I had the pleasure of spending two hours with Neil Howe today. On his way back to Washington DC from a meeting with a client in NYC he stopped at 30th Street Station and we grabbed a bite to eat and chatted for a couple hours. Neil’s background is fascinating. His grandfather was astronomer Robert Julius Trumpler. His father was a physicist and his mother was a professor of occupational therapy. I know there has been a dominant opinion on this site that liberal arts degrees are worthless. I don’t think any college degree is worthless. I realize we need more engineers and scientists, but many people are not wired for these professions. We need writers, historians, and thinkers too. Neil Howe is a perfect example. His undergraduate degree from Berkley was in literature. He then earned graduate degrees in economics and history. His well rounded education has given him a much broader view of the world. And he’s a Boomer. Proof that all Boomers aren’t bad.
I had never met Neil. We have had occasional email correspondence and he was the star of Generation Zero, in which I had tiny part. He is a famous man. He’s written or co-written 15 books. He runs a very successful company called Lifecourse Associates. Based on my two hours in his acquantance you would never know he was a famous person. He is extremely down to earth. He is a nice guy. I never felt intimidated, even though his brain power is out of my league. He was actually interested in my background and my opinions.
But enough small talk. You want to know what he thinks about our current Fourth Turning. He was proud that some distinguished institutions had agreed with the Strauss & Howe dating definitions for Boomers, Xers, and Millenials. His starting point for this Fourth Turning is 2007. We are only four years into this Turning and haven’t reached regeneracy yet. I asked him why regeneracy had begun in the last two Fourth Turnings by year four, but hasn’t begun yet. He said that each Turning has its own flow. We agreed that something huge would need to happen in order to create a regeneracy in this country. It could be an economic collapse or it could be war.
He believes the situation which has the biggest potential to blow up the world is Iran. He thinks people are underestimating the implications of a conflict with Iran. He thinks Israel will act unilaterally to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. I asked him if he thinks there will be a world war during this Fourth Turning. He doesn’t think it will be a world war. He expects regional conflicts in the Middle East.
I asked him why the Boomers didn’t seem to be supporting and leading the Millenial generation. He said that within families Boomers and Millenials are very close. This will ultimately exhibit itself. He thinks Boomers will eventually choose to sacrifice some of their entitlements in order to give Millenials a fighting chance at a future. We discussed the upcoming presidential election. He had some nice things to say about Ron Paul. He has been surprised by Newt Gingrich’s rise in the polls. Neil has known Gingrich for 20 years since he has worked on public policy in DC. He believes his past will come back to haunt him. He thinks Romney is likely to win the Republican nomination by default. If the economy stays in the dumper, Romney will be our next President. He is a Prophet/Boomer leader. Neil doesn’t think Bloomberg could win as a 3rd party candidate because of his association with Wall Street. Anyone associated with Wall Street is toxic.
His opinion about OWS was interesting. He says that the movement is made up of 50% Millenials. He thinks the creators of the movement are actually anarchist Boomers trying to use the Millenials for their own purposes. He thinks the movement has a lot of passion but not a lot of depth. His firm has done surveys and he found that most Millenials don’t even know there is an OWS movement. I asked him whether libertarians are likely to be happy with this Fourth Turning. He said that libertarians have an impact early in a Fourth Turning (Ron Paul, Tea Party), but once the regeneracy occurs people rally around the central authority and government is likely to take on more power and control. Not a happy thought.
Neil lamented what a great opportunity was missed in early 2009 by Barack Obama. The situation in the country was awful. He had both Houses in Congress. His popularity was at its peak. He could have done anything. The country could have accepted short term pain and began to fix our structural problems. He could have had an orderly liquidation of the Wall Street banks. He could have combined short term stimulus with a long term fix for our entitlement programs. But instead he rolled over for Wall Street and dished out Keynesian pork to his supporters. A once in a lifetime chance was missed.
He believes the Federal Reserve policies are disastrous. Zero percent interest rates have sucked the vitality from our economy. The policies are exacerbating our debt problems. People have no incentive to save with zero interest rates. I told him that TBP members are anxious to know what happens next. Here’s where you’ll be disappointed. Neil doesn’t make predictions of events. There will always be dramatic events as time passes, but it is how generations react to those events that matter. There is no doubt that it will take a dramatic event to create a regeneracy of spirit in this country. The triggers for this Crisis were clearly visible in 1997 when Strauss and Howe wrote their classic book – debt, civic decay, and global disorder. The toxic combination is still roiling the world. We can only guess at the timing and specific events that will push us into the next phase of this Crisis.
I told Neil that I end many of my posts these days with, “Fourth Turnings sure are interesting.” He thought that was funny. With Neil’s train due to arrive in a few minutes we got up to say our goodbyes. We agreed that we are living in interesting times. He joked that at least we know how this will end, which is more than most people. He is going to revive his Fourth Turning blog and asked if I would contribute articles. I told him I’d be honored.
All in all, it was a fascinating and enlightening two hours having a great discussion with a brilliant man.