Unpacking the idea we learn that every 20 – 25 years, as a new generation comes of age (referred to as a ‘Turning’ by the authors), there is a predictable shift in the national zeitgeist. Each Turning has identifiable characteristics rendering the theory ripe for extrapolation. The book, written in the mid-’90s, estimated that we would enter our next Fourth Turning (bad times) around 2008, the previous Fourth Turning kicking off with WWI, roughly 100 years ago. Strauss & Howe go on to describe, in general terms, a large-scale disaster that sets off a dramatic series of events, effectively pushing our society into a generation-long era of significant, irreversible change. To see us through, a ‘grey champion’ emerges as an unlikely and largely unsung hero.
Was the 2008 mortgage crisis and resulting Great Recession the event that kicked off a 25-year national rebuilding phase? Are we behind schedule and perhaps it is the COVID19 global pandemic? Will history recount Donald Trump or Joe Biden as the grey champion of our time much as Woodrow Wilson was in his? We can’t know for sure at present, but it would certainly be hard to argue that, as a people, we are experiencing anything other than a significant and rapidly changing cultural-political moment.
But let’s walk through the argument together to make sure we are on the same page, starting with the understanding that civilized society is held together by its shared culture, defined as:
Borrowing a biblical allegory, if culture is the language we use to describe and navigate in the direction of our shared future, we are at the Tower of Babel, confused and dispersing. The more fractious the culture, the more prime the society for decay, revolt, and/or takeover. Or as historian Luke Kemp puts it in his 2019 BBC article:
And if scrolling thru twitter comments or tuning into any political commentary isn’t enough to convince you of the eroding culture, take a look at the current state of two of the most influential cultural players in the US, Government and News Media.
And while this moment of cultural decay isn’t entirely unique in history, the wealth, technology, sheer population density, and diversity sure are. Translation: the spectrum of possible outcomes, both constructive and destructive, is measurably wider than in the past. Therefore, we have both more to gain and more to lose than ever before; one might say we are teetering on a precipice of epic proportions.
Staring over the edge and down into the abyss, we can imagine a darkening future where the worst elements of the current moment, enhanced by the greatest weapons, communications, and transportations technologies mankind has ever known, erupt on the scene and swallow us up, ushering in a modern-day dark age. I really don’t like delving into these types of doomsday scenarios as so many other outlets do, but do want to point out that it would not be the situation itself, rather our inability to communicate, compromise, and come together that would ultimately doom us to destruction.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We could step back from the precipice, turn, and open the gates to the greatest Golden Age that mankind has ever known, fueled by all the same drivers. But what is a Golden Age?
The idea of a Golden Age first appeared in the Five Ages of Man, an 8th-century BCE creation myth composed by the Greek Hesiod, an epic poet the likes of Homer. Hesiod’s vision of the Golden Age – supposedly imparted to him by the Nine Muses while he tended sheep – describes a time when Man was indistinguishable from the Gods. In this age of peace and plenty, there was no suffering, no toil, no death.
I’m not talking about immortality, omnipotence, or any other supernatural phenomenon, but I did grow up hearing that I could achieve anything I put my mind to and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if enough people did that collectively.
So how do we get there from the mess we are in now? Stay tuned for the next article but I’ll leave you with a hint: as you likely have figured out by now, I’m a strong advocate for the Jordan Peterson school of thought, ‘fix yourself, fix the world.’ Put another way, we can’t sit back and expect broken people to fix us, or blind people to lead the way.
Time to lace up our shoes, open our eyes, and get to work on our own Golden Age.