Don’t Call me a Millennial!: A Critique of “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe and William Strauss

For almost a week several outlets in my news feed had headlines highlighting “Steve Bannon’s book” for understanding the current American moment. Described as a seminal text in Bannon’s political philosophy and the foundation for his 2010 documentary, I was curious. I dug a little further and found out that one of the authors, Neil Howe, had been the person who coined the term Millennial. I’ve long heard and used the term Millennial and viewed it as a description of the generation of people born in the early eighties to the mid- nineties. Reading The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny made me realize how wrong I was about this and has brought me to the view that the widespread adoption of the term is highly problematic. So problematic, in fact, that I’m going to make a conscious effort not to use the word and attempt to raise awareness as to why it should not be be used.

When Glenn Beck Takes Something Seriously, That’s A Good Indication You Shouldn’t

Perhaps the quickest way to show how intellectually bankrupt the term is is to look at the level of excitement  Glenn Beck has when talking about The Fourth Turning. After viewing this clip, to me it seems that Beck does not just view their work as history, but as Revealed Truth!

Beck has multiple episodes devoted to detailing Howe and Strauss’ work that details as to the significance of the saecula – the average span of a human life – the archetypal cycles within them and the psycho-social impact of their interactions. I’ve not seen these videos, but I imagine it is a further delineation of the philosophy of history which opens the book.

The Historians Wear No Clothes

H&S begin with an intellectual history that highlights numerous people that have declaimed history to be generational and circular. Citing and updating Classical Greek ideas and terms, we soon learn that the four archetypes of American History – which all have their another iteration in other national borders – are Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist.

These archetypes emerge from periods of crisis, such as war or revolution, that changes the spirit of the people due to their experience. While the collective action problem inherent in the upheavals of massive social transformation is certain to impact people’s consciousness, the historic component of the dynamic which H&S describe is piecemeal, Metaphysical and Idealistic.

History Matters 

H&S, like many others, locate the origin of “linear history” in The Enlightenment, and associate it with modernity and the State. They continue to say that despite the works of a number of eminent thinkers having created the most “cogent body of generations writing ever,” (tellingly all non-Jacobins) that this mode of thought fell out of favor while the more directional form of historical consciousness became hegemonic (63).

They import this into their account of American history, which is quite unusual, but more so due to the the method that the bring to bear on their account.

Quite simply, in Howe and Strauss’ account of America, there are very few actual people accounted for. Though masses are named and given qualities, for the most part there is little attempt to connect the qualities of the Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist into the historic conditions of the saeculum they are describing. For the most part all that we’re treated to is analysis based on movies or well-known personages that “somehow define the ages”. What’s missing is any sort of genuine political economy.

No Race, No Class, No Immigration in Howe and Strauss’ America

In H&S’s account of American history, slavery’s inheritance on the personality of the body politic writ large is marginal. Other racial and ethnic tensions have also not played a significant role in the development of the American Identity. Instead, from Slavery through Reconstruction through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era, the same four archetypes are in conflict over the direction of the political order – and yet racial conflict is largely glossed over.

Based on this “prophetic account of history” you would also never suspect  that over 59 million people have immigrated to the United States since 1965 alone from places very different from those that first settled. Since Howe and Strauss’ opening intellectual salvo is to connect the First Turning to the end of the Glorious Revolution, it’s worth noting that many millions of other immigrants have arrived from non-Anglo countries, an unmentioned fact in H&S account.

Social struggles for women’s rights, unions and the various repressions at home and oppressions abroad justified by the “Cold War” are other dynamics that apparently play a negligible role in the development of American Identity.

Why this is so is never clearly stated, instead we are presented with conflicts stemming solely from generational conflict. That they would not entertain other theories about the cycles of conflict is surprising given that a number of other historians and political economists support the basic notion of cycles in history…

Only Weak Thinkers Avoid Attacking Their Convictions

The idea of cyclical waves existing in human history is not solely the domain of those historians such as Ortega Y Gasset. Given that much of the first writings of man are economic in nature, receipts and double entry book-keeping, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it’s in this domain – political economy – that a similar trend has been noticed.

Commodity prices like the ones above, for instance, have been shown via the work of Nikolai Kondratiev and others to follow a secular, recurring cycle of peaks, recessions and crashes. Given that American’s live within a capitalist mode of social relations to produce their means of subsistence, these “economic” indicators have huge anthropological and political effects, hence why it is so surprising that labor and economic exchange is barely mentioned in this account of America’s past. The structural constraints imposed on the working class have actual corporeality, eight hours daily in economic relations limited by varying degrees of political agency – unlike Howe and Strauss’s idealist account. New technologies and new relations of political power cause massive social disorder and economic dislocation, however these don’t play a factor in the creation of “generational identities” such as Millennials, Baby Boomers, etc.

Contending Schools of Thought: Materialism vs. Idealism 

That the authors of The Fourth Turning don’t quote any of these “cyclical” schools that have recognized cycles of life within societies that have political economies informed by capitalist property relations is perhaps unsurprisingly, for reasons that should already becoming clear.

This is because for Howe and Strauss, the current generations of Baby Boomers, The Silent Generation, Generation X, Millennial are trans-historic substantive categories that subsumes all America’s class, racial, sexual, sexual preference, and many other differences. According to their use of the term, those born within certain date border inherently, all have the same experience.

When Are You Getting To The Part about Millennials?

With all of this in mind it becomes easier to understand how problematic Howe and Strauss’s term Millennials and why their “prophecy” should be seen as bullshit and those that cite them as inspiration should be resisted.

For one, it literally emerges from the entire web of bullshit that I described above.

Secondly that prognostication isn’t so good. And by this I don’t mean Howe’s Book Millennial’s Rising: The Next Great Generation, about which one Amazon reviewer wrote the following: “The book was written BEFORE any of the predictions advanced could have happened and MISSED many of the things. I thought it was a real up-date and it was not.”

According to The Fourth Turning, Millennials are on track from which there is no escape to be a generation that sacrifices under the auspices for austerity. The way that we prepare is not as a class of people recognizing and acting upon their material interests, but to revert to tribalism. Return to classic virtues, expect for the collapse of public support mechanisms. Look to your family for support. Etc.

More than just focusing on increasing one’s self-reliance and forgetting about the “others”, “millennials” as a class ought to approach the crisis period by just  “going with it” and “prepare ourselves for it” – a message with some really weird echoes across history. Considering that most of the issues that “millennials” face all stem from historical capitalist relations, this is a big point to miss.

Wait, So Millennials Is A Crypto-Facist Term?! 

Indeed it is.

“The Fourth Turning” is a prophecy that a mythic, inner- conflictless country during a time of some outside conflict, generalized economic depression, massive natural catastrophe, or some other “panic” inducing behavior that prods changes in the normal acceptance of the status quo.

That said – I appreciated their prose. And found their brief remarks against Fukuyama to be insightful. Despite being risible epistemological sophistry, it was compelling! Furthermore, as someone that has training in the theory behind and therapeutic practice of Hellinger Constellations I found their writings on the inter-general interaction to be genuinely insightful and aligned with my own training in that field. Yet in the end the book is a rallying call for American Facism Lite™. The parts of American that it silences in its Prophecy is indeed the very foundation of Americanness. And it’s only through realizing this, that such cycles become less something that individuals must personally buttress themselves against or and instead something that we account for and address as a species-level.

1 thought on “Don’t Call me a Millennial!: A Critique of “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe and William Strauss”

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