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Social Phases

Social Phases

In the previous posting, I said Strauss & Howe’s theory predicts four phases of social life in America: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Each phase lasts for 20 years, give or take. The authors give different names to these same seasons: the High (Spring), the Awakening (Summer), the Unraveling (Fall), and the Crisis (Winter).

In the first posting of this subsection, I gave you the last line of Fourth Turning. The first line of that book is: “American feels like it’s unraveling.” This was written in 1997.

I don’t know what you were doing in 1997. But that year, I was in an Internet startup that was being bought up by a larger player. Didn’t much feel like “unraveling” to me. But I think that’s just because I was more or less sleep-walking in 1997. That year, the way I could tell what season we were in was to note the display near the checkout stands at the grocery stores. Chocolate bunnies meant we were near April; witches and goblins, late October. Hey, I was living in California. They tell me there’s seasons here, but I have yet to see them.

Well, whatever you can say about 1997, December 2003 is another time altogether. Now, not only is America unraveling, most everybody can feel it. Just read the polls. Even the Corporate spin machines that pump out the polls can’t hide the increasing unease. For another indicator, just look at the charts for the price of gold over the past few years.

The Crisis phase, as noted, is a huge catastrophe. Most everyone pulls together – unless the crisis is a civil war. Following the Crisis, the High is a phase in which the people say: “Whew, glad that’s over. I’m just happy to get to work, raise a family, and help raise up this culture so we don’t have to go through that again.” The Awakening that follows is a phase when the people say: “Is this all there is to life? Work, work, work? Where is your spirituality?” Following the Awakening is the Unraveling during which the people say: “Enough of these spirituality freaks. The only person who is going to take care of me is me. Get out of my way.” The Unraveling is then followed by the next Crisis during which the people say: “Holy sh**! Look, I got your back; you get mine. If we stick together, maybe we can make it through this.” They make it through it, and a High follows in which the people say: “Whew, glad that’s over. I’m just happy to get to work, raise a family, and help raise this culture up so we don’t have to go through that again.” And so on. (This sounds like a beer commercial.)

The phrase “the people say” doesn’t mean that every single human being in the nation says these things. Some people are still stuck in previous phases, approaching life like a broken record. Still others have a broader view of life, simultaneously incorporating work, spirituality, individualism, and collective action. But the notion is that enough of the people do “say that” to give the times a particular tenor or character.

To see how the Roaring 1920s, Depressive '30s, Heroic ‘'40s, Can-Do '50s, Psychedelic '60s, Disco '70s, Wall Street '80s, and Dot Com '90s fit into this framework, check out lots of other sites that go into detail.

You may be wondering: What causes the shifts from one phase to the next? The answer seems to be that it’s like eating habits. For example, say you were to eat pizza every day for a month. At the end of that month, you’d be quite tired of pizza, and ready to move on to, say, burgers and fries. But, after a month of that, you might get tired and move on to Chicken McNuggets. Then after a solid month of that, you might go Mexican. But after a month of that, you might return to pizza. And so on.

But, instead of simply “getting tired” of your current diet, some event happens to wake you up to the fact that you are indeed tired and ready for a change. The event would be something dramatic. For example, let’s say you are toward the end of your “pizza month”, and you are withdrawing money at an ATM. Perhaps Ronald McDonald sneaks up behind you and mugs you. This dramatic incident might bring forth many thoughts to your mind, including “Hmm, I could go for some burgers and fries right about now.” (By the way, if this allegory resembles your diet, let me guess: your BMI is over 30, yes?)

This is the nub of Strauss & Howe’s theory. American society falls into a rut. It’s some kind of consistent pattern of behavior and thinking. After a couple of decades of that, society gets tired of it, and people are ready for a change. But they can’t get themselves to change in the absence of an external event. But once a shocking external event does happen that reminds them of their malaise, American society suddenly wakes up, and switches to the next phase. Like a big, lazy cow struck with an electric cattle prod.

The last kicker in the theory is youth. After twenty years or so, there’s a whole new crop of kids out there. And in America, it seems to be the youth who serve the function of kicking the lazy, sleeping cow awake. So as we look out to the youth of America today, we ask: Which of that sorry bunch is going to kick us all awake? And awake to what?

(Hey, before you go laughing at the Americans, just look at the rest of the world. At least we Americans go through profound changes every twenty years or so. The rest of the world stays stuck in ruts measured in centuries, not decades. Change and growth is the beauty and genius of America. America is the Grand Human Experiment.)

Well the phases are certainly fascinating. But this weblog addresses the Next Crisis. So here, instead of focusing on all the phases, I’m going to look closely only at the crisis phase. In fact, I'm going to study the crisis phases going back to the War of the Roses in the 15th century.

Hey, I’m just following Mr. Santayana’s advice. I mean, if these crises are part of a cycle imbedded in human nature, and if human nature doesn’t change much over the course of 500 years, then there should be a thread of similarity between all of the crises. I think there is. So does Strauss & Howe.

I’ll describe that thread in the next posting.

[posted: 12/13/03]

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