The Fourth Turning, The Thirteen Cascading Crises and Generation Millennium

trends time fourth turning
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.

 values quardrants 1 adams

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:

  • team players
  • value unity over diversity
  • carry out the agenda of others rather than creating their own
  • not creative or entrepreneurial
  • accepting of authority
  • upbeat
  • hard-working
  • obedient and conforming
  • self-censoring
  • dogmatic

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:

  1. the end of oil
  2. the collapse of industrial agriculture
  3. the collapse of major currencies
  4. economic depression
  5. regional nuclear wars and genocidal civil wars
  6. bioterror by stateless idealists
  7. famine
  8. pandemic and epidemic disease
  9. large-scale infrastructure failures: utilities, production and distribution systems
  10. consequences of global warming
  11. housing collapse, foreclosures and ubiquitous squatter communities
  12. desertification, sandstorms, the death of the oceans and forests and other unregulated environmental crises
  13. the end of water

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.

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14 Responses to The Fourth Turning, The Thirteen Cascading Crises and Generation Millennium

  1. John says:

    I’m intrigued that those of us born in 1980 and 1981 are Generationless. :)

  2. Robert Gable says:

    Hmm, interesting. I expected you to just explicitly zero in on the possibility of extremist, authoritarian idealogues. But instead this pins hopes on the millennials to do the right thing. But I read The Fourth Turning to say that a crisis requires three generations to step up, not just one: boomers to lead (“gray beards” a la FDR), Gen Xers to pragmatically fight the battles, whatever they are (e.g. Truman at the end of WWII) and millennials to follow the orders from all those above them generationally. But all three must succeed for everyone to succeed. Of course, if things resolve for the good, the millenials get the to live with the fruits of those labors.I’m a boomer son of Greatest Generation parents. My Mom is still alive at 85 and was at the tail-end of her generation. But when we talk about say, going off to serve in WWII as my Dad did or working third-shift in an aircraft parts factory, as she did, the tone I hear is one of both “they’ll do what they are told” *and* “they’ll do what they must.” Why are they willing to follow and intelligently self-sacrifice? My Mom will say you just didn’t question, didn’t want to stand out as not pulling your fair share and the times were tough. But underneath that, I assume fear plays a major part. Midwestern farm families had tough times in the 1920s, followed by the even more widespread depression, followed by the shock of attack and war. So by the time of 1941, people were ready for self-sacrifice because there was no viable alternative.Another related notion that may or may not apply now is political party allegiance and success. From today’s vantage point, it seems like soon after the crisis era began in 1929, Democrats quickly supplanted Republicans as the dominant party and while there were constant battles, the (boomer-equivalent) Democrats prevailed in policy and leadership thoughout, until resolution and say, Eisenhower, presiding over more static times. Are we in for a repeat of an emerging Democratic majority or will the crisis be more destructive of our political institutions? I suppose the cascading crises you describe might completely overwhelm our political establishment, resulting in more radical results.Thanks for the post.

  3. Pearl says:

    Interesting. Do they include the model of fashion too? fashions take 20-25 years to cycle back again. And in a folk wisdom sense there’s this idea that parents who are strict raise children who are lax begetting children who are strict and relate best to grandparents. But that’s only when people polarize. There’s always the knee jerk response in random direction. Take two twins with same home environment. One become beaten down victim and conforms, the other sets off on his own path using the bad model of parenting to learn how to make the good model.Trying to think out all this implies…How do I bridge that to individual random choice? It flattens out class and migration and individual and family culture that may loom larger than political theatre or suggests that political and economic theatre impacts on a visceral level to each individual or we act as lemmings, not knowing what we respond to. It averages out to a consensus of wisdom of crowds to each generation? It assumes no traffic between generations.Being in Canada I’m somewhat outside of the same trends. And in the artist class, cohorts tend to be off the pop culture pacifier and a little more critical thinkers than average. Are we any less prone to effects or just frogs who get to read the thermometer as the pot gets hotter?An obedient generation coming out of America. Since I don’t live in the country it’s a bit hard to get direct experience on from here.Collective inaction is an interesting term. I’m skeptical of idea of rich powerful control because the concepts are so large. I haven’t lived long enough and seen enough people to see any monolithic pattern of response based in age.Yes, interesting food for thought.

  4. Raging Bee says:

    When, where, and how did this theory “accurately predict 9/11?” How accurately? Without a specific reference, this just sounds like another “prophecy in hindsight” scam.

  5. Raging Bee says:

    Okay, I just read your previous post on this book, and I found the following “prophecy” quoted:A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft and announces it possesses portable nuclear weapons…If this is the “accurate prediction of 9/11” you’re talking about, all I can say is, it’s not even close. “A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft” is an easy guess, because it’s alraedy happened so many times, there’s no way you can show it to be a reference to any specific act.Surely you can do better than those “Bible Code” twits…

  6. Jordan Mechano says:

    Hm. Scary. Apparently I’m of the “Hero” archetype. I’m 21. I’m already fully aware of the coming shit storm that’s ahead of me, but I hadn’t realized just how much pressure there was on our generation. I don’t feel I fit too well with the standard definition of the “Millenial”. I’m not a fan of authority, though, having grown up with it in such strict terms, I do know how to follow orders, and often habitually fall into the silent sheep mode of thinking. I’ve worked hard to overcome that, but it still lingers. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I guess that’s your point. We’ll do what we have to do. I know I want to live small, but do big things. I guess we’ll see. This is a conversation I’d like to enter more deeply.

  7. Christopher says:

    I’d like to enter this conversation more deeply too. I’m 20, I’m from Canada, and I have this conversation with my parents all the time. It’s frustrating to see that all of these crises are looming because of the apathy and carelessness of the generations before us, but I’m optimistic our generation will take responsibility for doing something about them. I think one of the single biggest reasons we’ve created these catastrophes is our need in so many of our cultures to feel like we’re the stewards of this planet, the only species capable of knowing how the planet works and keeping its machinery going. Perhaps one positive thing that might come of all this is a collective willingness to say we don’t understand all the complexities of the machinery of life, and so it’s worth respecting the processes that have brought our planet this far. I have a feeling we’re approaching a tipping point between deep cynicism or fatalism and a sense of an urgent need to take responsibility. I don’t think we’re doomed. But our generation will definitely have a massive challenge in stepping up to the plate.Myself… I often feel a sense of well-informed helplessness. I consume news voraciously (even while I’m here studying in southwestern China) and am majoring in international development and environmental science back at home, but talking to my friends of all ages, I get a sense that most people I know (from Canada mostly, of course, but also from China, Korea, Denmark, India, Malaysia…) are aware the way we live is totally unsustainable but don’t feel like they can do anything about it. As I say, this is a conversation I too would like to enter more deeply.

  8. First, to Raging Bee…”Surely you can do better than those ‘Bible Code’ twits…”The accuracy lies in the social response, not the attack itself. We are talking about the social impacts of passing generations, here; to call it “prophecy” is a bit of poetic license. Chill, yo; become the Slightly Calmer Bee, eh?Now, as a “Millennial,” I have to say, I was always far too obedient as a child. Even though I know how bad hierarchy is, I’m still basically kowed by it, personally. I can see characterizing my generation as really needing authority, and that’s the worst possible thing we could have. Every effective way of surviving the end of civilization centers on taking back our autonomy and freedom, and shedding our authority, and it’s really just our luck, isn’t it? The generation that needs to do that wants nothing more than to do what they’re told.Resources won’t limit the post-civilized human population–will and imagination will.

  9. Raging Bee says:

    Sorry, but it didn’t get the “social response” right, either. Since it didn’t get any of the particulars right, it can’t reclaim any validity by getting all vague and claiming to talk about “the social impacts of passing generations,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. (Talk about “poetic licence!”) This “prediction” has no more to contribute than any other apocalyptic sci-fi novel scenario.

  10. Jeff Lindsay says:

    This is really fascinating, I’m going to have to check out this book. I’m a 21 year old entrepreneur/programmer/designer living in the Silicon Valley, but I have a strong interest in systems theory and systems thinking. It’s really hard to think about my generation as a whole while being biased by the people I know, the area I live in, and the field I work in. I’m very drawn to these sorts of predictions based on trends… some systems just seem to be much more predictable on a macro-scale (technology, relativity) as opposed to micro-scale (business, quantum physics), though I instantly remember Limits to Growth, chaos theory, etc. The history of futurism seems so show that futurist predictions reflect more about the time of the prediction than the actual future, but there’s usually a good amount of truth in them. It seems like a lot of predictions happen, but in a way completely different than originally thought.Anyway, a couple of these characteristics of my generation seem a little weird to me considering theories like Pink’s conceptual age and the rise of creative, generalist thinkers. Also, now that we have a large decentralized network for communication that’s becoming more and more embedded with our lives, it seems less likely we can be taken advantage of by people with heavy-handed agendas… but I guess that it *is* just a tool and it’s up to us to put it to good use, but at least it’s better than before where most information was regionalized or recieved mostly by centralized channels. It’s going to be interesting for sure, but I have faith in humanity as a complex adaptive system with an ingrained biological directive to survive.-shrug-

  11. Robert Reed says:

    I think that the theory itself is correct, but I (and many other Millennials) disagree with how they are portrayed. The main reason for this misunderstanding, IMO, is that the authors only saw GIs as they were in the midlife and elderhood stages, not during their youth in 1930s and 1940s America. Yes, it is true that authoritarianism was very popular during that Crisis, but the authoritarian impulse can be found in any era. Many felt the streak of authoritarianism during the 1960s and 1970s on both the left and right. Keep in mind what S&H stated happened to those young Boomers who “dared to dissent from the dissenters”. And believe it or not, Crises can be liberating for many people. The young Civics who staged the American Revolution were definitely liberated. African Americans gained significantly in the prior 3 Crises. While this blog is too focused on the authoritarian aspects of Crises, keep in mind that industrial democracy was a large movement during the 1930s. Antiracism was a far larger movement than during the prior two eras also. One good resource to read is this link [http://newdeal.feri.org/students/index.htm] and also [http://www.fourthturning.com/forum/showthread.php?t=697]The 1930s included a vast leftist campus movement, several major riots and protests, street labor battles, etc. And there was a significant anarchist movement during that decade too. I have been posting on the Fourth Turning forums for about 9 years. In that time of analyzing history, the present, and our trajectory against the theory, here is what I think. The theory has legs, but the descriptions of generations and turnings are not correct. I believe that Civics do not get enough credit for rebellion while Adaptives get way too much credit. You should read a thread I wrote on the forums about it. [http://www.fourthturning.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1937]This is what I say about characterizations. * team playersThis, to me, means that Open Source software, hardware, etc, should become very popular among Millennials. But perhaps, it is more accurate to say that Millennials are more cooperative than the two prior generations. * value unity over diversityMillennials value both. My reading of history informs me that the unity of Civics derives from their diversity. In fact, it is the cooperation of the most diverse elements in society that form a strong and cohesive society. That was the youthful ideology of the 1930s as the various white ethnic groups melded together. In fact, they celebrated their diversity, but practiced unity. It is my belief that we are seeing this process happen again. There will be less racial, ethnic, and religious conflict and divisiveness, even as they celebrate their diversity * carry out the agenda of others rather than creating their ownNot quite. Sure, the Idealists often create the winning ideology, but it is the Civics who decide which ideology is correct. Also, according to their earlier book Generations, Millennials will carry out the Boom agenda ONLY if it agrees with their own secular blueprint for progress, which more often than not, seems to be the case. * not creative or entrepreneurialMaybe not as entrepreneural, but they are creative. Millennials will not be as creative in the arts as the Boomers and Xers, for the most part, but Millennials will be more creative when it comes to politics, institutions, and technology. Civics are not uncreative. * accepting of authorityNot quite. Millennials are more likely to cooperate with authority, but only if that authority is competent. History shows that Civics can, and do rebel against authority when they don’t agree with that authority. * upbeatWe have no choice. In a dark world, there has to be somethingto lift spirits. Think of it this way. In summer, people want to cool down. In winter, people want to warm up. When you are living in an era widely regarded as “The Dark Valley” more doom and gloom would cause Civics to commit mass suicide. * hard-workingWe are forced to work hard. But Millennials also work smart too. And given the choice, Millennials (as did other Civics) chose to work smart, not hard. * obedient and conformingAgain, Millennials like to cooperate. But this does not mean they are obedient and conforming. * self-censoringNo. The GIs didn’t censor themselves. Older generations censored them. The same with Millennials. * dogmaticUhh, I always thought that the Boomers were the dogmatic ones. Civics are attracted to reason and science. Idealists are the main ones who create and follow the dogma. Civics such as Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, and others rejected it. More later.

  12. Matt says:

    I don’t have much time to talk today, but I just wanted to say that I am nothing like a millennium generation person, I am not happy with authority, I am not conforming, self-censoring, and I am creative. I am definitely not obedient and diligent or militaristic and unimaginative. Now, I’ve been thinking about this and I think that it might have something to do with the fact that although I was born in 1991, I was raised by baby boomers, not gen x-ers, although that problem applies to a lot of millenium-ers, so I don’t know. Then again, the people on this site are problem not the best no biased sample of the population.

  13. Kathryn says:

    I think it is strange that i stumbled upon this website. Just to say, I think that the most likely thing that will repeat itself in history is the holocaust. I will follow anyone as long as they have the same ideals as me, but that’s about it.

  14. Jason Freeman says:

    Don’t worry Millenials, we Gen-Xers will lead us out of whatever mess that is on the horizon. If you worry about our leadership, don’t. We lead by example. We are used to fending for ourselves, and we rarely follow. We are the ultimate survivors. We will tear apart whatever is not working. We are good at starting the revolution, creating a blank slate that the millenials can build from. Conservatives? Liberals? Republicans? Democrats? Give me Ron Paul or Jesse Ventura at least they are independent pragmatic thinkers. The boomers continue to fight over petty issues. Who wasn’t wearing a flag pin, who was a POW, who had a cigar job in the oval office, who cares? Who in their right mind thinks that the entitlement programs of social security and medicare are sustainable? Politicians won’t make the tough decisions to cut spending and cut entitlements, because they won’t get reelected. Raise taxes? Don’t even try it, we’ve had enough, 100% taxation is slavery. What is the solution? Tear it apart. I know this kind of talk scares the hell out of other generations. Most people don’t like to hear the ugly truth. That is something we are good at spitting out. We burn bright and then quickly fade away. What other generation has symbols like Kurt Cobain and Tupac? All that matters is truth, freedom and liberty. “Those that give up essential liberty for a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Ben Franklin

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