April 2017


Predicting the future is a sticky but profitable business, as any stock trader can tell you. But people are eager for speculation, especially when things aren’t going well and there’s a lot of anxiety.

Hence the interest in the 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning. The book’s thesis — that America faces a major crisis every 80 years or so and one is now upon us — is on target for a lot of people, in particular at least some members of the Trump Administration and most notably White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

I picked it up from my library and had to be put on waiting list to get it. Normally a book becomes available in a week or two — The Fourth Turning took almost two months to cycle around to me, there were so many people waiting to read it.

It is intriguing that 20 years ago the authors wrote: “The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millennium, midway through the Oh-Oh decade. Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate.”

And: “Sometime before the year 2025, Americans will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and the twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.

“The risk of catastrophe will be very high ….”

World_War_III_43240You could certainly argue that the economic melt-down of 2008 was the start of the crisis period. Despite assurances to the contrary, we haven’t found our way out of financial crisis, with vast under-employment (people holding down two service jobs at restaurants and bars don’t count as unemployed in government statistics), consumer credit scores in the tank and people still struggling to get past bankruptcies and foreclosures.

War seems more likely under the current administration, and it doesn’t appear that it would go down quick and dirty like some of our more recent conflicts.

The New York Times was interested enough to write “Bannon’s Worldview: Dissecting the Message of ‘The Fourth Turning'” on April 8.

Writer Jeremy Peters said the book is “central to the worldview” of Bannon, who has apparently been interested in its theories for almost a decade.

Harvard historian David Kaiser, who writes a blog every Friday called History Unfolding, wrote a piece that appeared on the Time Magazine website on Nov. 18 of last year headlined: “Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the Coming Crisis in American National Life.”

Kaiser was interviewed by Bannon in 2009 for his documentary film, Generation Zero, at least in part, Kaiser says, because he has embraced portions of The Fourth Turning theories.

Kaiser wrote: “Strauss and Howe’s major prediction has now obviously come true: Few would deny that the U.S. has been in a serious political crisis for some time, marked by intense partisan division, a very severe recession, war abroad and, above all, a breakdown in the ties between the country and its political establishment.”

But he was concerned, he said in the article, that Bannon “expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.

“I did not agree, and said so. But, knowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused.”

While Bannon’s influence in the White House may have slipped recently, The New York Times reports that Trump himself was “channeling their thesis” — referring to Strauss and Howe — when he said during the campaign that “The American Dream is dead.”

The idea that history is cyclical isn’t new, of course. Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

However, events are more likely to unfold in new and unexpected ways with lots of twists and turns that nobody can predict.

Absent some sort of cyber-catastrophe, it seems far more likely that the future will fall into the grip of Extreme Automation — call it Hyper-Automation or Super-Automation, whatever you’d like — with enormous social and culture-changing consequences.

This is discussed in an equally intriguing 2015 book by Silicon Valley software developer Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

Think of a society with everything from self-driving cars to robotic garbage pickup, lawn service, and all types of maintenance. Think of sports, business and political stories written for media outlets by artificial intelligence products.

Think of mechanized and computerized fruit and vegetable pickers, self-checkout lines at the supermarket, and web-based programs that assist you in writing wills and executing real estate deals.

What will anxious, thumb-twittling Americans do then? Maybe that’s the real Fourth Turning.

Image: Cover of World War III comic books via Wikimedia Commons

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Life in the U.S. goes by in a blur in this photo titled “Busy New York at Dusk.” (Credit: Angelo DeSantis via Wikimedia Commons)

Next time somebody tells you they’re overworked, give them sympathy, a pat on the back — and a gold star. Overwork, it turns out, is a new sign of social status.

In many other cultures, people who have lots of leisure time on their hands are looked at in high regard. But a new paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research says that’s not the case in the U.S., where folks hold the overworked and those who say they “have no life” as being at the top of the social pecking order.

Researchers call it “humblebrag.”

“We uncovered an alternative type of conspicuous consumption that operated by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals,” write the authors, Silvia Bellezza of the Columbia Business School and Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan of Harvard University.

“People’s social-mobility beliefs are psychologically driven by the perception that busy individuals possess desirable characteristics, leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.”

They studied groups of people from the U.S. and compared them to groups in Italy, where just the reverse is true. People there assign high prestige and status to those who lead a more leisurely life.

The paper notes a 2014 Super Bowl commercial by Cadillac that said:

“Other countries they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café, they take August off— off! Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we are crazy driven hard-working believers, that’s why!”

If you really want to impress someone tell them that you are “in desperate need of a vacation.”

So yeah … Americans respect work. But are their noses really held to the grindstone?

In the movie Office Space (1999), Peter Gibbons explains his job to a pair of efficiency consultants: “Well, I generally come in at least 15 minutes late. I use the side door, that way Lumbergh can’t see me. And after that I just sort of space out for about an hour.

“I just stare at my desk. But it looks like I’m working. I do that for an hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about 15 minutes of real, actual work.”

In 1974, Bachman Turner Overdrive said: “And if your train’s on time/ You can get to work by nine/ And start your slaving job to get your pay/ If you ever get annoyed/ Look at me I’m self-employed/ I love to work at nothing all day.”

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ALSO: Americans want their vending machine snacks and they want them now!

A study conducted by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago demonstrated that people choose healthier snacks if they have to wait 25 seconds for their greasy, salty chips to roll down the chute.

The delay had the same affect as charging people more money for unhealthy choices or discounting healthy options.

“Having to wait for something makes it less desirable,” said lead author Brad Appelhans, a clinical psychologist. “Research shows that humans strongly prefer immediate gratification, and this preference influences choices and behavior in daily life.”

So much for the old saw: Good things come to those who wait.