by Sara Robinson
William Strauss and Neil Howe figure largely among the authors who've had the biggest effect on my life. More than anyone else, perhaps, they were the ones who put me on the track to futures studies. And, even as I acquire other forecasting tools and insights into how the future tends to unfold, I keep coming back to their basic thesis -- the saecular theory of history -- as a core tool in interpreting the world around me.
You can find Strauss & Howe junkies in almost any bookstore or coffeeshop by simply muttering a few buzzwords. Talk about the Crisis Era, or the Gilded Generation, or Nomads. Or just wave your dog-eared copy of The Fourth Turning (they've written many books, most of them longer, but this one is the most concise and compelling of the lot), and see whose eyebrows perk up. You'll know you’ve found another member of the tribe, one who will look on you with pleasure rather than pity while you burble on about Unravelings, Generation Jones, and the ever-perplexing Civil War Anomaly.
Strauss & Howe's saecular theory (which takes in the work of dozens of other historians who've proposed historical, economic, and cultural cycles in the past) postulates that the past 500 years of Anglo-American history has unfolded in a repeating cycle of roughly 80 years (it’s gotten slightly longer as lifespans have increased). The events change from cycle to cycle, of course; but the essential forces of history, the priorities and personalities of recurring generational groups, and the similar consequences resulting from each phase of the cycle conspire to keep it turning back over itself through time. Certain types of events and characters emerge and converge, again and again. Things that seem impossible in one part of the cycle seem equally inevitable in others. Lessons that the passing generation once knew are forgotten, and must be learned again. (Our Roaring 20s great-grandparents could have given us an earful of caution about the 90s, for example.) For people who want to surf the waves of time and opportunity, the saecular theory has proven to be a surprisingly useful tide table.
The complete cycle (or saeculum) comprises four phases (or seasons) each lasting about 17-22 years:
1. High -- a spring of extreme conformity, communal focus, large-scale planning and building, economic security, institution-building, and extreme optimism. What was once radical now becomes firmly codified establishment dogma throughout the culture. As it ends, people become more sophisticated and curious about the world. (1945-1964)
2. Awakening -- a summer of social experimentation, expansion of individual rights, inner-directed growth, devaluation of old establishment institutions, emergence of a new set of social ideals. Old dogma is destroyed; and the dominant values and aspirations of the next era emerge before disillusionment eventually sets in. (1890-1910, 1964-1980)
3. Unraveling -- an autumn of institutional and infrastructure neglect, culture wars, economic bubbles, sex scandals, drug prohibitions, fanatic religious movements, political corruption, runaway corporatism, and general decadence. With the old consensus intellectually, economically, culturally, and physically in tatters, things begin to fall apart, preparing the way for the new. (1910-1929, 1980-2001)
4. Crisis -- a winter in which the world is politically, economically, and physically (and usually violently) remade, with a new establishment and new institutions built around the ideals and values that emerged during the previous Awakening. Individual rights are at low ebb. Attention is outer-directed as communal priorities, teamwork, and conformity re-emerge, and people re-engage with the larger society. (1773-1794, 1844-1865, 1929-1945, 2001-2020?)
Looking at this cycle, the current disarray in our planning infrastructure is apparently right on schedule. We've been here before -- in fact, a lot of people have noticed how much of our current political and social landscape does in fact look like the 1930s. The theory tells us quite specifically how we got here, and points to both the opportunities and concerns that we're likely to encounter going forward.
As we saw last week, much of our current large-scale infrastructure was planned and built by the GI and Silent Generations, mostly through the last High and Awakening -- that is, 1945 through the 70s. The GIs are, according to Strauss & Howe, were one of our recurring Civic generations -- conforming, optimistic, comfortable with authority, and (as we've seen) consummate organizers and planners. The Silent, who followed them, have been sensitive and insightful diplomats and technocrats, moving easily to get things done smoothly, with careful attention to people's rights and needs. Between them, they left us plans that were designed to maintain and expand their visions into the 90s and beyond.
The problem, of course, is that starting in the 60s -- again, right on schedule -- our values and priorities on just about everything came up for review. And, on second glance, some of those grand plans looked considerably less impressive. We were the first generation to grow up with that ubiquitous Apollo 6 image of our lonely blue ball suspended in space -- and that image changed our visions of what we owed the planet, and our children.
Many years ago, I did a magazine interview with Will Wright, the creator of Sim City and all the games that followed on from it. He pointed out that a kid who grows up playing games like his, where one decision affects every other decision and your score depends on your ability to understand the whole system and keep it in balance, is going to grow up looking at the world in a very different way. And, he said, she will also make very different decisions about how to care for it as an adult. Our kids understand viscerally, in a way our grandparents did not, that you can't just dam a river, kill off a species, or wreck an ecosystem without creating consequences far, far afield of your original action.
That generation of kids is now reaching adulthood, and I think time is bearing Wright's prediction out. Our kids are the first ones to grow up with the deep awareness that if you touch that ball in one place, you affect it in every place. We've reached a point where a majority of Americans under 60 now understand the world in this far more systemic way -- a trend that we can hope will soon deliver vast improvements our decisionmaking. And, with that fresh insight in hand, we're coming back up to the place in the cycle where we get ready to rebuild the country -- this time, on the foundation of these new understandings, according to our deeper ecological and social consciousness, and with the help of new technologies and materials our grandparents couldn't have dreamed of.
The cycle also predicts cultural changes ahead. There's a 40-year pendulum swing between Awakenings, periods like the 60s and 70s where individual rights and interests are valued over the larger culture; and Crisis Eras, when conformity reasserts itself, and the needs of the community are given precedence over the needs and rights of individuals. (You're seeing the cycle very clearly if you're drawing parallels between the various "security" laws passed through the 30s, -- including EO 9066, which interned the Japanese -- and the various "security" laws being passed now. Same rank racist stupidity, different saeculum.) Right now, we're just about where we were back in 1932 when FDR set up the WPA and set off thirty years of government planning and investment. So, if the pattern holds, a renaissance of sorts may be at hand.
One of the ongoing debates in the planning sciences is: "Whose future? Who decides what will be done? Whose values will we manifest? Various commentators, here and elsewhere, have noted that mass central planning has been a key tool of oppression for fascists and Stalinists. Others point out that our success in finding a resolution to the ozone hole crisis (which has worsened this year, but is still believed to be on track for a slow recovery over the next few decades) in the early 90s was also a global planning process -- in fact, the first collective problem we've taken on as an entire planet. The fact that we seem to be solving it not only proves the positive results of good cooperative planning; it bodes well for our ability to tackle the growing list of other planet-wide problems, including global warming, topsoil and water depletion, epidemics, and the population displacements that will come about with economic and environmental change.
The truth, of course, is that neither view is quite right. Planning tools are like hammers -- morally neutral objects, capable of good or bad depending on whether you're building a house or smashing a thumb. Professional futurists spend a lot of time debating ethics, clarifying their own preferred futures, and weighing their commitment to those visions against the aims of clients who may have very different goals. Most of us believe deeply believe that planning for the future should be a broadly democratic process that incorporates the needs and concerns of every stakeholder -- if only because the more people who hold the vision, and the more detailed and vivid that vision is, the greater the chance that it will actually come to pass. This explains, in a nutshell, why strong leaders who can offer compelling visions and inspire people to move in the same direction to achieve them can have a tremendous influence on the future.
Given our place in time, on the threshold of the cycle's fourth turning, it's a good time to start talking about what we want to create this time around. Everything we see is corrupt, tired and broken -- our public buildings, our civic institutions, our ecosystems, our work environments, the food we eat, the way we spend our time, and most especially our institutions. Like Americans in 1932, we know in our bones that the time is coming when we will let go of a past built by a generation now gone. Soon enough now -- sometime in the next few years -- we're going to find our resolve again, and make the social and financial investments needed to create something new and vital. Almost certainly, we will do it because we find we have no other choice.
Strauss & Howe argue that these moments always come when a certain generational constellation lines up just perfectly -- a specific arrangement of priorities, personalities, and skill sets that suddenly open the doors to wide-scale changes that simply weren't possible just a few years before. In the 1930s, the last Crisis Era was launched when the aging idealists of the Progressive generation -- the previous manifestation of the Boomers -- sent FDR to the White House to fulfill the visionary agenda they'd first articulated during the Progressive Era 40 years before. To work out the details, they could rely on the middle-aged pragmatists of the hard-bitten Lost Generation -- the spiritual grandparents of Gen X -- which provided shrewd business leaders and warriors (from Eisenhower on down to those grizzled old sergeants so beloved by Hollywood) to capably manage the economic recovery and the war. Under their leadership, the young GI generation -- the historical ancestors of our own Millennials -- brought the teamwork, energy and optimism necessary for the actual work. They saved the world while still in their 20s, and spent the rest of their lives remaking it in their own image.
That same constellation is now lining up again. By 2010, we will have the visionary and idealistic Boomers entering elderhoood, re-emerging into public life to have one last go at implementing the ideals of their youth. Behind them will be Generation X, always practical and cynical and unimpressed by idealism -- but now pragmatic mid-life managers who've always known how to git 'er done. The young adults will be the energetic, optimistic Millennials, raised from childhood to cooperate closely and trust adult authority implicitly (which the two older generations find rather shocking, but will turn out to be OK when we realize that the authority they're following is us, and the world they are building is the one we've long dreamed of living in).
When these three generations stack up this way, the theory says, the world changes -- usually convulsively, painfully, and violently, but always in a new, more necessary direction in the end. And since this theory has been around for about 15 years now, and proven to be surprisingly predictive (among other things, it strongly foreshadowed 9/11, which S&H described in rough detail in 1997), it's not too far-fetched -- or too early -- to start thinking about how we are going to prepare for that crisis -- and what we want to leave the next four generations over the next 80 years.
We will, no doubt, make a priority of renewing our water, food, transportation, and energy infrastructures so they are more protective of the planet and its processes. We'll begin the transition off carbon-based fuels (more often than not, shifts in energy resources are an integral part of Crisis Eras), and see shifts in our economic footing as a result. We'll realign ourselves into new relationships with the world's nations: this may be the saeculum where we're forced to reckon with a shrinking American empire.
As this era of epic change rolls toward us, our private lives will change, too. The long era of individualism will begin to wind down, as we gather our collective energies for the work ahead. There will be long conversations about our communal values -- what we owe each other, how we are responsible for each other, how we view the common good, and how best to tend to that good. For many of us, this gathering in and reconnection will be the first deep engagement we've ever had with the larger community in our lives. It will demand that we cut back a bit on our assertions of rights and privileges, a sacrifice many of us will find galling and rewarding by turns. We'll cultivate new political skills, as we realize that our survival depends on bringing four decades of shouting-past-each-other to a decisive end. Along the way, we'll learn to hear, listen to, and understand each other; work through disagreements with people who hold radically different views than ours; and cooperate on a much larger scale than we've ever had to. We will have no choice: if we don't do this, we'll control of our future, and possibly lose our planet as well.
We can already feel it coming. That sudden, awful shift we felt on 9/11 -- the day we first felt the cold bite of the Crisis Era winter in the air. The shared outrage at the failures surrounding Katrina, which laid bare the bankruptcy of our planning infrastructure, and the competence of our government. The shredding of the Constitution. The collapse of the Republican Congress, mired at last in its own sexual fever swamp as we all realize we don't have time for this kind of trivial moralistic crap any more. We can feel the dark days coming. We know in our bones that it's time to shutter the windows, gather wood, and huddle together for comfort through...who knows?
What we do know is that this season will likely bring our generation to its own finest hours; and that the legacy we build in the next few decades will stand as our monument until our great-grandchildren, in 2080, bring out the hammers, pull it down, and start all over again.