Graphic above is from a Rutgers University study exploring whether 9/11 was indeed the catalyst for the Fourth Turning. The graphic is available in a legible wall-sized version on the site.
For those of you who have not read The Fourth Turning, its thesis is that history tends to repeat itself in four roughly twenty-year-long consecutive cycles, and that we are now on the verge of entering the fourth of those cycles, like the one we entered in the late 1920s which led to the Great Depression and World War II. Its authors argue that these long, somewhat predictable cycles of economic and political behaviours and results are the reaction of generations of cohorts to the damage done by previous generations of cohorts, and that each of these cyclic cohort generations has a unique personality that stands in stark contrast to the one(s) immediately preceding it. The baby boomer generation (those born in the 1940s and 1950s) is now two cycles old, and Gen X (those born in the 1960s and 1970s) are soon to pass the torch to Generation Millennium (those born 1982-2002), which is just coming into its own.
What I want to explore in this post is not the validity of the theory (which did accurately predict 9/11) but rather the characterization of Generation Millennium and the implications for our future, if the authors are right, and if my (and a growing number of people’s) foreboding about the crises to come in the next few decades is prescient.
Believers in the Fourth Turning theory would have us believe that the behaviours and actions of the boomers (initial idealism followed by a kind of jaded materialism and general disengagement from the political process), followed by the behaviours and actions of Gen X, the 13th generation since the cycles began (characterized by cautious dating and marriage, an embracing of risk, a preference for free agency over loyal corporatism, and political pragmatism and non-affiliation) has left the world stressed out and messed up. The combined psychology of the baby boomers and the baby bust of Gen X, in other words, is the lower right quadrant of Adams’ cultural profile shown below ñ neither liberal nor conservative, but deeply cynical, victimized by learned helplessness, and living for the moment in a spirit of anomie: disengaged, dissociated and afflicted with attention deficit.
Liberals and conservatives have been alarmed and confused by this trend, and, surprise, Generation Millennium is too. Here’s how the Fourth Turning authors characterize Generation Millennium:
Now consider the fact that there are today more people in Generation Millennium than there are baby boomers, both in the affluent nations and worldwide. Thought the population was declining? Think again. This 20-year cohort is substantially larger than the boomers 20-year cohort, because not only are boomers more than replacing themselves, their offspring are living longer. That’s why, for example, high schools are filled to overflowing and university professors are now considered the profession that will grow the most percentage-wise in the next decade (though, alas, only slightly more than a score of underpaid, menial job categories with a lot more people in them already).
So we are going to have a record crop of graduates whose personality is either obedient and diligent (glass half full view) or unimaginative and militaristic (glass half empty view). Whatever, they’re going to put a huge stamp, the largest in history, on the world they will inherit over the next two decades. And what will those decades bring, largely thanks to the negligence, indifference and greed of the two generations that preceded it? I call them the thirteen cascading crises, because they are inextricably interrelated, so that as any one occurs it’s likely to precipitate others. And thanks to our reckless, overextended, live-for-today attitudes (e.g. stealing from Gen X and Generation Millennium by grabbing the last of the world’s natural wealth for ourselves, polluting the air, water, soil and land thoughtlessly, and incurring massive debts that Generation Millennium will have to repay when we’re retired or gone) many of these thirteen cascading crises are long overdue:
All of these crises are caused by our irresponsible, unsustainable behaviours: excessive population, excessive consumption, excessive waste and pollution, excessive indebtedness. Living beyond our, and the Earth’s, means.
By 2025, Generation Millennium will be between 23 and 43 years of age, and they will outnumber all other generations by a large margin. They will be facing the first waves of these thirteen crises, none of which they caused, and will have certainly learned enough by then to know that the worst is yet to come (the deniers and believers in religious or technological miracles, like those who argued the Earth was flat and the centre of the universe, will finally be silent). What will they do with this terrible knowledge, trying to cope with this world of constant and compound crises?
My fear is that, like so many of those who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, they’ll do what they’re told. The Great Depression and World War II was a time when many people flocked to charismatic, extremist leaders who scapegoated minorities and promised a way out of crisis, and clung to their ideologies almost fanatically. There was an appetite for hero-worship, repression and fierce authoritarianism, which usually only made matters worse (even the New Deal was widely denounced as Communism, and only received acceptance because of the popularity of its sponsor and the failure of all less-generous solutions).
A more hopeful view is that they (Generation Millennium) will do what they must. They’ll ration, they’ll sacrifice, they’ll jail those who exploit or exacerbate crises. They’ll figure out how to live with less instead of burning coal when the oil runs out, and instead of running nuclear-powered water desalination and filtration plants. They’ll mandate vegetarianism for all because it’s the best way to provide for the greatest number. They’ll stop competing and help each other out. They’ll embrace a Generosity Economy because the market economy will have simply stopped working. They’ll radically curtail travel and learn to live and work local because it’s good for the environment, good for the economy, and stingy on scarce energy. They’ll actually enforce social and environmental regulations.
Which of these two paths they’ll take (or more likely which combination of the two) will depend on who they are and what they’ve learned, and what their emotions and instincts lead them to do. Of most concern perhaps is that, in this ‘age of information’, ignorance of history, of science, and of how the world really works, is rampant, and I have little faith that we’re about to fix that ñ too many rich and powerful interests have too much invested in our collective ignorance and inaction.
If you’re a Generation Millennium member (i.e. under 25) I’d love to hear from you. Your cohorts from the previous Fourth Turning, the so-called GI generation born in the early years of the 20th century, are almost all gone, so we have no idea or memory of how Fourth Turning, ‘Hero‘ cohorts think or feel. All we know is you’re almost unimaginably unlike us, members of the silent ‘Artist‘ generation that came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, the boomer ‘Prophet‘ generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Gen-X ‘Nomad‘ generation that came of age in the last twenty years of the last century. That, I think, is a good thing, maybe our future’s greatesthope. The future, for better and for worse, belongs to you.
Category: Our Culture
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--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
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Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
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Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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