Book Review: The Fourth Turning

A year or so ago I heard a podcast about generational theory which sounded ill-defined but intriguing, and wanted to learn more. Apparently William Strauss  and Neil Howe were the first to bring it together for a popular audience, so I read The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (1997). It’s a continuation and expansion of their previous history/sociology book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. While I haven’t read Generations, about two thirds of The Fourth Turning is a very long recap, so it doesn’t look like I’ve missed out on much by skipping it.

When I started reading this book, I didn’t realize it had been in the news lately for influencing Steve Bannon’s worldview. Actually, I’m so ignorant I didn’t know who he was or what Breitbart News is and had to look him up. Knowing that hasn’t changed my perspective on the book, which goes out of its way to be politically and culturally neutral.

Generational Cycles

Strauss and Howe argue for the importance of the saeculum — a natural century of roughly 80-100 years — as a unit of historical time. They trace the use of this period for record keeping back to the Etruscans, who were seeking to keep track of a prophecy that their civilization would last the length of ten long human  lifetimes, and had to keep track of births and deaths of those who lived the longest in each generation, end to end.

They argue that societies tend to take on a large scale historical rhythm defined by distinct generational moods that can be described through seasons and archetypes. Each “season” lasts roughly 20 – 25 years, has a characteristic mood and place on the scale of freedom vs. order, and shapes its children to follow a particular archetype:

  1. The High
    • Saecular Spring
    • Children born in this era grow up with a great deal of security and conformity and later become trouble-making Prophets.
    • Those who grew up insecure and compliant during the previous crisis mature into young adult Artists who get along, marry early, and start “grey flannel suite” careers.
    • The hardy, confident Hero generation who fought in the previous war enjoy investing in children and infrastructure in middle age.
    • The Nomad generation who were raised with too much permissiveness during the previous Awakening, and came of age as wild youth during the previous Unraveling, grow into tough pragmatists who don’t demand too much from government in old age.
      • Previously “Lost generation” who were raised by scary transcendentalists and traumatized during WWI,
    • Both supply of and demand for public order are high.
  2. The Awakening
    • Saecular Summer
    • Children born in this era are often neglected by inward-looking parents who are still trying to “find themselves” and grow into cynical, pragmatic Nomads.
    • Young adults who grew up secure but stifled in the High become inward focused Prophets, setting the Awakening tone
      • Most such periods in America have been literally named things like “The Great Awakening”
      • This last one, The Consciousness Revolution, seems to have been less successful than most, but Strauss and Howe aren’t interested in judging which generations are real vs. false Prophets.
      • If there’s a war, it’s unpopular, and young Prophets fight back against elder Hero leadership as rigid and unspiritual.
    • The Artists enter middle age and keep their secure careers while re-thinking some of the compliance of their childhood. They attend revivals or have mid-life crises, which is hard on their Nomad children.
    • The Hero generation has members holding public power in elderhood, but becomes alienated by the shift in culture, and demand generous public benefits for their prior service which the economy can still bear, because the economic engine they built is still going strong.
    • Supply of public order is still high, while demand falls precipitously.
  3. The Unraveling
    • Saecular Fall
    • As people begin to notice the ill-effects of adult self-absorption on the youth, campaigns to invest more energy in proper child rearing increase, and if successful result in a new generation of straight-edged young Heros.
      • The book mentions that this has usually happened in America, with the exception of the Civil War, which started when this generation was quite young, and traumatized them too much.
    • The Nomad generation enters young adulthood less well educated and formed than the previous generation, and everyone is hard on them.
      • The Awakening shifted energy away from public interests that help kick-start new careers and teach skills, toward the inner fulfillment of the Prophet generation, leading Nomads to struggle with finding a secure life path.
      • Lacking structure and purpose, young Nomads drink, party, and gain a bad reputation. If there’s a war, it’s unpopular and they don’t get much public credit.
    • The Prophet generation enters midlife, and sets the moral and spiritual tone, largely by arguing with each other about religious issues that arose during the Awakening.
      • Some “sell out” and become yuppies, while others prolong their spiritual quests to the detriment of the wider public order.
      • Churches splinter as Awakening disagreements magnify, or “culture wars” intensify.
    • Artists in old age are highly credentialed and largely middle class, having held steady, long careers.
      • There are a great many bureaucrats who add layers of details to various procedures with mostly good intentions, but the net affect is to over-complicate governments and large businesses.
      • Public promises to the elderly overburden the young Nomads, who are struggling economically.
    • Both supply or and demand for public order is low.
  4. The Crisis
    • Saecular Winter
    • As tensions rise, a new Artist generation is raised — stifled, overprotected, and with greater conformity.
    • Hero generation in young adulthood provides workers for newly-stoked public works projects and soldiers for a large, popular, total war.
    • Nomad generation in midlife offers cynical, pragmatic support as officers and administrators in the national struggle.
    • Prophet generation directs the struggle and lends overarching values and direction.
      • The Transcendentalists during the Civil War were overbearing and acted too fast, launching the Civil War before the young Heros were ready.
      • Apparently something was terribly wrong with Germany’s Prophet generation during the previous saeculum?
      • The Boomers don’t seem to have very good values. That can’t be great.
    • Supply of public order starts out low, but demand rises.

Anglo-American Saecula

They overlay this pattern onto 600 years of Anglo-American history:

  1. Late Medieval (1435 – 1487)
    • The outline begins with the Medieval Third Turning
      • Suggests that perhaps the Medieval Awakening happened way back when Europe accepted Christianity, and didn’t have dramatic saecula for several hundred years.
      • The authors speculate that traditional societies that are explicitly oriented toward cyclical time, as opposed to linear progress oriented time, tend to less dramatic saecula because they have more explicit, consistent life-cycle roles.
      • The Romans and Etruscans recorded having noticeable saecular rhythms, and marked them with an especially impressive set of games once per lifetime (about 80 years or so).
    • Crisis: The Wars of the Roses
  2. Reformation (1487 – 1594)
    • Awakening: The Reformation
    • Crisis: The Spanish Armada
  3. New World (1594 – 1704)
    • Awakening: Puritan Awakening
    • Crisis: The Glorious Revolution
  4. Revolutionary (1704 – 1794)
    • Awakening: The Great Awakening
    • Crisis: the Revolutionary War
  5. Civil War (1794 – 1865)
    • Awakening: The Transcendental Awakening
    • Crisis: The Civil War
      • reached crisis too early and was especially horrible as a result
  6. Great Power (1865 – 1946)
    • Awakening: The Third Great Awakening
    • Crisis: WWII
  7. Millennial (1946 – 2026?
    • The postwar High of the late 40s through early 60s, full of optimism, industry, and happy families.
      • Children raised during this period felt secure but pressured toward conformity, and became the Prophet generation of boomers, responsible for cultural upheaval in young adulthood.
    • The Awakening of the 60s and 70s, characterized by the sexual revolution, student protests, and Vietnam.
      • Children raised during this period became the Nomad Generation X of cynical latchkey youth (the 13th Generation in the book).
      • Nomads are thought to mirror the Lost Generation who came of age during or just after WWI.
    • The Unraveling of the late 80s through the 90s, characterized by the culture war, widespread internet adoption, increasing violence, and the breakdown of family and institutional life.
      • Children raised during this period became Millennials, who the book predicts will fill the Hero archetype sometime in the 2020s, mirroring the energy of the GI Generation.
    • The Crisis that started with the recession in 2008, and is now meandering through a morass of dystopian ice zombie stories, sticky cultural problems centering around identity politics, employment woes, and student loans, and the populism that elected Donald Trump.
      • The book, written two decades ago, predicted a crash sometime around 2005.
      • Predicted to end in a turning toward a new high in another decade or so.
      • Children raised during this time are predicted to be deferential Artists, mirroring overlooked Silent Generation.
      • Are those middle-aged, rust-belt, dispossessed MAGA folks 13th Generation Nomads? The “basket of deplorables” rhetoric does go with the generational profiles outlined above.

Is it True?

I’m unable to judge the accuracy of this account, largely because I’m not deeply familiar enough with history to have formed an opinion on it. Strauss and Howe claim that seacular seasons don’t determine what events are faced in any given period of time, but rather how people respond to them. They suggest, for instance, that the Korean War was better run and less controversial than the Vietnam War less because of the differences between South Korea and Vietnam than those between the “generational constellation” of midlife GIs and young adult Silents vs that of midlife Silents and young adult Boomers. I don’t know enough about either war to comment. They also call WWI an Unraveling war, and WWII a Crisis war, because they’re judging less by overall destruction than by decisiveness and a change in the social order. While WWI was tremendously destructive, it didn’t resolve important things that needed to be resolved, and left everyone affected nihilistic and scarred. WWII was also tremendously destructive, but ended in decisive victory for the allies, a rebuilt world, and over a half century of peace in Europe. 

It seems somewhat plausible: a kind of tidal pull created by those who have lived through dramatic wars everyone believes in vs those who haven’t but are parented by and rebel against orderly, heroic adults who have coalesced and fought during a Crisis era. The Anglo-American world has been fortunate in having mostly triumphant crises where the better side won, and that has shaped us into great powers and world leaders. It would be interesting to hear an account of the turnings of Germany or Russia for comparison, but they stick fairly close to America throughout the book.

At the very least, it’s more plausible than Rod Dreher’s 1,000 year flood  idea, while accounting for the same symptoms of large-scale organizational decay combined with the tail end of various strains of moral decay.

Is It Beautiful?

No, it’s a bit of a slog.

The book is poorly organized — circles within circles. A cursory explanation of the seaculum, followed by a bunch of examples, followed by the same examples in more detail, followed by the same examples from a different angle, followed by the same examples in a great deal more detail, followed by a summery of those same examples in much less detail just to remind us.

The result is muddy, and I didn’t learn as much history as I ought to have in an over 300 page book examining historical forces. It became tedious about 30% of the way through, and stayed that way through references to a lot of figures who’s names I vaguely remembered, but about whom I know very little. I still know very little, because they were all simply referenced, rather than described.

Is It Useful?

Possibly.

There absolutely is a kind of pendulum swing in our culture. I noticed it growing up Evangelical, with a generation of Boomers warning stridently against “dead works” and legalism to a young Millennial generation who hadn’t learned to do any works nor obey any laws at all yet.

There are some currents of it in the current generation of young women going through college, feeling pressured into getting drunk and having sex like their parents (or by now even grandparents) did in the 60s and 70s, but feeling unsafe instead of free as a result, asking for more and more adult supervision, more and more laws and protections.

Generational tides might be a decent paradigm for some of the swings between desires for more  or less order, more or less sameness, more or less individualism, and so on. Still, it’s not as useful as it could have been if a little time was devoted to examining the different between successful turnings and disastrous ones. While America was undergoing its “Great Power” saeculum, Germany (which isn’t uniquely evil most of the time) was going through an absolutely horrible saeculum with an Unraveling spent in trenches and a Crisis of warmongering and attempted genocide. Did they have an awakening? What was it like? Which Russian generation was described as “Demons” in Dostoyevsky’s novel of that name? Why?

 

Rating: 3/5 stars. Thought provoking but not completely convincing, and the style is often repetitive and boring.

One thought on “Book Review: The Fourth Turning

  1. I like your assessment, haha. I’m convinced of their generational theory. But the book IS very disorganized, like you said circles within circles. And while it has the potential to be useful, it’s such a wide view of history and culture that it’s hard to implement anything from it in concrete ways.

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