June 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 3 // Tools of the Trade // 3TOT1

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America's Future Revealed?

This review of the 1997 paperback, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, helps Extension educators understand our turbulent times and anticipate changes predicted for the next two decades. The authors, William Strauss and Neil Howe, demonstrate how our "linear" paradigm of history should be replaced with their "cyclic" theory in which four phases of about twenty years each are repeated in a predictable sequence.

Arlen Etling
Curriculum Specialist and Associate Professor
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska
Internet address: aetling@unlvm.unl.edu

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy William Strauss and Neil Howe, New York City: Broadway Books, 1997. 382 pp. $19.95 paperback.

We must be in tune with current and future trends for Cooperative Extension to be effective. In this time of rapid change and multiple challenges, our very survival may depend on our ability to stay in touch with our stakeholders and anticipate the next challenge.

Strauss and Howe provide some clues about the next 20 years for America, if you can believe their theory. They claim that we usually get trapped in short term trends based on a linear paradigm of history. They advise us, on the contrary, to look at history's cycles over the long term.

They suggest that times change according to historical cycles. Each cycle lasts the length of a long human life, roughly 80-100 years. Each cycle has four phases which they call "turnings." These phases, which follow an orderly sequence are called (a) the high;(b) the awakening;(c) the unraveling; and (d) the crisis (p. 3).

The last "high" in American history was the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. It was a time of high stability, confidence in institutions, and economic prosperity. The last awakening was from the mid-1960s to the mid 1980s--a time of upheaval when the civic order and values were questioned. The third turning began in the mid-1980s and will likely end, according to the authors, about 2005. This phase, which we are now experiencing, is a "...downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays..." (p. 3).

The fourth turning, which will begin around 2005 (or possibly earlier) will be a time of extreme danger and opportunity when new values and institutions replace the old (pp. 49-51). The last fourth turning in American history was the 20 year period ending in 1945. In addition to the Great Depression and World War II, this was a time that dramatically shaped Cooperative Extension.

Strauss and Howe predict that a spark will trigger this fourth turning. It may be a terrorist act, a fiscal crisis, an epidemic, or a foreign conflict that draws in the United States. There will be a devaluation of our currency and a return to a simpler life style for most Americans. Our children will not enjoy the prosperity that we have enjoyed (pp. 272-302).

"To prepare for the fourth turning, America needs old thinking" according to Strauss and Howe (p. 305). We need to prepare at the local level like a farm family preparing for a harsh winter. On the personal level we need to return to the classic virtues, heed emerging community norms, build personal relationships, prepare for teamwork (especially within the extended family), prepare for the weakening or collapse of public support mechanisms, and diversify everything we do (pp. 317-321).

The authors also recommend preparations on the institutional level (pp. 312-317). The implications for Extension are that we should reemphasize the historic mission of Extension: to help people to help themselves (the authors even mention the 4-H motto as a value that is necessary for the future, p. 293). We need to clear away the debris of programs that do not work; to emphasize values (such as Character Counts); to focus on community teamwork to solve local problems; to avoid large scale, top down programming; to treat children as our nation's highest priority (but do not do their work for them); and to prepare elders to be more self-sufficient.

This book is interesting reading even if you do not buy the underlying theory of the 100-year cycle with four phases. For many of us the book is a little too deterministic. Much of the book, however, describes how the theory fits American history since the first colonies. Application to English history goes back to the Medieval period, and the cycle is even used to describe Moses' lifetime.

The approach taken by the book is somewhat sensational. It appears to fit a little too comfortably with a conservative Republican agenda. These characteristics will prevent many readers from taking the predictions too seriously. For others, however, the book helps explain our turbulent and puzzling times. It provides guidelines for shaping strategic planning. Even if the more alarming predictions are not realized, The Fourth Turning may guide Cooperative Extension back to its roots and forward to being a more focused organization, ready to deal with any future scenario.