Can We Outrace the Fourth Turning?

July 03 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Economics   Year: General   Rating: 6 Hot

Are we due for a massive cyclical U.S. crisis that finally spurs institutional change? A regular revolution not tied to the accelerating curves driving so much growth and innovation?

In large nations big spurts of institutional change tend to occur every four generations (roughly every 88 years, 1 generation = 22 years) when economic resources trapped by out-dated, inefficient systems are shifted over to efficient new systems once societies reach a cyclical tipping point for change. Generational theorists Strauss and Howe call this tipping point a fourth turning, a point in time where social power shifts to the generations too young to have witnessed the previous correction. They liken this pattern to a forest growth cycle: 1) new saplings take root, 2) the forest grows tall, 3) dead branches fall and choke off new species, 4) lightning strikes, the brambles burn and new saplings are free to grow—repeat.

As seen widely in biology, this sort of change is called Punctuated Equilibrium, which contrasts with the gradual evolution that many scientists intuitively believed to be true but ultimately was not supported by research nor the fossil record. Similarly, the historical record shows that the United States has regularly experienced punctuated social crises, aka fourth turnings, stretching all the way back to its roots in England. And just like all of the scientists that deny punctuated evolution/development, there is a huge % of the population that does not intuitively believe another fourth turning will occur because they have not encountered the historical evidence and are used to a relatively stable socio-economic situation. (Ironically, this blindness seems to be built into the very fabric of our social system and may result in more efficient growth when looked at from the broader context of inter-meshed life systems on our planet.)

Like it or not, cyclical crises pegged to human generations are real and should be considered when evaluating the future, right alongside accelerating change. So the questions we need to ask are 1) “When will the next fourth turning begin?”, 2) “Are there any dynamics that might break or trump the pattern of punctuated national change every 88 years?”

A Likely Fourth Turning Scenario

79 years ago, on October 24, 1929, the Great Wall Street Crash sparked the Great Depression and the last U.S. fourth turning. What followed was the New Deal Era, WWII, the transformation of most U.S. socio-economic sectors and ultimately the birth of what we now refer to as “The American Dream”.

79 years later the U.S. economy is facing a variety of problems that could spark a down-turn and a new fourth turning. (cont.)

Oil has risen to $143/barrel, increased Chinese demand for oil & other resources is pushing up commodity prices, unemployment has risen to 5.5%, stocks have retreated to bear territory, analysts are openly talking about the possible bankruptcy of General Motors and the various airlines, the U.S. dollar has fallen to an all-time low vs. to its all-time low vs. the Euro (0.63-to-1.00), the education system is totally broken in comparison the rest of the developed world, the % of uninsured Americans continues to rise, the mortgage crisis has hit the economy hard and is expected to continue exerting a toll through 2010, the country continues to bleed tremendous resources fueling its efforts in the middle east, and so forth.

In short, it sure looks as though we have some deep, systemic problems and are likely due for a fourth turning in the near-future.

To my mind, the most likely fourth turning lightning rod scenario is oil related. Though the problems that must be solved are very broad, it’s become crystal clear that our dependence on oil could very easily result in systemic collapse if prices rise too high. With OPEC President Chakib Khelil forecasting crude oil to rise to $170/barrel by the end of the summer it’s become reasonable to ponder the cascading effects of $200+ (or even higher) oil.

If that occurs, the U.S. could see a huge surge in unemployment, product/service/commodity inflation, and high-profile bankruptcies that could quickly cascade into a broad depression that could easily take the rest of the world down with it. Certainly OPEC and other oil producers will seek to stabilize the cost of oil, but they may well be powerless to effectively do so in the face of Peak Oil, rising Chinese & Indian demand, and a U.S. dollar more-or-less in free-fall. The dynamic seems to have spiraled out of control, resulting in a tenuous situation in which a sudden output shortage, political crisis, or military incident could easily cause crude prices to skyrocket.

My bet is that this would kick-off a fourth turning.

A Scenario in Which We Avoid the Fourth Turning Crisis

The one thing that could prevent the next fourth turning is accelerating change. If we can sustain our current economic balance for another 7-10 years then it’s conceivable that advances in solar, other budding fuel energy technologies, power and power transmission efficiency coupled with the rapid evolution of computing, nanotech, information sorting, interface, materials sciences, etc. will mitigate the infrastructure “debt” we have collectively accumulated since the last fourth turning.

But with peak oil production forecast for as early as 2012 and the steady fall of the U.S. dollar it seems rather unwise and future-foolish to count on acceleration to bail us out of this one.


Anecdotally: You can feel the fourth turning in the air. You can hear it in the way the presidential candidates, the population at large and the rest of the world label the country a broken system. You can see it in the optimistic change-the-world attitude of the Millenials (which Strauss and Howe accurately forecasted more than a decade ago). You can sense it in the escalating culture wars that we are experiencing. The forest is full of brambles, enough sunlight is not getting through and something’s got to give.

Realistically: This is not about ideology. Ideology is a symptom of a broken system and can potentially offer some solutions, whereas a fourth turning is a very real and fundamental system dynamic that occurs on a regular basis. It’s a pattern that trumps left vs. right, fast vs. slow, humanist vs. systemist dichotomies and simply demands better resource allocation and the required changes. Increasingly it’s not about “if” or “should” but “when”.

And if that “when” occurs before 2015 (86 years after the previous turning), then accelerating effects will probably arrive too late to offset the generational pattern.

Hopefully the lightning won’t strike too early, threatening our accustomed way of life.

Will we outrace the fourth turning?

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Comment Thread (4 Responses)

  1. Alvis: I hadn’t heard of the “fourth turning” before (I just ordered the book), but it doesn’t strike me that it is something that is necessarily negative – or that we should want to avoid it. Or am I missing something?

    Posted by: juldrich   July 06, 2008
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  2. Jack: The crisis that precedes/creates the fourth turning is a period of great disruption that is likely to be very negative, but which results in a tremendous positive forward push. Ideally we’d collectively figure out a way to eliminate the punctuation/super-disruption of the Fourth Turning and move more fluidly into the future, but that’s not the way that multi-generational human systems operate.

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the Fourth Turning – it’s a great read.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   July 07, 2008
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  3. Thanks for the response … I’m looking forward to reading the book.

    Posted by: juldrich   July 07, 2008
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  4. The great repuglican depression, now casting it’s dark shadow over the Americas has eaten GM and Chrysler alive, destroyed Detroit city, is about to devour AIG, Citi Bank, and various others, has eaten it’s way through Wall Street, leaving over-rewarded banksters, shylocks and swindlers, has wasted American military monies in a lost cause – Iraq, a win there would have given U.S. cheap oil at least for one more generation, The resources of mainland U.S.A. are dwindled to nothing, no oil left in Texas, food-corn going into gas-tanks, Factory Farms wasting valuable resource flows of manure to bio-gassable methane, by avoiding laws and moving off-shore for pork/beef production, for a few $ more (vulture Capitalist exploitation), Sewage, save for an enlightened San Antonio (Congrats to you folks) yes, Shiite, poured into swamps, lakes, streams, rivers creeks, seashores , all over the face of America, daily and yet we cry for more imported fuels, Check out what San Antonio did with the Shiite! Norway powers its buses with it! Sweden sells it by the gas-bottle-full for heating to their folks! America spreads it around too, but not in useful form! America’s V-8 infrastructure is crumbling as we speak, we need bullet trains now, before flights become impossibly expensive, and the life-style changes already imposed upon the average under or unemployed American are Third World, Tent City, and Shanty town in mechanism and effect! The day the investors, in the factory farms that feed the urban population, lose a ” % ” point, and withdraw their capital for a better return on the Shanghai or Beijing stock markets is the day Americans will come to really understand the brutality of the Capitalist, corporate system, and they are doing this to themselves, in front of computers in air-conditioned offices every day across the country, safely hiding in the anonymity of the corporation! The “Fourth Turning” is well under way, and will end in kaos and fatty, drug and alcohol laced blood in the streets!

    Posted by: Uncle B   June 16, 2009
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