, the winter’s coming. And typically before the fourth turning actually hits, there’s an interesting set of events which is not actually part of the fourth turning, but it looks forward to the fourth turning. It suddenly gives people a foretaste of what’s to come.

Oh yeah, this is what it’s like when we really rally around the flag, so to speak, when we really trust each other and trust big institutions to work. And before each of the great crises, there comes an event like this. And it’s very interesting because it’s typically an event which shapes the young adulthood of what we call the nomad archetype, which will later be the midlife leaders of the fourth turning. Before the American Revolution, that was the French And Indian War, which was a very large war. It was a big, big deal for anyone who lived in a port city and any of the rangers and the recruits who served under the British. I’d say not with the British, but under the British, like George Washington.

And it ended in victory. These precursor events usually end pretty well. So we had that, and it was a coming-of-age moment for George Washington’s generation. The Civil War, the precursor there was the Mexican-American war, which as we all know was the coming-of-age moment for all these graduates of West Point. Now, from Lee and Grant and Stonewall Jackson all the way down, who later served as the one-star, two-star and three-stars of the Civil War on both sides. Before the World War II, you had World War I. And all of these events came like a thunderbolt in an otherwise eventless and rather peaceful world. Whoa. We were all galvanized to act. It was quickly over, ended pretty well for us, and then we moved on.

Before our most recent fourth turning, which we think started in 2008 with the GFC, the global financial crisis, we had the 9/11, which gave rise to the invasion of Afghanistan and the wars in Iraq, which was, again, briefly celebrated, but a little bit like World War I was an escapade we look back upon with regret as soon as it was over.

By the way, that’s another thing. These precursors, usually we enter it full of enthusiasm, but our enthusiasm quickly dies and we have all kinds of regrets after it was over. As you remember, the Mexican-American war gave rise to these great compromises and these horrendous fights over the spread of slavery and the new territories that had been won. World War I ended with the rejection of the League of Nations and an instant reversion of America back into isolationism. I think the general feeling at the time was Woodrow Wilson lied and people died, just to sum it up, and I think the same thing was true of the Iran-Iraq war. Again, didn’t like it once we’re in, but it reminded us.

People sometimes ask me today, “Gee, I can’t imagine Americans having trust in national institutions again,” and I sometimes have to ask them, “Do you recall what G.W Bush’s approval ratings were in the year after 9/11? They were over 90%.” Wow, when have we seen that? So it can happen. It can happen suddenly. Precursors often remind us of that.

Okay, so what’s the next thing? The next thing is the catalyst. Well, we’ve talked about the catalyst. The catalyst most recently was the GFC. The catalyst in the last fourth turning was Black Thursday in October 1929. The catalyst in the Civil War was not so much Lincoln’s election, but the secession response to Lincoln’s election that really ensured definitely a crisis, which turned out to unfold very rapidly after that. And the catalyst in the American Revolution was the so-called Boston Tea Party, the tea embargo movement, which quickly moved to a great deal of destruction of property in Boston and gave rise to the closing of the Boston Harbor and just a whole train of events which proved to be almost unstoppable after that.

We could go back in earlier fourth turnings as well. And as you know, in our recent book, we talk about earlier of them. So that’s how it gets going. And once you’re in a fourth turning, the mood shifts. Suddenly there’s this great demoralization. “My God, nothing works. And what are we going to do?” And a great amount of distrust. And I would say the first part of a fourth turning, often the first half, even the more than first half, is filled with a sense of groping for solutions in this rise of complete hopelessness almost. Desolation. During the 1930s, there was just a whole spate of probably economically induced suicides. I think what today we would call midlife deaths of despair, if we had Angus Deaton today to talk to, to write about it. Anyway, that’s where we go.

Now, during the crisis, we encounter one or more regeneracies. And these are periods when suddenly we find civic trust beginning to build up again. It might be one or two centers. It might be all of America, or it might be two sides of America suddenly banding together with each other. And certainly this was 1776. It came very quickly in the American Revolution. It also came very quickly in the Civil War. This was really probably not until after the battle at Sharpsburg, and really immediately afterward, Lincoln’s declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was reissued at the beginning of 1862. And that really laid down the gauntlet. Both sides knew that this wasn’t going to be patched up with a quick treaty, like General McClellan thought. No, no, this is beginning to look like a fight to the death, which it proved to be definitely, particularly for the South.

In World War Two, the first regeneracy was FDR’s inauguration in March of 1933. That was a horrible period when both of the nation’s stock exchanges had been closed down. All banks in most states had been closed. There was starvation in cities. There were long food lines. Many local and state governments were going broke. It was a time of true catastrophe. The GDP had fallen by double digits since what it was in 1929.

And I think in our most recent fourth turning—by the way, these often coincide with what we call political realignments, particularly in US history. But I think in the fourth turning, it’s really the period after 2016 with the polarization and tribal solidarity of blue zone and red zone during Trump’s first term. There’s no question about it. And actually, increasingly, political scientists are actually dating America’s seventh political realignment to that period. We suddenly have the two parties completely shifting their constituencies. And by the way, political realignments in American history always occur either during crises or during awakenings.

Obviously, FDR also had a political realignment, but we’ve seen that too in the last eight years, particularly with non-college working class moving to the Republican Party and indicated professionals moving toward the Democratic Party. We only have realignments about once every 40, 45 years. But anyway, we’ve been moving through one and I think that accompanied the first regeneracy.

Now, very often the first regeneracy dies away, and we need another one. During the ’30s, of course, FDR’s coalition completely ran out of speed. After 1936 we had another recession. He wasn’t making any progress on the domestic front. Increasingly, the Southern Democrats were no longer voting for him, but he really got speed again on foreign policy. And ultimately, as we all know, he started rearming the nation after the fall of France, and a little bit more than a year later was Pearl Harbor. And we all know what the result of that was. That was the second regeneracy.

We don’t know yet what the second regeneracy will be in our current fourth turning because, well, that lies in the future. I think it’s fair to say that people are getting tired of the current red-blue polarization of American politics today, despite the fact that they’re absolutely caught up in it. But we await another regeneracy, and we can talk a little bit about what might trigger it, but we typically do have more than one regeneracy in a crisis.

And I will say, toward the end of the crisis, to pull this up to speed, what typically happens after the regeneracies is one of these regeneracies leads to a train of events which pushes the fourth turning toward a consolidation. What’s a consolidation? That’s a time when not only have you chosen sides, but this time you know that you’re in an organized conflict which is actually going to decide the fate of the country. Or very often, in the case of a civil war, if you go way back over the centuries, you find many of these crises that may involve foreign actors and a civil conflict at the same time, but it’s going to be the fate of your side. Everything rests on what’s about to happen. That’s the consolidation.

The consolidation in the Civil War came probably in 1863 and the beginning of 1864. I would say that it came with the fall of France, really, and the new Two-Ocean Navy Act and everything that was passed, the forming of America in mid-1940. The consolidation was Pearl Harbor when we knew that we were going to fight a war and all these soldiers were going to be enlisted, and no one is getting out of service until the war was won. Just everyone understood that. We can go back and look at early consolidations, but there is a time when everyone knows that this is it. And ultimately, that leads toward a climax, and that’s when we actually know who’s going to win, who’s going to lose.

And then finally, the consolidation. That’s when it’s over. There are winners, there are losers, there are treaties. Everything is settled. The mobilization is over. Everything goes back to some kind of normality again. But of course, it’s a completely different normal, almost unrecognizable from where we began, the complete reshaping or a creative destruction of everything we knew about who we were as America. And that’s the stunning part, of course. And that’s what’s so completely disorienting by the time you get to the end of it. Who would’ve thought, even in the mid-1930s, that we would end up where we were in 1945 or 1946? Or you could go back in those earlier episodes the same way. Stunning transformations.

And of course, by that time, the powers of national community and the innovations of government, which become huge, Promethean, innovative. That’s the place to be, not in private business. But if you could be directing this enormous change in our national community, suddenly the cement is no longer wet. It begins to set. And then we got our big infrastructures, which last throughout the next cycle. They are the civic and physical and community infrastructure that sits there and is just taken for granted by the next several generations, mostly in time of peace, following the fourth turning.

David: So this chronology of crisis, it’s the precursor event. It’s the catalyst. These six pieces that seem to be common amongst the previous six cycles, and now in the seventh as well. The precursor event, the catalyst, regeneracy, consolidation, climax, and then a resolution. Now, the timeline you’ve laid out suggests significant turmoil through the early 2030s. It so happens that the Congressional budget office, although they don’t factor in a recession between now and then, 2034 at least, they project government debt to exceed 50 trillion on its way to 140 trillion 20 years thereafter. Is it possible that the turmoil between now and 2034, this fourth turning, brings with it a resolution to this fiscal crisis such that the exponential curve our debts are currently on don’t go parabolic? So maybe we forecast inflation, financial repression, policy tools to flush that out. What are your thoughts?

Neil: Well, fourth turning is great at allocating costs to different groups. That’s what we do in a fourth turning. We get very realistic about it, and that’s what financial repression does. It basically says, “Okay, all you financial institutions. The government is pretty good to you over the decades. You’re just stuck with all that debt. You just have to eat it. Sorry. That’s the way it’s going to be. And by the way, you’re going to have to actually take all our Treasury bonds at whatever we’re going to give them to you for, at 4%, even though inflation is at 15. That’s just the way it is. Do you really want to complain about it?” And you can imagine at a time when the nation is panicked. We’re sitting there. “No, no, sir. We’ll be fine with that. Thank you very much.”

David: Thank you, sir. I’ll have another.

Neil: So that’s what happens, and we have to get into a completely different mindset. It’s interesting. I’m writing a piece right now actually on some apocalyptic fears of the rise and spread of passive investing, the rise of indexing. Every year, I see it estimated at a larger and larger share of all funds, all trading. And again, the interesting thing there is you think about, well, can you short that? What can you do there? How do we deal with that? What if you believe that these small cap firms outside the major indexes are being undervalued? How are you going to play that? Michael Burry of The Big Short fame, he’s gone on record saying that this passive indexing is the next big bubble. The longer it goes on, the worse the crash will be. But it’s interesting, at a time, especially during a fourth turning, how do you short it? Because if it really is that big a crash, how are you going to get paid on that short?

In fact, as you recall, Burry even had trouble getting paid on his original short. Your counterparty may be insolvent. But more than that, if it causes everyone to go down, well, there’s just going to be a national emergency declared and all these millennials and target date funds, we’re going to just rewrite the rules of the game right there, so your contract may not mean a lot. Think about it.

And I think that is one of the lessons about [unclear] impact. We’re already finding that out. There’s one thing during our current fourth turning, by the way, both in 2008, 2009 and ’10, and then also during the pandemic, we have hugely improved the Treasury and the Fed’s ability to respond with just take over the economy. That’s one thing we’ve become very good at. We can do that overnight, practically. Just issue checks to every household. It’s astonishing how fast we have developed that ability. Something no one would’ve imagined before the GFC we can now do, and I think we would do. So, that’s where we are today.

I do think that inflation is always a part of late fourth turnings. I mean always. When suddenly you need to mobilize the nation, that means there’s no such thing as unemployment. Everyone has a job to do. Everyone’s truly worried about the fate of their country. Everyone is going to be employed doing something. You’re certainly not worried about recession. You’re not worried about loss of demand. Suddenly, for the first time, what you’re worried about is how do you ration all the demand there is? You’ve now added all these huge public demands for emergency spending on various measures when you only have so many resources.

Now, that’s the opposite of what we dealt with during the early Great Depression, and certainly during the decade after the GFC, there was not enough demand. Well, now there’s going to be way too much demand. So what do you do? How do you ration demand? Well, you basically start cutting, and one way you cut back is you cut back on what you’re going to pay back debtors. That’s where inflation takes care of the whole problem of public debt. You force people to keep their debt. You have a lot more inflation than anyone was expecting, but you also do other things. And I think one way in which our public sector is very different this time than at the beginning of earlier fourth turnings is that in this fourth turning, unlike all the earlier ones, our public sector was already very large.

And a lot of that, just that we had a large military sector is partly true. But the biggest change, of course, is we have a huge switchboard of entitlements, taking taxes, payroll taxes, all kinds of taxes, and just switching them around and sending them back in checks to people in the form of entitlements or to doctors who are serving entitled patients. Well, that is going to be a big issue, isn’t it, in this coming fourth turning. If we really need to pare back on resources that we’re spending, what are we going to do about that? As you know by reading the book, I take the reader through some scenarios there. I do think this is new. You remember the GI generation, the New Deal generation coming of age during World War II, by massive majorities, they voted for FDR and the New Deal. They loved it.

But remember that they were growing a government that was a tiny, only a few percent of GDP going into the Great Depression, so that they didn’t have to pare anything back to grow the public sector around not just World War II, but afterwards, their own benefits. Not only unemployment insurance, but obviously by the time they retired, this huge expansion in Medicare and Social Security and all that. And later generations got used to all that. But here’s an interesting question, and this will be new, is paring back all these promises that we’ve made to older people. Boomers—although a lot of boomers might just get grandfathered because they’re already well into old age. I think the big one that’s going to be up for sacrifice is maybe a lot of Gen Xers, but we could discuss that one.

David: A pleasant thought for me.

Neil: Oh, Gen Xers. They knew they were going to get it anyway.

David: It’s true.

Neil: Just talk to a Gen Xer. They never expected to get those benefits. Well, we’ll just prove them right. How about that?

David: That’s right. We’re the middle children of the cycle.

Neil: They knew no one wanted them.

David: That’s right.

Neil: They were right.

David: Prior fourth turning leaders. We had Washington. We had Lincoln. We had Lincoln, we had FDR. These are extraordinary people. Each of them had a unique mandate. Of course, they’re in a period of intense national crisis. I don’t know, when I think of Biden, when I think of Trump, they don’t seem like peas in the pod with those other three. What do you anticipate in the next two election cycles given the generational dynamics and the voting behaviors of boomers, gen X, and millennials?

Neil: One thing we have to remember, and I’ll say this as an historian, a lot of historians say this, but I can’t say how important this is and how difficult it is, is history looks so differently from the people who are experiencing at the time than it is to us looking back. So for instance, George Washington during the war, well, yeah, everyone sort of acceded to him because he was all we got. He certainly wasn’t a military genius, but where he shone was his political acumen, his diplomacy, and his resolute adherence to the rules of republican self-restraint. When he decided, despite the fact a lot of people wanted him to just take over— After Yorktown, the British were evacuating New York, and he said, “No, no, this is a republic. I’m going back to my plantation.” Suddenly the myth of Cincinnatus— Just the war, he’s not going to be a dictator, he’s just going to go back to his field.

I mean, this became the Society of Cincinnati after the war, but it suddenly fulfilled this iconic need for a leader like that, and he became this leader. Abraham Lincoln was ridiculed throughout much of the Civil War. He was scorned, I mean people on all sides didn’t like him. The radicals didn’t like him because he was a moderate, he didn’t do enough for the slaves, and obviously the Democrats hated him. He was the head of the Black Republicans for Democrats, particularly in the South.

The point is that he was widely disliked, and, unbelievably it seems to us in retrospect—this was a year after Gettysburg during the Overland Campaign when Grant was doing his final push south toward Richmond—Lincoln fully expected to be defeated in the coming election. He knew how unpopular he was, and we don’t recall this. He even wrote an open letter saying, I don’t expect actually to win the next election. It’s obvious no one likes what’s going on. The morale in the north, it seems incredible to us, but actually had sunk to one of its greatest lows, and he said, “Whatever we do, we have to do it now. It’s likely the opposite party will come in and make terms with the South.”

Well, it turned out, well what happened? Well, a number of things happened. Sheridan took out the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. Sherman took Atlanta. Just suddenly changed, he won with a fairly significant margin. Suddenly, the war was his, and he died and he was suddenly made an icon. Again, I think you could say the same argument about FDR. Not like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR was considered a lightweight, and it was the best that the Democrats could come up with in 1932.

I guess my point is, and I’m not saying this to judge Biden or Trump or anyone who might come in as a vice presidential candidate or whatever over the next term or the next two terms, I guess what I’m saying is you have to be very careful not to perceive these people as we perceive them today, to be as people perceive them early in the crisis when they were going into it.

David: No, that’s very true. Just coming back to part of that question, the boomers and how they have certain priorities, gen X have certain priorities, millennials have certain priorities or tendencies, in surveys would show up. To what degree does the aging of each generation impact the choices which feed the secular cycle leading to awakenings, leading to crises?

Neil: Well, one interesting feature of aging, there are two trends which are now occurring and really have been occurring. One has been occurring for longer, the other has been happening over the last only three or four decades, which actually may be changing the length of the cycle slightly. I do talk about that in the book. The length of the entire cycle is determined by length of life, which we define it really is being born and then coming fully of age as an adult. One point that we make is that in early modern Europe, coming of age really in the sense of having power over society, owning land for example, actually occurred quite a bit later in the 17th century than it did later on in the 19th century, and that coincides with the fact that the cycle gradually got shorter as we moved into the 19th century and the early 20th century.

But I think today we’re moving in the other direction. Probably the all-time low for coming fully of age as an adult probably it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s when people were graduating high school, getting a good-paying union job, getting married, having kids, buying a car and a house at age 21. It’s unbelievable how fast maturity was reached. This was particularly for the silent generation. This would’ve been right after World War II, would’ve been those decade and a half. Ever since then, it’s been growing. Think of today what it’s like for a young person, particularly for those who have, well, really for any socioeconomic level, to get a college degree, to have professional training, to finally get established in your career. You might be in your late 20s, capstone marriage in your early 30s. Hope you have time for kids. You know what I mean?

In the sense of, we have a record share of people living with their adults today who are in their 20s, and by the way, the last time we had such a big share was back in 1940, which again shows you how these turnings echo each other. This was sort of Jimmy Stewart living with his parents in all those Frank Capra movies.

But I would say that this is really a dramatic shift, and not only are people coming of age later, they’re running for political office later. The age at which people are running and winning the seats in the House and the Senate has risen by about three or four years, and then you look at, well, my God, we know that in terms of senior leadership, there seems to be no upper age limit. I mean, I think one point, this is about, what, two years ago when Nancy Pelosi was still Speaker, I think the Speaker, that the Senate Majority Leader, and the President were all 80 and over. I mean, just totally stuff that we never would’ve believed a few years ago, three octogenarians at the top of America’s leadership.

So that actually does make a difference to a generational theory based on lengths of phase of life. To the extent that this is a secular trend, this may diminish or lengthen depending on what happens politically and so forth, but the extent that this is a long-term trend, this may result in somewhat longer generations, and it may result in a somewhat longer cycle. And by somewhat, I mean generations that on average last 23 or 24 years rather than 21, and maybe a seculum, it’s all the seasons we talked about that’s no longer a bit more than 80 years, and it may be 95 years or something like that, going back to what it was earlier. And I do do discuss this and the evidence for it, and I do find there’s a general correspondence between the length of the overall cycle historically, sort of century by century, and the evidence that we can look at in terms of how long each phase of life is socially.

David: So we’re in the midst of a fourth turning, and I want to kind of look ahead a little bit. So we’ve got this contentious polarized culture today. It’s hard to imagine a renaissance in community life. Can you explore what comes after a fourth turning and why there is such a transformed social landscape where we could see a return to a really strongly coherent family dynamic, family-oriented national unity? I mean, these are things that are almost impossible to imagine today.

Neil: Yeah, so when you talk about a renaissance in community life, I think that’s the wrong way to see it. That implies something sort of gradual, triumphant, leisurely. I just think of the Medicis kind of going out on their piazza. I don’t know. I think of something that sounds pretty luxurious almost. Who wouldn’t want to live in a renaissance of community life?

This is not what fourth turning’s involve. Community life is reborn in fourth turning’s in a moment of collective fear. Let there be no mistake, we did not enter a renaissance of community life in the late 1940s and ’50s—which we did enjoy, and I do, in the book, describe the evidence of that—we didn’t enter that because we just decided that would be a good idea. We were frightened into that through the Great Depression and then by World War II. We thought we were going to lose everything, and in fact, liberal democracy was dead, and a lot of people in the 1930s are only two futures, communism or fascism. I mean, you have to remember how dire things were during that decade, and how even more dire they became once Hitler ruled Europe and Japan was taking over most of Asia.

So this is what we never realize. When we look at that period sometimes called the Victorian High, the period of the 1880s, for example, in America or the period sometimes called the era of good feelings with President Monroe in the 1810s and 1820s. We think of this as being a great era of community that just, we happened to wander into. No, it was forged through this period of punctuated history that scared the hell out of everyone and required everyone to come up with radically new institutions at a moment of extreme crisis and duress. The decade of the 1780s was a horrible one. It was probably worse than the Great Depression in terms of collapse of American living standards and the living standards in the new so-called states that we had in the confederacy back then. These were terrible times. I guess that’s what I mean to say.

So sociologists have always said, and this goes back to Weber and Durkheim and Tönnies and all of the great German and French names, and they’ve always said that community is born out of stress and conflict. That’s what forces people to band together, rely on each other, because your lives depend on it, and that forges a generation. People who come of age during that time, they never forget that. I think that’s one of the reasons why boomers had so many problems with their parents. Their parents were almost hardwired by what they went through to be civic-minded, and they just could not understand or communicate with boomers who wanted to do their own thing. What do you mean, do your own thing? Are you crazy? You know what I mean?

David: Mm-hmm.

Neil: This is the problem, and this is what we never think of that that could apply to us in the future, and that’s the message of our book. We should never look back at the recent past to see where we’re going. We should look at where we’ve been before.

David: We had a guest on our program a number of years ago, and the argument that he makes is that we don’t have to ultimately settle the tab. There is an alternative, and I go back to something you said in the book, “always occurring late in the fourth turning, the climax gathers energy from the accumulation of unmet needs, unpaid debts, and unresolved problems. It spends that energy on an upheaval whose direction and magnitude were beyond comprehension during the prior unraveling. That climax shakes society to its root, transforms its institutions, and redirects its people for life.” I come back to this previous conversation we’ve had. What about the alternative, massive fiscal spending that paves the way for a reformed economy, better that price tag than total war? How would you respond to that?

Neil: Well, total war is something that no one just willingly chooses. No one says, “Gee, we could spend a lot of money or go to war. Let’s enter a total war.” Societies always feel, I think particularly democratic societies, always feel backed into total wars. They have no choice. Think of Europe in the late 1930s. I mean, they did everything to try to avoid another war. They gave up Czechoslovakia. They pretty much gave up Poland. How many sacrifices? Why die for Danzig? You had a hard time awakening Europe. It’s not like Europe wanted to go to total war. Finally, Paris was gone. Britain was on the brink, and I think America said, “Well, wait a minute. This is getting serious. We may be the only democracy left on the face of the planet.” It’s one thing to be an isolationist and say you don’t care what happens around the world. It’s another when you suddenly see the world starting to go down and you realize how alone you are, and I think that’s where America was.

No one said, “Gee, it’s a great idea to go enter this total war with Japan and Germany.” I don’t think anyone said that. We felt backed into it. Similarly, I think when you have two sides facing each other, the North, Confederate states in 1861, the Confederacy felt, for better or for worse, for good or for ill, that they had no choice, that their future was being cut short. This is a part of the country that had basically ruled Washington, ruled American politics throughout the early 19th century. Suddenly, they looked as though they’d been shut out of politics. It was an extreme reaction. I mean, interestingly, after the election of 1860, the Democrats still had a majority in the House and the Senate. Lincoln even offered them a constitutional amendment to preserve slavery in the South, which didn’t move the South.

By the way, in the many ironies or weirdnesses of American history, if the South had accepted, the 13th amendment would not have been an amendment to ban slavery, it would’ve been an amendment to guarantee slavery. It is interesting how history seems so set when you look at it from our vantage point, but how open-ended it is at the time, what could have been. But I guess that’s my point. No one chooses war. No one chooses that. People feel pushed to the brink into having to do it.

It’s interesting in our current context as we look around the world, people are looking at that. Well, what about Ukraine? I think the next flashpoint people are looking about. Well, what about the Baltic states? Well, they’re members of NATO. Two of them have very large Russian populations. That’s going to be a little bit like Hitler and the Sudetenland, isn’t it? I can see that happening again. Where do we stand on that? Where do we stand on Taiwan? Where do we draw those lines? What will be the consequences if we just say, “I don’t know, we really don’t care.” I don’t know. Well, then how many other allies do we lose? Where do we go with that? In other words, no one’s saying, “Yeah, it’s great. Let’s get into war.” They’re saying, “Wait a minute. If we don’t do that, we might face something much more catastrophic.” I think that’s always the calculation.

David: We follow the credit cycle closely, and my colleague Doug Noland has tracked this in the minutest detail for 30 years. There are other cycles of varying length. We talked about a 40- or 50-year cycle a moment ago, your Carlota Perez and Peter Turchin. The Kondratiev cycle is also 40 to 50 years. How do excessive valuations in equities and inflated asset prices more generally coalesce with fourth turnings? I generally see the pendulum swinging from the Wall Street and preference for capital, swinging back towards Washington and a preference for regulation or labor. Is that the right way to think about that?

Neil: Yeah. When you think about your big mania bubbles, you’re often thinking third turning. I’m thinking of the late 1920s, probably the largest term inversion in bond yields in the history of American markets was late 1920s. It’s interesting, we do have measures of that. It was as large as maybe three percentage points between short and long term. We kind of forget that. This inverted yield curve is not new. It goes back before the post-war era. But that was obviously a huge boom. We may never have a boom in this crisis era that will match what we saw in the dot-com bubble.

I mean, in terms of the equity risk premium, which was sort of incredible when you look back on it, well, we now have a time when the equity risk premium is narrowing. I mean, it’s getting pretty small with buoyant markets lately. I would say that, in general, however, and I think this is very clear when I talked earlier about the enhanced powers of the Fed and the Treasury, and that is, we are much more ready in this era to use the collective power of the community—that is to say government, whoever’s running it—to draw that short, to reallocate it, to run it into other purposes.

I think the mood today is very different than it was back then. I mean, just think about the popularity of industrial policy among practically all countries today, even Janet Yellen over in China, warning China. China’s only solution, of course, to every time its economy goes down, it’s just to lower the price on its exported manufactures and try to find someone who will buy them, and of course everyone now is beginning to shut it down. Certainly, the United States is, we’re warning them. I think Germany is going to go over. I mean, no one can afford to have that happen anymore.

This is not the same kind of globalized world where government just stood back and let everything happen that we recall having 20 years ago. I think this is a more dirigiste world. I mean, I think everyone expects governments to play a much larger role today. And as you have a public that feels like living standards are not improving the way they expect, I think that simply reinforces that trend. Why are we losing out? I mean, if I can’t gain over time, I’m sure as hell not going to lose. As we all know, people are much more ready to give up some gains than they are to actually lose something. And I think more and more of the populations in the high income world are feeling that they are actually being called upon to give up something. People are very resistant to that.

David: Well, so what you were talking about earlier in terms of the scope and scale of national government, powers of national government that are well-established, we have an amazing scale today. And I just wonder, as we go through this sort of crisis period, if the growth in the Leviathan doesn’t reach a point where it just simply is not sustainable. How much larger can the Leviathan grow with debt to GDP already exceeding 100%, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting a move to over 160% in the decades ahead? I see what you’re saying that the government will step in to maintain asset price stability. They have the tools for it, but ultimately at what price?

Neil: I wrote a book many, many years ago. It’s actually the first book I did. It was called On Borrowed Time. It’s actually co-authored with Pete Peterson. It was back in 1988.

David: I like him.

Neil: In that book, I remember claiming a term called the Libertarian welfare state. And the one thing we have to understand is, although we have a very large government, in other words, very large government spending, very little of it is spent for any kind of community purpose. It’s a huge switchboard of entitlements. It’s not community spending. Look, I have a right to my Medicaid, my Social Security, my social service pension, my veterans this, my Medicaid, Medicare, right? There’s no community there. I think I was promised that, and I get that, and I don’t care if they never saved the money for it. I don’t care if you have to tax someone else to do it. Do you see where I’m going with this?

David: Mm-hmm.

Neil: This is a lot of government spending, and I think this is what people don’t realize. Most of what the federal government does is take in a lot of revenue checks and then just send all these checks back in the mail to all these people who believe they have a right to get them back. How much does it spend in actually building something or funding some institution that actually helps all of us? It actually turns out to be, as I’m sure you know, people look at the budget, it’s a pretty small percentage of what we spend.

So I guess what I’m saying is that during a fourth turning, when it really matters where we spend our resources, we’re going to usually spend the share, which is what they call, in budget policy circles, discretionary. We’re spending that to get that job done. All of us are going to go, we’re going to hire so many people. We’re going to pay for those soldiers to take that hill. We’re going to hire those engineers to build that building. You see where I’m going here with this?

David: Mm-hmm.

Neil: But all that other spending may have to get hugely pared back. That’s what I’m saying. And that’s kind of where I was going earlier when I said this will be somewhat different than earlier fourth turnings, where the public sector started with almost nothing, grew to be very large, and then after the crisis, sort of gradually shrank back down again. This is different because we do have all this spending there, but it’s not really public purpose spending. It’s spending to individuals and spending to pay off personal entitlements. That will have to be cut. That will be cut because that’s not necessary for the country to survive. And remember that in a fourth turning, that’s all that matters, right? We did a little of that in World War II. I think one thing people don’t recall is we had huge inflation in World War II, and Social Security benefits were unindexed, which basically meant Social Security just basically disappeared for those poor people.

David: You’ll get your check, it just won’t buy anything.

Neil: It just won’t buy anything. But that’s too bad. But look, when you go buy houses with those silver stars in the window because they lost their son. Do you understand? It just changes everyone’s perspective. Everyone is sacrificing here. Who am I to complain?

David: Personal question for me. I love the chapter of winter chronology. You go through the six previous crisis eras. This is Anglo-American history. That chapter ties your common phases within a fourth turning to sort of a short recap of historical events and people. I’ve got high school-aged kids, and I’m going to have them read that section.

Neil: Yeah, well, there you go.

David: What would you say to a high schooler entering into adulthood in this era?

Neil: Well, first of all, I would try to offer them some reassurance. Jonathan Haidt, the guy who wrote Coddling of the American Mind and just a number of great books, by the way, on the nature of moral judgment and various other great topics, he just came out with a book called The Anxious Generation, and it’s really on the group that in the book I call homelanders, this is generation Z, or at least our younger members. This is the group you’re talking about, right?

David: Mm-hmm.

Neil: This is America’s next archetype. I mean, think about it. These are the children of crisis. And the anxiety, the internalized distress of this generation is what we always see. They see horrible things happening in high places, unleashed tempers, polarized America. They sense—and you don’t need to understand policy issues to just sense the mood from their parents and their parents’ friends—that no one seems to be in charge in America. And it seems to be terrifying everyone.

I think these kids you see, they are determined to take care of each other, to please their parents. I mean, one of the reasons they want to get good grades, you actually see this in surveys, is not so much because they want to get ahead themselves, they don’t want to disappoint their parents who are so stressed out about what’s happening in their lives, both in the economy and world affairs. But that sense of stress, I think, is palpable among kids today. And I would just say, reassure them we will get through this. This happens from time to time. I don’t know if you can take it from here, but I think you know where I’m trying to go with this.

David: Yeah. I feel like I’ve had that conversation, but it kind of begins with, the good news is, if you survive, the world is your oyster. I mean, it’s not—

Neil: Well, that’s a difficult conversation. Yeah, that’s— Okay.

David: No, but there is a sense in which the children who go through hardship and pain are the hope of the next seculum. They are marked by those challenges and commit or recommit themselves to a certain set of ideals and ideas which they believe to be better than what came before. You see, whether it’s spiritual awakenings or majorly positive transformations, it occurs from that generation. Am I right?

Neil: Totally. Yeah, totally. But I think you want to draw, and as you know, I do talk about that book, we don’t know where we’re going to draw the line between those who belong to the civic generation, the hero archetype, coming of age in the crisis, and those who will be just too young. Right?

David: Mm-hmm.

Neil: We don’t know where that line is going to be because you can’t draw it until the crisis is near its close. A good example is, we often draw, I think many people do this, we draw the line between the greatest generation and the silent generation on the 1924 and 1925 birth cohort. You look, 1924 was George Bush Sr., Bob Dole. I mean, you can identify a lot of people who achieve great stature in public life who were definitely part of the band of brothers. You know what I mean?

David: Mm-hmm.

Neil: They were World War II veterans. Those born just a little bit later never were of that, and actually, as we show in the book, have a very different kind of collective psychology, a little bit of sort of unreleased catharsis. What was their job to do? Well, the generation before us did all the big stuff. They sacrificed it all, what will we do? Just be really careful, not mess it up. They became known as a silent generation for that reason. They didn’t want to raise their voice, didn’t want to object to anything. They just wanted to fit in. It became the famous age of conformity for young adults in the 1950s.

I mean, we had universal conscription. I don’t know of a single instance of any young person objecting. I mean, even Elvis Presley, “Yes, sir, shave my hair. Send me to Germany.” Things would change a lot once boomers got there, needless to say. But my point is that, that’s going to be an interesting line to draw, and we’ve seen that several times before obviously. It’s a great thing about looking at history. We can look at that dividing line in earlier times as well, and it’s interesting to ponder. But think about that next time you look at these kids, where are they going to be? Which side of the line will they be on?

David: The way the anxious generation you’re describing, you reference this sociologist Charles Fritz. Why do large scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions? So there is sort of the negative aspects of events, but also how transformative they can be for individuals, but also for that segment in society.

Neil: Yes. Yeah, that’s totally true. You may have seen my discussion in the book of William James on the famous speech he delivered at Stanford. I think it was 1906, I think actually it was just shortly before the earthquake. I don’t know what he was doing at Stanford. I think he spent a year out there. I think he was invited for a year or two out in California. Anyway, he gave a famous speech called “The Moral Equivalent of War.” I think almost all Americans have heard of that. Why do we need to fight wars? Why we can’t have the moral equivalent of war? And I think it’s a wonderful— It’s not long. I think it’s worth— Anyone, you can just find that on the web. It’s easy to reread.

But I think one of the most fascinating parts of the speech is how long he spends talking about the benefits of war and producing the kind of modern community that all of us take for granted, where people contribute to the common will. They put aside their private advantage for the public benefit. They learn to deal with adversity. I mean, he really goes on. He really gets into it. In fact, by the end of it, you think, “Oh, my god, it is amazing what war does to create the sense of community and the common institutional life we all take for granted.” I do talk about that a little bit in the book.

And then at one point he says to his audience, and remember, this is in 1906, he says, “How many here would wish that America had never gone through the Civil War?” And it’s kind of an interesting question. Obviously, many people in his audience would’ve been the elder members there, would’ve been veterans. And he answers his own question, he said, “I’m positive that almost none of you would wish that we had not gone through it because you could not imagine the America today industrializing, truly a nation state with time zones and transcontinental railroads.” I mean, he just talked about all the things that we take for granted today. We could not imagine, and to say nothing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment. But it’s interesting how he said that.

And then, of course, he added on because he wanted to illustrate a paradox. He said, “How many of you would wish that we have another such event in the near future?” He said, “I’m sure all of you would say no. You don’t want that.” And he said, “Isn’t this paradoxical?” And what’s interesting here is I find it no more paradoxical than people talking about their personal lives. I have often asked people, just friends and acquaintances of mine, think about some horrible thing you’ve been through personally, a rite of passage for you. Maybe it was divorce, a failed business, just something really major that happened in your life that completely disoriented you, depressed you, I mean, just completely unsettled you in a major fissure in your life. And then you ask them, would you wish that you had never gone through it? When I’ve done that, I find most people on reflection would say, “You know, actually, I’m a better person for having gone through that. I understood a lot about life that I didn’t understand.”

David: Absolutely.

Neil: Isn’t it interesting? But then you ask someone, “Well, do you want another event like that?”

David: Nope.

Neil: Next year, of course we don’t. Right? But I think that that’s how to look at that. No one wishes for a fourth turning. No one wishes for a fourth turning economy. No one wants any of these things to happen. But it’s kind of how nature rejuvenates us, certainly how nature rejuvenates civic institutions to go through fourth turnings. And I do think that it is something that simply happens where we don’t look forward to it, but we often look back on it as something, for those who get through it, as something that kind of made us all better or more effective as a group. It’s a little bit like a rite of passage, and this is something that everyone dreads going through, but once you’re through it, you feel transformed and you feel like you’ve entered a new stage in life.

David: Well, I only have 10 more questions, but I think that’s a great place to stop, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Clearly, The Fourth Turning is Here is, in my view, a must read. And it brings some clarity to not only where we’re at in a timeline, but how we do engage with the generations that have come before us and how we should engage the generations that will come after us, seeing our roles, seeing our responsibilities, and seeing how we can do a better job of the big decisions that we have right here, right now, and into the future.

Neil, thank you so much for spending the time with us, and I guess we’ll have to come back around to those next 10 questions. Of course, by then, I might have another 20 or 30 more.

Neil: Yeah, maybe after the coming election, who knows where we’ll be?

David: Let’s plan on that. That’d be good.

Neil: Okay. It’s great to be here again.

*     *     *

Kevin: You’ve been listening to the McAlvany Weekly Commentary. I’m Kevin Orrick along with David McAlvany and our guest today, Neil Howe. You can find us at mcalvany.com, and you can call us at 800-525-9556.

This has been the McAlvany Weekly Commentary. The views expressed should not be considered to be a solicitation or a recommendation for your investment portfolio. You should consult a professional financial advisor to assess your suitability for risk and investment. Join us again next week for a new edition of the McAlvany Weekly Commentary.

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