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What past generations can teach us
Neil Howe, the Fourth Turning, and adapting to current events
No matter where you stand on current events, there’s no denying that we are part of a significant inflection point in human history. We are living in interesting times. Yet we have been here before, and we will likely be here again. Only by learning what past generations can teach us can we come to a more full understanding of current events – and create a path forward in which we grow as individuals and as a civilization.
In this episode of the Tony Robbins Podcast, you will hear from historian and demographer Neil Howe as he and Tony discuss the patterns of human history and build a long-view perspective on the current charge of events. This can’t-miss discussion delves into the deepest parts of why we are the way we are and how we can find a new hope for our future in seemingly dark times.
What is Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning?
Neil Howe wears many hats – demographer, historian, economist. He heads two firms dedicated to research that helps investors and business managers anticipate and react to trends and has worked with companies from Nike to Fidelity. He even coined the term “millennial generation.” But Howe is perhaps most well-known for writing two extremely impactful books: Generations (published in 1991) and The Fourth Turning (published in 1997), with coauthor William Strauss.
In The Fourth Turning, the Strauss and Howe theory considers the four-stage cycle that repeats every 80–100 years (approximately the length of a human life, also referred to as a saeculum). Their books suggest four “turnings” of history:
- A High
- An Awakening
- An Unraveling
- (Culminating in) A Crisis
If you’re already familiar with Tony’s work (e.g., attended an event, listened to this podcast) you’ve likely heard him say that anticipation is power and pattern recognition is a huge key to intelligent decision-making. Neil Howe’s theory of the Fourth Turning is all about the patterns of the past and what they suggest we can anticipate in the future.
What past generations can teach us
The lessons of past generations can not only help us avoid the deadly sins of business, but also fulfill our personal needs. To that end, Neil also developed four generational archetypes (a fancy word for patterns) of people born in the same era and coming of age shaped by the same historical events. The four archetypes Strauss and Howe use to describe generational cohorts are:
- Prophets are the generation born right after a crisis. They’re raised in a secure and collective era, and therefore want to free individuals from the tyranny of the collective.
- Nomads are underprotected and raised as individuals. They value privatism, efficacy and execution.
- Heroes value community and optimism. They create and defend long-term institutions and believe in the triumph of technology and infrastructure.
- Artists are the generation that is protected during a crisis. They are caring and kind and they see nuances and distinctions that are lost on older generations.
Millennials fall into the Hero archetype, while Gen Xers are Nomads and baby boomers are Prophets. The generation born in or after 2005 are Artists. As each archetypal generation reaches the end of its 80-year lifespan, the cycle repeats. As Neil says in the podcast, “The overall lesson is history shapes generations young, but generations as they get older shape history. It’s a complete circle of life.”
What comes next – and how to prepare
It’s no secret that as Neil says, “We’re at a time of growing tribalism.” Red and blue are mega brands. People are self-sorting. We are moving toward populism. Yet ultimately, the Fourth Turning is when we solve our problems. Historically, “We actually solve all the problems that we now have in a way that today absolutely no one thinks we’ll actually solve,” says Neil. “It’s not that we want to be in a Fourth Turning, it’s simply that it’s necessary.”
If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or uncertain about all that’s happening in the world, consider that a cycle of crisis predictably includes massive economic, cultural, political, religious, military and broad institutional disruption. What can be helpful to remember in these times is that no storm lasts forever and this too shall pass. If we are willing to learn what past generations can teach us about our future, we can feel gratitude for their lessons and we can use that precedent to become better leaders. We can effect massive change. We can leave the world better than we found it.
Listen to this episode for Neil’s insights and predictions on how much longer this Fourth Turning will last – and how you can come out of it stronger than before.
[0:05] Tony was working with President Bill Clinton when he was first told about the book Generations
[2:46] The stages of our lives: childhood, young adult, mid-life, elder
[6:31] The seasons of history and how they overlap with generations
[8:15] Tony welcomes Neil Howe, co-author of Generations, and The Fourth Turning
[10:25] Generations are distinct and always have been
[10:45] How old you are during a big event shapes your experience of it
[12:50] Knife-age division vs. zones of transition (e.g. X-ennials)
[13:45] History shapes generations, but (later on) generations shape history
[16:09] The cyclical nature of crises and how they spur “a total remake”
[18:29] Institutions we rely on today were created post-WWII
[20:01] Why do we wait until there is a crisis to solve problems?
[22:10] 1780s economic depression: We created the Constitution in our darkest hour
[24:18] What comes next: The High, collective, feeling more than the sum of our parts
[26:38] The Awakening releases the individual
[27:57] Gen X was left alone and raised themselves = pragmatism & cynicism
[30:08] Silent Generation had to adjust themselves to meet others’ expectations
[31:08] We are in a time of growing tribalism in America
[32:56] Perceptions of children in culture over time
[34:19] Suddenly “children are special” for Millennial parents
[35:01] We are all like trees, our rings show what we’ve been through
[35:30] The Coddling of the American Mind and missing children on milk cartons
[37:10] “Millennials are our next heroes”
[39:20] Globally, societies are shifting to create a cultural/social majoritarian center
[41:04] Protected kids end up with a spirit of optimism, cooperation, national unity
[42:28] Neil asks Tony how he serves Millennials, “collective transformation”
[44:04] Language and level of public discourse currently degraded, just like the 1850s
[45:40] Honoring the melting pot
[46:01] The 3 principles for dealing with the changing world order (Ray Dalio)
[46:49] Archetype of The Prophet, the moralistic “gray champions”
[49:43] The Nomad archetype, the practical hands-on leaders
[51:33] The Hero generation, optimistic institution-defenders
[52:27] The Artist archetype, full of sensitivity and fairness (Silent, Gen Z)
[54:20] In myth, the prophet and hero reshape the inner and outer worlds, respectively
[56:17] Tony asks, where are we now? When will the next cycle begin
[57:00] Phases of life are dilating so cycles are long, this 4th turning will be 2008-2030s
[1:00:34] The quandary facing the Fed and Congress, the impossibly high deficit
[1:01:22] Adjustments to investment asset classes that are wise during a 4th turning
[1:04:08] What matters now: Your chosen family, your real network, and reputation
[1:05:36] Get to know the local leaders, politics can reshape your world overnight
[1:07:00] How will we know this crisis period is coming to an end?
[1:09:51] Internal polarization and conflict, possibility of global (external) conflict
[1:12:20] What you can predict and what you cannot
[1:14:19] No clear leader of either party, so the floor is open – a leader will be made
[1:15:58] Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington were the right people at the right time
[1:18:09] Examples of famous figures that were Prophets and Nomads
[1:18:48] What happens in spring, the Awakening? Calm and unification
[1:21:09] The Homeland Generation, born after 2005 to late 2020s
[1:23:54] Who you are is almost the opposite of how you were raised, consciously
[1:24:41] Why we often relate more to our grandparents vs. our parents
[1:25:44] Tony remembers the last Awakening and the subsequent Unravelling
[1:27:10] Thinking about his baby daughter and how she will experience these cycles
[1:28:22] The upside of a Fourth Turning: We solve problems
[1:29:09] A world in which winter does not happen is not a world we want to live in
[1:30:53] Henry James: we look back and no regrets, but we don’t desire future pain
[1:32:35] Forests need fires, rivers need floods, nature needs winter
[1:33:32] Concluding remarks and gratitude for Neil’s insights and distinctions