Day 79: Howe and Strauss’ The Fourth Turning


Day 79

This morning I began early because I have been frustrated about not being able to read and write enough as I sit here in the town. By this morning I was several unfinished posts behind. Though I keep notes on the way a day goes and what I did, I tend to organize them into paragraphs. That takes a bit of effort. 

I was thinking of why places get foregrounded in one’s experience of days and state of mind? Places can single handedly influence our rhythms of life more than any other factor. Over the years I have longed for places I have visited or have spent time in. Recollecting places can sometimes bring back the texture and feeling of the time or phase of life lived there. For instance, Leh is always about carefree, less connected living where I have often had days saturated with outdoor adventure and sports. Similarly, there’s an evening mood with books, rains and theatre. That is how Bangalore strikes me often. Whereas, our town and farm is about vast open skies and an easy pace of life. 

Along with the daily flow here, I have not managed to read books. But I spend enough time reading longform and subscribed blogs. The other daily activity is to make sense of the pandemic as it is unfolding around us and responses from various quarters.

I read Gulzar Natrajan’s post discussing Neil Howe and William Straus’ book The Fourth Turning. There is thought provoking material in it, especially the articulation of generations that the authors have built their argument around.  Two quick takeaways for me are about inter-generational changes and how crisis begets inventions. The points Natrajan picks up from Howe are similar to observations that I have had over the course of the lockdown and more broadly, on the future course that state and central government in India might take as we think of recovering from the pandemic. 

Natrajan articulates Howe’s point on the size of government in our times, and this stayed with me for the reason that the size of government made some of my early observations when the lockdown began in March 2020. He writes – 

Howe also describes today as a lightly governed society despite indicators like government’s share of GDP being higher than earlier. This conceals the large share of welfare entitlements (generous medical and pension benefits). But in terms of discretionary spending on public endowments and on government’s market making role, we live in a time of very small government. 

This is probably a view on governance in the US. But the larger point seems relevant for Europe and perhaps India is heading in the same direction. The healthcare nightmare that we now sit with and the state of healthcare in India, it does seem that the government has offloaded that key role to market. 

Further, I see Howe speaking to the Covid-19 triggered opportunity for the state to assert itself and Natrajan picks it up too – 

It is a universal feature of historical cycles that governments always become larger, more intrusive, more authoritarian during times of crisis. The stimulus measures of today is only the beginning of the latest round of growth of government. 

Finally, this point about what kind of services are making up some countries’ GDP. It isn’t the kind of activity that sustains and we have seen it well during the pandemic when the bottom seems to fall off the economic planning and response. Natrajan’s note from Howe’s interview – 

Howe talks about how a significant share of today’s GDP consists of monetisation of activities which were once done at home, when extended/joint families were common. Many service industries of today, including blow-dry of hair, nail polishing, takeaway eating, coffee shops, home care and assisted living, child care, and so on are activities which were once done at home. He calls a lot of the GDP today as “make-believe” or “play money” – I pay you to do what I used to do at home earlier. 

He foresees a return of the extended family, and therefore a contraction of the “blow-dry economy”, and the share of such activities in the marketplace. He argues that we will make our own food, and will go back to making things we can do in an extended family. The strengthening of the household economy is likely to be accompanied by more community orientation.

A return to the extended family has already happened. The towns and villages have filled up with returning families who have arrived on a one way ticket. Whether this strengthening of the household economy leads to community orientation is a trend I do not feel confident about. It is just that the economy got a bit more real with productive activities that will add in real terms as opposed to services that are mere monetisation of home activities. 

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