The widening gyre…

Posted: July 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

Yes, it’s an obscure reference to Yeats’ great poem, “The Second Coming”. It popped into mind because I read an interesting article on Moneyweb recently ( which referred to a similar concept of cycles and one that’s particularly pertinent to our current economic situation.

It’s a fascinating read, but for those of you who won’t be able to click the link I’ll give a brief overview of what’s in it. The author of the article refers to the work of Neil Howe, who suggested in his book “The Fourth Turning” that society (in North America at any rate) goes through 80 or 90 year cycles that are characterised by four distinct sub-periods, or “turnings” of around 20 years each.

The first of the periods is referred to as a High. It follows a period of crisis and is marked by “a heightened sense of community and collective optimism”. The most recent example of this is the period that lasted after WW2 into the early ’60s. Next comes the Awakening, where large parts of society rebel againstthe conformity of the High and seek individual fulfilment and pursuits – think of the social revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s and you’ll get a feel for that Turning. The third period is the Unravelling, marked by individualism: Howe describes it as “a time of celebrity circuses and a tremendous amount of freedom and creativity in our personal lives, but very little sense of public purpose.”

According to Howe, this leads inevitably to the Fourth Turning, which is a period of Crisis. Well, crisis is not the whole description of it, for he describes it as a period in which society reinvents itself as a whole. The direction he thinks it’s going to take is that government, institutions and community are going to become increasingly important over individualism, values and group effort will be emphasized and people will look to doing things “smart” to overcome the problems and mistakes of the past. The changes will be led by the Millennial Generation – those born from the mid ’80s onwards. Life after the crisis will probably be better and certainly be different.

A coue of thoughts spring to mind on seeing this. The first is that our current situation isn’t going away anytime soon, so give up on that idea that the “rosy” past will soon be back. Second is that, as always, you need to be adaptable to thrive – if you hang on doggedly to your old way of doing things you’ll get left behind even faster than before. And lastly: teach your children well because they’ll be the pioneers in this brave new world. Somehow, when I look at my boys, in the face of the rough beast now slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, that’s comforting rather than frightening…

  1. P.A.N says:

    Very succinctly put, Steve. Although I remember similar theories from my 2nd spell at varsity, Durban – Westville aeons ago!
    It is very encouraging to know that there are many parents out there, in our country, teaching children the right way to see things. There is no “rosy” past but a great and glorious future.

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