The Millennial Crisis
And Why The End is Not Near
The New Year in 1936
In the month of January, my social media feed is typically filled with optimism about the new year. Resolutions, which rarely last more than a few weeks, are nobly declared. People share their hopes for a brighter future.
But this year, there’s one thing everybody seems to agree on: 2024 is going to be a doozy. Perhaps the most chaotic one in our lifetimes. Although you probably don’t need convincing, here are some interesting facts I gathered from various commentary:
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It’s not only America that’s having a consequential election. This year, 40% of the world’s population will be voting in national elections. That’s 3.2 billion people across 40 countries.
War is raging all over the world. Tensions are boiling. Some say we’re already in WW3, we just don’t realize it yet.
22% of companies are planning layoffs and may let go of 30% or more of their employees.
Unfortunately, history suggests that we are nowhere near the end of this crisis. Even if 2024 proves the most chaotic one so far in our lifetimes, it probably won’t be the last.
It’s like we’re living in the year 1936 (also a leap year). Last October, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Later this year, a civil war will break out in Spain. Fascism is rising across Europe. But that’s just something you skim through in the newspapers while you drink your black coffee and smoke your Lucky Strikes. You’ve got more pressing things to concern yourself with.
Here in America, things are pretty dire. And have been for some time. It’s an election year. Although the country will vote in a landslide to re-elect FDR, there’s not exactly a consensus about the job he is doing, or the direction of the country. Many call Roosevelt a dictator. Some think he’s a communist. Others, a fascist.
The New Deal sounded great, but it hasn’t actually brought the country out of the Great Depression. The stock market crashed seven years ago. Maybe this is just the way things will always be. We had our high times during the twenties, but nothing lasts. And even those weren’t so great for many.
A lot of Americans are exploring alternatives to liberal capitalism. The Communist Party is an actual organization and is gaining members. There are others who think fascism is a good idea. There was a plot, three years ago, by disgruntled veterans to overthrow Roosevelt.
But five years from now, a few weeks before Christmas, the national mood will shift overnight. The entire nation will set aside their differences and mobilize against a common enemy. We’ll emerge victorious, and create a world unrecognizable from the one we’re living in now.
At least that’s how it happened last time.
Chronologies of Fourth Turnings
My latest obsession has been the fourth turning theory of history by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. The idea is that Anglo-American history has transpired in four (roughly) 20-year cycles, or turnings, which make up a (roughly) 80-year saeculum. Or a long life.
These turnings go all the way back to the 15th century, and have repeated through the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WW2. Events today are playing out on schedule. The four turnings consist of a high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. You can guess which one we’re in now.
I just finished Howe’s follow up book, The Fourth Turning is Here, and am struck by how long he predicts our current crisis to last. Howe calls it “The Millennial Crisis” and believes it started in 2008 with the Great Recession. For a millennial like me, that event happened when I was 18. As an 18-year-old, I was focused on other things. So for basically my whole adult life, we’ve been in a crisis.
But where in the crisis are we? Like seasons in nature, the seasons of history don’t correspond to an exact timeline. Sometimes winter comes early, sometimes late. Sometimes it is harsh and sometimes mild. On rare occasions, it lasts into summer.
But there are key elements of crisis eras that give some indication of where we are in the cycle. And according to Howe, we’re a little more than halfway through the current one.
Crisis periods have a precursor, or an emergency that temporarily galvanizes society. For a moment, it seems as though this emergency will unite and galvanize society. But it occurs during the previous unraveling period, and because of that it falls apart. The precursor to the American Revolution was the French & Indian War. For the Civil War, it was the Mexican War. And for the Millennial Crisis, it was 9/11.
For a moment after the attack, the world rallied around the US. And the US rallied around the Bush administration. But the War on Terror fit right into the unraveling period. It was dysfunctional, alienating, and divisive. It fed into the polarization and populism that would become the signature characteristics of our Millennial crisis.
The catalyst is a watershed event that produces a sudden but lasting shift in the social mood. For the American Revolution, this was the “coercive acts” of 1774. For the Civil War, it was the Southern secession following Lincoln’s election. For the Great Depression/WW2, it was the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
According to Howe, the catalyst for the Millennial Crisis is the Great Recession of 2008.
A regeneracy is an event that reunifies community and energizes civic life. Sometimes there is more than one regeneracy during a crisis. For the Revolution, it was The Battle of Lexington and Concord. These were the first shots fired between the British and the rebels. For the Civil War, it was Fort Sumter. For WW2, it was FDR’s first inaugural address where he uttered the famous words, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
A regeneracy doesn’t necessarily unite the whole country. The American Revolution was really a civil war, and Lexington & Concord united both the loyalists and the rebels against one another.
For the Millennial Crisis, Howe says the regeneracy is most likely the 2016 election. The results shocked most of the nation. For Trump supporters, it was a victory. For those who opposed Trump, they organized into “the resistance.” The election energized civic engagement, whichever side you are on.
The consolidation is the moment when everyone understands that they are engaged in a true struggle for survival. For the Revolution, this was the creation of the US Constitution, which then split people into virulent Federalist and Anti-Federalist camps. For the Civil War, this was the Emancipation Proclamation. For WW2, it was the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The consolidation of the Millennial Crisis is yet to come. We can speculate on all the different scenarios of how that could unfold. But some sort of major event will take place within the next few years that will focus all the tension that’s been building over the last 16 years.
Climax & Resolution
Next comes the climax, which is a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and the triumph of the new. For the Revolutionary period, this was the ratification of the Constitution. For the Civil War, it was a series of Union victories in 1864 that tilted the tide of the war. For WW2, it was the military victories in Europe and the Pacific.
Then there is the resolution, which is the triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates winners from losers and resolves the big questions. The new order is established.
For the Revolution, it was the presidency of George Washington and the voluntary, peaceful transfer of power. For the Civil War, this is the passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery and the surrender of Lee to Grant. In WW2, this was the series of agreements and organizations that would set the tone of the post war era: United Nations, Bretton Woods, World Bank, etc.
At some point, our crisis era will resolve itself. A worldview will emerge triumphant. And a new order will be established.
And You May Contribute a Verse
Everyone can agree that times are dark right now. And history suggests they will get a whole lot darker. But this was all inevitable. Those who sacrificed during the Great Depression and WW2 are no longer with us. A new generation will need to do the same.
Soon, our time will come.
In times of crisis, heroes are made. Ulysses S Grant was a “failure in everything except marriage and war.”1 He was a 39-year-old living in obscurity with financial and drinking problems when the war broke out. He went on to lead the Union to victory and later become president.
In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Civil War veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, reflected that: “...in our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.” As war began to break out between the Union and the Confederacy, naive young men enlisted in the army so they could see some action before the whole thing boiled over. William Tecumseh Sherman insisted in these early days that the conflict would be a long, bloody affair. People thought he was insane.
On December 6th, 1941, it was inconceivable that America would get involved in any of the conflicts happening overseas. But one day later, after Pearl Harbor, the national mood changed completely. All the able bodied men went off to war. Women went to work in the factories. People rationed their food. The nation mourned the loss of over 400,000 young men.
A consolidation is coming soon. Most likely it’ll be something unpredictable. Because it usually is. But I’m confident we’ll make it through and the American experiment will continue.
After the crisis is resolved, Millennials will get to work rebuilding the country and establishing the new order. We’ll bring the nation into a new modern age, driven by technology, consensus, and collective action. We’ll finally address the issues that actually matter.
Just as the Greatest Generation built the suburbs to accommodate all those Baby Boomers, we’ll figure out a way to address our current housing crisis. But we’ll do it in a way that encourages walkability and clean air.
We’ll figure out sustainable forms of transportation, urban planning, and agriculture. No more bankruptcies from education and health care bills. We’ll have a congress that doesn't look like a gerontocracy. It’ll actually do something instead of partisan fighting and dysfunction and grandstanding. We’ll create a society that values service to others above personal gain. We’ll look after our neighbors.
Our society will be far from perfect, and a later prophet generation will have an awakening, which will question all the institutions and values and technology that we worked so hard to build. They’ll grow up in the new order, and won’t understand the sacrifices we made. And society will unravel once again. And a new generation, many years from now, will have to endure a new crisis. This time of a different nature.
As Whitman said, “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
From Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”