The Good Doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, wrote a book in, oh, I guess it was the 70s, with the wonderful title, A Generation of Swine. The book was the usual dope-addled drivel that Thompson was famous for, but it nicely captured the essentially narcissistic and glutinous character of the Boomer Generation, that demographic bulge born slightly after World War II and currently lining up for their turn at the Public Trough.
A new book has just arrived on the scene that might as well borrow Thompson's prophetic title for all the bleak news it has for Boomers. It is The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, two well-regarded social historians and Washington DC political insiders. The premise of the book is that we are about to enter into a "turning" period, or time of social readjustment, that shows up roughly every 80 to 100 years in American history. The three previous turnings were the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II.
The "fourth" turning is what the authors describe as a new era of pessimism where we will all feel really bad about everything for a long, long time. No matter what direction in which we look, we'll see roads to ruin and feel a deep sense of foreboding about governmental, economic and civic fundamentals.
Where we yearn for civic character among our leaders and heroes we'll satisfy ourselves with celebrity and circuses. The current and deeply silly pillow fight between John McCain and Barrack Obama is probably an example of what the authors are talking about.
Strauss and Howe don't exactly say that we have it coming, but they clearly believe that Boomers have degraded all the standards and norms necessary to keep civilization going, and have avoided every tough choice necessary to respond effectively to changing circumstances.
A simple example is Boomer finance. Boomer lending and borrowing practices have led to a credit fiasco so exorbitant that it may destroy the legitimacy of capital as a general proposition far into the future. Boomer greed and narcissism, according to Strauss and Howe, have led us into an economy based on the expectation of unearned riches.
More troubling is their view that Boomers will he harshly punished in their old age by their children and grandchildren by the withdrawal of support. While the kids may not plant Grandma on a passing ice floe, they will raise questions about the legitimacy of spending 49 cents of every health care dollar on the last two weeks of life.
The Fourth Turning bends history into prophecy, but it is not all gloom and doom. The authors suggest that the current mood of personal indulgence and public despair can be redirected if we collectively abandon our linear faith in progress as the solution to all problems, stop passing the buck off onto our children and begin to focus less on our standard of living and more on our quality of life.
So long Wal-Mart
What quality of life means obviously varies among individuals and cultures. To Strauss and Howe, it means living more locally and becoming less dependent on Wal-Mart's 12,000-mile supply chain, spending more time at home and less in ceaseless travel in search of novelty and entertainment, and becoming more, rather than less, involved in the civic life of our communities.