The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 122009

Proviso: I don’t of course agree with everything–or maybe even most of the things–Jim Quinn says.  But I do love the passion and intensity and texture of his analysis.  He is definitely a worthy contributor.  I don’t know his age, but I guess like the rest of you he’s Boomer-Xer cusp.

On the starting date for the Fourth Turning (Crisis) (4T), I believe Bill and I did a column on the 4T site several years ago detailing all the reasons why we thought it did not begin with 9/11.  We got some flak at the time, because there were lots of people who *wanted* it to begin then.  But to our eye, it was clearly too early.  Typically, a new turning begins after all of the living generations begin to move into their new phases of life.  In 2001, clearly that hadn’t happened yet: Boomers were not yet retiring, Generation X (born 1961-1981) were not yet taking over any institutions as midlife leaders, Millennial (born 1982-200?) were barely graduating high school, and so on.  We predicted that the Third Turning (Unraveling) (3T) mood would yet have an Indian Summer… and so it did.  Keep in mind that on the “Hero clock” of the last 4T, we are still not quite due for the 4T to begin.  The ’29 Crash happened 28 years after the first G.I. (born 1901-1924) birth year.  We will hit that same year  for Millennials in… 2010.

All that being said, many are asking me if I think the 4T has yet started.  I’m with Mr. Cooper.  For nearly a year now, I’ve been saying that a strong case can be made that it started in 2008–with the beginning of an epic financial crash (a 60% decline in the global Dow from peak to trough) and an extraordinary national election that may signal an enduring political realignment and that has, for the time being, put government on a sort of permanent emergency fiscal footing (with 10% of GDP deficits that may only come down slowly if at all).  And yes thanks to 911 everyone knows that we are engaged in seemingly endless Asian wars–but now, thanks to the election, they are *bipartisan* wars… and *bipartisan* showdowns over nuts with nukes.  We’ve got plenty of moving parts.  I think one could say we’ve got sufficient or “critical” mass to call this the beginning of a 4T.  The next two or three years must be watched closely.  The crucial question, if indeed the 4T is underway, is determining when the “regeneracy” phase of the 4T will begin.

On the question of dating the Homelanders.  Let’s assume the Millennials are a 23-year-long generation (perfectly plausible: one year shorter than the GIs, one year longer than the Xers).  That would put their last birth year at 2004.  Which means the first Homelander birth year is 2005.  Let’s now assume that 2008 marks an extended period (ten “lost years” or more) of very poor economic performance–with high unemployment, low capacity and consumer confidence, stagnant global trade, etc..  That would precisely mark the Homeland Generation as the generation having no memory of the Great Boom.  All Millennials will recall at least some childhood during the zany ’90s and early oughts; Homelanders not.  Exactly in the same manner that all G.I.s could later recall at least some childhood during the Roaring Twenties–but the Silent (born 1925-1942) (born starting in 1925–the oldest were turning four at the Great Crash) could not.

In presentations I do for K-12 teachers and administrators, I am starting to spend more time talking about the Homelanders (they may now be in preschool–and will soon be entering grammar school).  And yes they have all the early markings of the Artist archetype.  They are heavily protected by their Gen-X moms and dads, who overwhelmingly believe they are raising their kids in a more hands-on, interventionist, kid-safety-comes-first style than they themselves were raised.  Just like the Lost Generation, who discovered the behavioralist child-rearing guru John Watson, so too are Xers parents deep into the behavioralism of child-care guides filled with “do’s and dont’s” rules.  In our recent book “Millennials and K-12 Schools” (2008), we have a small chapter on the Homelanders.  Every day we are expanding our insights.  I hope sometime soon to write a longer column on them for all of you.

It’s getting late.  Anyway, thanks again for being here.  Last weekend I did a three-hour radio show on Coast-to-Coast AM (11 PM to 2 AM Pacific Time), and I was extremely grateful, in the last hour, to get a great number of phonecalls from Boomer (born 1943-1960) and Gen-Xers around the country who first read our books in the early ’90s and have been following us ever since.  This was my fourth or fifth show for them–and they will probably soon have me on as a regular (rough hours I know!).  I hope to meet you on one of these show.  In any case, I can truthfully say that it’s your curiosity, your enthusiasm, and the sharing of your own experiences that has always made this worthwhile for both of us–Bill, while he was still with us, and myself for as long as I am around.

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  • JPT

    I understand your point about the age of the generations, but isn't there some leeway in all of the dates – for generations and time periods? In the crisis period before the last one, you seem to have had trouble mapping it out and ended up chalking it up to a "Civil War anomaly". I think 9/11 just fits too closely what you described to be left aside as part of an "unraveling" era. It is clear that the Great Depression played a significant role in catalyzing WWII. I wonder if 9/11 has not played a similar role in catalyzing an economic crisis. And if the generational timelines don't seem to add up, I wonder if there is another "anomaly" of some sort in play. As I'm sure you're aware, a lot of people have had trouble lining up your description of Millenials with what they actually see from that age group.

  • BoomerXer

    Thank you Mr. Howe. What you say are things I was aware of, but possibly minimized due to the “wanting.” I can admit to that – it would be far more dramatic, and have us further along in this Crisis if 9/11 were the catalyst. But, I can accept the financial crisis as the catalyst. Who knows, maybe it will be a short Crisis.

    So can we assume you may disagree with your friend, Mr. Krauthammer, about the 2008 election – and it not being a political realignment?

    Glad to hear about the Coast-to-Coast gig. It would be great if they had a database of their shows on MP3 so we could listen at our leisure. Frankly though, at this point, I’d like to encourage you to go bigger, Mr. Howe. How about a series on PBS, NGC or TLC? It could be beautifully done with you as narrator using pretty much just stock footage for most of the program. You could start out by comparing the last two late unravelings and their personalities and move right into comparisons, causes and results of the financial crisises that followed each and go from there.

  • Hi Neil,

    I think it is about time for me to give a little feedback on the books by Bill and You, and maybe a comment on what JPT said.

    I have read Generations and The Fourth Turning a while ago, and spent a large amount of time validating the claims of the book, and interpreting the people I know (and myself) through the generational lens.

    I live in Germany (born 1980), so the book is really just a loose starting guide to do a historic interpretation of the times of my own country. Germany is weird because all the US media output is here, but the local mood still needs some time to adapt, maybe because some boomers here have a tendency to reject anything typically "American", although they make use of US inventions all the time. As an US fan (all through the Bush presidency, too, which made the Obama turn even sweeter!) I occasionally get the feeling that I was born in the wrong country 😉

    Although history is of course much more fluid and organic, and can't be digitalized into four seasons just like that, your characterization of history as not linear but flowing like a helix (passing the same angles, but never the same position) made me understand a lot better who and where I am in time and what is happening – and has happened – to the world around me.

    I have been interested in history, but since your book, I check the birth year of every new person I get to know, public or private. It's almost like astrology, another boomer attempt to get a grip on history (my mom (1947) is all into it). Most of the time, it fits very well, but sometimes, especially people who have been born at the fringe of a turning show character traits of two generations – this is the fluidity I have been talking about.

    To deepen the study of your books, I and my wife started picking famous people and put them into a timeline. We also added non-Americans, for fun and riddles 😉 Have a look:

    It is hard to take a saeculum and cut it up, because a cut is always rough, and some things will always end up in the wrong category. 9/11 still looks tough now, but compared to the crisis that is predicted to unfold, it might be forgotten.

    Adding the German delay and judging from the border you give (1982), I'm supposed to be a late Gen-Xer, but the Hero archetype fits equally well – I'm certainly thinking a lot more practical than my mom. Occasionally I'm a cynic doubter, but I feel best when being optimistic. I have had parts of a lost childhood, but I also have been more protected. I got into contact with psychedelic drugs when I was 20, but I do not regret the (both very good and bad) experiences, but see them as a complementary addition to my character that was neccessary to enable me to do the right thing somewhere in the future.

    I work as a games programmer, but my heart is in the electronic music I compose. I spend more time with people older than me (up to +10 years), and they are thinking a lot more entrepreneurial, less spiritual, more secular. They are mostly centered on technology, while I care more about story and emotional influence. We all enjoy teamwork though.

    Most of my older peers use Windows, for practical reasons. I use Ubuntu, a free operating system that focuses more on teamwork, and is a lot more "civic", less private. I am a fan of (altruistic) public services, and I detest privatization. I have tried several times to start my own business, but I have failed on the spiritual conflicts. More than once, my views have been called naive.

    To know that a crisis lies ahead gives me hope, because some of the things we believe in but do not yet see realized in our system might become law and order. I have no trouble in serving my country for the right causes with the abilities that I have been given (big Obama fan, still not disappointed).

    The Fourth Turning is a book that I would love to see "translated" to the history of Germany. I am recommending this book to everyone I know, but as you can imagine, noone sees the importance of (American) history to understand one's own time and place, but they sure are interested.

    Finally, I want to add that it's sad to see so many great Artists(!) leave the place. My wife and I have spent the past months watching a lot of old movies, and your book has also given us the key to enjoy them a lot more.

    Your books made our incoherent, snow-flake-individual lives meaningful, and our confusing times graspable. Because of your work, I get more out of the human experience. Thank you!

  • As for the generational boundaries in other countries, most of the countries that fought in WWII as a 4T-era war are on a generational/turning cycle that varies by only a few years. Strauss and Howe mentioned in Millennials Rising that in most of Europe the leading edge of the equivalent Hero generation is a few years behind that of the U.S. Millennials according to them. However, you could still be in that "cusp range" where people may identify with both adjacent generations or the one on the other side of the line according to the classifications; even I (someone who was born in the first days of 1985) have felt a bit of a Gen-X pull (although I still more strongly identify with the Millennials), especially when we were experiencing a lingering 3T just a couple or so of years ago. (More on the next reply post.)

  • (Continued from the last comment.) A good definition of a generational cusp might be where one would not feel "suppressed" (using the term that S&H quoted) while identifying with the generation on the other side of the line. An example would be comparing two members of the G.I. generation mentioned in Generations: Jimmy Carter was more in line with the Silents but since he was born in the year before the official generation switch he didn't feel too out of place, while Jack Kerouac was truly a man outside of his time archetypically.

  • (I meant to put this comment under @paniq's, but I clicked the wrong button.)

  • I have a problem with using comparisons with the last 4T, because the dates for generations then were distorted by the Civil War anomaly. I find it more useful to focus on the social moment turnings, since these are the key engines of cycle.

  • You may be right about anomalies. We spotted one in the Civil War cycle. From my assessment of history outside America, I suspect that other types of anomalies may have occasionally happened in other societies. And there may be some types we haven't seen or noticed yet. I approach historical forecasting with a great deal of humility.
    On your second point, I disagree. I speak often to K-12 schools, colleges, and survey organizations. And I can tell you that our entire Millennial message was much more controversial ten years ago than it is today. Back in the late '90s, our basic message about a steep decline in risk taking, closeness of parents, a new drive to teamwork and community, collective optimism got lots of pushback. Today, the response: OK, we got it, now tell us how to handle this new generation. We know about all their volunteering, High School Musical, IM and Facebook, record-low youth crime, the Obama phenomenon, etc. Fine. Now tell us something new. How do we handle this sheltered and entitled generation? Ten years ago, people were still complaining about undersocialized youth who felt alienated from their parents and government. Now they complain about oversocialized youth who are spoiled by their parents and trust government too much. It's truly been a sea change. –NEIL

  • Hi Neil-

    I loved The Fourth Turning. It gave me a whole new perspective on American History. I only read it earlier THIS year, however! Not sure how I missed it before now.

    With regard to your posting above, I agree with you on most every point — except the 2008 election being "an enduring political realignment". I think the backlash to Bush was most responsible for Obama's success. But I do not believe America instantly moved to a center-left nation. In fact, there are signs this year that Independents especially are solidifying their center-right roots.

    However, I think Obama's election is PART of the 4T — just not the way it appears now.

    Thanks for the update!

  • Bruce:Thank you for your nice comment.  When I said we were in the midst of a political realignment, I didn’t mean that the Obama majority will necessarily be the enduring outcome of that realignment.  I simply meant that we have entered a period of rapid shift in party alignments and loyalties.  Where Obama’s coalition endures or not, we will never go back to what we had before.  –NEIL–Neil

  • Matthew

    Right now it looks likes Obama is only willing to push for incremental, watered-down reform at best. In this he appears to be following his hero Lincoln's example. Lincoln when he first came into office also took a middle-of-the-course and insisted that his only aim was to preserve the Union and refused to take any radical action against slavery. It was only after the pressures from abolitionists and the urgency of the times that Lincoln was forced to move in a more tranformative direction. Either Obama will be forced by the nature of the 4T mood to become a truly tranformative leader or else he will go down as a Hoover-like figure and only serve one-term. Those are the two options I see now.

  • Nice point.  Everyone today recalls the fire-and-brimstone Lincoln of his second inaugural address.  But we often forget how anxious he was to find some middle road and patch things when he was first elected.  Events and the shifting public mood ultimately made any middle road impossible.  Only then did Lincoln don  his mature “Prophet” persona.  –NEIL

  • writerGrrl1992

    I've been a fan of your book for about a year, and a fan of you as a person since I watched your debate against Mr. Baurlein. I've read both The Fourth Turning and The Dumbest Generation (your book with excitement, his while suppressing my gag reflex) and I was happy you had such a strong showing.
    One thing however that does concern me is just how silent Millennials have been ever since Obama has one. There's a recent poll that puts Millennial support of the GOP in the SINGLE DIGITS. It seems like whenever Boomers control the political debates, hero gens fade into the background (like the "silent majority" of the last awakening and what is happening now.)
    We're more economically and socially liberal than our elders, but I think we're turned off by their "loudest person wins" idea of debate.
    However, many of us are dissatisfied with the blatant corruption in Congress (the senate especially) as well as with the doomsday attitude that Obama is Hitler incarnate. Neither of these give much room for Obama (or anyone else with a good idea no matter their politics) to get anything done.
    I wish there was a way we could let older gens know this is how we're responding to their vitriol, without resorting to their tactics. Or maybe yelling is the only option?

    Also, why is it that the irrational conspiracies about politicians in the 3T haven't gone away yet. People used to believe that Clinton got away with murder, he was going to seek a third term, and that Bush stole the 2004 election. Now there are the birthers, and those who believe ACORN stole election 2008. Does this signify that we're not fully in a 4T yet or is that just post-seasonal?

  • Thanks for your support.  Being a Boomer myself, I do understand where Mark Bauerlein is coming from.  He has high standards.  He’s decent and well-meaning.  What I do not understand is his inability to view his own generation (my generation) critically—or to appreciate any of the positive contributions and potential of today’s youth.  If only Boomers knew how grindingly downbeat and negative they sound.  They embarrass me.

    My advice?  Don’t start yelling.  Listen politely, and then make your own case clearly, dispassionately, analytically—especially when older people attack your own generation as unworthy to express a valid opinion.  I’m always amazed at how passively Millennials listen without response when older Boomers beat up on their generation.  They are amazed when I tell them the truth: that every measure of social dysfunction got worse, first cohort to last, during the Boom (drug use, violent crime, suicide, test scores, accidents, etc.) and that all of the above have been improving with Millennials.  Take heart, team up, fill the civic vacuum left behind by Boomers and Xers, follow leaders you find worthy, and focus on America’s long-term future.  I agree that your generation is economically more liberal than your elders.  Whether you are socially more liberal is actually a tough question; in some ways, you are more conservative.  See our New America publication, “Yes We Can: Millennials as a Political Generation”:… –NEIL

  • tocqueville junkie

    That link doesn't work. Here's the one that does:

  • Richard (Boomer)

    The timing of 4T is influenced by each generation peaking and events. We tend to focus on events. Boomers peaked in midlife about 2004 and will peak in elderhood in about 2021-2022. At the same time all of the other generations are peaking in their respective phase of life. Based on the phases of life we are in the 4T. Sometime about 2020 we will be able to clearly envision the crisis climax coming at us like a freight train.

  • Взял себе 🙂

  • momerrier

    What am I? I was born in 1960. You have to draw lines somewhere, I understand. My entire adult life I have been pretty much turned off by the baby boomers and have spoken publicly about why I didn't care for them as a group. However, I just used the phrase “turned off”, sounds kind of boomerish I fear. Just about every descriptive in The Fourth Turning that applies to 13ers applies to me.

    What are our parents? My parents were born in '32 and '36 and both are Silent in every way. My wife's parents were born in '31 and '36 and they are almost 100% GI in the way they live their lives except for the way the husband climbed the institutional ladder and carved a steady growing secure future for his family. Is it possible that my in-laws are more GI like because they are a generation closer to first generation Americans than my folks?

    What is happening? Are we facing an anomaly right now?

  • -millenial-

    As a Millenial I can say that your last inference is absolutely not true. When I read “Millenials Rising” and “Millenials and the Pop Culture” I was shocked at how accurate they were and how well Howe and Strauss understand my generation (If only all Boomers could understand too!) and how many of their “predictions” had come true. Occasionaly I had to remind myself that these books were actually written before the trends they predicted actually materialized. I’m sure most of the people “having trouble lining up your description of Millenials” are Boomers not looking objectively (shocking, I know) or Xers not wanting to believe the trends they’re seeing.