2020 is a year that will stick in our memories for years to come, mostly for the wrong reasons. Yet this year’s historic significance had already been forecast by some, though without reference to a global pandemic.
In 1997, a book by Neil Howe and William Strauss, called “The Fourth Turning” pointed to 2020 as the midpoint of an important phase in history. The book built on a previous book by the authors, called “Generations”, and talked about the cycles of change in the world, notably in the Anglo-American world – the books focus particularly on the US.
(As a side-note, the authors pioneered a lot of the current thinking about generations, including coining the term millennial. Their writings have also drawn praise from different sides of the political divide – including former US Vice President Al Gore to former adviser to President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon)
The authors set out a generational theory built around generational changes (or turnings) which take place every 20 years or so, during which there is a fundamental shift in ideas and the ways in which people see themselves. These then make up a cycle of four such turnings, or a period of about 80 years, which the authors call a saeculum.
They explain the four turnings that make up a saeculum thus:
- The first turning (which we can equate to spring) is a high, characterised by an optimistic era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order is established and the old values regime decays.
- The second turning (summer) is an awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the current civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.
- The third turning (autumn) is an unravelling, a more downcast, cynical era of heightened individualism and weakening institutions. Here the old order is in decay and a new values regime come to the fore.
- The fourth turning (winter) is a crisis, an era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.
Historically, the fourth turning of each saeculum has culminated in a major war, which brings great destruction, but also an opportunity to reset.
The authors also detail a series of saecula relating to Anglo-American history, going back to the 15th century. Historically, the fourth turning of each saeculum has culminated in a major war, which brings great destruction, but also an opportunity to reset. The authors note the wars that marked the fourth turnings of the last three saecula in the US:
- The American War of Independence of 1776 to 1783, which culminated in the birth of the US.
- The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, which ended slavery in the southern states of the US.
- The Second World War of 1939 to 1945, in which the Axis powers were defeated.
Each of these wars was a culmination of a period of great upheaval and discontent among the people towards their governments. For example, while the American War of Independence was sparked by the American colonies’ dissatisfaction at having to pay high taxes to the British crown, it was also an expression of the extent to which the colonies having developed the “critical mass” to break free from British rule. The years building up to the Second World War had also seen the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and a general decline in cooperation between countries.
Are we now at a similar point? This is where the words of Howe and Strauss in 1997 seem eerily prophetic, given events and trends like the Global Financial Crisis, the rise of populism and trade wars:
Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth.
“Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyse a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth. Americans will share a regret about recent mistakes—and a resolute new consensus about what to do. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.”
While the authors don’t mention a pandemic, there’s no doubt that Covid-19 has added to this heady mix of anger and discontent towards global governments and institutions. The big questions many will doubtless ask are: Is a major war about to break out? Could the fight against Covid-19 constitute a war in itself?
Speaking at John Mauldin’s 2020 Virtual Strategic Investment Conference in May this year, Howe said he didn’t know whether the pandemic could be seen as a substitute for war. However it does represent a common problem that governments and civil societies need to work together on to solve. Certainly the levels of spending by governments are of a quantum last seen during the Second World War.
However, he noted that pandemics are not completely random events. Many human diseases through history have made the transition from animals to humans, the result of our relationship with the animal world. And periods of openness and globalisation are not just good for trade, but for pathogens as well. It’s no coincidence that global travel, one of the manifestations of openness, has been one of the leading victims of the fight against Covid-19.
Battle of the generations
There is of course another battle being fought at the moment – the battle to determine who will be the next US president. The battle is important for the obvious reasons, namely for the shape of economic policy and geopolitics in the years to come, and may determine whether we will see more or less global conflict in the next few years. But it’s also interesting from a generational point of view.
Both incumbent Trump and Democrat candidate Joe Biden are noteworthy for their age. At 77 years and 349 days, Ronald Reagan was the oldest ever sitting president when he handed over the reins to George Bush Senior in January 1989.
However if Trump wins and sees out his full term, he will be 78 years and 220 days when he hands over to his successor in January 2025, beating Reagan’s record. And if Biden wins, he will be the oldest ever president at inauguration, at 78 years and 62 days.
Does age matter? Perhaps, but possibly the more important discussion is about the ages of voters and how the different generations behave at the ballot box.
Younger voters, according to Pew Research, were instrumental in deciding the outcome of the mid-term elections for the House of Representatives in 2018. Turnout among millennials almost doubled between 2014 and 2018 and millennials were instrumental in winning the House for the Democrats. This was the first time that the younger cohort’s participation had increased at the mid-term stage in 25 years.
Moreover, says Pew, two thirds of people aged 18 to 29 voted Democrat at mid-term elections. Pew notes that there will be 47 million people in this age group eligible to vote, 15 million for the first time.
While this sounds like good news for the Democrats, one should note that the dynamics of the US’s Electoral College system, in which the results in a few swing states can make all the difference, could offset this. The outcome of the election is therefore likely to depend on how well the two sides mobilise their existing bases, and in which states.
Some cause for optimism
Stories about the Great Depression and wars may make us apprehensive about what lies ahead. However, as Howe and Strauss point out, the new first turning that follows is often a time of new beginnings and strengthened institutions. The post-war years may have seen the onset of the Cold War, but they also saw the establishment of the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and other institutions that have contributed to keeping global peace and enhancing cooperation between nations.
According to the authors:
“As the old civic order gives way, Americans will have to craft a new one. This will require a values consensus and, to administer it, the empowerment of a strong new political regime. If all goes well, there could be a renaissance of civic trust, and more: Today's Third Turning problems—that Rubik's Cube of crime, race, money, family, culture, and ethics —will snap into a Fourth Turning solution. America's post-Crisis answers will be as organically interconnected as today's pre-Crisis questions seem hopelessly tangled. By the 2020s, America could become a society that is good, by today's standards, and also one that works.”
So how reliable and useful is the four turnings model for understanding our increasingly complex world? The model is certainly heavily Anglo-American centred, which may make it less relevant in a world where demographics in other parts of the world are becoming more important, such as China, India or Sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, it’s a useful template for assessing the patterns of change.
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The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe
Generations – The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, by William Strauss and Neil Howe
Strauss–Howe generational theory, Wikipedia
Neil Howe – The Pandemic and the Fourth Turning, published in Advisor Perspectives, May 2020
Plenty of Signs Surging Youth Vote Will Play Major Role in 2020 US Election, VOANews, June 2020
About the author
Patrick writes and edits content for Investec Wealth & Investment, and Corporate and Institutional Banking, including editing the Daily View, Monthly View, and One Magazine - an online publication for Investec's Wealth clients. Patrick was a financial journalist for many years for publications such as Financial Mail, Finweek, and Business Report. He holds a BA and a PDM (Bus.Admin.) both from Wits University.
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