The End of Things . . . and a New Beginning
by Bernie Quigley – Published in The Free Market News Network, March 25, 2005
Toward the end of
It seemed to end as quickly as it did for
Patterns of history have always puzzled historians and business writers. Arnold Toynbee found a mystical dimension to them when half way through his life's work he read Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and studied C.G. Jung's work on psychological patterns. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. pioneered thinking on the theme that business trends and commerce run in cycles and other historians had written that religious sentiment runs in cycles. Not long ago historians William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote that not only do religious feeling and business trends run in cycles, but that these cycles appear to alternate. Their fascinating book looks to the Roman historian's concept of the saeculum; the theory that history runs in cycles of 80 to 100 years. The writers link identity to each generation and its countervailing attitude to the previous generation (and its attachment to the generation which preceded that). It is a remarkable picture over time, giving history a series of interweaving paths, ascending and returning, like the patterns on the ceiling of the mosque at
What is interesting and implicit in their writing is the shared consciousness of the generation rather than the individual consciousness of each person making up the generation and the historical period. In many ways this is obvious - that a war-generation would relate to Dwight Eisenhower and their children to Bob Dylan, but what is not so obvious is the pattern of what is accepted and rejected by the larger culture, which evolves in a series of generational channels at various purposes and counter purposes. Bankers and advertisers follow these trends intuitively, and follow closely to stay on events, lest they fail to anticipate the next big thing or an economic downturn. The authors point out in their most interesting book, The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny, that all historical periods are "post-war periods" and every eighty years or so a human cycle of four generations concludes itself in catastrophe and rebirth.
The book explains why the great gods fall like the petty gods; each becomes "post-seasonal" and submits to the ravages of time. It also explains why when a popular writer like Nora Ephron -- as she says -- gets an idea, 40,000 other people seem to get the same idea at just the same time. Because she is right on the beat of a generation and is representative of the mind-set of her generation.
Being born in 1946 was to be born at the beginning of the first chapter in a new book of life. It has been said that Eisenhower finished off the last chapter of
There is a kind of inadequacy to generational identity. Whether it is the World War II veteran late in years meeting with his compatriots at the V.F.W. hall, or the retiring environmental lawyer recalling the glory days of Woodstock, it is not enough. Generationality can be its own country and its own religion, but those who relate exclusively to their generation have no other country or religion. They are not from anywhere. They have nowhere to go. I find that people with a strong sense of place hold on to something ineffable between generations and so do cultures with a nobility tradition. But culturally we have flowed with Carl Sandburg's celebration of Common Man and in opposition to the idea of nobility - perhaps Senator John McCain alone carries the candle of nobility and duty to his ancestors and holds that flame cupped in his hands, in memory of his fathers who have gone before. Strauss and Howe note that from Roman times to our own the saeculum seems to have shrunk from 100 years to 80 - our fast attachment to the large picture of world corporation, federalism and globalism perhaps, coming at the cost of local church, local tradition, local custom, folkways and character speeding up the process since Roman times. But we learn from this book about things which we had ourselves intuited. For example, that American Revolution or not, we in the
Bill Clinton is a high-profile generational personality, but like most Southern people, white and black, he has another dimension. And when his
Strauss and Howe's generational model provides a useful tool. Anyone who has worked with young people will find a truth in it. College administrators use it to work with and understand students half their age. Tom Brokaw has written thoughtfully about the generational historical cycle and appears to have timed his retirement to it. Likewise, it is said about Al Gore.
One of the book's potent forecasts - the authors call the book a prophecy - is this: all post-war cultures begin to go to pieces at the end of the third generation, roughly 60 years from the end of the previous war, as each generation lasts approximately 20 years in its direct impression on events. Go back to the last saeculum which began in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War and come forward 60 years. That would be 1925. That was the year of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It would be followed in 1926 by Earnest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. These books are taught still as some of the great works and indeed they are. But they also benchmark a new attitude in
It is good to remember because those of the post-war Baby Boomer's generation like myself know well when the sixtieth year is as we were born in year one. It is next year. And as history projects a shadow, sometimes it also drags a shadow - many of us, children primarily of common men and women; foot soldiers in World War II - and indeed most of us, had grandfathers who worked in factory and field. But we now sit at computers, order Organic Shade Grown Mexican or Serena Organic Blend at Starbucks and hold some investments. Many of us, it is proudly said, are the first of our families to go to college. Unfortunately, for many of us we will be the last to go to college as we leave behind so few offspring. The New York Times reports that in what may be
But generational identity alone is one-dimensional. Today we have come to take for granted guarantees from government just as our forefathers and mothers did when they carried soup cans to factory workers and cut tobacco on Southern farms and plantations. As the distinguished historian David Smiley who wrote of race and Southern history said: "It was directly after the Civil War that American citizens began to ask the government for the same guarantees in every-day life that the slave had." Increasingly, it seems obvious that they won't be there.
Sometime around the year 2005, say Strauss and
They make five crisis projections: the first, beset by fiscal crisis, a state lays claim to its residents' federal tax monies. Declaring this an act of secession, the president obtains a federal injunction. The second is a terrorist attack; the third an impasse over a federal budget that reaches a stalemate; the fourth, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce the spread of a new communicable virus; the fifth; growing anarchy throughout the former Soviet republics prompts
It is the catastrophic failure of systems that have run their course that causes the turning. Tom Brokaw had this in mind when he wrote his book The Greatest Generation as it is the crisis and catastrophe and its repair which creates the new world and also creates the generation which brings the new world forward. That generation is formed in the crisis. It is not formed out of philosophy or idealism but out of need and the need to survive. Brokaw's Greatest Generation like the ancestors which John McCain honors in his book Faith of My Fathers is the Fourth Generation of the last saeculum.The great crisis which the authors predict lies just ahead. But so too does the Victory Generation which looks to a Gray Champion like John McCain to solve the crisis and create the new world that will bring us forward into the new millennium.