The Fourth Turning:
An American Prophecy
William Strauss & Neil Howe
That which hath been is now;
and that which is to be hath already been;
and God requireth that which is past.
Thus, the authors introduce the concept of ‘cycles’ in history — on the foundation of the highest authority in a Christian nation — as the central idea in their version of the history of American civilization. Another central idea is that of a ‘generation,’ a fuzzy and to some critics, arbitrarily defined, entity. They quote Thomas Wolfe, “You belong to it, too. You came along at the same time. You can’t get away from it,” Wolfe wrote (in You Can’t Go Home Again) about his own Lost Generation. “You’re a part of it whether you want to be or not.”
This book builds on the authors’ first book, “Generations: The History of America’s Future,” which was reviewed in September/October 2000 issue of this journal. It further refines and argues, on the basis of the views of a great number of well-respected historians, for a ‘cyclical’ view of history as opposed to a chaotic or a linear view in terms of the unfolding in time of our past.
This refinement provides a sound basis to argue (my argument, not the authors’) that this rendition of our history places it in the scientific domain of chaos theory. That is, the authors’ description of the history of American civilization is precisely that of a complex, non-linear iterative feedback system. Such systems are expected to exhibit behavior that can be described by one of three types of ‘states,’ static fixed points, periodic stable equilibrium points, or chaotic (random) points. The mathematics describing such states goes back to Jules-Henri Poincare (1854-1912) who laid the mathematical foundations of modern dynamical systems theory.
This is an important point because the authors hold open the question of whether or not a Fourth Turning, a period of deep crisis, can prove fatal to the American experience. This question has been posed by many notable historians. Arnold J. Toynbee (“A Study of History”) describes the ‘Disintegrations of Civilizations ’ in Part V of his XIII part opus in terms that can be related to Strauss & Howe’s book.
The noted social scientist, Charles Murray, writes (“Prole Models,” The Wall Street Journal, 2/6/01) that American culture has entered a state of vulgarization and depravity that was precisely described by Toynbee as characteristic of a civilization in a state of disintegration. Toynbee described this situation in his chapter on ’Schism of the Soul.’
Strauss and Howe focus on the realization that at the core of modern history lies a remarkable pattern: over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era — a new turning — every two decades or so. At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation and the future. Turnings come in cycles of four. Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years, a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum. Together, the four turnings of the saeculum comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction.
The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays. The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime. The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants. We are presently in such a time.
The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one. This turning is history’s great discontinuity. It ends one epoch (of about 80 to 100 years) and begins another. Our nation has experienced four such Fourth Turnings since the beginning of the New World saeculum in 1675 (the Glorious Revolution). If this cycle holds in the future, we are likely to experience our fifth such Fourth Turning, the Millennial Crisis, around the year 2005. It should be completed sometime near 2026.
The authors tell us that “A true cycle...is self-generating. It cannot be determined, short of catastrophe, by external events. War, depressions, or inflations may heighten or complicate moods (of the generations) but the cycle itself rolls on, self-contained, self-sufficient and autonomous...The roots of this cyclical self-sufficiency lie deep in the natural life of humanity.” This is the essence of a complex, non-linear iterative feedback system — a system that obeys the laws of chaos theory.
“As we grow older, we realize that the sum total of major events in our lives has in many ways shaped who we are. We are, in fact, a representation of our life-experiences. Exactly how these major events shaped us had much to do with how old we were when they happened. When you recall your personal markers of life and time, the events you remember most are suffused with the emotional complexion of your phase of life at the time. Your early markers, colored by the dreams and innocence of childhood, reveal how events (and older people) shaped you. Your later markers, colored by the cares of maturity, tell how you shaped events (and younger people). When you reach old age, you will remember all the markers that truly mattered to you...It is through this linkage of biological aging and shared experience, reproduced across turnings and generations, that history acquires personal relevance.”
“Human history is made of lives, coursing from birth to death. All persons who are born must die, and all who die must first be born. The full sweep of human civilization is but the sum of this. Of all the cycles known to man, the one we all know best is the human life cycle. No other societal force — not class, not nationality, not culture, not technology — has as predictable a chronology. The limiting length of an active life cycle is one of civilization’s great constants. In the time of Moses, it was eighty to a hundred years, and it still is, even if more people reach that limit. Biologically and socially, a full human life is divided into four phases: childhood, young adulthood, midlife and elderhood. Each phase of life is the same length as the others, capable of holding one generation (of about 21 years duration) at a time. And each phase is associated with a specific role that conditions how its occupants perceive the world and act on these perceptions.”
“A generation, in turn, is the aggregate of all people born over roughly the span of a phase of life who share a common location in history, and, hence, a common collective persona. Like a person (and unlike a race, religion, or sex), a generation is mortal: its members understand that in time they all must perish. Hence, a generation feels the same historical urgency that individuals feel in their own lives. This dynamic of generational aging and dying enables a society to replenish its memory and evolve over time. Each time younger generations replace older ones in each phase of life, the composite life cycle becomes something altogether new, fundamentally changing the entire society’s mood and behavior.”
“History creates generations, and generations create history. This symbiosis between life and time explains why, if one is seasonal, the other must be.” Thus, without knowing it, the authors have constructed a story of American civilization that is defined as a complex, non-linear iterative feedback system. Such a system can be expected to exhibit chaotic behavior.
This dynamic has recurred throughout American history. Roughly every two decades (the span of one phase of life), there has arisen a new constellation of generations — a new layering of generational personas up and down the age ladder. As this constellation has shifted, so has the national mood. Consider what happened, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, as one generation replaced another at each phase of life:
· In elderhood, the cautionary individualists of the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) were replaced by the hubristic G.I. Generation (born 1901-1924), who launched America into an expansive era of material affluence, global power, and civic planning.
· In midlife, the upbeat G.I.s were replaced by the helpmate Silent Generation (born 1925-1942), who applied their expertise and sensitivity to fine-tune the institutional order while mentoring the passions of youth. This generation were the ‘enablers’ for the Boomers’ counter-culture revolution of the period.
· In young adulthood, the conformist Silent were replaced by the narcissistic Boom Generation (born 1943-1960), who asserted the primacy of self and challenged the alleged moral vacuity of the institutional order.
· In childhood, the indulged Boomers were replaced by the neglected 13th Generation (born 1961-1981), who were left unprotected at a time of cultural convulsion and adult self-discovery. Known in the pop culture as Generation X, its name here reflects the fact that it is literally the thirteenth generation to call itself American.
“Viewed through the prism of generational aging, the mood change between the late 1950s and the late 1970s becomes not just comprehensible, but (in hindsight) predictable: America was moving from a First Turning constellation into a Second...This top-to-bottom alteration of the American life cycle tells much about why and how America shifted from a mood of consensus, complacency, and optimism to one of turbulence, argument and passion.”
The authors define four archetypes (personality profiles) of each of the four generations, identified by the turnings of their birth. A Prophet generation is born during a High. A Nomad generation is born during an Awakening. A Hero generation is born during an Unraveling (our current period of turning). An Artist generation is born during a Crisis.
“ Dating back to the first stirrings of the Renaissance, Anglo-American history has traversed six saecular cycles, each of which displayed a similar rhythm. Every cycle had four turnings, and (except for the anomalous U.S. Civil War) every cycle produced four generational archetypes. We are presently in the Third Turning of the Millennial Saeculum, the seventh cycle of the modern era.”
“By looking at history through this saecular prism, you can see why the American mood has evolved as it has during your lifetime. Reflecting as far as you can and recall how the persona of people in any phase has changed completely every two decades or so. Consider the generational transitions of the past decade, which are once again proving the linear forecasters wrong.”
“As the Silent have begun reaching retirement age, national leaders have shown less interest in making public institutions do big things and more interest in making them flexible, fair, expert, nuanced, and participatory. Why? The elder Artist is replacing the elder Hero”.
“As Boomers have begun turning fifty, the public discourse has become less refined and conciliatory and more impassioned and moralistic. Why? The midlife Prophet is replacing the midlife Artist.”
“As 13ers have filled the ‘twenty-something’ bracket, the pop culture has become less about soul, free love, and feeling at one with the world and a lot more about cash, sexual disease, and going it alone in an unforgiving world. Why? The young-adult Nomad is replacing the young-adult Prophet.”
“As Millennials have surged into America’s elementary and junior high schools, family behavior has reverted toward greater protection. Why? We are now raising the child Hero, no longer the child Nomad.”
America is currently in a Third Turning, a time of Unraveling and discontent. This period, I would contend, is experiencing a break in the authors’ cycle of American history. Why? Because the Spiritual Awakening which they expected from the Prophet Boomers, their counter-culture revolution, was, in fact, a false spiritual awakening — a me, me, me orgy of unrestricted self-indulgence and anti-Western civilization fervor.
For example, “Sacrificing one’s own career or conjugal happiness for the sake of the kids became passe — even, by the logic of the era, bad for kids themselves. Professor Eileen McDonagh, a Boomer, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Abortion as Self-Defense,” Nat Hentoff, Washington Post, 2/1/97) that, “If a woman has the right to defend herself against a rapist, she also should be able to use deadly force to expel a fetus for violating her privacy if the fetus is unwanted...even in a medically normal pregnancy, the fetus massively intrudes on a woman’s body and expropriates her liberty. If the woman does not consent to this transformation and use of her body, the fetus’s imposition constitutes injuries sufficient to justify the use of deadly force to stop it — as in rape, kidnapping or slavery.”
From unlimited abortion to the chronic resentment, despair, and physical discomfort Boomer women said they endured when bearing and raising 13er children, to Peter Singer’s defense of neonaticide up to the 29th day after birth, the Boomer generation has cut a link to the past by carrying out a false Spiritual Awakening. This may have placed a discontinuity in the ‘cycles’ of the authors’ rendition of history. The generation which built “...their own little church in their own little mind” may have changed the ‘constant of complexity’ in our civilization sufficient to render chaos in our future.
Nevertheless, the authors tell us that, “When you compile these four archetypal shifts through the entire life cycle, you see how America’s circa-1970s constellation has transformed into something new, from top to bottom, in the 1990s. That is why the nation has shifted from a mood of Awakening to one of Unraveling. When you apply this saecular logic forward into the Oh-Oh decade and beyond, you can begin to understand why a Fourth Turning is coming and how America’s mood will change when the Crisis hits.”
The authors remind us that “In the West — from the Stoics...to Toynbee —circular time has been a perennial theme.” That is, “The historical cycle is a permanent feature of all historical thought.” To buttress this theme, they recall that “Arnold Toynbee perceptively noted that ‘mankind’s built-in measure of time is the average duration of an individual human being’s conscious life.’ But he made this observation while writing an opus in which he reached a chilling conclusion: Over much of human history, siecles have shown a recurring alternation between peace and war.”
In his “Cycle of War and Peace,” Toynbee identified and dated five repetitions of a [cycle of war], each initiated by the most decisive war of its century. In addition to five modern centuries, Toynbee identified similar cycles spanning six centuries of ancient Chinese and Hellenistic histories, all situated in what he called ‘break-up’ eras of great civilizations. He found the span of time between the start of one general war to the start of the next to have averaged ninety-five years with a ‘surprising degree of coincidence.’
This brings the authors to the Fourth Turning. “Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning...A spark will ignite a new mood.” They explain that, “this spark will catalyze a Crisis. It may be as ominous as a financial crisis or major war.” If the latter is the case, it will most likely be from the only threats to American security on the visible horizon: a disintegration from within (David Broder’s observation re a civil war in the last presidential election?), state-sponsored terrorism on our own soil, or the threat of a global war with China over Taiwan . These are my candidates for the Crisis.
We should be aware of the cycles of history. The book is of great value even if a bit too broad in sweep. In a future essay, I will attempt to describe how this vision of America’s history, carried into the future, squares with Toynbee’s study of the genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration, of previous great civilizations.