Beyond the “Fourth Turning”

Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Prior to retirement, my job involved anticipating the future. Generally speaking, our forecasts were no more sophisticated than projecting a continuation of current trends. Often this proved incorrect.

The best-selling author and demographer Neil Howe says we are in the “4th turning,” a period of societal breakdown that is likely to last a generation. He anticipated our situation in his 1997 book of the same name. 

Howe’s projections, based on his study of generational cycles, have been impresively accurate. Most of our institutions do seem broken; government, education, religion, corporations, take your pick! Generational advancement, the hallmark of American progress, has stalled. Income inequality is at a one-hundred year extreme. Political polarization is the highest it’s been since the Civil War. Societal breakdown has become a reality.

The good news is that according to Howe, we will eventually exit the “4th turning” and begin a new cycle, a period characterized by social stability and progress Howe calls the “1st turning.”

Being an optimist, I’ve been wondering how the “1st Turning” might unfold. In other words, what will be the foundation of our coming progress, peace and prosperity? 

Here are three ideas:

Wholistic Approaches 

Scientific progress is largely based on reductionist principles, meaning we study parts to determine how something works in its entirety. The problem is wholes are usually greater than the sum of their parts. 

At present, we don’t have the tools or computational power to study complex systems. That could change. New computing technologies might enable scientists to study thousands of variables simultaneously, creating breakthroughs in science, medicine, and a host of other things like weather foresting. 

Institutional Disintermediation 

This trend is already underway. Blockchain technologies are creating new boundaryless financial structures. Smartphone enhanced connectivity is enabling upstarts like Uber to usurp Yellow Cab, and Airbnb to outpace Marriott International.  In little more than a decade, Amazon ushered in a new way of shopping, Tesla unseated General Motors, and to an extent NASA as well. Tradditional large institutions appear to be losing their “gate keeper” status. We live in a time where talented individuals with unigue ideas, truly can change the world. Perhaps we are in the beginning stages of a period of accelerating innovation.  

Distributed Education

Despite being caught off guard by the pandemic, there is little reason to believe that remote access to education won’t be a future norm. Today, educational institutions take a “one size fits all” approach, resulting in a product that doesn’t fit anyone well. Additionally, maintaining discipline in over crowded classrooms, and attending to complex social service issues provides huge distractions to learning. 

Considering the unique abilities and motivations of students, educational standardization makes little sense. Furthermore, why limit the very best instruction to those with the income and social connections to attend elite private schools. Education on demand tuned to capabilities and interests of individual students has the theoretical potential to liberate and elevate broad spectrum learning. 

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The ideas presented above, follow a technological or institutional bent. There is also a possibility that attitudes will change and we will become more collaborative and inclusive, which in turn would fuel even greater progress. 

Pessamism is in vouge today, but I choose to believe Neil Howe is right. 

Soon a new positive era will be underway. 

I am hoping to live to see it!

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