In our book, The Fourth Turning, we describe the cycle of American history in terms of “Turnings” We are currently in The Fourth Turning, the Crisis, which arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.
Here are some trends we have been monitoring as we enter the new year:
1. Most Americans now believe they are living through very bad times—a period of decline for their government, for their economy, and for America as a world power. Approval of the new President has sunk very rapidly since the highs of his inauguration, says Gallup, and approval of Congress is (re-)reaching record lows. According to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, only 27 percent of Americans feel confident that their children’s generation will be better off than they are. According to Pew Research, the share of Americans who believe that America’s role as a world leader has risen over the last decade (at 25%) has reached a record low since the first reading was taken in 1974. And the share who believe it has declined has reached a record high (at 41%, tied with 1979).
Another recent report by Pew Research reports that Americans have a much darker view of the last 00s decade (27% positive, 50% negative) than of any earlier decades surveyed going back to the 1960s. One can infer that we would have to go all the way back to the 1930s to find a decade most Americans would agree is worse. Indeed, media references to “World War II” (big after 9/11) and to “Great Depression” and “1930s” have been more frequent during the past decade than during any earlier decade since the 1930s and 1940s themselves. (This information comes from google.com.) Notably, every age group has a negative opinion of the 00s. And every age group has a more or less positive view of every earlier decade (today’s Generation X (born 1961-1981)ers are especially positive about the 1990s, Boomer (born 1943-1960) about the 1970s; no surprise there). Remarkably, given how terrible people rate the 2000s, roughly one-third think the 2010s will be even worse. The other two-thirds say there will be at least some improvement.
2. In domestic policy, the tide is running toward community, localism, personal risk-aversion, common-sense populism, and sweeping government authority to get big things done. Most of these forces are pushing in the Democrats’ direction—e.g., on massive health-care reform, higher taxes on “the rich,” broad new public infrastructure projects, and vigorous new regulations on financial institutions and corporate America generally. Of course, not everything works to the Democrats’ advantage. Some of the items that Democrats want (e.g., complicated carbon caps to alleviate global warming) fail the common-sense test. Others (e.g., higher federal taxes or more federal regulations) may fail the localism test—since (according to the recent Harris poll) Americans are just as likely to blame Congress for our problems (72%) as they are to blame Wall Street (71%). And, as the final versions of the health-care reform legislation make clear, the product of the Democrats’ bigger government is just as likely to contain logrolling, earmarks, and special deals—and just as likely to fall short of any lofty public purpose (in this case, cost control)—as anything the Republicans might have suggested or voted for. This is an important point. Dissatisfaction with Obama and the Democratic Congress is probably more fed by their failure to use government boldly and vigorously to face hard challenges than by their excessive boldness. The Democrats have acquiesced all too readily to the traditional politics of buy-now, pay-later entitlement. Remarkably, the public has explicitly told pollsters that the failure to control future health-care spending is the single biggest reason they don’t support Congress’ current proposals. By implication, the public would be more likely to support real reform that has teeth. But today’s reigning generation of political leaders do not yet have the stomach for this.
People do want employers or government or somebody to protect them better against risks—like the risk of losing health insurance. Millennial (born 1982-200?), today’s new crop of young adults, name health insurance at the very top of what they want from their employers, a fairly “middle-aged” attitude for youth but a cutting-edge indicator of the popular Zeitgeist. Another trend that is heightened by the current Great Recession is the new localism, which is best reflected in the steady decline in American mobility. Amazingly, by 2008, only about 12% of Americans are moving every year, the lowest-ever figure in the post-World War II era and a huge decline from the 20% annual figure back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Why? Boomers no longer want to move to “leisure worlds” or “planned care communities”; they are “aging in place” and expect special services to come to them, where they live, rather than the other way around. Millennials like to live with or near their parents. They and their Boomer parents like to listen to the same music, watch the same movies, advise each other on everything from dress to careers. The old “generation gap” is dead, and the “multi-generational” family is back. Meanwhile, people of all age express more attachment to their “community.” Geographic lifestyle expert Joel Kotkin calls this trend the “new localism.”
3. In foreign policy, the tide is running toward disillusionment, cool pragmatism, and isolationism. When the Pew survey asked Americans to choose their own word to describe the change in America’s standing in the world over the 2000s decade, the single-most chosen word was “downhill.” The public is now thoroughly disillusioned with many of the more lofty and ambitious goals of long-term U.S. engagement with the rest of the world—goals that marked the official stance of the both the Clinton and Bush administrations (or at least, Bush after 9/11). Promoting democracy abroad? Defending human rights? Extending NATO or the EU? Strengthening the UN? Polls show that all of these goals are much less popular by the end of 2009 than they were in 2000. In 2009, 54% of Americans said that torture of terrorist suspects can be often or sometimes justified, marking—if anything—a rise since the beginning of the decade. The Obama administration, riding the trend, is downplaying democracy and human rights—and softplaying Gitmo and torture now that the issue seems not to resonate with voters. “Pragmatism” is the administration’s new watchword.
The Pew survey finds that the American public today is both more isolationist than ever before and more unilateralist than ever before. A record share of Americans (49%) think that the United States should “mind its own business” and let other countries get along on their own. Yet a record share of Americans (44%) since 1964 also say that the United States should “go our own way” regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. Are Americans both more “liberal” and yet also more “conservative” in foreign policy than ever before? No. A better read is that isolationism has always had both a liberal side (let’s make sure we don’t rule or ruin the world) and a conservative side (let’s make sure the world doesn’t rule or ruin us). Today’s isolationism contains both strains. For example, most of the public does not share Obama’s confidence that fighting the Taliban will make Afghanistan or the world a better place. On the other hand, if we do in, the public believes we ought to make sure we get the job done decisively and with minimal loss to American life—regardless of what the rest of the world may say about how we do it.
4. On opinions about America’s future, a growing rift is now emerging between the experts and the public. Today’s experts tend to focus on near-term and on a fairly narrow range of conventionally defined outcomes—and they are generally more optimistic. Today’s public tends to focus on the long-term and on a fairly broad range of possible options—and the public is generally more pessimistic. On the economy, experts talk a lot about the next year or two and they typically apply an aggregate demand model that has been tested over the normal postwar recessions. Most of them are projecting a steady if not dramatic recovery. The public—and many less conventional experts—focus more on changes in household and corporate balance sheets, on structural changes in consumer behavior (toward more savings and less risk), and on the long-term erosion of institutional trust. They’re interested in longer-term outcomes, like whether I can change jobs, retire on time, or feel good about my kids’ prospects. And, with all that on their minds, they’re coming to more pessimistic conclusions about the economy’s direction.
When Pew compared the foreign-policy views of the public to the views of the 642 members of the Council of Foreign Relations, they found a similar rift. On almost every issue, the CFR members were more optimistic—and their optimism had declined less during the 2000s decade—than the public. The public, for example, is much more worried about nuclear Iran, North Korea, the rising power of China, the tension between Russia and its neighbors, and terrorist attacks on America than the CFR members. They are also more worried about how foreign policy can save their jobs and prevent illegal immigration. The list of issues that worried the experts more than the public (global warming, instability in Pakistan) was much shorter.
5. All of these trends have generational drivers, and they are starting to define the overall mood of America’s Fourth Turning (Crisis). Gen-Xers, now moving into midlife leadership positions (as CEOs in business, as news anchors in the media, as field-grade officers in the armed forces, as legislators in Congress, and as PTA/PTO parents), are now the dominant mood-setting generation. And so many of these trends reflect the Gen-X take on life—their pragmatism, their localism, their exhaustion with ideology, their alienation from the experts. They voted (marginally) for Obama because they are only weakly attached to the current system and enjoy the prospect of big institutional changes that would shake everything down to the ground. Yet they remain (over their lifetime; they came of age in the Reagan years) a GOP-leaning generation that distrusts big government and party affiliation. Gen-Xers will always remain politically flippable. Many are showing up in the rowdy “tea party” crowds which cast curses at both parties. Boomers, who disproportionately represent America’s aging and polarized culture warriors, remain—as ever—more pessimistic than other generations about the future. Americans age 50 to 65 are almost evenly divided about whether the 2010s will be better than the 2000s—unlike every older or younger age bracket, which is much more positive about the next decade. Most positive of all is the Millennial Generation, which, across the board, expresses not just the most optimism about the future, but also the most trust in government, in corporations, and in technology. According to a poll conducted last month by Harris, Millennials are the least likely of all generations to blame their financial situation on leaders or on any of America’s major institutions. (Boomers and Silent (born 1925-1942)are the most likely.)
What does this say about the broad shape of the Fourth Turning. Recall that Second Turning (Awakening) (Awakenings, like the Consciousness Revolution of the late 60s and 70s) nearly always begin on a high note of optimism, trust, and civic confidence—and nearly always end in a low note of cynicism, distrust, isolationism, and society-wide demoralization (I believe Jimmy Carter used the word “malaise” in his notorious 1979 speech). Fourth Turnings proceed in the opposite order.