Thus might the next Fourth Turning end in apocalypse – or glory. The nation could be ruined, its democracy destroyed, and millions of people scattered or killed. Or America could enter a new golden age, triumphantly applying shared values to improve the human condition. The rhythms of history do not reveal the outcome of the coming Crisis; all they suggest is the timing and dimension.
Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning
Winter is coming. Are you prepared? Americans see time as their enemy. Most Americans have bought into a view of the past and future as linear. When you observe the world in linear way and things are going well, the population is happy and confident. If you view the world in a linear way and things are going badly, the population sees nothing but terrible times ahead. This linear outlook of history and the future is not rational or supported by facts. I’m convinced that world history is not on a linear path towards Armageddon and the Rapture. This belief is preached by many of the mainstream religions, but the truth is that we’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end in the 2nd Coming of Christ. The American belief in a destiny of never ending progress will undergo its 3rd major crisis period since its founding. The resolution of this crisis is 10 to 20 years in the future. The outcome will remain in doubt until the definitive resolution.
Our everyday lives clearly support a cyclical view of the world. There are 24 hours in day progressing from light to darkness and back again. There are 365 days in a year progressing from Spring to Summer to Fall to Winter, and then starting the cycle over again. A month is dictated by the four phases of the Moon. Our oceans rise and fall in a predictable pattern of high tides and low tides based on lunar phases. Even Christian religions that preach a linear view of the world, celebrate their beliefs in a predictable annual cycle encompassing the life of Christ from is birth, life, death and resurrection. The human life cycle extends 80 to 100 years going through the stages of childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and elderhood. This cycle has not changed over the whole history of earth. A long human life approximates a century of time. The rhythm of time has a regularity and cadence that is predictable on a generational level. The elites, most academics, religious zealots and social engineers scoff at the idea of predictable cycles of history. It throws a monkey wrench into their deceptive self aggrandizing agendas.
We perceive our civic challenge as some vast, insoluble Rubik’s Cube. Behind each problem lies yet another, and another, ad infinitum. To fix crime we have to fix the family, but before we do that we have to fix welfare, and that means fixing our budget, and that means fixing our civic spirit, but we can’t do that without fixing moral standards, and that means fixing schools and churches, and that means fixing the inner cities, and that’s impossible unless we fix crime. There’s no fulcrum on which to rest a policy lever. People of all ages sense that something huge will have to sweep across America before the gloom can be lifted – but that’s an awareness we suppress. As a nation, we’re in deep denial.
Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning
Anyone who is being honest recognizes the country is on a path towards a major calamity. We have been living beyond our means for decades and the fiscal mismanagement of the country will come to a dramatic climax in the next decade. What many deny is that this crisis was pre-ordained based upon a predictable timeline of generational forces repeating over and over again throughout history. The elites are continuously stunned that every 20 to 25 years a fresh mood engulfs the country and new generations act differently than the generations who proceeded them. The privileged are astounded because they don’t want to accept the fact that progress is not linear and that society will undergo highs and lows over the course of a century.
Strauss and Howe have been able to trace consistent 80 to 100 year generational patterns throughout modern history. The 20 to 25 year quartiles are a High (1st Turning), an Awakening (2nd Turning), an Unraveling (3rd Turning), and a Crisis (4th Turning). They have also identified four archetypes that occupy their necessary position within the 80 to 100 year cycle. These archetypes are Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. History forms the generations as the generations create history in a repetitive dance throughout the ages. The archetypes always follow the same path. As an example, the Prophet archetype is always born during a High, comes of age during an Awakening, enters midlife during an Unraveling, and spends their elderhood during a Crisis.
Below are charts detailing the archetypes and the 12 Turnings since the founding of the American Republic. There is a remarkable consistency of timing and scope regarding the previous Turnings in our history.
The archetypes that comprise a human life cycle follow the same repetitive pattern throughout history and they show the same traits and attitudes as their preceding archetype. Strauss & Howe describe the archetypes as follows:
- A Prophet generation grows up as increasingly indulged post-Crisis children, comes of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of an Awakening, cultivates principle as moralistic mid-lifers, and emerges as wise elders guiding the next Crisis. (Boomers – indulged, narcissistic, moralistic, wise)
- A Nomad generation grows up as under-protected children during an Awakening, comes of age as alienated young adults of a post-Awakening world, mellows into pragmatic mid-life leaders during a Crisis, and ages into tough post-Crisis elders. (Generation X – abandoned, alienated, pragmatic, tough)
- A Hero generation grows up as increasingly protected post-Awakening children, comes of age as heroic young team workers of a Crisis, demonstrates hubris as energetic mid-lifers, and emerges as powerful elders attacked by the next Awakening. (Millennial – protected, heroic, hubristic, powerful)
- An Artist generation grows up as overprotected children during a Crisis, comes of age as the sensitive young adults of a post-Crisis world, breaks free as indecisive mid-life leaders during an Awakening, and ages into empathetic post-Awakening elders. (Homelanders – suffocated, sensitive, indecisive, empathetic)
The First Turning is referred to as a High. A High always follows a period of Crisis. The hallmark of a First Turning is a heightened sense of community and collective confidence, driven in part by the fact that the society has just come through a difficult and challenging period. Consequently, during First Turnings, societal institutions tend to be strong while individualism is weak. The post-World War II "High" of the mid-1940s through early '60s is the most recent example of a First Turning. The victory over Nazism and Fascism marked the beginning of this High. The United States was on top of the world. We exited World War II as an ascending superpower. The Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe and Japan. The middle class grew and flourished as former GI’s built the suburbs and the interstate highway system. During this period Old Prophets disappear, Nomads enter elderhood, Heroes enter midlife, Artists enter young adulthood—and a new generation of Prophets is born. These new Prophets were the Baby Boom Generation.
The Second Turning, called an Awakening, starts out feeling like the high tide of a High, with signs of advancement and prosperity everywhere. Just as everything seems to be going along swimmingly, large swaths of society begin to chaff under the social conformity of the High, beginning to gravitate to more individualistic pursuits and demanding that their personal interests come first. The "Consciousness Revolution" of the mid-1960s through early 1980s was our most recent Awakening. The trigger for this Turning was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. No one expected the turmoil that would occur over the next 10 years. Urban riots, campus riots, Civil rights protests, Kent State, Woodstock, Watergate, the feminist movement, counterculture, drugs, violent crime and family strife marked the next two decades. The New Age movement and Me Generation dominated the culture until the Reagan era. During this phase Old Nomads disappear, Heroes enter elderhood, Artists enter midlife, Prophets enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Nomads is born. These Nomads are known as Generation X.
The Third Turning, called an Unraveling, is the opposite of a High. Individualism rules, while establishments such as government, religion and military are increasingly weak and discredited. Neil Howe describes a typical Unraveling:
"This is a time when social authority feels inconsequential, the culture feels exhausted, and people feel bewildered by the number of options available to them. It is a time of celebrity circuses and a tremendous amount of freedom and creativity in our personal lives, but very little sense of public purpose.”
The most recent Third Turning began in 1984 with Ronald Reagan’s optimistic Morning in America message led to the fall of communism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The culture wars that have raged since the mid-1980’s have turned the initial optimism into an overwhelming sense of pessimism. There is no national consensus. The country’s leaders have ignored national problems such as unfunded Social Security and Medicare obligations, a coherent energy policy, and a deteriorating educational system. Popular culture centers around celebrity circuses like Michael Jackson’s death and Michelle Obama’s fashion choices. Americans reflect darkly on the future as growing financial and social inequality tears at the fabric of the country. The rich take advantage of the financial service economy and grow ever richer at the expense of the middle class. The poor pay no taxes and receive social transfer payments and take advantage of easy credit to live like the rich. The middle class is disillusioned and angry as manufacturing jobs leave the country. Previous periods of Unraveling in American history were also decades of cynicism and bad manners. The Roaring 20’s were the last Unraveling period that led to the stock market crash in 1929, the Great Depression and World War II. History teaches us that Third Turnings inevitably end in Fourth Turnings. During this phase, Old Heroes disappear, Artists enter elderhood, Prophets enter midlife, Nomads enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Heroes is born. The latest Hero generation is the Millenials
Lastly, there is the Fourth Turning, called a Crisis. We are currently on the verge of a Fourth Turning. This is a time of great turmoil, when society's basic institutions are torn down and rebuilt, and seemingly intractable problems are addressed. The apparently unsolvable financial dilemma of the country along with comprehension that Peak Oil has occurred will trigger the Crisis. The ultimate resolution could be rational and well thought out or it could end in a fiery fight to the death between countries or generations. During Fourth Turnings, America engages in a struggle for its very survival and redefines its identity as a nation. Large wars are often a part of this process. The American Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II were all facets of past Fourth Turnings. During this period Old Artists disappear, Prophets enter elderhood, Nomads enter midlife, Heroes enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Artists is born.
According to Strauss & Howe past Fourth Turnings in U.S. history we have overcome intractable problems and forged a new beginning:
“In the 1790’s, they triumphantly created the modern world’s first democratic republic. In the late 1860’s, wounded but reunited, they forged a genuine nation extending new guarantees of liberty and equality. In the late 1940’s, they constructed the most Promethean superpower ever seen.”
Sometime between today and 2025, this nation will undergo a test of its very survival. The ultimate outcome will be in doubt. Strauss and Howe paint a dire picture of the coming decades:
“The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule. If there is a war, it is likely to be one of maximum risk and effort – in other words, a total war. Every Fourth Turning has registered an upward ratchet in the technology of destruction, and in mankind’s willingness to use it.”
America feels like it is unraveling. Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within.
Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning
Most of my adult life has been spent during the current Unraveling. In 1984 I was twenty-one years old and about to enter the workforce. The country was recovering from the worst recession in decades and the turmoil of the 1970’s was subsiding. Ronald Reagan (GI Generation) won re-election with a 49 state to 1 landslide victory over Walter Mondale using his Morning in America campaign slogan. Reagan’s tax cuts, interest rates starting a two decade decline and increased military spending combined to juice the economy. Reagan’s policies were the final dagger in the side of communism. The Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell. What many thought was the end of history, with democracy and capitalism victors, turned out to be a fleeting high. The initial signs of Unraveling were seen during Reagan administration. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, leading to questions of competence at NASA. The Iran-Contra scandal derailed the Reagan agenda as he showed signs of mental decline. The American military retreated from Lebanon after 220 Marines were killed in a terrorist attack. The stock market crashed, losing 508 points in one day, a 23% decline. The movie Wall Street with its amoral cynical view of the world captured the darkening mood of the country.
The first George Bush administration was marked by the Gulf War, which planted the poisonous seeds for our future War on Terror, and the recession which cost George Bush a 2nd term. The unraveling could clearly be seen in the 1992 Presidential election, as Ross Perot won the most votes as a 3rd Party candidate since 1912. During the Clinton administration the country continued to fragment, became more divisive, and cynical. Politics became gridlocked, which resulted in reduced government spending. A laissez-faire attitude was promoted by Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin for the financial markets. This led to the Dot.com bubble and its eventual collapse. Trust in financial, government, and religious institutions continued to erode. The Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine high school slaughter convinced many that something was very wrong with our culture. A distrustful alienation had solidified into an overwhelming gloom.
The Unraveling picked up speed during George W. Bush’s administration. The stock market continued to implode, the economy entered recession and half the country felt that George Bush was not a legitimate President. Then the country was shaken to its core by the 9/11 attack. For a brief time, the country rallied around the flag and fully supported the invasion of Afghanistan. This appeared to be the trigger for the next American Crisis. Instead, it resulted in an acceleration of the Unraveling. A true trigger for a Crisis period will rally the entire population (Fort Sumter, Pearl Harbor). The disastrous invasion of Iraq, horrific financial management of the economy by Alan Greenspan, individualistic greed and hubris of Wall Street, blatant corruption in Washington D.C., and complete lack of regulation by governmental agencies led to the collapse of the global economy in 2008. Decisive public action regarding $56 trillion of unfunded social liabilities, soaring public and private debt, and non-existent energy policy has been deferred for decades. Now there is no doubt that this paralysis and inaction will lead us into the next Crisis. The majority of Americans feel we are not on the right track, because we’re not. The coming catastrophe will truly test the mettle of our country.