Monday, January 27, 2014

"December 2013's" Book: The Fourth Turning

I've been better about my punctuality in posting these entries recently but, well, I got caught in an ice storm last month. Everything's been restored so the entries should start flowing again soon. I also tend to pontificate a little more than usual when discussing generational theory, so keep that in mind too.


The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe
History (1997 - 335 pp.)

The Fourth Turning is William Strauss and Neil Howe's followup to their seminal 1991 social theory book Generations. In addition to expanding on the generational theory articulated in the first book, it adds official names for the four generation types: Hero (born during an Unraveling), Artist (born during a Crisis), Prophet (born during a High), and Nomad (born during an Awakening). As before, I feel complimented by how Strauss and Howe describe me, as I keep reminding myself anyone must because of how well tailored the descriptions are. My Prophet parents are, after all, far more spiritual than I am, and I see the world through economic theory much more than they do.

One of the biggest takeaways from The Fourth Turning is the necessity of it all. No one enjoyed the Civil War or World War II; in the case of the former, a significant portion of James Buchanan's time in office was devoted to averting Civil War. It all hinges on when events happen and the generational constellation that reacts to them. An elder Prophet, a cunning Nomad, a glorious Hero and a thoughtful, dutiful child Artist are recognizable tropes of any war in large part because those types cause - and solve - those wars. The elder Heroes content to be active senior citizens in Sun City-style getaways are not the type to start wars, or if they do, those wars are limited, indecisive engagements like the Vietnam War. (183) Likewise, young Prophets who were raised during the homogeneous High rather than the splintering Unraveling are likely to seek inner improvement and spiritual development rather than the institutional efficiency of their Hero parents... and eventual Hero children. (190) An Awakening, while a good time to produce great art rather than great war, is unfortunately not such a great time for child-rearing. This leads to the Prophet-Nomad clash that dominates an Unraveling, such as when midlife Boomers cried out against Generation X youth violence in the '80s and '90s. The Prophets think the Nomads have gone too far with substance abuse while robbing it of any spirituality it once had (see: crack wars instead of peace and love), whereas the Nomads see the Prophets as having failed them. (198) The kind of parenting Gen X received, with its experimental classrooms and common divorce, didn't happen in the 1950s and, if Strauss and Howe are right, will be absent from the 2020s and 2030s, when new Prophets are being reared by my generation. It's not just the event, it's how old every generation is when it happens. The Cuban Missile Crisis didn't explode in part due to the personalities in power when it happened, for example. JFK couldn't have done much about it if he'd been a child instead of middle-aged.

There's a certain innocent ignorance to how each constellation reacts to a crisis. Think of the Lost Generation's hardy realism during WWII. How could that generation have performed so admirably if it had ever seen the idealized society of a High? Virtually identical is the civic togetherness GIs displayed. How could that generation have performed so admirably if it had ever seen its grandparents' institutions hacked away during an Awakening? The Missionaries' elder vision during that war - "the gray champion" (279) - could not have happened if the Missionaries had known a Crisis. With each turning, one generation gets wiped away and another emerges. If that didn't happen, society could never regroup. It's a comforting way to approach the death of the elderly, for one - it's really a passing of the torch.

A significant departure from Generations comes in the form of the field guide-style Preparations section. I'm a fan of field guides, even when they clash with my personal beliefs. Advice given in 1997 for what was then a distantly looming financial crisis must have looked arch-conservative then but looks like common sense now. Statements like the possible erosion of Social Security necessitating Silents and Boomers start saving early come to mind here. Generation X likely has no expectation of Social Security at all but will not mind this as much as the Silents or Boomers would have.

This leads into a little piece of American history I knew almost nothing about but that people of my parents' generation likely know well. In Generations, Strauss and Howe describe old Nomads as "reclusive"; The Fourth Turning builds on this topic in a more flattering way by calling the Lost Generation providers of "cautious stewardship" during the American High of 1946-1964. (215) I had, like I am sure many Millennials, only really seen depictions of the 1950s and 1960s showing parents and children. It took quite a bit of thinking for me to realize those depictions had virtually never shown anyone over the age of fifty. The picture of the high-era Lost I get from The Fourth Turning is one of the only true post-WWII generation to have been adults before the Great Depression. To sit in the living room of someone in the 1960s who owned a Victrola and a heap of Dixieland 78s must have been an incredible experience. It's sad it's so rarely discussed but should be a good reminder to pay Gen X a visit once the financial crisis ends. No generation in 2030 will have the same archive of boom boxes and Slayer CDs. (Yes, CDs. This is how historical many of the Lost must have seemed in 1960.)

I only have a couple problems with this book but, as always, they're worth mentioning. One lies outside the book's scope but is discussed enough to merit attention. When discussing the earliest generations involved in the theory, i.e. the 15th and 16th-century English generations, Strauss and Howe comment on the arrival of modernity through the Renaissance, as opposed to the Dark Ages. This theory has been widely debunked since the 1920s, with the work of Charles Homer Haskins and Lynn Thorndike being key to this debunking. Strauss and Howe are, however, very right in ascribing the Dark Ages/Renaissance dichotomy to the 19th-century writer Jacob Burckhardt, who they mention by name (92). The other qualm I have with The Fourth Turning is its tendency to repeat itself. I spent much of the last third of the book wondering how Strauss and Howe were going to fill so many pages. Although all the sections felt necessary, the explanation of what each turning was and of what each archetype represents feels like it's repeated in every section. That could be trimmed a little. Still, when I start reading generational theory I can't stop, which is perhaps the ultimate commentary I can make on a work like this one.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6

No comments:

Post a Comment