Shifts in the zeitgeist - the spirit of the times - from decade to decade are a cultural cliché. We talk of the "conformist" fifties, the "radical" late sixties and seventies, the "me decade" in the eighties and so on. These changes are not always as sharp as these clichés imply, and they are usually more than ten years apart. But there is good evidence that they are real. Since 1966, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles has surveyed America's college freshman. In 1966, most freshmen thought that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" was more important than "being very well off financially." By 1996, the positions had reversed. The chart below, from Alexander Astin, et al.'s (1997) report on this research, gives dramatic graphical evidence of the reality of generational shifts in values. At the same time, we can see that other values, such as the desire to "be successful in my own business" or to "help others who are in difficulty" do not show a generational shift.
Shifts Between Left and Right. These
shifts are often thought of politically, as a cycle between
left and right, or between "liberals" and "conservatives,"
in the American usage of those terms. One of
the best known sources of evidence on cyclical patterns in
American politics is the work of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.
(1949: 77-92) and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1986: 23-50; 1992)
who have a family tradition of analyzing historical cycles in
American electoral politics. In their view the American
populace is split between "liberals" and "conservatives,"
terms that are very widely used despite considerable ambiguity
about their meaning. As the Schlesinger's define the
terms, "liberals" seek to use government advance public
purposes while "conservatives" seek freedom to pursue private
interests. In their view, shifts in the preponderance of
opinion from one side to the other cause periodic changes in
the national mood. They believe that these shifts have
occurred at regular intervals throughout American history, as
shown in the following table (the italics give my projection
of their model into the future).
Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., observed that the average length of the eleven periods up to 1947 was 16.55 years. The three periods since his computation have been of roughly the same magnitude: 14, 17 and 15 years. Voting in national elections is the Schlesingers' main source of data, which means that changes in the national mood may go undetected until they are revealed in an election year. They observe that a major national crisis, also, may disrupt the usual rhythm.
The ambition of most students of cycles is to predict the future, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., had some notable success in predicting shifts in the political zeitgeist. In 1924, he predicted that Coolidge-style conservatism would last until 1932. In 1939, he predicted that the liberal mood would end in about 1947. In 1949, he predicted a shift to liberalism in 1962 and a conservative shift in 1978. These predictions fit the electoral outcomes quite well. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., however, dropped the ball when he published a column titled "How McGovern Will Win" in 1972. The election of the more "liberal" Bill Clinton in 1992 over George H. W. Bush fits the Schlesinger model, going against the conventional wisdom in the late 1980s which was that the period of conservative Republican dominance would be much longer.
The Schlesingers' were not wedded to any particular theoretical explanation of the trends that they observed. At various times, they considered sun spot cycles, biorhythms, and generational succession as possible causal factors. Most convincingly, however, they turned to the dynamics of political organization itself. It seems to take about fifteen years for a successful political party or movement to define its agenda, mobilize its resources, implement its policies as best it can, and obtain the inevitably less than hoped for results. Political parties and other political organizations go through a fairly predictable cycle: growth and vitality under a charismatic leader, a period of mature, more routinized leadership, then a gradual decline as the leaders become soft and the supporters tire of the message. Then, in a two-party system, the opposing party, invigorated by the challenge of regaining power, has its turn. This dynamic of political organization clearly accounts for some major political shifts, e.g., the dominance of British politics by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and its subsequent decline under John Major, followed by the reinvention of the Labor Party under Tony Blair's leadership. This had little to do with ideology since the New Labor accepted most of the policies developed by the Conservatives. Focusing on electoral politics tends to give more weight to these organizational dynamics than to shifts in the zeitgeist.
Shifts in the Level of Foreign
scientist Frank Klingberg (1952) wrote about the alternation
of moods in American foreign policy. Instead of
liberalism and conservatism he studied the alternation between
introversion and extroversion, terms that seem
more psychological than political. During extroverted
periods, the nation has been willing to exert economic,
diplomatic and/or military power on other nations.
During introverted periods, it has been unwilling to do so,
perhaps because of a preoccupation with domestic
concerns. Once a dominant mood is firmly established,
Klingberg found it persisted for two decades or more. Since
1976 there have been four introvert phases averaging about 21
years in length, and three introvert phases averaging
approximately 27 years in length. The most recent extroverted
phase began in 1940 or 1941. Klingberg's article was
published in the middle of this phase which seems to have
ended approximately on time with the end of the Vietnam war in
1973. The period from 1973 to 1991 could be characterized as
an introverted phase in American foreign policy, generally
attributed to a fear of repeating the Vietnam debacle.
President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the end of this
"Vietnam Syndrome" with the intervention which drove Iraqi
troops from Kuwait in 1991. Klingberg's periodization is
Klingberg noted a similarity between his observations and those of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., but his cycles were of longer duration and the turning points did not often coincide. This difference may be because he focused on foreign policy, while the Schlesingers' focused on domestic social and economic policy. His data base was also different. While the Schlesingers relied on qualitative descriptions of electoral campaign themes, Klingberg collected a good deal of quantitative data. He analyzed Presidential "state of the union" addresses statistically, coding the percentage of the address which mentioned foreign relations or expounded the importance of positive action in foreign affairs. He also studied party platforms and trends in naval expenditures. His extensive data was clearly reproduced in bar and line graphs which revealed the difficulty inherent in this kind of work. The patterns are irregular, with the long term trends obscured by short term fluctuations. This is inherent in the data, and Klingberg does not resort to any of the smoothing techniques which are sometimes used to make trends seem deceptively clear. A good deal of judgment is required to fit this data into the clear patterns presented in his article, and there is room for disagreement about where one periods ends and another begins.
Like the Schlesingers, Klingberg was not committed to any one theoretical explanation for the cycles that he observed. He reviewed a comprehensive list of possible causes: periodic exhaustion with any dominant policy and desire for something new, generational change, political or economic factors within the United States, changes in the policies of other nations. He expressed the view that the introversion-extroversion cycle may be more fundamental than the liberal-conservative cycle. He speculated that Toynbee's "challenge and response" model may be applicable, and suggested that American history can be interpreted as a series of responses to fundamental challenges: e.g., the revolutionary cycle, the anti-slavery cycle and the populist cycle. In 1952, he saw America as rising to the challenge of world leadership in defense of the free world.
Shifts in Public Opinion. A rigorous empirical study by William Mayer (1992a, 1992b) offered the strong evidence for the reality of periodic shifts in public opinion in the United States. Mayer tabulated the results of hundreds of public opinion polls conducted over the period from 1960 to 1988. Frequently these surveys have the same question at several points in time. There are problems with the data such as variations in sample designs, the effects of question order, wording changes or changes in the meaning of words over time, etc. But Mayer dealt with all these problems expertly, providing a rigorous and objective measure of changes in attitudes. A major limitation, of course, is that he was only able to find sufficient data back to 1960, and even then the data were thin before 1975.
Although Mayer discussed a relatively short time period, it is one that has been extensively analyzed by writers with different perspectives. Some left-leaning writers, for example, denied that public opinion took a turn to the right in the 1970s (Parenti, 1986; Paletz and Entman, 1981). These writers claimed that the "Reagan revolution" was not in touch with public opinion, but distorted and manipulated it. Mayer's data provides a more nuanced view, showing that Reagan was in touch with public opinion on some issues, but not on others.
Mayer used the
terms "liberal" and "conservative" to organize his analysis of
a great many public opinion items. Many public opinion
specialists have questioned how well the public's attitudes on
a wide variety of issues can actually be clustered into these
two very general categories (Converse, 1964; Goertzel,
1981). Instead of treating "liberalism" and
"conservatism" as global ideologies, Mayer analyzed each issue
separately. To assess global trends, he simply averaged
the items, declaring a liberal shift when opinion moved in a
liberal direction on more survey items than it moved in the
conservative direction. This method gives equal weight to all
issues measured by public opinion polls, while the public may
actually care more about some of the issues than others.
It assumes that pollsters are doing a good job of selecting
the issues of most importance to the public, which is probably
a fair assumption. An alternative might be to examine
questions which ask the public which issues concern them the
most, or to focus on those issues which correlate most closely
with voting behavior. The following table summarizes
|1960-1965||Stability. Liberal trends on racial equality and capital punishment. Most changes small and counterbalanced by conservative trends.|
|1966-1973||Liberal Shift. Liberal changes on premarital sex, abortion, racial equality, women's status, foreign policy, the defense budget, Soviet relations and many other issues. Conservative trends on crime, taxes, labor, gun ownership, foreign aid.|
|1974-1980||Right Turn. Conservative changes on crime, the ERA, Soviet relations, military spending and intervention, taxes, government spending, regulations, inflation and the environment. Liberal trends on racial equality, women, premarital sex, legalizing marijuana.|
|1981-1988||Liberal Resurgence. Liberal changes on race, military, government spending, gay rights, Soviet relations, women, family, environment. Conservative trends on crime, abortion, economic rights & privileges, business profits.|
Mayer's detailed issue-specific data makes it possible to ask whether there are different trends for different kinds of issues, e.g., foreign policy issues, economic issues, life style issues, etc. Some of these may be cyclical, others may not. In fact, Mayer found that attitude change has been even more issue-specific than that. For example, Americans have become more liberal on women's rights, but more conservative on the Equal Rights Amendment. They have become more conservative on gun ownership, but not on gun registration. There has been a strong liberal trend on race relations and women's equality, and a consistent conservative trend on crime and punishment. The survey data allowed Mayer to look at age differences, providing an empirical test of generational hypotheses. His results were mixed. Generational effects have been important for changes on social and cultural issues, but not for opinions about foreign policy and economic issues.
Perhaps because of his immersion in this mass of data, Mayer had a hard time reaching conclusions about master trends. He observed that public opinion had been liberalizing from 1981-1988, but he failed to predict that this trend would have an effect on the 1992 Presidential elections. Succumbing to the conventional wisdom of his time, he discounted his own data and predicted "the most likely scenario for the future is a replay of the last ten years; more Republican presidents, and more liberal anguish and breast-beating" (Mayer, 1992b: 340).
Shifts in the Mass Psyche. A more explicitly psychological approach was that of Harold Lasswell (1932) who was perhaps the first to try to relate underlying psychodynamic factors to cycles in mass political consciousness. Lasswell applied the classical Freudian schema of "id" (biological needs), "ego" (testing of reality) and "superego" (socially acquired inhibitions) to political life. He argued that it was important to consider unconscious motivations, e.g., in understanding why leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln behaved irrationally, or why voters tend to view political leaders as saints or martyrs. He suggested that his ideas could be applied to social dynamics, but did not develop the idea fully. He summarized his essential principle as follows (1932: 538): "prolonged ego and superego indulgence produces redefinitions in directions gratifying to the id; prolonged ego and id indulgence produces redefinitions in directions gratifying to the superego."
A number of interesting questions are raised by this schema. Presumably "ego" coincides with moderate or pragmatic politics, with "id" and "superego" corresponding to the extremes. Can "id" and "superego" be equated with "left" and "right," respectively, or are both extremes characterized by excesses of id and superego? Do they correspond to the Schlesingers' eras of dominance by "public purposes" (superego) and "private interests" (id)? How does it come about that societies as a whole tend to cycle from one pole to the other, as in the "conformist" 1950's and early 1960's and the "liberated" late 1960's and 1970's?
A more complex and sophisticated psychodynamic approach is that of Lloyd DeMause (1982) whose theory of historical group-fantasies offers an ambitious and creative psychodynamic explanation of the cycles in mass political consciousness. Group fantasies are created because people displace into the public realm feelings connected with their search for love. These collective fantasies help people to express feelings which are otherwise private and to "act out and defend against repressed desires, rages and prohibitions which have their origins in childhoods common to the group" (p. 172). Group fantasies function as defense mechanisms and are unstable just as individual defense mechanisms are. They are therefore "subject to eventual breakdown due both to the return of the repressed and to the inability of reality to live up to the requirements of the fantasy content" (p. 174).
himself in images from the mass media and modifies his theory
to incorporate new insights as he goes along. One idea,
developed in his study of Jimmy Carter's Presidency, is that
the group's confidence in its leader goes through four regular
stages, which can, but need not be, seen as metaphors for the
birth process. DeMause believes that people have
memories of fetal events, such as shortages of oxygen from the
placenta, and of the birth process, which persist into
adulthood and shape political views. He makes an interesting
historical case for this argument, but it is hard to see how
it relates to historical shifts in the zeitgeist since
the birth process does not change much from one decade to
another. His stages are shorter than those of the
Schlesingers or Klingberg, to say nothing of Sorokin. In
fact, they fit well with the four years of an American
Presidential term, which reflects DeMause's intense interest
in day-to-day American politics. His four stages are as
|STRONG||The first year of a leader's term. Media images stress the strength of the leader and the nation. The leader is a container for the group's fantasy of strength and safety.|
|CRACKING||The group's feeling of strength and safety weakens, there is an increase in scapegoating to avoid blaming the leader, and the group's boundaries seem to be cracking or crumbling.|
|COLLAPSE||Intense anxiety about the collapse of the group's fantasy of strength leads to rage against the leader.|
|UPHEAVAL||A "group-psychotic insight" identifies a "delusional poisoner" who is the target for the group's rage. The delusional poisoner may be the leader, who may be ritually killed, or it may be an external enemy who can be provoked and attacked. Failing these groups, the nation may become suicidal, sacrificing poisoned elements of itself to an outside enemy.|
DeMause sees these cycles as part of a spiral pattern of history, i.e., there is a long term progressive trend caused by generational improvements in child rearing. There are two "psychoclasses" which alternate in dominance from cycle to cycle. The first, the "liberals" is the most progressive. The liberals identify with the id. They fear separation and seek security in revolt. The "conservatives" are the less advanced psychoclass. They identify with the superego, fear gratification, and seek security in order and discipline. Thus, DeMause sees the same groups as other observers - liberals and conservatives - but he argues that this difference is based on their psychological makeup rather than their economic interests or cognitive beliefs.
DeMause's theory offers so many options that it can explain almost any outcome. His spiral metaphor would suggest that liberals and conservatives should succeed each other regularly in four year intervals, but he does not address the reasons why this not the case. DeMause offers novel hypotheses about regularities in history, e.g., that violent group-delusions are preceded by conspiracy theories and preoccupation with sexual goings-on. DeMause also frequently offers the readers of his Journal of Psychohistory dire warnings about likely future events. For example, he predicted that "Jimmy Carter - for reasons rooted both in his own personality and in the powerful emotional demands of American fantasy - is very likely to lead us into a new war by 1979" (Demause, 1982: 147). In fact, he had totally misjudged Carter's character and politics. Carter chose not to take the opportunity for war provided by the Iranian hostage crisis, preferring to allow his popularity to wane to the point where he lost the 1980 election.
The weakest part of DeMause's argument is his use of evidence. He illustrates his observations profusely with selected historical references and media images, but without any rigorous attempt to determine whether the alleged patterns can be confirmed statistically. He argues that "the body images used by the cartoonists of the nation are by far the best index of the group-fantasy stages of the nation" (DeMause, 1982: 204). He illustrates his writings with cartoons that fit his themes, but has never conducted a systematic content analysis to determine whether there are, in fact, cyclical variations in the body images in published cartoons. He was enthusiastic when I (Goertzel, 1993) undertook such a project, but when the results did not fit his theories he became quite defensive. He objected to the way I selected cartoons for analysis, and insisted that only certain elite cartoonists could be relied upon to be truly in touch with the national mood. In his own analyses, he apparently selects the cartoons that fit his theory and simply ignores those which do not. This is a defense mechanism frequently used by true believers (Goertzel, 1982) when evidence does not fit their preconceptions.
Shifts in Cultural Themes. Sociology's main contributor to cycle theory was Pitirim Sorokin whose four volume Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1942; abridged edition 1957) was perhaps the most ambitious study of cultural cycles ever undertaken. Sorokin had an elaborate theory and he attempted to test it with empirical data. He argued that history moved slowly between two cultural themes: sensate and intuitive. The sensate system is empiricist, nominalist, determinist and materialist. It believes that the physical, material world is the fundamental reality. The ideational is idealist, mystical, and realist in the sense of believing that ideas have an existence independent of the material world. Sorokin argued that cyclical changes in a system are due largely to an "unfolding of its inherent possibilities" (Sorokin, 1941: 5).
Sorokin applied his scheme to world history over very long periods of time, not to the short term cycles which are the focus of this paper. For example, he regarded the triumph of Christianity over the Roman paganism as an ideational reaction against the excessively sensate nature of the Roman empire. His data was primarily intellectual works by leading philosophers and writers of the various eras. Unfortunately, Sorokin was not a rigorous statistician. A careful reanalysis of his data by Dean Keith Simonton (1976, 1984) did not confirm Sorokin's conclusions. Simonton found that sensate and ideational philosophies do not alternate in time, but actually fluctuate together. Historical eras with intense philosophical and intellectual activity (both sensate and intuitive) are followed by periods of low productivity of either type. Of course, this analysis is based entirely on published writers and may not correspond to trends in mass consciousness.
So far as I know, no one has attempted to apply Sorokin's theory to short term shifts in American culture or politics. However, a similar theory has been tested by Daniel Cover (1993) who analyzed Time Magazine covers from 1923 to 1988 looking for cycles in the kinds of social roles portrayed. He categorized these roles according to Talcott Parson's organizational cycle theory as adapted by Suzanne Keller. Leaders were classified into "internal" and "external" categories. External leaders were those in business, politics, science, government or the military whose functions were primarily adaptation or goal attainment. The internal leaders were movie stars, entertainers and media personalities, athletes, writers, artists, labor leaders, first family members, philosophers, educators, and clergy whose functions were integration or latency. He found evidence for a cyclical trend which was related to politics; the percent of external roles portrayed on Time covers was moderately (r=+.41) correlated with the percent of the vote for Republican presidential candidates.
Generational Cycles in History. While history, psychology, political science and sociology offer valuable insights from their disciplinary perspectives, generational theory provides the most comprehensive and powerful explanation of shifts in mass consciousness. William Strauss and Neil Howe's Generations (1991) is a tour de force of generational analysis, covering the full sweep of the American past and future from 1584 to 2069. Their book incorporates and supersedes the work of several other generational analysts of American political history (Elazar, 1976; Keller, 1979; Huntington, 1974) whose historical observations are similar but less systematically developed.
The essential claim of generational theory is that the biological fact that humans reproduce in distinct generations is related to historical changes. In families, biology dictates that distinct generations succeed each other in 20 to 30 year intervals. At any point in time, the older generations may differ from the younger simply because they are more mature. These are life cycle differences. There are also cohort differences, caused by the fact that individuals born in a given historical epoch are exposed to different conditions and events than individuals who come of age under different historical conditions (Mannheim, 1952; Goertzel, 1972), The tricky part is understanding how these life cycle and cohort effects interact to produce historical cycles. Strauss and Howe attempt to reconcile the life cycle and cohort approaches by defining a generation as "a special cohort-group whose length approximately matches that of a basic phase of life, or about twenty-two years over the last three centuries" (p. 34). They claim that a distinctive "social moment" has occurred every twenty-two years or so, marking the transition from one generation's period of dominance to that of another.
Based on their
historical research, Strauss and Howe argue that American
history is marked by a regular succession of four generational
types, each of which dominates for about 22.5 years.
This long cycle theory, taking ninety years to go
through all four types, is what emboldens them to make
predictions as far into the future as 2069. They argue that
the four generational types have recurred in a fixed order
(with one exception) throughout American history. They
also note that references to this four generational pattern
can be found in Exodus and The Illiad as well
as in the works of Huntington (1981), Marias (1967, 1968),
Littre (1860) and Ferrari (1872). Briefly summarized,
the four cycles are as shown in the following table.
|IDEALIST - Prophet||An inner-driven, moralistic generation which comes of age during a period of spiritual awakening and develops a new creedal passion. The Jungian "Prophet" archetype is dominant.|
|REACTIVE - Artist||An alienated, cynical generation which challenges the ideals of their parents and develops into pragmatic, risk-taking adults. The Jungian "Artist" archetype is dominant.|
|An outer-driven, morally complacent generation which institutionalizes many of the ideals of the previous generations. The Jungian "Hero" archetype is dominant.|
|A hypocritical generation which coasts along on the accomplishments of the civics, laying the groundwork for a new idealist era. The Jungian "Nomad" archetype is dominant.|
This four-cycle model can easily be reconciled the observations of the Schlesingers, Klingberg and others if we collapse the four into two. The Idealist and Civic are both extroverted in the sense of being eager to take action in the world. They are also both "liberal" in the way the Schlesinger's define it, concerned with the common good, although they may not belong to the more "liberal" of two parties in an ideological sense. The Reactive and Civic are both introverted and "conservative" in one sense of that term. The differences between them are really rather subtle; little is lost if they are combined. The difference between the idealist and civic types, on the other hand, is of considerable practical significance. The idealists are moral crusaders while the civics are practical problem solvers.
Strauss and Howe follow each of these generations through the four stages of the life cycle (youth [0-21], rising adulthood [22-43], midlife [44-65] and elder [66-87], and explore how the interpersonal dynamics within families tend to differ depending on which historical generation each cohort is part of. However, this discussion is too complex for any but the most dedicated generational theorist to follow.
The concept of
"social moment" plays a key role in Strauss and Howe's theory.
They postulate that each of their long cycles has two such
moments, the first of which is a "spiritual awakening," the
second a "secular crisis." The key social moments
in American history are as follows:
|SPIRITUAL AWAKENING or "Second Turning"||SECULAR CRISIS or "Fourth Turning"|
|Reformation Awakening (1517-1539)||Defeat of Spanish Armada (1580-1588)|
|Puritan Awakening (1734-1743)||Glorious Revolution (1675-1692)|
|Great Awakening (1734-1743)||American Revolution (1773-1789)|
|Transcendental Awakening (1822-1837)||Civil War (1857-1865)|
|Missionary Awakening (1886-1903)||Depression & World War II (1932-1945)|
|Boom Awakening (1967-1980)||[expected in the 2020's]|
This is a grand historical scheme, very much in the tradition of Sorokin and other students of long term cultural trends. One can question whether these really were the defining events of American history, or whether they have been selected because they fit the scheme. Was the cultural revolution of the 1967-1980 period really the historical equivalent of the Great Awakening? Do the great depression and World War II really constitute one event? Why is World War I left out? One can also question whether the these events really determined generational succession in the zeitgeist. Strauss and Howe do rather well in fitting cultural history into their scheme, except for the post-Civil War period when they argue that no civic generation appeared because the Civil War itself happened too soon. While this scheme covers the full sweep of American history, the cycles are so long that only four and a half of them have occurred since the nation was founded. This does not provide enough cases for any kind of statistical certainty, an inherent problem in long cycle theories. Their account is consistent with that of Robert Fogel (2000) who believes there have been four one-hundred year cycles in American history, each of which was triggered by a "Great Awakening." Fogel seems to be unaware of Strauss and Howe's work which anticipated many of his ideas.
What can this
kind of sweeping theory tell us about contemporary politics
and culture? One thing we can do with it is
consider people of different ages as products of the
historical period in which they came of age. Today, five
generations are politically active as described in the
|GENERATION (type)||YEARS BORN (duration)||PRESIDENTS & CANDIDATES|
|G.I. (Civic)||1901-1924 (24 years)||Johnson, Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Kennedy, Carter, George H.W. Bush, Dole|
|SILENT (Adaptive)||1925-1942 (18 years)||Mondale, Dukakis, Kemp, Hart, Jackson|
|BOOM (Idealist)||1943-1960 (18 years)||Bill Bradley, William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, Dan Quayle, Albert Gore, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush|
("Generation X") (Reactive)
|1961-1981 (21 years)||.|
("Generation Y") (Civic)
Of these generations, the G.I. generation and the Baby Boomers are well known as cultural phenomenon. The Silent Generation has been much less influential politically, as shown by the failure to elect any Presidents. The election of Bill Clinton was widely interpreted as a coming to power of the Baby Boomers. Interestingly enough, however, Strauss and Howe did not predict the boomers coming to power in the 1992 elections. Indeed, they differed with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on this point, remarking that:
table matches up Dassbach's dates for the economic long cycles
with Strauss and Howe's dates for generational long cycles. To
make the best match, I have selected the generation entering
rising adulthood during each period. The cohort theory of
generations argues that people's consciousness is most
impacted by historical conditions during the period of "youth"
from approximately 16 to 25 years of age. Unfortunately, this
period is not highlighted by Strauss and Howe, who split the
life cycle between "youth" and "rising adulthood" at age 22.
|Economic period||Economic condition||Generational period||Generation entering rising adulthood||Generational type|
The match between
the theories is rough as one would expect given the nature of
the data. Interestingly, the biggest gap occurs in the
Civil War period, which is precisely when Strauss and Howe's
own theory doesn't work. The more active generations (Civic
and Idealist) seem to be those who experience their formative
years during a period of economic contraction. They claim that
the Civil War happened too soon, and for this reason there was
no Civic generation after the reactive Gilded
generation. Wars are important to both the economic
long-cycle theory (Goldstein, 1988) and Strauss and Howe's
generational long-cycle theory (most of their "secular crises"
involve wars). Very likely the wars cause the economic trends
detected by long-cycle theorists, although economic
determinists would draw the causal path in the opposite
direction. Generational long-cycle theory would predict
another major war (or equivalent "secular crisis") in the
2020's. Economic long-cycle theory would predict one about now
(50 years after World War II). All in all, in my view, the
generational cycle theory seems to fit the historical data
better, and the economic long-cycles might be viewed as a
consequence of generational cycles. So far as I know, this has
not been considered in the long-cycle literature, which is
dominated by neo-Marists.
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Predicting the Future? In their book, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1997), Strauss and Howe boldly ventured to predict America's future. They should be applauded for doing so. Too many writers have 20/20 hindsight but never take the risk of making predictions that might come back to haunt them. Strauss and Howe have been rewarded for their efforts. After September 11, their book shot to the top of the charts on amazon.com because they predicted that something like this attack would happen. Is this true? Did they predict the September 11 attack? And, if so, does this mean that they can predict its consequences?
Of course, Strauss and Howe did not predict the specifics of the September 11 attack, although they did give several scenarios, one of which included terrorists blowing up an aircraft. What they said was: "sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning...a spark will ignite a new mood...it will catalyze a Crisis. In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party. It could be a rapid succession of small events in which the ominous, the ordinary, and the trivial are conmingled" (p. 272). On the book's WEB site, they stated: "the Fourth Turning offers this bold prophecy: just after the millennium, America will enter a new era that will culminate with a crisis comparable to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. The survival of the nation will almost certainly be at stake."
Like most prophecies, this one is general enough that it is difficult to say for sure whether a given event fits it (even if we allow that 2001 is only "a few" years before 2005). Even Strauss and Howe aren't certain if this was the turning point they were looking for. In a September 13, 2001, posting on their WEB site they said: "Was this terrorist attack a jarring "spark" in history, of the sort we described, substantial enough to catalyze a crisis mood. Of course. Will it? That still is open to question--but it could." They cite another passage from the book: "A spark will ignite a new mood…. An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies…. At home and abroad, these events will reflect the tearing of the civic fabric at points of extreme vulnerability-problem areas where, during the Unraveling, America will have neglected, denied, or delayed needed action. Anger at 'mistakes we made' will translate into calls for action, regardless of the heightened public risk. It is unlikely the catalyst will worsen into a full-fledged catastrophe, since the nation will probably find a way to avert the initial danger and stabilize the situation for a while. The local rebellion will probably be quelled, terrorists foiled, fiscal crisis averted, disaster halted, or war fever cooled. Yet even if dire consequences are temporarily averted, America will have entered the Fourth Turning" (273-274).
Strauss and Howe's prediction covers quite a range of outcomes. The terrorists may or may not be foiled, fiscal crisis may or may not be averted, war fever may or may not be cooled. Whichever happens, their prediction will not be contradicted. We can't really fault them for hedging their bets in this way, since we know that no one can make precise predictions. The term "cycle" is often used in referring to economic and social phenomena, but these are not cycles in the sense that the term is used in physics. They are not regularly recurrent periods of fixed duration. There are definite shifts in consciousness, but we cannot predict precisely when they will occur or precisely how long they will last.
Strauss and Howe remain convinced that they can predict general trends, even if they cannot predict precise turning points. If they are right, what does this mean for us? It means America and the free world are due for a deepening crisis characterized by severe drops in financial markets, declining confidence in America's institutions, and, very likely, "a sudden downward spiral, an implosion of societal trust" (p. 275). This deepening crisis should reach a climax at about the year 2020, when all of America's problems will seem to have congealed into "one giant problem, the very survival of the society will feel at stake." Finally, we will experience "a great entropy reversal, the miracle of human history in which trust is reborn" (278).
The historical pattern is strong enough that we should take this scenario seriously. But we do not need to accept it as inevitable. We have choices, and we can choose to change the future. Even Strauss and Howe, on their WEB discussion group, state that "changes in how we think about events can determine the direction and outcome of the events themselves." If consumer confidence is shattered, the government overreacts to the terrorist threat, and the public is seduced by maximalist solutions, then the Fourth Turning will be upon us. Otherwise not.
Futurism is not
about predicting an inevitable future, it is about
understanding trends so we decide how to deal with them.
Strauss and Howe, however, seem to feel that the tides of
history are so strongly against it that there is little we can
do but batten down the hatches and weather the storm. In
the Fourth Turning (pp 312-321) they advise us to:
At the Current Historical Turning Point
expect the worst and prepare to mobilize, but don't precommit to any one response
Is this the best we can do? I certainly hope not. The problem with prophecies is that they may be self-fulfilling. Strauss and Howe expect bad times for America, and they want to help people prepare. But expectations are a big part of the problem. The September 11 Attack on America came at a time when the American economy was faltering and seemed to be facing a cyclical downturn. A major factor in the economy is consumer confidence. As Paul Krugman (2001) said: " The reason to be concerned about the economic effects of terrorism is not the actual damage but the possibility that nervous consumers and investors will stop spending. Truly, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Too much talk
about cycles can lead to fatalism and hopelessness. And
unnecessarily, since not all trends are cyclical. Many
trends are progressive, such as the growth in knowledge and in
economic productivity. Economists have learned a
lot since the 1930s about how to manage an economy, and the
government has an improved ability to act on their
advice. There is no chance of a repeat of the wave of
bank failures that was allowed in the 1930s, for example,
because we simply will not allow that to happen.
Political, diplomatic and military leaders have learned from
failures, such as the Vietnam war, and are determined not to
repeat their mistakes. Business leaders have learned how
to measure and respond to shifts in consumer attitudes
(Walker, 2001). And Strauss and Howe have figured out
the generational cycle, and warned us that we need to change
it. All of these things give us hope that we can avoid
the dismal future that Strauss and Howe project for us.
by Kenneth Boulding
22 February 1992
Cycles surround us, soon as we come to
Birds flap their wings and migrate
forth and back.
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