“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

So said Winston Churchill, but Page members and guests explored whether this is quite true at a roundtable breakfast discussion in Melbourne, Australia in June. 

Hosted by Will Hetherton, Australia’s Page Country Chair and Head of Corporate Affairs at the Future Fund, Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, participants explored what history and an understanding of generations might tell us about the decades ahead. 

The discussion was led by Neil Howe, U.S. demographer, historian, author and economist and the man who, with Bill Strauss, coined the term Millennial. 

Howe’s proposition is that nations and societies can be seen and understood through four cycles, or turnings, of generations. He suggests that these turnings are identifiable, consistent, predictable, applicable across countries  and observable over centuries with each turning lasting 18-25 years. 

The First Turning is one of strong institutions and weak individualism. Society is confident of where it wants to go. Think of the period in the US immediately following the Second World War. 

The Second Turning sees a new generation seek greater personal and spiritual autonomy. Despite witnessing a high tide of public progress, people begin to reject social discipline and seek a greater sense of personal authenticity. Think of the 1960s and 70s and the social changes and protest movements. 

In the Third Turning institutions are weak and distrusted and individualism is strong. Think of the individualism of the 1980s and 90s and that ‘greed is good’.

In the Fourth Turning, institutional life is torn down and then rebuilt. It is a period of massive change and social and political schism and geopolitical turmoil. Think today. 

In his talk Howe explored how history shapes generations in their youth and then generations, as leaders and parents, shape history. In Howe’s view, each generation’s experiences and world view shapes not only their mindset, but sets up a different mindset for their offspring; as the pendulum swings back.  For example, he solid builders of the American Dream in the Second Turning of the 1950s, found their children rebelling as they came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Under Howe’s model, we are today in the Fourth Turning. A period of conflict and schism, polarisation and the threat of civil conflict and war.  A period of great danger, yet a period of great promise and a new golden age as we return to the First Turning. 

The group saw the patterns in Howe’s thesis in their own characterisation and understanding of themselves, their parents and their children. But we also explored the question of what this means for our businesses. How do we take these broad patterns and see what insight they offer for our organisations? The answer lies in how we bring these insights to our colleagues,. Try fast forwarding the characteristics that, based on history, we might expect to see, and assessing how well prepared our institutions are for what may come. 

If nothing else, the session gave participants the opportunity to step back from the day to day, think broadly about the society in which we operate and explore how we, as communications and corporate affairs leaders, can bring new insights and perspectives to our businesses that test, challenge and stretch established views and orthodoxies. 

For more: Neil Howe: The Fourth Turning Is Here