When futuring flops: the case of The Fourth Turning

It’s important for futurists to examine flawed futuring work and learn from it.  I’ve said this before, reflecting on my own forecasting misfires.  I haven’t offered many criticisms of others’ work, largely for reasons of time.  I’d like to start doing some more of this.

Why?  There are all kinds of benefits to this kind of analysis.  One involves testing the limits of a given method (Delphi, trends extrapolation, etc.) by seeing what it misses… which then suggests how one can either modify the method or choose to use it in addition to another approach.

A second benefit concerns blind spots.  For example, in his criminally underrated work on global inequality (cf my notes) Branko Milanovic notes that 1970s futures work focused so heavily on the Cold War’s primary antagonists – the USA and USSR – that they utterly failed to not only predict, but even pay much attention to nations that sidestepped the conflict’s core: Yugoslavia, for example, and most especially China.  This is an understandable mistake, given the huge dimensions of the US-Soviet struggle, not to mention the stakes (possible human extinction), but it was a mistake.  Seeing it now drives us to look for our own blind spots.

A third reason to prod older futures work is to understand how the broader public perceives futuring.  Which projects win followings tells us something about present attitudes.

Today’s example is a popular and influential book, The Fourth Turning (1997; official site), by the gurus of generational thinking, William Strauss and Neil Howe.   It claims to have discovered a deep and sustained structure to American history, one which will continue to function in the future.  Understanding this code will therefore help prepare us for upcoming changes.

The code involves a multi-step sequence, each of which lasts about eighty to one hundred years, a period the authors refer to as a “saeculum”.  Within each saeculum are four phases, or “turnings“:

  1. High: “an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.”
  2. Awakening: “a passionate are of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.”
  3. Unraveling: “a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.”
  4. Crisis: “a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.” (3; 101-104)

Within each turning comes a “generational archetype“.  The High spawns a “Prophet generation”, the Awakening a “Nomad generation”, the Unraveling a “Hero”, and the Crisis an “Artist.” (19) . Each generation cycles through these types, although I think what this means is that a generation produces a small group of people embodying these patterns, rather than an entire generation becoming artists, nomads, etc.

Mount Rushmore, photo by the Chris Collins family

“Looking from left to right… Nomad, Hero, Artist, and Prophet.” (91)

Most of the book involves working this code out across American history and the then-present, with raids on other histories, historiography, and a final lunge at the future.  For example, Strauss and Howe explain that a recent “High” was 1945-1963, followed by an “Awakening” through the 1980s, an “Unraveling” into the 1990s, and an upcoming “Crisis” around 2005-2007.  To sum up: “we are presently in the Third Turning of the Millennial Saeculum, the seventh cycle of the modern era… giving birth to the twenty-fourth generation of the post-Medieval era” (19, 123).

The authors insist on the power of their system.  They think the timing can wriggle around a bit, but the turnings must happen in order and within that 80-100 year frame.  They allow “accidents” (events which don’t fit the system), but insist that what really matters about such events is “society’s response to them” (116; emphasis in original). They don’t have much interest in humility; the book’s subtitle is “an American prophecy.”

One of the biggest problems with the book is classic problem of trying to cram all of history into a narrow frame.  Its judgements are so impressionistic that they are sometimes simply wrong.  Describing the Kennedy administration, the authors refer to its imagining of the future as having “specificity and certainty but lack[ing] urgency and moral direction.” (101) I’m still not sure what that means, but I’m not sure it works on its face.  The Apollo program, the US intervention in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle certainly possessed urgency.  Moral direction suffused the New Frontier and its expansion of the Cold War, not to mention black organizing against white racism.

Soylent Green posterEarly on the text looks back 25 years to early 1970s forecasting, which is a fine thing to do.  One passage cites Soylent Green (good) and EPCOT (ok) as attempts to predict futures which didn’t happen.  I’m not sure what EPCOT got wrong in this sense (surely world is more technologically immersed?), but yes, we didn’t head into a world of massive overpopulation and industrialized cannibalism.  (Personally, I see the latter, especially voiced by the Club of Rome, as a fine example of futures work not as prophecy but as warning, and therefore as a success.)  Strauss and Howe then build on their thought in a peculiar way:

late-seventies forecasters made a more fundamental error… they all assumed America was heading somewhere in a hurry.  No one would have imagined what actually happened: that through the 1980s and 1990s, while different societal pieces have drifted in different directions, America as a whole has gone nowhere in particular. (18)

This sounds appealing for about one tenth of one second, until you start thinking about the massive developments of those two decades.  The internet, for example; AIDS and progress in gay rights; the birth of the modern right wing, starting with the Moral Majority; the Democratic party’s hard turn to the center and right; the end of the ozone hole crisis; massive rearmament; the drastic resurgence of income inequality.  Not to mention the whole nearly destroying the world thing in 1983, the end of the Cold War, and the first of a new world order.  You know, “nowhere in particular.”

Elsewhere, one passage offers a handy one-sentence summary of the “turning” idea:  “In a High, people want to belong; in an Awakening, to defy; in an Unraveling, to separate; in a Crisis, to gather.” (112; emphases in original)  This sounds roughly right, if we read back our history in a friendly way.  Sure, people gather together in a crisis, and so on.  But if we read critically, we find people acting in all four of those lines throughout history, breaking out of the four-phase template.  People, especially Americans, are delighted to defy and separate every decade and probably every year since Plymouth Rock.  Again, these formulae become bromides, or simply fall apart when taken seriously.

This impressionism also leads to some serious blind spots.  A quick tour through British history, applying the code back as far as the fifteenth century, identifies the War of the Roses and the Glorious Revolution as epochal events, while utterly missing the English Civil War, that revolution, Cromwell’s regime, and the Restoration, each at least as important as the foregoing, and probably more so.  But the timing’s off, so 1640-1660 doesn’t get its bullet points and position on helpful tables (45).  Speaking of British history, Strauss and Howe are quite open about seeing American history in that light.  They admit that Americans came from other nations and continents (Asia, Africa, the rest of Europe) and that some didn’t arrive at all (Native Americans), but set those aside because the great cycle started with the British (94).

Another blind spot swims into our view when the authors address demographic issues other than their generational dynamic.  They see anxieties about overpopulation only in terms of their saeculum, and can’t account for a multi-generational project to redo millennia of human population practices when it’s right before their eyes, except to cram it back into their framework (194-5).  That this development could warp their model –  do only children react differently to their forebears than kids among broods of a dozen? – remains unaddressed.  We can see this in the authors calling on GenX to become “America’s largest potential generational voting bloc.” (327) Setting aside questions of mobilization, this fails for two reasons: GenX is much smaller than Boomers or Millennials, a fact clearly known in the 1990s; mass media love ignoring GenX, a fact which we in that generation could have told you, had you asked us.

The generational archetypes strike me as the weakest part of The Fourth Turning.  They offer glancing glimpses into historical figures encountered for the first time, but offer little insight beyond that, and ultimately fail to characterize people usefully.  Prophets, for example, include religious leaders, as one might expect.  They also number atheists, managers, and war leaders. “Their principle endowments are in the domain of vision, values, and religion… These have been principled moralists, summoners of human sacrifice, wagers of righteous wars.” (96)  In short, a “Prophet” is just about any political, religious, or cultural leader.

Similarly, “Nomads” include “Stonewall Jackson, George Patton… George Washington and John Adams, Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower… Their principle endowments are in the domain of liberty, survival, and honor.” (96)  Elsewhere we learn that Huey Long and Boss Tweed were also nomads (269). At this point I’m not sure why the authors even use the term “nomad” (John Adams?!).  They certainly aren’t addressing nomadic patterns within native American nations.  Perhaps they are referring to physical mobility, hence Patton and Grant?  We can easily swap personages between these two categories with at least as much logic as the authors show for including them.  The other two archetypes offer the same superficial sense and deeper uselessness.  It reaches the point where Andrew Jackson and Walter Mondale are lumped together (!) as “Artists”.

A similar problem attends the idea of “gray champions.” (139ff)  Strauss and Howe pick up Hawthorne’s story of the same name (1837) to identify a figure who prophecies the advent of a fourth turning.  But the generic, impressionistic nature of this figure means it can arrive at any time, and embody basically any message, from reactionary to radical.

Ultimately the strong claims of the book are either too flimsy or unfalsiable to be of use.

These problems vitiate what must have been the book’s most vital section when it appeared, its description of and advice about an upcoming fourth turning (270ff).  It begins in a promising way, offering a series of potential crises, from state secession to disease outbreaks.  One of them actually comes pretty close to 9-11, imagining a terrorist strike, but with different nuclear and financial consequences.

Then things become too light to be useful.  One sober page reminds us that crises can trigger all kinds of distress (277).  Older people will warn young people about stuff (279, 285). Xers will not be happy all the time. A currency devaluation will cripple Boomer finances – ah, well, that didn’t happen.   A “great leader” will lead us into “a new High” – well, give it time, I suppose; again, this narrative arc could occur at any time, saecularly fitted or otherwise (300).  We might see popular desires for more free market economics, or less (310).

The advice we get is similarly weak tea.  We’re told to remember this is a different era than certain prior times.  A “Lincoln-like leader” might spark secession or greater unity, depending on timing.  We should “forge [a] consensus and uplift the culture” but “don’t attempt reforms that can’t now be accomplished.”  “Treat children as the nation’s highest priority, but don’t do their work for them.”  “Expect the worst [on defense] and prepare to mobilize, but don’t precommit to any one response.”  These are all generic, middle of the road nostrums that don’t really guide us one way or the other.

One bit of advice is actually quite specific.  Strauss and Howe recommend that we trim government spending.  “We should shed and simplify the federal government in advance of the Crisis by cutting back sharply on its size and scope…”  Related to this is a hedged call to “Tell future elders they will need to be more self-sufficient, but don’t attempt deep cuts in benefits to current elders.”  It seems like an economically conservative message is buried therein.

Now,. there are some useful insights in The Fourth Turning.  Opponents of the Obama and Trump administrations would each be glad to see that the book anticipated a return to “authoritarian government… rested and refreshed.” (108)  Strauss and Howe based their code on a basic observation about intergenerational struggle, a development humans have thought about since Procopius complained in the sixth century about Byzantine kids wearing Hun-style haircuts to irk their elders, and probably earlier than that.  But Strauss and Howe go a little farther, offering the idea that generations sometimes share commonality via leapfrog: “Your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you.” (79; emphases in original) . Call it the Harold and Maude hypothesis, but it’s a neat concept.

I was also impressed at how the book admitted one giant flaw in its system: the American Civil War.  For two pages (121-2) the text explores what it deems to be “the only conspicuous anomaly” to its scheme.  I admire how the discussion tries to apply the turnings and generational archetypes and ultimately finds them falling apart.  The book’s fierce determinism exits for just a moment, and the authors return agency to human individuals.  It’s a rough spot, one which the rest of the book sidesteps, but one I appreciate.  I’m reminded of how Steven Pinker tries to fit WWI and WWII into his narrative of declining rates of human violence.  Strauss and Howe do a better job in this brief passage.

There are other problems with the book.  A text so keenly focused on the future barely touches on science fiction at all, and then ignores the great creative works about the future (think of Heinlein’s future history, or Asimov’s Foundation sequence!).  It tries to coin some new terms, which the best that can be said of is they didn’t take.  Generation Xers remain Xers, not “the Thirteenth” (although I enjoyed being evoked by Rosemary’s Baby (194)).  While there isn’t a widely accepted nickname for the years 2000-2009, I don’t think any human beings other than Strauss and Howe have thought of them as “the Oh Ohs.”  My final nit to pick: the index is terrible, only a list of names, and not a useful one at that.

So to return to my framing device: what can we learn from this kind of flawed futuring?

Method: this kind of “key to all mythologies” scheme is not very useful for serious analysis or futuring.  Paying attention to generational differences has some advantages, but we should hesitate before building systems on top of them.

Blind spots: in 2018 I probably don’t have to remind readers of the importance of paying attention to populations other than straight white males, but that’s one group of blind spots this book struggles with.  A less obvious point is taking demographics seriously, as this book fails to do.

I am intrigued at the pre-2001 approach to religion.  Religion here appears mostly as a historical artifact, faintly echoed in the New Age movement.  Radical Islam does not appear, serving instead as a black swan.  Big, big blind spot.

XKCD classics

Popular understanding of futures work: first, American really love their generational tribes. We adore self-identifying by Boomer, Xer, Greatest.  The authors helped stoke this affection, and it rewarded them well.  Futures work that speaks to strong identity markers has a good shot of winning and audience.

Second, busy people like handy sketches.  Fourth Turning is a longish book, but the schema is clear, repeated throughout, and represented through many charts and tables.

Third, more deeply: this is a very 1990s book. It is suffused with neoliberalism’s cultural win, such as its call to cut back on elder services.  I’m not sure how far this goes, since so much of the futuring is cloudy or think.  One of the authors apparently worked with Steve Bannon on a film, but I don’t see Breitbart in The Fourth Turning.  Instead this is closer to second term Bill Clinton.

These three present challenges to me as a futurist.  Methodologically I try to use several tools, but research and time demands place trend identification and extrapolation at the top of my agenda, so I need to correct that imbalance.  I don’t share the authors’ blind spots about demographics or religion, but then again, that’s how blind spots work.  I need to know what I miss.

As a creator and business leader, I’m not sure I’ve connected as well with my audience as Strauss and Howe did.  I address people by their professional identities, in terms of job and institutional situation, but not much more than that.  I really fail to provide accessible sketches.  So this is a good prompt for me to improve outreach skills.

What do you think?  Does this book remind you of anything else?

(Mount Rushmore by Chris Collins and family; XKCD from that site)


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