“You should try to unlearn the linear belief that America (or the entire modern world) is exempt from the seasonal cycles of nature. As you become acquainted with the saeculum, you will meet a very different view, one arising with the ancients—the view that the rhythms of social change are reflected in the rhythms of biological and seasonal nature.” ~William Strauss and Neil Howe
By Jason Worth
(Note: If not specified otherwise, any quotations in this book review refer to text by the author from the book being reviewed.)
When I was young I read the book Foundation by Isaac Asimov. It’s a science fiction book set in the distant future in which a scientist, by the name Hari Seldon, develops a new science called psychohistory which had the unique ability to foretell mankind’s future based on the merging of mathematics with psychology and history. That book made a big impression on me. Ever since then I’ve wanted to be among a select few who had foreknowledge of future events, perhaps for profit or simply to be prepared for what may lie around the bend. But, as I got older, I realized, it’s not possible to predict the future. Right?
You can imagine my excitement when I came across a book that professes the ability to predict the future. This book is non-fiction, not fiction. It’s based primarily on sociology and history, not mathematics and psychology. And it was written in my lifetime (1997, to be exact), not in the distant future. The name of the book is The Fourth Turning: An American Prophesy, What the Cycles of History Tell Us About American’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. The books’ authors are William Strauss and Neil Howe, both sociologists by training.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “those who forget the past are bound to repeat it.” That phrase aptly summarizes a portion of the theory Strauss and Howe put forward. The main gist of their theory is that societies continuously rotate through predictable cycles, each one of which is approximately one generation in length and spanning approximately 80 to 100 years. And, just like each year is comprised of four seasons, each predictable cycle is comprised of four periods, called “turnings.” The authors weren’t the first to notice this pattern of cycles. In fact, they credit this theory as having dated as far back as the Roman and Etruscan civilizations of ancient times. The Romans gave this predictable 80-100 year cycle the name “saeculum.” Strauss and Howe applied the concept of the saeculum to modern times and focused primarily on the Anglo-American societies from the mid-1400s to the present (and beyond.)
Every saeculum cycle allegedly ends in a crescendo of crisis, typified by something like a major war, economic depression or both. Just as winter turns to spring, providing nature with an opportunity for regrowth and development, the crisis at the end of each cycle provides society with an opportunity to start anew. In the case of cycles ending in war, we put out the fires and begin to rebuild our infrastructure, homes and factories. In the case of cycles ending in economic collapse, we reset the existing currency or introduce a new one, and embark on regulatory and/or fiscal reforms intended to never allow the same mistakes to occur again.
But, as time passes, we forget about the dangers we just harrowed and fail to appreciate the reforms that were instituted in their wake. We begin to take more risk or engage again in bellicose actions. And it’s quite easy to do this because, with the passage of time, elders die off and the new leaders of society are those who either didn’t experience the last crisis or were too young to remember it. They have, in a sense, forgotten history and are now repeating it.
I’ve seen this “forgetfulness” very much in my own life. When I was very young I spent large portions of my adolescent summers directly with my grandparents in Pennsylvania who, only three decades earlier, had weathered the struggles of World War II. From their relatively recent experiences with rationing and hunger, they taught me to finish all the food on my plate and to turn off the lights when I left a room. They would have been among the last people on the planet to flippantly comment that we needed to drop a bomb on this or that country or teach some foreign dictator a lesson. And now, in my adult years, I’m often surrounded by the opposite. I see at restaurants people that will order an additional dish just to try a few bites of it and leave the rest behind. Energy conservation is something not frequently discussed in my circles, except perhaps to belittle it as something we don’t need to worry too much about in our era of successful abundance and scientific progress (…oh, unless it comes up in the context of “climate change;” but don’t get me started on that….) And I can’t tell you how many colleagues and neighbors have made comments in the past decade about why we needed to “take out Saddam Hussein,” why we now need to “take out Bashar al-Assad” of Syria (comments I find sadly ironic, given that most of them probably couldn’t have picked out Syria on a world map a few years earlier), and I suppose I’ll increasingly hear more soon about why we need to drop a bomb on Russia to keep them in check or in retaliation for their supposed “elections tampering.” So, to summarize, yeah, we humans can forget an awful lot over just a 20-40 year period as elders die off and their children and grandchildren come to hold the reigns of societal power and community decision-making.
The four turnings within each saeculum cycle are known as: High, Awakening, Unravelling and Crisis. In the same order, they are analogous to fall, summer, spring and winter, where winter and Crisis mark the ending of the cycle before predictable rebirths. The four turnings and their attributes are as follows:
High: We’ve already discussed that cycles end with a crisis, such as a war or economic depression. Coming out of that Crisis period, we have a High. “A High brings a renaissance to community life. With the new civic order in place, people want to put the Crisis behind them and feel content about what they have collectively achieved… The need for dutiful sacrifice has ebbed, yet the society continues to demand order and consensus. The recent fear for group survival transmutes into a desire for investment, growth, and strength – which in turn produces an era of commercial prosperity, institutional solidarity, and political stability. The big public arguments are over means, not ends.” It is a period represented by homogeneity and cohesion. “Gender distinctions attain their widest point, and child rearing becomes more indulgent. Wars are unlikely, except as unwanted echoes of the recent Crisis.”
Our most recent experience with an American High was the Post World War II period. (WWII and the Great Depression, collectively, marked the Crisis.) “The post-World War II American High…” (circa 1946-1964) “…may rank as the all-time apogee of the national mood.” We saw a baby boom with sharp increase in births just after the War’s end. Homogeneity displayed itself in the similar dress and clothing styles. Gender differences were extreme in an era of men being breadwinners and women being mothers, cooks and nurturers. “Recall America’s circa-1963 conception of the future: We brimmed over with optimism about Camelot, a bustling future with smart people in which big projects and ‘impossible dreams’ were freshly achievable. The moon could be reached and poverty eradicated, both within a decade. Tomorrowland was a friendly future with moving skywalks, pastel geometric shapes, soothing Muzak, and well-tended families.”
But one side effect of a High is the quashing of the nation’s individualism and spirit, which yields to conformity. “Obliging individuals serve a purposeful society – though a few loners voice disquiet over the spiritual void.” “Eventually, civic life seems fully under control but distressingly spirit dead. People worry that, as a society, they can do everything but no longer feel anything.”
Awakening: “An awakening arrives with a dramatic challenge against the High’s assumptions about benevolent reason and congenial institutions. The outer world now feels trivial compared to the inner world. New spiritual agendas and social ideals burst forth – along with utopian experiments seeking to reconcile total fellowship with total autonomy. The prosperity and security of a High are overtly disdained though covertly taken for granted. A society searches for soul over science, meanings over things. Youth-fired attacks break out against the established institutional order. As these attacks take their toll, society has difficulty coalescing around common goals. People stop believing that social progress requires social discipline. Any public effort that requires collective discipline encounters withering controversy. Wars are awkwardly fought and badly remembered afterward. A euphoric enthusiasm over spiritual needs eclipses concern over secular problems, contributing to a high tolerance for risk-prone lifestyles… Public order deteriorates, and crime and substance abuse rise. Gender distinctions narrow, and child rearing reaches the point of minimum protection and structure. Eventually, the enthusiasm cools, having left the old cultural regime fully discredited, internal enemies identified, comity shattered, and institutions delegitimized.”
Much of what I’ve just directly quoted from the book is reminiscent of the anti-establishment counterculture during the 1960s and 1970s which at times reached levels of anarchy on college campuses. America’s most recent experience with an Awakening was, according to the authors, the years 1964 to 1984. Social commentators have pointed out that period’s rebelliousness as a reaction to the button-downed conformity of the post-World War II period. Individuality and spirit began to burst forth where before, in a period characterized as a response to Crisis, cohesion and uniformity were necessary or cherished.
Unraveling: In much the same way as the Awakening is a reaction to the High, the Unraveling period represents reactions to the Awakening. “An Unravelling begins as a societywide embrace of the liberating cultural forces set loose by the Awakening. People have had their fill of spiritual rebirth, moral protest, and lifestyle experimentation. Content with what they have become individually, they vigorously assert an ethos of pragmatism, self-reliance, laissez-faire, and national (or sectional or ethnic) chauvinism. While personal satisfaction is high, public trust ebbs amid a fragmenting culture, harsh debates over values, and weakening civic habits. Pleasure-seeking lifestyles coexist with a declining public tolerance for aberrant personal behavior…. Gender differences attain their narrowest point, families stabilize, and new protections are provided for children. As moral debates brew, the big public arguments are over ends, not means. Decisive public action becomes very difficult, as community problems are deferred. Wars are fought with moral fervor but without consent or follow-through.”
“Eventually, cynical alienation hardens into a brooding pessimism. During a High, obliging individuals serve a purposeful society, and even bad people get harnessed to socially constructive tasks; during an Unraveling, an obliging society serves purposeful individuals, and even good people find it hard to connect with their community. The approaching specter of public disaster ultimately elicits a mix of paralysis and apathy that would have been unthinkable half a [century] earlier. People can now feel, but collectively can no longer do.”
The period 1984 to approximately 2005 (recall that this book was written in 1997), is the period characterized as America’s most recent Unraveling. It was a time period characterized by culture wars, latchkey kids, the AIDs epidemic, Reagan-era tax cuts and kick-the-can-down-the-road fiscal policies. Laissez-faire and inertia seem like good descriptors for that period. I, for one, can very much see how that period of time matches Howe and Strauss’ description of an Unravelling, especially if you consider it describes a period of somewhat selfish materialism combined with a governmental system that just can’t seem to get anything done or agreed upon. And, to demonstrate the recurrence of these cycles over time, the authors point the Unraveling which proceeded the Great Depression and the 1850s which preceded the Civil War as having similar attributes. In former, “around World War I, America was steeped in reform and fundamentalism amid a floodtide of crime, alcohol, immigration, political corruption, and circus trials.” And, in the case of the latter, “the 1850s likewise simmered with moral righteousness, shortening tempers, and multiplying ‘mavericks’ It was a decade, says historian David Donald, in which ‘the authority of all government in America was at a low point.’”
Crisis: “A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly, perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice. People support new efforts to wield public authority, whose perceived successes soon justify more of the same. Government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside. A grim preoccupation with civic peril causes spiritual curiosity to decline. A sense of public urgency contributes to a clampdown on bad conduct or antisocial lifestyles… Public order tightens, private risk taking abates, and crime and substance abuse decline. Families strengthen, gender distinctions widen, and child rearing reaches a smothering degree of protectionism and structure. The young focus their energy on worldly achievements, leaving values in the hands of the old. Wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.”
“Eventually, the mood transforms into one of exhaustion, relief, and optimism. Buoyed by a newborn faith in the group and in authority, leaders plan, people hope, and a society yearns for good and simple things.”
Wow. As you continue reading this review, I want you to place in the forefront of your mind that all of what you just read potentially describing our current Crisis period was written before the 9/11 plane attacks, the “War on Terror,” the dramatic surge of our surveillance state in response to current and perceived threats, and Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. We have the benefit of the last 20 years to judge Strauss and Howe’s prediction of our current saeculum’s fourth turning, which may have started around 2001 instead of 2005. That was, after all, the year that much turbulence and crisis in our society unfolded beginning with the events of September 11. Since that day we’ve seen a strengthening of government “…in response to sudden threats.” We’ve seen a buildup of our military might, because “…the society must prevail.” Take a look at the new TSA organization, including our need to practically be strip searched just to board a plane, and the fact that the NSA has buildings the size of several football fields in Utah in order to record and archive all of our phone conversations, emails and texts, and you’ll see that we now have “…aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.” And regardless of your personal viewpoint on Donald Trump, he has taken to the office with a desire to make great changes including “draining the swamp,” and, depending upon his success at making change, this could very well prove out Strauss and Howe’s observation that in a fourth turning “…Government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside.” And all of those that voted for Trump, hoping he’ll Make America Great Again, and seeing trillions of new stock market wealth from the “Trump Trade,” can’t help but be caught up in a “mood… of relief and optimism” (along with, for sure, some “exhaustion.”) Finally, take note of the very large number of adult children now living at home with their parents. We may have reasons today to blame that development on the lack of good entry-level wage-paying positions or the cost of real estate being too high for the youth of today to buy their starter home, but the saeculum cycle somewhat predicts this as Strauss and Howe comment: “Families strengthen… and child rearing reaches a smothering degree of protectionism and structure.”
But, while there is much ongoing in our society right now that marks a distinct parallel between current events and Strauss and Howe’s description of a typical fourth turning, there are still very many things which are reminiscent of a typical third turning, or Awakening. For example, where gender differences should have been very narrow in Unraveling and widen in the Crisis, I’m not so sure that is happening. Perhaps I’m not as in tune with the ongoing evolution in gender issues, but from my perspective, they seem to be narrowing further. Think about Caitlyn Jenner, the recent “public bathroom debates” in legislative assemblies like North Carolina stipulating who can use female bathrooms and who can’t, the fact that Facebook (I heard) not that long ago offered users as many as 58 different gender options to pick from while setting up their profiles, and elementary-aged children are now taught that it’s understandable and acceptable to “self-identify” with whatever gender suits you most regardless of the anatomical plumbing the Creator gave you. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Strauss and Howe’s description of gender roles in a fourth turning are matching up with modern American society.
And then there’s the question of “public urgency [contributing] to a clampdown on bad conduct or antisocial lifestyles… Public order tightens, private risk taking abates, and crime and substance abuse decline.” Although FBI crime statistics have shown a clear and gradual decrease nationwide in certain crimes over an extended period of time, the rest of this doesn’t seem to be panning out. Our society’s addiction to opioids is now off the charts; and funding from George Soros-backed groups who pay protestors to “Resist” and militant marches and demonstrations and riot-like activities from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and Anti-G20 protest groups (among others) show that we are far from a society where “public order [has tightened.]”
So, am I saying Strauss and Howe are wrong? No. For one thing, the nature of their science is to paint with broad strokes, and if you squint too closely at a painting, you’ll see some imperfections. Besides, I’m not expert at all of the gender developments underway in our society right now, so I’m not even sure they’ve missed here. But, even if they have, I’ll grant them a few misses given their very large endeavor. Perhaps more to the point, I also think there’s a possibility that the lines between an Unravelling and a Crisis are not so distinct. We may have passed the “Trump-optimism/government-leads-again” marker, but haven’t yet shaken off –what’ I’ll call– the “anti-social, anti-Capitalist, gender-confused nonsense” that took hold amongst an entitled and pampered generation that always got a trophy and never came to know what failure tastes like. Perhaps when the bombs really start falling and/or the fiat currencies really start vaporizing, they’ll wake up and get with the program and our society will be more fully transformed to the fourth turning Strauss and Howe predict.
There are so many other things that Strauss and Howe cover in their book that I think are worthwhile to read and ponder. Let me highlight just a few. First, they give many facts and examples from prior times to show that saeculum cycles have been at play in our society for several centuries. For example, their fourth turnings, or Crisis periods, dating back to the mid-1400s, show that some major cataclysm has occurred roughly every 80 to 100 years, beginning with the “War of the Roses” (1459-1487), the “Armada Crisis” (1569-1595), the “Glorious Revolution” (1675-1704), the “American Revolution” (1773-1794), the “Civil War” (1860-1865) and on up to the already discussed “Great Depression and World War II” (1929-1946). If you pick the single year within each time range that they think is most representative of the peak of that particular turning (1485, 1588, 1689, 1781, 1863 and 1944), the periods of time between each one have gone as follows: 103 years, 101, 92, 82 and 81; or, roughly speaking, within an 80 to 100 year generational cycle for each. (Note also that the saeculum cycles are hastening, or becoming shorter over time, too, which is interesting. Is time speeding up? Or are society’s technological developments and increased communications causing responses to occur more quickly?) Assuming another 80 or 81 years from the peak of 1944, this implies we’ll be in the maelstrom of our next Crisis in the year 2024 or 2025, if Strauss and Howe are correct and the cycle holds up. Good news, I guess…. we appear to have plenty more time to buy physical gold and freeze-dried food products, and to consider moving to New Zealand or Costa Rica!!
Strauss and Howe also give copious examples of how Highs, Awakenings, Unravelings and Crises have all shared their own respective similarities in times past. Not having lived through them, or spent much time reading about those historical periods, I’ll have to take it on faith that what they describe is accurate. But, they describe periods of time in the past where consciousness and spirituality has blossomed during Awakenings, such as the “Protestant Reformation” (1517-1542), the “Puritan Reformation” (1621-1649) and the “Transcendental Awakening” (1822-1844). Besides the reconstruction after World War II, there were Highs such as the “Tudor Renaissance” (1487-1517) after the War of the Roses, the “Era of Good Feelings” (1794-1822) after the Civil War, and the “Reconstruction and Gilded Age” (1865-1886) after the Civil War. I’ve already discussed periods of malaise and low points during Unravelings just prior to the Civil War and Great Depression. To validate their theory, the authors offer dozens of pages of examples using facts and evidence from the past to show that turnings share commonality with related turnings across various saecula (the plural form of saeculum).
Finally, there’s also an interesting concept of “archetypes” weaved into these four turning cycles. Archetypes run throughout history, for all of mankind’s history. They can be found in ancient writings (such as Homer), ancient mythological tales (Roman, Greek, Hindu) and in the Bible and other religious documents. They can even be found in contemporary stories like Superman and the Star Wars trilogy. Archetypes tend to come in a pattern of “pairs” and “fours.” Throughout history, you often have a young hero paired with an elder prophet. Examples include King Arthur and Merlin in the Celtic myth, Siegfried and Hildebrand in the Teutonic myth, Horus and Thoth in the Egyptian myth, Moses and Joshua in the Bible, Frodo and Gandalf in the Tolkien trilogy, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and Simba and Rafiki in The Lion King. These are but a few examples, but look closely and you’ll see archetypes EVERYWHERE.
Strauss and Howe believe four archetypes are present throughout time, playing roles in the four turnings of the saecula. The four archetypes Strauss and Howe identify are the Hero, Artist, Prophet and Nomad. Heroes tend to be hubristic, powerful, heroic, kingly and war fighting. Artists tend to be empathic, sensitive, administrative, deferential and adaptive. Prophets tend to be moralistic, wise, indulged, narcissistic, populistic and revolutionary. Finally, Nomads tend to be alienated, abandoned, anarchic, pragmatic, cynical and tough.
At any given time in a society, you have those that are entering childhood. They are aged 0 to 20. The next tier of development is those entering young adulthood. They are aged 21 to 41. Next is those entering midlife, aged 42 to 62. And finally, you have those entering elderhood, aged 63 to 83, approximately.
According to Strauss and Howe:
- “A Prophet generation grows up as increasingly indulgent post-Crisis children, comes of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of an Awakening, cultivates principle as moralistic midlifers, and emerges as wise elders guiding the next Crisis.
- A Nomad generation grows up as under-protected children during an Awakening, comes of age as the alienated young adults of a post-Awakening world, mellows into pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and ages into tough post-Crisis elders.
- A Hero generation grows up as increasingly protected post-Awakening children, comes of age as the heroic young teamworkers of a Crisis, demonstrates hubris as energetic midlifers, and emerges as powerful elders attacked by the next Awakening.
- 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 midlife leaders during an Awakening, and ages into empathic post-Awakening elders.”
“Due to this recurring pattern, America has always had the same generational constellation during every Crisis or Awakening—that is, the same archetypal lineup entering the four phases of life. During a Crisis era, Prophets enter elderhood, Nomads midlife, Heroes young adulthood, and Artists childhood. During an Awakening era, Heroes enter elderhood, Artists midlife, Prophets young adulthood, and Nomads childhood. These constellations push the saeculum forward, since generations that are predictably shaped by history become, as they age, generations that predictably shape history. Thus does the scripted reappearance of archetypes govern time’s great wheel.”
As I pointed out earlier, I was a bit surprised that this book, written in 1997, seemed to foretell so well a lot of things that have happened from 2000 to the present. I hope I’m just as pleasantly surprised to find Strauss and Howe’s prediction that the coming-of-age Millennial generation (born approximately from 1981 to 2004) will appropriately shepherd us through the next, imminent crisis.
“In the next Crisis, Millennials will prove false the supposition, born of the recent Awakening and Unraveling eras, that youth is ever the age for rebellion, alienation, or cynicism. As they break into their twenties, Millennials will already be accustomed to meeting and beating adult expectations. Basking in praise, they will revive the ideal of the common man, whose virtue is defined less by self than from a collegial center of gravity. Rather than argue with elders, Millennials will seek out their advice… Near the climax of Crisis, the full power of this rising generation will assert itself, providing their society with a highly effective instrument for imposing order on an unruly world. They will appear capable of glorious collective deeds, of conquering distant lands, of potently executing any command that may be issued. Quite the opposite of the Boomers’ Awakening-era casualties in Vietnam, which weakened the public will to fight, the Millennials’ heroic sacrifices will only add to the national resolve. As a Crisis-era president commits the society to clear a path for a bright future, the political juggernaut of Millennial youth will stand squarely with their beloved commander-in-chief. This generation of young heroes will follow wherever the Gray Champion leads, whether to triumph or disaster.”
No one wants to go through a Crisis, but if we have to, I sure hope Strauss and Howe are right about this Millennial generation’s ability to spring into action for the greater good. I guess we’ll soon see. I don’t think we have too long to wait to find out. Until then, buckle up everyone! The Crisis will soon be upon us. And then, perhaps as our reward for weathering it, we’ll get to experience a new American High.
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