Neil Howe is recognized for having anticipated a bad time for the United States this year. What risks do you see now on the global horizon
Neil Howe over 20 years ago predicted that the United States would experience a crisis that would climax in 2020.
His prediction was not made by looking at a crystal ball but on the basis of a controversial theory that this historian, economist and demographer developed in the 1990s with his colleague William Strauss.
Studying US history Since 1584, these authors found a series of patterns that allowed them to explain the historical evolution of that country from generational changes.
The result was reflected in his book Generations (“Generations”), from 1991, which left a lasting mark on personalities as diverse as the former US president. Bill Clinton and Steve Bannon, former chief of strategy and former Trump henchman.
Howe: Baptist of the Millennials
Six years later, Howe and Strauss – who are also responsible for coining the term millennial generation to refer to those born after 1982 – published another book, The Fourth Turning (“The fourth turn”), in which they expanded their theory, notes BBC Mundo.
Howe is one of the creators of the term “millennial”.
In the book they postulated that the history of the United States (and of other developed countries) progresses in cycles of four recurring generational changes that lead to every 80-90 years a crisis of great magnitude such as the one that occurred during the Civil War or in the period of the Great Depression and World War II.
So the authors literally predicted “winter is coming” and announced a crisis that would climax in 2020.
Howe’s new predictions
Howe, who currently works as the head of demography for the consultancy Hedgeye Risk Management, spoke to BBC Mundo about this prediction in the context of the coronavirus crisis.
The following is a synthesized version of the conversation.
– In your books you predicted that sometime in 2020 in the United States there would be a great crisis comparable to that of Independence or that of the Civil War. Does this coronavirus pandemic resemble the crisis you have been waiting for?
What we suggest is that history, not only in the US, but also in many other parts of the world is driven by a repeating cycle of generations. It is almost like the seasons of the year. Each period lasts about a generation, about 20, 22 or 23 years or so.
Every four of these periods – what we call the Fourth Giro – occurs approximately 80 to 90 years after the beginning of the first three.
That really aligns very well with the great recurring civic crises in United States history: the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and the Great Depression.
And now here we are again.
In the 1990s we said that we were in what we call the Third Giro, a period of great individualism that would come to an end sometime in the first decade of the 21st century.
And that if that happened around 2010, the new cycle would probably last until 2030 and it would be an era of crisis that would last a generation, a bit like the New Deal and World War II, which really started from the late 1920s to the late from the 1940s.
We suggest that the most hectic part of that era would begin in the 2020s. So a critical turning point would be 2020.
Now, from our point of view of the future, the Fourth Giro probably started with the great financial crisis and the Great Recession, which began in 2008-2009.
Then, great changes occurred in the attitude of people in the United States towards globalism, income inequality and populism, etc.
I think this is the beginning of the second half of that era, which is the year 2020. And as it happens, the crisis of confinement due to the pandemic coincides perfectly with the beginning of the climax of this era.
So, (the reference to) 2020 is because it is the second decade of the crisis era in which most of the action occurs.
– You were talking about four different types of generations. Can you explain this idea?
There are four different types of generations, we call them archetypes. One for each turn or era, understood as these periods of about 20 years.
He First Turn It is more like spring, it is a post-crisis era. It occurred in the United States from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s.
It was a period of strong institutions and a great sense of national progress. A time when individualism, mavericks, and even racial ethnic minorities were pushed aside. One was of great majority culture. And this is typical of a post-crisis era.
He Second Turn it is an awakening. It is like summer.
It is a time when, especially for the new generation born after the last crisis, everyone wants to get rid of social obligations and rediscover their individuality, their own sense of passion.
They are periods of turmoil, very creative and of transformation in culture, values and religion, as happened in the 60s and 70s.
He Third Turn It takes the lessons of the recent awakening about the need to consent to the individual.
In the United States it began in the early 1980s and lasted until the early 2000s. It began with the Reagan revolution: less taxes, less regulation, more tolerance for greater inequality and for differences between individuals; and less emphasis on social cohesion.
The Third Giro decades, like those of the 1980s, 1920s, or 1850s, are periods of cynicism and bad manners. People live their lives the way they want, regardless of the community. We are all proud of ourselves as individuals, but we are very discouraged regarding our civic identity.
He Fourth Turn it is a period of political and social crisis when we reinvent ourselves civically and we are reborn as a national community.
In some ominous way, I’d say that so far in America these have always been periods of total war. All total wars in the US have occurred during the Fourth Giro. And in every Fourth Tour there has been one of these confrontations.
I do not predict that a total war will occur, but I do believe that the war expresses or reflects part of the community urgency that we typically see in these crises: populism strengthens, the community begins to demand much more of its citizens, individual liberties are weaken.
These things happen during these periods that, by the way, don’t just happen in the United States.
East new growth of populism and authoritarianism it occurs in much of the world: in parts of Europe and, particularly, in Eastern Europe; in South and East Asia.
If you look around you see that this is so. Populist leaders who appeal to the ethnocentric majority of their community.
This is a dangerous period in history. And I think that, since World War II, much of the world has been in a very similar generational cycle.
– If you were to apply your generational thesis to the current moment, what would you say? What are we seeing? And, more importantly, what will happen from now on?
I am not in the business of predicting real events. What I do is predict social moods, which makes certain types of events more likely.
What I do predict is that as 2020 progresses we will see an increase in calls from both parties (Republican and Democrat) for the government to do more instead of less.
Just look at the coronavirus crisis. Now they are all socialists. I have never seen such a transformation: in Congress there is not a single legislator who is conservative in fiscal terms. Even on the Republican side, everyone is asking for more trillions.
We will probably have another law to stimulate the economy with more billions in subsidies for businesses, for workers, for everyone.
We are already prioritizing the community again and in the end this will cost real money. This will not come with an interest rate of 0%. Later, someone will have to give up something to pay for this.
Either that or we will have zero interest rates forever and our economy will never grow again. And, of course, that would be an even bleaker situation, leading to even more discontent.
So, I think we are already launched. We have already entered the second half of the Fourth Giro with this recent pandemic and the public policy response to it.
I also believe that the 2020 elections will be a highly contested event and that they will transform the United States, whichever side wins.
At the moment it seems likely that it is the Democratic Party, but there are still several months to go. There are many possibilities.
If Democrats win and squeeze their advantage, I think we might even risk secession in the United States. I think maybe there will be some states not going to accompany (the federal government).
Of course, this has happened before in the history of the country.
– Do you really think things can go that far?
This is less likely if Republicans win, because I think Democrats think they control the class that runs national institutions.
I always thought it was more possible if the Democrats win: imagine if there is a regulation or some new tax and several red (republican) states say “we are not going to pay for that, we are not going to move on.”
That poses a real problem and it is interesting how the national government can face that dilemma: if it does not enforce that rule, it is permanently weakened. This is a real problem. This is the moment of truth.
Many other things can happen. The millennial generation, who feel that they will never reach the standard of living of their parents, can, through voting, lead to a complete change in our economic institutions.
This, as always happens, will unleash a certain opposition.
This moment closely resembles the 1930s: breakdown of international alliances, increase of autocrats around the world, populism boom and enormous discontent over the economic situation that leads to great transformations of governments and, ultimately, to a complete redefinition of citizenship and public institutions themselves.
– Regarding the next elections, according to his generational theory, we should face a clash between baby boomers and the millennial generation. But instead, we have Joe Biden and Donald Trump …
The leader is not really important.
Biden is interesting because he is a member of the silent generation, the first in American history to never make it to the White House. We go from George Bush Sr., who was a member of the G.I. who fought in World War II, Bill Clinton, who was born after that conflict (boomer).
Despite Trump’s strong personality, Howe maintains that leaders are unimportant in historical development.
It is the first time that an entire generation has been sidelined in terms of national leadership.
It is striking that Americans, in a time of greatest crisis, look most favorably on a member of a generation that has always believed in compromise and consensus.
The silent generation grew up during the crisis and came of age during the First Giro, so they have always been very risk averse. They have done very well financially. They always play by the rules.
They did not help build the system because they were still children, but they have always been loyal and never tired of serving the system.
They have always been good citizens, unlike the boomers who came of age destroying the system.
It is striking that the other alternative in the Democratic Party was Bernie Sanders, a member of the silent generation who was very popular with millennials.
Sanders was happy with the millennials. Biden is not that popular with them, particularly with white millennials.
He was not anyone’s favorite candidate, perhaps with the exception of older African-Americans who tend to be a bit more to the left in economic policy and in matters related to civil rights and social justice, but who are also very culturally conservative. .
It is true that Biden enjoys lukewarm support, but it is very interesting that the Democrats made a very conscious decision to unanimously support this candidate who was perhaps not his first choice. But they said, “We are going to move together, we are going to change the United States, we are going to replace Donald Trump.”
If you poll the millennials in the Democratic Party, they will tell you that Biden was not their first choice for many of them but almost all will vote for him. There is also a huge partisan contrast here.
I believe that in the 2020 elections they are going to break all records for young adult participation and I estimate that an incredibly two-thirds of those under the age of 30 will vote for Democrats.
– In any case, we should still expect a clash between millennials and baby boomers …
Millennials feel they want a big change from the leadership of boomers in public institutions. I think there is a widespread feeling, also in Generation X, that boomers are not very competent as civic leaders.
However, in personal and family life we have never seen a generation so close to their young adult children.
Millennials and boomers are extremely close in their family lives. They live together much longer than other generations and it is not just out of financial need.
Boomers have always been very protective and caring towards their millennial children, who always ask their parents for advice.
– Your critics argue that you and Strauss reduced American history to a mathematical formula and also that your theory failed to explain important events like September 11. What does it say about it?
If you ask many academic historians, they will say that history is a continuous linear trend of decline or decline, which I think is hardly credible, or completely random or chaotic, in which case it is irrelevant.
I don’t try to predict every event. I’m trying to predict basic moves where things are more likely to happen.
Howe was criticized for not predicting the attack on the Twin Towers: “I don’t try to predict every event. I try to predict basic movements,” he said.
In the 1990s, one of the great competitors to our vision for the future was Francis Fukuyama with “The End of History”.
According to him, nation-states would vanish and we would live indefinitely in a kind of market capitalism with individuals who would only compete with each other across borders. And that was the end of the story.
I would say that if that is the standard they compare us to, I think we made a better forecast.
– You coined the term millennial when the first members of that generation were young children. How big is the gap between what you expected of them and what they really are like?
When you look back at how people thought about young people in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I think we correctly predicted some huge changes that seemed completely impossible or improbable to everyone.
When the 1990s began, Generation X didn’t even have a name.
Doug Coupland finally gave them a name in 1992-93 and we finally got used to Generation X and they all thought there was a trend in youth towards nihilism, cynicism, and increasing violence.
We saw a continuous increase in the crime rate. It actually peaked in 1984-85.
We saw boys increasingly distanced from their families, in a kind of desperate culture and completely apathetic in civic terms. You already know that the Generation X motto is “it works for me.”
We also saw boys who were unprotected from a young age, growing up on their own.
That is the life story of the Generation X. They grew up during the divorce revolution and nobody cared. Everyone kicked them into the street and there they were forced to navigate life on their own.
Thus, they were fiercely independent, individualistic, somewhat cynical, a little wild, and little socialized. That was the image of a young adult in the early 1990s.
So we came out with a book that accurately depicts Generation X, but we said that a new generation was coming and that historically we have seen this change before.
After each “awakening” comes this moral panic about children. And then suddenly, the next generation is much more protective.
When we reached the year 2000 and millennials are coming of age, we predicted that they would completely change the image of young people: they would be much closer to their parents, they would be much more risk-averse.
We said that the crime rate would drop, that they would be more interested in educating and obtaining degrees and that they would be more community-oriented. Ultimately, they would become much more involved in politics. They would be more optimistic about the future. And they would be considered special.
It was shown that we were right. And I can say that in the early 90’s everyone thought that what we predicted about millennials seemed incredible.
The violent crime rate in the United States has dropped 75% since the early to mid-1990s. That is mainly due to millennials. I think we got that generation right.
One thing we predicted took a long time to come true was his involvement in politics. Even until recently, people complained that “millennials don’t vote.”
Well, now they do, so I think even that prediction is starting to come true.
I believe that millennials are going to change the face of our civic life. Historically, during an “awakening” we see that society changes the internal world of values and culture.
But during a crisis we change the external world of the economy, infrastructure and politics. I think that’s where millennials will be much more decisive.
– You have said that each golden age begins with a great crisis. So now I guess we could be optimistic …
Golden ages almost always refer to a time after a crisis that was successfully resolved and integrated society into a new dynamic type of community.
That generally allows society to launch this golden age that societies often remember as the time when everyone hoped to progress and have a better future.
That is certainly not something that characterizes the United States today.
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