The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 222012

On the Fourth Turning Forum, there is an interesting discussion going on about exactly when the last 2T ended and when the 3T began.  Some readers wonder if the years of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the Chicago 7 could really belong to the same era as the first term of President Ronald Reagan.  It’s a good question.

My short answer is that the one big theme that ties both ends of this (or any) awakening era together is a society-wide determination to defy convention, shed constraints, and throw off every manner of social obligation.  Early in the last 2T, this impulse erupted most strongly against cultural standards and social authority (giving rise to the “counter-culture,” minority “power,” and epic demonstrations and riots).  Late in the last 2T, it rose up most strongly against fiscal burdens and economic burdens (giving rise to “tax revolts” and “deregulation”).  The people involved in these movements were not the same, but they certainly overlapped and each group ultimately drew sympathy from across the aisle.  Meaning: Even Republicans went along with the looser manners and mores that sprung up in the mid-60s, and even Democrats recoiled the horrors of dysfunctional statism during the stagflation of the late ’70s.

A nice way to track this directional shift (from the culture to the economy) in the rebellion against authority is to look at the UCLA Freshman survey from 1967 to 1980: Boomer freshmen born in the late ’40s were 3-to-1 more likely to say the most important goal in life is “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” rather than “be financially well off”; by the time to you get to last-wave Boomer and first-wave Xer freshmen (yes, Jonesers), the split is 2-to-1 the other way.  Yet by 1983 and 1984, everyone started to climb onto the same page.  Republican Ronald Reagan brought the Beach Boys to the White House (amazing to recall how controversial this was!), showing that the uptight GOP was coming to terms with Good Vibrations.  And hippies were turning into yuppies (with “babies on board”), while a fair number of New Deal veterans were voting for lower taxes, showing that statist Democrats were coming to terms with Free Agency.  In Reagan’s first term, the battle was still raging.  By the beginning of his second, the battle was over.  And so a new turning was born.

For a long answer, take a close look at The Fourth Turning, pages 199 through 207.  I think Bill and I did a pretty good job defending 1984 as a pivotal year.

In 1984 Steve Jobs’ Apple came out with a lousy computer but a brilliant ad.  The iconic slogan: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  The ad instantly appealed to everyone (hippies and yuppies) and showed just how much everyone agreed that the Establishment was dead—and how much everyone was comfortable with that.


Dec 282010

Google’s recent release of their database of books makes for some interesting generational research. The Ngram tool gives insights into the comparative occurrence of various words over the last two hundred years (from a large sample of books). Some interesting examples:

Try “sex”. Or try “erotic,” takes off in the Third Turning (Unraveling) 90s just as “sex” tires.  Or try “love” (and “death”), which are both less used nowadays than ever before.  I had a history prof once who used to say that there was a law of compensation or trade-off, in any era, between thinking about sex and death.  Eras obsessed with one regard the other as taboo.  In Victorian times, no one could talk about “sex” but everyone talked about “death” all the time.  (Just think how much care went into gravestones and funerals!)  Today, of course, it’s the reverse.

Try “Man”, used in the 19th c. was used all the time as an all-purpose reference to person, individual, society, etc.  (It was used 5 or 6x as much as “woman.”)  That ubiquitous usage began declining after 1900—and dropping much faster after the late 1960s.

“Woman” usage has naturally been much flatter, though with a fascinating upward surge in the 3rd Great Awakening (peaking in 1900), a deep downward slide in the 4th and 1st Turning of the 1930s through the 1950s, and a resurgence again starting exactly at the beginning of the Consciousness Revolution.

And these from my friend Pete Markiewicz:

First Turning (the High) devaluation of ‘woman’

Nice spike on wars

A word appearing in the Third Turning (Unraveling)

A word jumping in the 2T

A word jumping in the (old) 2T

Some interesting peaks and valleys

Same, different

Hippie and its echo



Apr 232010

I’m always amazed at all of the interesting ways the moral rectitude of Boomer (born 1943-1960) comes back to bite them.

A couple of random examples:

  • We once wanted to protect the freedom and privacy of college-age youth (and inspired FERPA and other legislation to ensure this).  Now, guess what, we’re angry that we—as parents—have been stripped of our God-given right to see our kids’ grades and health records.
  • We once believed that society would function better if everyone were a bit less inhibited about sex—and more transparent about what they do as leaders.  Then came Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski, which nearly persuaded Boomer-dominated Congress to impeach a President for being a bit less inhibited… and a bit more transparent.

All of this brings to—enough silly preamble—my latest example: The “scandal” at Goldman Sachs.

I would wager to say that, back in the 1960s and 1970s, nothing infuriated Boomers more about how the American economy was run than the idea that powerful greasy old men, dressed in oversize pin-striped suits and hidden away in smoke-filled rooms, essentially made all the strategic decisions about where capital would flow and (therefore) what would be produced and consumed.  These anonymous titans, from their “commanding heights,” claimed they exercised prudent and responsible judgment, but their very paternalism just infuriated us more.  We wanted to blow it all up.

And guess, what?  We succeeded.  The ascendancy of Boomers as voters and leaders since the late 1970s has coincided with a radical deregulation of our economy, especially in those areas, like investment and finance, where trusted “fiduciaries” were supposed to take care of others.  In the new Boomer world, the market was the great leveler and everyone was liberated to take care of themselves.  Today, you buy and sell on ebay as you wish, you invest your 401(k) money as you wish, you purchase and liquidate hotels or firms as you wish, and you can even invent new financial instruments (this brings us to derivatives) to gamble or hedge or arbitrage against any event you wish.  Goldman Sachs, run by G.I.s back when Boomers were young, was your typical “investment bank.”  It was supposed to watch out for the rest of us and steer capital accordingly.  Now Goldman Sachs, run by Boomers, is no longer really an investment bank at all.  It’s just a hedge fund and its purpose is to make money, just like everybody else.  And let’s face it, because everything is deregulated and competitive, there’s no real money to be made in investment banking anymore any way.

And now we’re shocked that GS set up a derivative that it sold to clients on both the long and short side?  That it didn’t warn these billionaire speculators that they might lose money?  And that they, GS, might be taking the other side of that transaction?  (We’re not talking about widows and orphans here.)  This is crazy.  Boomers set up this new world.  Many Boomers have made billions off it.  And, so be it, other Boomers should be allowed to *lose* billions off it.  Yes, a deregulated hands-off financial system may make it easier for the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to get start up funding (something that wasn’t easy for them back in the “bad old days”).  But it also makes it easier to lose vast amounts of money on bad bets.

You can’t have it both ways.  Nothing infuriates Americans more than the idea that, for these very rich 50- and 60-somethings, we’ve privatized risk on the up side but socialized risk on the down side.

Boomers should stifle their shock.  It’s like being bothered by the sight of Bill Clinton caught with his fly open.  Boomers have taken America all the way here on that whole long crazy trip of theirs.  And now they have to accept the consequences.

In the longer run, Samuelson’s final question looms large: “But if Wall Street can’t control itself, someone else will.”  Prediction: Come the next First Turning (the High), some new institution (maybe a new government agency, maybe some new business cartel) will be in charge.  Which means that, come the next Second Turning (Awakening), the young [Prophets] of that era will have something to rage about.

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.