The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 242010

Interesting article in NYT: Record number of black GOPs running for Congress in 2010.  There seem to be at least 32 of them.  And, for the first time, most of them seem to be young—nearly all Generation X (born 1961-1981).  One, Princella Smith (running in AK) is a super-achieving pro-life Millennial (born 1982-200?) (age 26).  If just a quarter of them get elected, this would hugely change the partisan composition of younger black Reps.

The article suggests that they are running more on the economic and political right (smaller govt, balanced budgets) than on the social values right.  Yet the story also mentions two conservative values positions—on gays and abortion—that resonate with black Americans.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Am open to suggestions.

May 212010

I was invited to go to this Peterson event in downtown DC, but was sick and so I missed it.  Not, I must confess, that I was eager to listen to twenty-five mostly-Silent (born 1925-1942) high muckety-mucks all the say the same thing…  at great length and at great detail… about the deficit.  Believe me when I say: I have heard it all before.  WP columnist David Broker, an honest good-government type (and also a Silent), gives a pretty good account here of what actually transpired.  And a pretty good assessment of this commission’s poor odds of success.  Alan Simpson put it right in his usual humorous style: “a suicide mission.”

I’m inclined to think that this vast fiscal impasse will become a very important component—if not, when the bubble bursts, the actual crux—of the emerging Fourth Turning (Crisis).

As an issue, it has all the prerequisites.  It is something everyone has long known was coming, but also something that everyone just preferred not to think about.  It is something which, if left unsolved, will surely result in disaster.  Yet it is also something which, in order to solve, requires huge changes in habits and behaviors, and in long-term winners and losers, throughout America.  And this is the key point: One could, in theory, imagine solutions that would involve completely different winners and losers, and realize completely different visions of America’s future, that is, in terms of its political economy.  At one extreme, for example, you solve it all by just cutting taxes—a lot.  Or at the other, by just cutting benefits—a lot.  And you have a polarized [Prophets] archetype running the country that has divided itself (I’m speaking now of its most engaged and passionate leaders) into two largely irreconcilable camps.  Each camp has its own vision.  And each camp already believes that its own corner solution is inadequate: In other words, many in the GOP want a balanced budget with *less* government spending than now; and many Democrats want a balanced budget with *more* government spending than now.

Even aside from the psychology of the Prophet, it’s perfectly understandable why one side or the other will never feel that the moment is quite right to settle on a long-term solution.  Each side wants to go to work when it’s on top.  The GOP feel, reasonably, that hey why not wait for a couple of years until we get a new commission in which *we* outnumber *them.*  Similarly, not many leading Democrats were eager to join a commission set up by George W. Bush.

The bickering and gaming continue as the new recession has hugely speeded up the disaster deadline—like turning on all the boilers in the Titanic’s engine room while the iceberg looms.  We’re in real trouble.

Let me further add that it’s not just happening to us, but to every other major economy in the developing world.  Just look at the per-GDP public debt in Japan, or the headlines about Greece (are Spain and Italy and the rest of the “Club Med” next?)  The trigger to the chain reaction is unlikely to start with us.  But, once the chain reaction starts, we may be a big part it.

If any of you are interested in the global fiscal situation, here is a just-released report ( by the Bank for International Settlements (“The future of public debt: prospects and implications”).  These are bankers giving advice to other bankers.  Their language is typically very dry and cautious.  But they use words like “daunting” and “frightening” in this report.

Apr 302010

This interesting—and implicitly generational—piece by Henry Allen discusses the changing assumptions about America’s role in the world.  This view that Allen describes, of America as history’s existential good guy, is very linked to the psyche of his Silent (born 1925-1942).  It is simply so hard for this generation ever to believe that there are vast numbers of people in the world who really don’t like us or would even enjoy seeing us suffer, and not for anything particular we have done but (to use the phrase that became popular after 911) simply for who we are.  It’s fascinating, in retrospect, that the Silent interpreted the warmth with which a war-devastated world regarded Goliath America just after WWII as genuine affection, as opposed to transient gratitude triggered by necessity.  Gratitude is a very difficult emotion for any society, or even for any individual, to sustain over time.  Especially, when the gift we have received cannot be paid back.  Often, we end up resenting the emotional burden.  Case and point: France’s fraught attitude toward America since our nation-saving intervention in two world wars.

In any event, Generation X (born 1961-1981) seems entirely unmoved by the emotional tensions and turmoil that Allen describes.  I would suggest he is describing something that pretty much affects his generation alone.

Back in the 1990s, Allen interviewed me at length about a feature story he was doing (it was later published in the WP) on how people of different ages react to that old Warner Brothers cartoon about Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.  In a talk he was giving at a local college, he discovered by accident that all of the (Xer) students sympathized with the coyote, not the roadrunner.  He was flabbergasted, because for as long as he could remember, he and his peers had always rooted for the roadrunner.  He wrote a moving account—Allen is a wonderful writer—about why these differences arose.  And he gave a fairly good rendition of some of the basic generational drivers that may be behind the shift.

Could these two differences be related?  When you look at America’s role in the world, what view do you take—that of the Roadrunner (beautiful, swift, above the fray, never has to think about eating—and never worried about losing), or that of the coyote (ugly but clever, determined, just another dog who’s got to get a meal—and always too-aware of the probability of failure).

Apr 142010

With super-Boomer (and now Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman advocating slapping a 25% tariff on Chinese imports and with Obama’s new “National Export Initiative” targeting a doubling of U.S. exports in five year come hell or high water, one senses a seismic shift in the geopolitical firmament. It’s not just the prospect of protectionism and trade wars I’m talking about. Yes, this is a huge danger—and could force the global economy back to the ER in a heartbeat. But there’s something bigger here: The disintegration of the Bretton Woods consensus, built by the G.I. (born 1901-1924), that formed the basis for global trade and power for 66 years, 1945 to 2011–that is, for three turnings.

The Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents created a global system (Bretton Woods, fixed exchange rates, IMFWorld BankNATO, and regular rounds of tariff reductions were all part of it) in which America’s national purpose was global prosperity, not just our own prosperity. We set up all these global rules and then we promised not to game them. Even more, we promised not to care very much if other nations, who really were just focused on their own prosperity, tried to game them. (At one time or another, this included nearly every OECD country, esp Japan.) America was “above all that.” Throughout the postwar era, every single U.S. Commerce Secretary used to complain that while the German or Italian governments made swinging huge export deals for their own companies a national priority, we always subordinated the interests of our workers and companies to broader global political goals. Again, we were America. We were above such parochial concerns. We needed to keep the rest of the liberal democratic world healthy and prosperous in our “long twilight struggle” against Communism. Somewhat surprisingly, this Bretton Woods consensus outlived the fall of the Soviet Union by 21 years, 1990 to 2011—that is, one turning—though there have been growing strains. One might attribute this to generational inertia. Enough Silent (born 1925-1942) were still in power, the Boomers were still finding their voice, and the Generation X (born 1961-1981) were still on the sidelines.

Now that may all be changing. The Silent, who are the last generation to recall, from their childhood, *why* we created Bretton Woods, is passing from power. The Boomers will not rest until they see the last edifices of their parents’ institutions reborn in their own image. And now the Xer influence is rising. To many Xers, the idea that America is “above all that” is a joke. Every since they were kids in the OPEC-stagflation ‘70s, they’ve been hearing that America is in crisis, has reached its last days, and is sliding into no-growth irrelevance and decadence (of which their generation btw is a prime example). For Xers, the hubris and complacency of the G.I. worldview has been replaced by survivalism and revanchism. Yes, we got the message: America’s empire is over. America is just one more desperate player in a dog-eat-dog world. So why not go after our share? I hurt. I need a job. I do not want my life to sacrificed on some insane alter of global stability and progress.

The G.I.s believed in Bretton Woods because it was *their* system. They built it and trusted it. For decades thereafter, younger generations deferred to their institutional confidence. I think that may now be coming to an end. From this perspective, how America emerges from the decline of Bretton Woods will depend hugely on the rising Millennial (born 1982-200?). What new global system will they erect? Will it work? Will it be built in time?

These idle generational reflections were prompted by the following essay (from Stratfor) on the outlook for the Chinese economy. According to Zeihan, the single biggest consequence of the dismantling of Bretton Woods will be the meltdown of the Chinese economy. No more “Chimerica” (to use Niall Furgeson’s phrase). And that meltdown, in turn, will have huge global repercussions.

Mar 252010

For many years, we’ve always hypothesized that one element of the Fourth Turning (Crisis) will involve state and local Boomer (born 1943-1960) leaders, having risen to positions of senior leadership, defying national supremacy.  Now this really seems to be happening (See this recent article in the NYT).  Note that it’s not just on the right, but also on the left—e.g., states legalizing marijuana or limiting the authority of the federal government over their national guard.

Mar 102010

Jim Quinn has written a number of essays about America’s entry into the coming Fourth Turning (Crisis).  Here is another good one, probably the best one he’s done:

He refers in this essay to the film “Generation Zero.”  Please don’t ask me more about this film than I know.  Yes, I’m interviewed in this film, and turnings and generations are used as the central organizing theme.  Yes, I’ve known the director (Steve Bannon, based in LA) for a while.  The film will be released in theaters later this spring.  Yes, it features over a dozen conservative talking heads (from Charles Krauthammer to Lou Dobbs), and has been a big hit at tea parties, the CPAC convention, and (earlier this evening) on Fox News.  No, it’s not really partisan in any party (Democrat v. Republican) sense, but it is very populist.  But yes, it is visually very striking.  Here is a trailer:

There are already many reviews of this movie.  Here is Jim Quinn’s:

Mar 012010

Interesting article on the youngest ever leader of the NAACP, 44 year-old Roslyn Brock (making her Generation X (born 1961-1981)).  But what does this mean: “That worked well for many of us, but all of us realize that we are a part of a generation that is both the most murdered in the country and the most incarcerated on the planet.”  Cites please?  In almost every state, the 50+ prison population is the most rapidly rising, and the under 30 population is the most rapidly shrinking.  As for murders, that number for the under-30 age group is down by over two-thirds over the last 15 years.  Less cant, more data.

Feb 132010

This speech, given in 2008, has been making the rounds on the Internet.

Late-wave Boomer (born 1943-1960) in the Netherlands (b. 1963), Geert Wilders, leads a new Dutch party called “Party for Freedom” (PVV, or Partij voor de Vrijheid).  It has come out of nowhere over the last few years.  It won 17% of the Dutch vote in the 2009 EU Parliament election. According to most surveys, its strength is still climbing and it gets especially strong support from young adults.  (Good indicator: the PVV has the largest share of voters who cast their votes on line.)

It’s a radical right-wing party, but “right” in a way that is historically unprecedented in Europe: It claims to make common cause with Zionism and Israel, and it is vehemently anti-Muslim.

The speech is one he gave at a “Facing Jihad” conference in New York.  Some scary and headlong stuff is underway here, with a clash of very Manichean world views.

See last paragraph for Wilders’ very Boomerish generational riff: “My generation never had to fight for this freedom, it was offered to us on a silver platter, by people who fought for it with their lives.”

*Note that Europe’s generational cycles are somewhat delayed vs. the US. That is why Wilders (b. 1963) is categorized as a Boomer. If he were born in the US, he would be Generation X (born 1961-1981).

Feb 102010

Good piece from last month in the Washington Post.  This guy really gets the whole principal of seasonality within the saeculum.  The very political coalitions that tend to prosper during a Second Turning (Awakening)and Third Turning (Unraveling)—those which win by outbidding the others on how much they can distribute pleasure, borrow from the future, and undermine institutional barriers—guarantee that the whole system has to be smashed to smithereens before it can be rebuilt.  Right now, we have politicians in power whose entire political careers have been built around the wrong logic for a Fourth Turning (Crisis).

One important way in which the federal problem is much worse than the California problem is that states have natural circuit breakers: Most of them have constitutional prohibitions of general-interest deficit-financing, and even if those can be circumvented, state governments can’t print money.  The federal government has no circuit breaker, so the national problem can grow to economically catastrophic proportions without any of us feeling anything.  This is another interesting aspect of policymaking in the 2T  and 4rd Turning eras: The deliberate removal of circuit breakers, like getting rid of fixed exchange rates to foster cross-border investment or getting rid economic regulation to maximize the productivity of labor and capital.  The old regime forced people to come to terms with imbalances before they become dangerous precisely because they introduced inefficient kinks or bottlenecks into the system.  Alarm bells went off that people would have to deal with.  Today, we’ve removed all the speed bumps.