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



Aug 162010

In no sphere of social life did the brassy me-firstism of America’s Third Turning (Unraveling) manifest itself so conspicuously as in professional sports.  The Nike swoosh, the vast signing and performance bonuses, the limousine loge seats, the intimidating tattoos, the brute physicality and in-your-face attitude, even the very term “free agent”— all of these became iconic symbols, in a celebrity carnival kind of way, of a fundamental mood shift that began in the mid-1980s.  Even the Olympics, which had never before made anybody rich, began generating huge profits.  (Thanks, Peter Ueberroth, for letting McDonald’s start a nifty new game the LA games in 1984: “When the U.S. wins, you win!”)

Now, some twenty-odd years later, it seems that another attitude shift is under way, once again with some of the most interesting signals coming from professional sports.  The tide is beginning to turn on the fighting, the profanity, the performance drugs, the super-lux seats, and the renting of stadium names.  And, as this story shows, pro teams everywhere (though this story in mainly about the DC area) are starting to focus a lot more on how they can give back to the community.


“It has changed dramatically,” said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of charity efforts in the multibillion-dollar industry. “Now it’s a central part of the business model of most franchises.”

Sure, you can say it’s hypocritical and just another way for the franchises to win the popularity of local crowds and national audiences.  But I’m sure many of the athletes and managers are sincere, and in any case why wasn’t this a formula for winning over crowds and audiences ten or twenty years ago?  You could also say it’s just the impact of the Great Recession.  People are tapped out, they don’t want to be reminded of things they can’t afford, and they are aware their communities have bigger needs but smaller public resources to handle them.  This is also true.  But it’s got to be more than that.  Nothing much changed in pro sports during the recession of 1991 or during the slow recovery thereafter.  If anything, the violence and drugs and attitude all got amped up: The overall U.S. rate of violent crime peaked in 1994, while ‘roid use kept spreading to more athletes and bad-ass black jerseys (a color proven to provoke aggression in sports and in war) kept spreading to more franchises.

What’s different, I submit, is that this recession is accompanying a shift from a Third to Fourth Turning (Crisis) mood—with palpable changes in the role the public wants pro athletes to play in their lives and in the way pro teams see themselves.

As Boomer (born 1943-1960) move into the ranks of senior managers/executives, they find it easier than the Silent (born 1925-1942) to “discover” authentic social issues and to promote their teams through involvement in passionate cause marketing.  They are also setting up many of the community foundations and philanthropic service firms that make it easy for wealthy athletes to start their own charities.  Silent executives, who were big-institution professionals, never really understood the personalization of philanthropy.

As Generation X (born 1961-1981) become the successful senior athletes and recently retired veterans, many of them are looking for ways to settle down, get serious, drop anchor in their neighborhood, and do something lasting.  For years, they’ve wanted to spend more time with their kids—and now they can, just at the ages (grade school) at which their kids most need them.  Nothing dovetails better with their rediscovery of family than wanting to spend more time with their kid’s friends, with other kids, with their families, with their friends, and so on.

Meanwhile, year by year, young Millennial (born 1982-200?) fans and players are transforming the audience-athlete interaction.  It’s not just that risk-averse Millennials are less turned-on by the violent and aggressive side of pro sports.  They are also less thrilled by the money-and-business dimension, which was big for Xers.  Millennials want to see more about athletes who can be good parents, neighbors, citizens, and good Samaritans.  Last spring, a Washington Post story about NHL player Brooks Laich (born 1983) stopping on the beltway to help a mother-with-kids change a flat tire—just an hour or so after his team had lost their final playoff game—ranked as this region’s most read and discussed sports story of the year.

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.

Feb 032010

OK, this story does have a generations-and-turning connection. Haggling spread with the growth of the Third Turning (Unraveling) free-agent economy in the ‘80s and esp ‘90s (the reference to e-Bay here is appropriate). And I’ve found that, on average, Generation X (born 1961-1981) are better at it than older generations. A few hip Silent (born 1925-1942), like William Shatner, really do get it—and the guys he tutors in the tv commercials are always Xers. Just try saying “namby-pamby” to a Boomer (born 1943-1960) and see what happens.

But the main reason I’m posting this is simply that you might find it interesting and possibly useful. Note btw the digital phone app that can scan the barcode while you’re in the store and give you an instant price comp to negotiate with! That is dynamite.