Sunday, October 8, 2023

Primer on The Fourth Turning

A number of years ago, I read the first of two books on The Fourth Turning and was captivated by the theory that originates from the book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy - What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The authors propose a theory that history follows a cyclical pattern divided into four repeating turnings, each lasting about 20-22 years. These turnings comprise a full cycle known as a saeculum, which lasts roughly 80-90 years. The Fourth Turning is particularly notable as it's a time of dramatic transformation and potentially a fresh start for society.

Recently, Neil Howe published an update (or extended) version taking into account how the Fourth Turning has likely arrived, along with what we should expect. This primer (for lack of a better description) was written by ChatGPT artificial intelligence and edited by me for clarity. I chose to do so because I frequently mention "The Fourth Turning is Here" in my social media posts related to the current evidence I'm seeing. My hope is you will cruise through this and perhaps borrow the books from your local library or purchase them from your favorite bookstore. Perhaps you might even organize a local or online discussion group.

Here’s a simplified breakdown of the concepts and benchmarks involved:

The First Turning (High): This period is characterized by strong institutions, a sense of collective destiny, and a culture of optimism. It usually follows a crisis and is a time of societal reconstruction and harmony.

The Second Turning (Awakening): During this time, there's a cultural or spiritual awakening, often led by the youth. Institutions are questioned and individuals start prioritizing personal and spiritual autonomy over societal norms.

The Third Turning (Unraveling): This turning sees the weakening of institutions and a growing individualism. Societal trust diminishes, and the focus shifts from collective action to self-interest.

The Fourth Turning (Crisis): This is a period of crisis where society faces severe challenges that can be existential in nature. It's a time of collective action, strong leadership, and a willingness to resolve long-standing problems. Institutions are revamped or replaced, and at the end of this turning, a new societal order emerges.

These cycles are believed to be driven by generational dynamics, with each generation having distinct attitudes, behaviors, and experiences that shape the course of history. Strauss and Howe’s theory explores the recurring patterns in historical eras driven by generational experiences and behaviors. Each generation, shaped by its unique set of historical events and cultural experiences, influences the course of society in a predictable cycle. This doesn’t mean every member of a generation exhibits these attitudes and behaviors, but as a group, each generation follows the pattern.

Here's a simplified breakdown of recent and current generations as defined by Strauss and Howe:

Silent Generation (born 1928-1945): Known for their adaptive behaviors in childhood during the crisis of the Great Depression and World War II.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): Born during a time of post-war prosperity, they're known for their optimism and traditional values.

Generation X (born 1965-1980): Known for their skepticism and individualism, having grown up during a time of societal unraveling.

Millennials (born 1981-1996): Known for their collective optimism and civic duty, having come of age during a time of crisis.

Homeland Generation (born 1997 and later): Expected to exhibit adaptive behaviors like the Silent Generation.

Within the context of Strauss and Howe's theory on generational cycles, an "archetype" refers to a generic, idealized model of a person or personality type that represents fundamental human themes. Each archetype has distinct collective behaviors, attitudes, and life stages that play out in a predictable pattern over time. The archetypes help to characterize and differentiate the generational cohorts, creating a framework to understand how different generations interact with one another and influence societal trends and historical events.

Here are the four archetypes they describe in relationship to their corresponding generation type, listed above, and the typical phase in which they were born (chart provided by ChatGPT):

These archetypes cycle in a specific order – Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist – across generations throughout each saeculum (a complete generational cycle of about 80 to 100 years), and the interplay among these archetypal generations shapes the course of history, according to Strauss and Howe's theory.

Other considerations with generational behaviors:

Generational dynamics suggests a cyclical pattern where each generation responds to the cultural, social, and economic conditions created by preceding generations. This cyclical pattern then influences major societal events and trends.

Generations often define themselves in reaction to other generations, especially their parents. Their collective behaviors and attitudes contribute to societal mood and the nature of the era they live through.

Significant historical events, shaped by generational behaviors, reinforce the cyclical nature of history. The generational dynamics help explain how societies evolve and face crises over time.

By understanding these dynamics, one can purportedly predict certain societal trends and changes based on the predictable behaviors and attitudes of each generational cohort. However, the theory does not imply there is a crystal ball that will tell us precisely when and how a turning will occur. Several historical periods have been identified by Strauss and Howe as Fourth Turnings, which are eras marked by crisis and significant transformation. Here are a few examples:

The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783): This period was marked by the struggle for independence from British rule, which eventually led to the establishment of a new nation with its own governing constitution.

The American Civil War (1861-1865): The crisis here was centered around the deeply divisive issue of slavery, leading to a brutal war. The aftermath saw the abolition of slavery and a redefinition of the nation’s values and governance.

The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945): The economic collapse during the Great Depression, followed by the global conflict of World War II, significantly reshaped American society, leading to a new era of economic policies and international leadership.

Current Fourth Turning (2008-Present): Some proponents of the theory argue that the financial crisis of 2008 marked the beginning of a new Fourth Turning, which is yet to be fully realized. The ongoing challenges such as political polarization, economic uncertainty, and global pandemics like COVID-19 might be parts of this unfolding crisis.

Strauss and Howe's generational theory traces back through numerous saecula in Anglo-American history. Here are some examples of saecula and the associated Fourth Turning crises as illustrated by Strauss and Howe:

Late Medieval Saeculum (c. 1435-1487): Crisis: War of the Roses (1459-1487)

Reformation Saeculum (c. 1487-1594): Crisis: Armada Crisis (1569-1594)

New World Saeculum (c. 1594-1704): Crisis: Glorious Revolution (1675-1704)

These saecula are delineated by the four turnings—High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis—that occur in a cyclical pattern. Each crisis, or Fourth Turning, is characterized by a period of upheaval and transformation that resolves the issues of the preceding Unraveling and lays the foundation for the subsequent High, starting the cycle anew. The generational archetypes—Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist—cycle through in order during each saeculum, playing distinct roles in the unfolding of these historical events.

Strauss and Howe's analysis primarily focuses on Anglo-American history, but they also suggest that similar generational cycles could be identified in other cultures and regions, albeit with potentially different timing and characteristics.

Each of these periods of crisis led to profound changes in societal structures, values, and national identities, embodying the transformative essence of Fourth Turnings as described by Strauss and Howe. In the context of today, if we are indeed in a Fourth Turning, we might expect to see societal upheavals, strong leadership, collective actions to address systemic issues, and eventually, the emergence of a new societal order. 

Howe's recent book, The Fourth Turning is Here, suggests that the United States, and potentially other parts of the world, are currently navigating through a Fourth Turning, a period marked by crisis and significant transformation. Listed here are summaries of the evidence and insights provided in the book as per the various sources noted.

From City Journal, Review of The Fourth Turning is Here by Neil Howe:

  • Current Sociopolitical and Economic Malaise: Howe observes a contemporary American malaise characterized by governmental dysfunction, plummeting public trust in institutions, extreme partisan division, economic inequality, declining public health, moral and legal chaos, gender strife, and collapsing family formation and birth rates. He posits that these conditions were predictable and align with the characteristics of a Fourth Turning.
  • Historical Cyclical Model: The author's predictions are grounded in a historical model that identifies cycles (saecula) of approximately 80 to 100 years, comprising four "Turnings" of about 20 to 25 years each: a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis (the Fourth Turning). This model suggests that generational dynamics drive these cycles as each generation's collective character is shaped by the societal conditions of the preceding Turnings. The process, as described by Howe, leads to a Crisis (Fourth Turning) that a new generation of "Heroes" must resolve, establishing a new societal order thereafter.
  • Anticipation of Crisis Resolution and National Transformation: Howe maintains a level of optimism, asserting that by the 2040s, after navigating through the challenging crisis period, the nation will transform, reversing the troubling trends observed today. He predicts a revitalized economy, lower income inequality, cultural flourishing, a new moral consensus, rejuvenated civic society, and renewed commitment to family life among other positive transformations.
  • Comparative Analysis with Past Crises: Reflecting on history, Howe highlights past Fourth Turnings including the Great Depression/World War II, the Civil War, and the American Revolution. He argues that similar societal trends preceded these crises, and that each crisis ultimately led to stronger nations. He strongly suggests that America will face a significant historical juncture before the mid-2030s, akin to past crises, which may entail civil conflict, geographic fragmentation, authoritarian rule, or major wars, yet ultimately leading to national rejuvenation.

From a quoted passage in The Fourth Turning is Here (2023) by Neil Howe, mentioning evidence of the transformation of the American republic: The assertion that "the old American republic is collapsing" and "a new American republic, as yet unrecognizable, is under construction" is a bold claim pointing towards the profound transformations anticipated in this Fourth Turning.

From the online Kircus Reviews (, the book delves into the collective personality of each living generation to make sense of the current crisis and explore how different generations will be affected by the challenges faced in the coming decade.

Howe's work is a complex weave of historical analysis, generational theory, and prognostication about the near future, rooted in the idea that the unfolding societal conditions are part of a larger cyclical pattern. Through The Fourth Turning is Here, he aims to provide both a diagnostic lens to interpret the present turmoil and a hopeful outlook for the nation's journey through crisis towards renewal.

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