In 1997, social and historical theorists, Neil Howe and the late William Strauss published “The Fourth Turning,” a hypothesis that proposed a deep cyclical pattern of generations in Anglo-American history that occurs every 80 to 100 years. They named these near century-long cycles “saecula,” and further divided them into twenty-year sectors called “turnings.”
The First Turning they labeled High, an optimistic era of rising institutions and declining individualism when a new order of public feeling about government begins. The Second Turning, Awakening, is a stormy time when that new order is assailed. The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a general belief in increasing individualism as the only solution to institutional deterioration.
In this book, Howe purports that we are now in the Fourth Turning or Crisis era, which began with the financial market crash of 2008 and continued with the rise of Donald Trump and authoritarian populism. Trump's election as President was a clear sign of the Fourth Turning because this Turning occurs “when a sense of urgency about institutional dysfunction and civic vulnerabilities coalesce the nation or large blocs of the homeland behind a strong leader to tear down the existing social, economic and cultural order and replace it with something different.”
So, if the US is at the end of a saeculum, what is next? Howe maintains there will either be another critical event to change the trajectory of the Crisis or possibly a consolidation “when enough people realize the fate of the country is at stake, and when social mobilization is required.” Crisis eras typically culminate in war and his examples of previous Fourth Turnings include Lexington and Concord, the War Between the States, and Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Howe predicts this Turning will reach its climax in the early 2030s and posits both trepidatious and hopeful resolutions. This vague depiction of the end of the era foretells economic crashes, political chaos, or war but also prophecies that reinvigorated national institutions, social solidarity, prosperity, and technological wonders will rise from the ashes.
Typically, U.S. history has been written linearly, so to envision domestic history as a series of 80 to 100-year-cycles of four turnings each is intriguing and provocative. While I am skeptical of his theory that history is predictable, I admire Howe’s extensive research and writing skills which make his complex theory understandable. He cites many historical illustrations and uses meticulous charts to make his point.
My personal view of history is that events occur rather randomly, but Howe’s fresh approach to thinking about history is a worthwhile read, especially for US historians and futurologists, and a novel way for a general reader to gain more knowledge of US history. Simon and Schuster is the publisher of this 578-page thoroughly indexed and footnoted book.
About the Author: Neil Howe is a business and government consultant on history, economics, and demography. He is the managing director of demography for Hedgeye, an investment advisory firm. He also is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at the Global Aging Institute. Howe is responsible for coining the term “Millennial Generation.”
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