Skip to content

OPINION: The fourth turning – what will it be?

We may be well past being able to salvage the environment and the speed of technology
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

I’m an old boomer – you know, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatlemania, the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the thrill of Expo ’67, and the arrival of our first Trudeau. Closer to home, Gordon Lightfoot, Steppenwolf, Ian and Sylvia, Thunder Bay’s Bobby Curtola, and who could forget “My Girl Sloopy” by Little Caesar and the Consuls.

The view of who I am and where I belonged in those early years was anchored in the music and the politics.

A lot happened. We got a new flag and a revolution in Québec; we finished our Trans-Canada Highway; capital punishment was left behind; we got a Canadian pension plan; we liberalized laws on abortion and homosexuality; we celebrated our 100th birthday, and we launched a national Medicare scheme.

There was a lot of governing. My generation had little to do with it. We were just growing up and rebelling. We could afford to. Times were good, the Depression and the war were behind us, and the economy was growing. It was the previous generation’s hard work, shaped by hard times and a World War that led them to build institutions and expectations for a better life.

Being a child of those times, and watching those institutions grow and take root, you begin to think there is a linear progression to it – that, through enlightenment and better decision-making, we make our societies more compassionate, sustainable, inclusive and effective. Things just keep getting better.

That just isn’t true. We are witnessing an unravelling. There is no straight line.

I was speaking to a friend the other day, commiserating about some of the more egregious developments in Canada, Europe and America, and he said hopefully we are in for a fourth turning. I had no idea what he was talking about.

It comes from a book written by William Strauss and Neil Howe in the late 1990s. Although complex to digest, it is the story of generational biographies and how they are predictable, repetitive and extraordinarily impactful on the course of history. They can be traced back in Anglo-American history for hundreds of years.

The précis of this theory is that there is a turning every 20 to 25 years, which ushers in a new generation with different attributes, instincts and proclivities. Additionally, the theory suggests there is a crisis every 80 to 90 years (a saeculum), which is the equivalent of a very long life. 

If you take a look at the last time the world had a nervous breakdown it would be 1939, with Black Tuesday in 1929 10 years earlier as a precursor. Until recently, we have been building institutions from the ashes of the Second World War – the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, the Paris Agreement on the environment. The European community is an institutional response to a history of war. Right on cue, nearly 80 years later, each one of these institutions is under attack and may or may not survive in some useful formation. 

We move from communal initiatives, which generally follow a crisis, to extreme individualism, which follows a period of relative calm. Much of our generational DNA flows from whether we were overprotected or underprotected as children growing up.

Institutions, of course, can outlive their usefulness and become inefficient or corrupt, but destruction without an alternative is dangerous business.

If this book is on the money, we are headed for a monumental crisis and will be saved, if at all, by our millennials. They enter young adulthood nominally in charge of the fourth turning. I recommend the read.

What might interrupt this historic turn is the fact we may be well past being able to salvage the environment and the speed of technology, regardless if the generation moves at a speed that is entirely unmanageable.

No amount of Bob Dylan will help. Our generation is not part of the solution. It is part of the problem.