Book Review: 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
Reviewed by David Bradshaw — My Idea Factory
Do you feel like America is progressing from one crisis to the next? Are we headed toward tragedy, or triumph?
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” -Ecclesiastes 3
This passage reminds us that history has a seasonality — a flow and a purpose. Understanding that flow can help bring more purpose in our own lives.
When it comes to books discussing future trends, I prefer reading them long after they’re published, to allow enough time to determine if the projections are trustworthy. In the case of The Fourth Turning, the message contained is even more relevant and compelling in 2020 than it was when written back in 1997!
By studying American history, economic cycles, psychology and a variety of ancient wisdom traditions, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe draw amazing parallels between the four seasons in nature and the four seasons or generations in a typical human lifespan. Over America’s 350-year history some surprisingly predictable cyclical patterns emerge.
Discerning History’s Direction
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” -Mark Twain
According to Strauss and Howe the cycle of Four ‘Turnings’ follow this sequence; “First comes a ‘High’, a period of confident expansion as a new order takes root after the old order has been swept away. Next comes an ‘Awakening’, a time of spiritual exploration and rebellion against the now-established order.”
“Then comes an ‘Unraveling’, an increasingly troubled era in which individualism triumphs over crumbling institutions. Last comes a ‘Crisis’ — the Fourth Turning — when society passes through a great and perilous gate in history. Together, the four turnings comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and rebirth.”
Amazingly these four ‘turnings’ repeat every 80–90 years throughout American history. These cycles provide them the data necessary to connect the dots regarding what stage we are at now in history, and what we can reasonably expect to come next.
The four generational cycles referred to as a ‘Saeculum’ correspond with the maturation process and seasons in nature; 1) Birth/Childhood/Spring, 2) Young Adulthood/Summer, 3) Maturity/Fall and 4) Elderhood/Winter.
In studying the previous five 80–90 year cycles of U.S. history, Strauss and Howe believe every generation is shaped by their unique season and an alternate between ‘Awakening’ and ‘Crisis’ seasons every two generations.
For example, the last cycle began with the “High” following WWII, (1946–1964) which correlates with Spring. After the war there we had a period of euphoria and blooming of social, economic and cultural growth for a about one generation.
This was followed by a turning of season toward “Awakening” (1964–1984). This was a Summer season of spiritual and cultural searching for deeper meaning and solutions to the problems of racism, sexism and rampant capitalism and lack of concern for the potential damage to the environment.
The authors refer to the season of Awakening as “a rearranging the inner world of spirit and culture, which elevates the individual.” This season alternates every other generation with the era of Crisis, “which rearranges the outer world of power and politics, which elevates the priority of community.”
Following Summer comes a Fall season of “Unraveling” (1985–2008). During this time of entropy we have a rise of culture wars over moral issues, such as sexual orientation, to economic inequality and the rise of environmentalism. “Finding solutions to problems during this season seem insurmountable,” the authors say, until a Crisis moves the culture to action.
The “Crisis” era, which corresponds with the Winter season (2008-present), holds the possibility of “Renaissance or catastrophe — Apocalypse or glory”. It is this fourth turning in which we find ourselves in the midst of today.
Preparing for What’s Next
“The future belongs to those who are prepared for it…It’s time to grow up!” -Dennis Peacocke
According to the authors this Fourth Turning, or Crisis era historically can be sparked either by a succession of seemingly small events, or by one major event such as; a fiscal crisis, a terrorist attack, or a pandemic which could lead to a mandatory quarantine. And in recent years we’ve seen all three occur!
America’s season of Crisis kicked off with the new millennium and the bursting of the Dot-Com stock market bubble, followed by the 9-11 terrorist attack and then the housing and Financial Crisis of 2007–08.
All of these events should have been a major wake up call, telling us that the social and economic laws of nature cannot be violated indefinitely without major consequences.
In our case, the consequences have been over a decade of financial stagnation, fueled by near-zero interest rates by the Federal Reserve, which served to reinflate the stock market, but it did not translate into wage growth for the middle class — thus it further polarized the U.S. politically and economically.
The most recent crisis, the global COVID-19 pandemic, might serve as the catalyst to help usher in a sudden new change of public mood — by bringing us more unity, simplicity and compassion toward one another. Or, it could foment the already festering issues of racism and economic inequality.
This modern plague has shaken society to it’s root. Every crisis holds the potential to transform both individuals and institutions. When will we finally grasp how interconnected and interdependent our nation and world really is?
Strauss and Howe prophetically announced that the providential purpose of the Crisis era every eighty years or so is to redirect the culture toward serious concern for rebuilding community and to “mark” all generations for life.
The outcome of our present Crisis era holds the possibility for either “triumph or tragedy” say the authors. “The climax stage will fundamentally alter the course of civilization…as one society dies and another is born.”
Enter the Gray Champion
“Who is this gray patriarch? His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. That stately form, combining the leader and the saint…could only belong to some old champion of the righteous cause, whom the oppressor’s drum had summoned from his grave.” -Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1804–1864) The Gray Champion
Every generation needs a hero to help navigate a crisis — a Moses to part the sea and lead us out of the “darkness, adversity and peril” into the promised land.
But where will this hero (or heroine) emerge from today? Politics, Religion, Academia?
A generation ago the authors announced their best hope for a positive outcome in the next Crisis era, would come from the bottom up, not the top down — and be led by a growing army of wise, modern elders from the Baby Boomer generation.
“Aging boomers will be more conscious and will serve as the needed spiritual elders to feed wisdom back into society, which the younger generations will desperately need,” write Strauss and Howe.
“Contemplative Elders have the time to focus more on being than doing, to facilitate healing of the gaping cultural divides. Youngers are often too busy to cultivate the quietness which feed mystical experience. As Emerson put it, ‘As we grow old the beauty steals within.”’
The authors state that during the next Crisis; “The word ‘retirement’ will take on a new negative connotation — indicating a priority of selfish consumption and irrelevance. Baby boomers must move from senior citizens to Citizen Seniors, committed to replenishment and reflection vs. retirement.”
If all of this sounds familiar, then you have already heard this vital message trumpeted by bestselling authors such as; Richard Rohr (Falling Upward, Everything Belongs) … Marc Freedman (The Big Shift, How To Live Forever) … Chip Conley (Wisdom at Work, Modern Elder Academy) and Parker J. Palmer (On The Brink of Everything) are just a few of the modern prophetic voices.
“Boomer elders will embrace self-denial in contrast to their youthful self-indulgence,” say the authors. “Boomers will begin to function like old cobblers and dressmakers — sewing us back together into the fabric of creation — that can re-sacrilize the national community to heal the cultural dysfunction and grant the moral authority for the next golden age.”
WOW! Baby boomers are called to play a pivotal role insuring the next Crisis era ends well. “The Gray Champion will ride once more,” the authors proclaim, “combining both the leader and the saint.”
“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” -Cicero
During The Fourth Turning America will need to embrace both personal sacrifice and a restoration of public authority, according to Strauss and Howe. “Whichever political party can best accommodate both will be best suited to lead.” This is particularly relevant given that 2020 is an major election year.
“Government needs to quickly trim the fat to be prepared to act swiftly in a crisis,” they warned. “Leaders need humility to speak candidly about facing the problems of the future and reinventing good citizenship on a local level.”
“Raising the savings rate in both private and public sector are vital, as well as diversification of assets so that no one market crisis can wipe out your wealth.”
This is sage financial advice during every season of life, but especially as we enter a Crisis era. Holding assets with intrinsic value, such as physical gold and silver, is a wise means of preserving wealth for future generations.
“Think of your family as your ultimate fourth turning safety net. As public support weakens, family support will become vital.”
They conclude with a sober warning: “We cannot stop the Fourth Turning from coming, but we can improve the chances of surviving and elevating civilization to a whole new level… If Boomers make a wrong choice, history will be unforgiving. The continuation of Boomer maturation is vital for the crisis to end in triumph.”
“Boomers must abandon their quest to recapture their youth and instead prepare Millennials and Generation X, Y and Z for the coming struggles. When the Crisis Climax hits, Boomers will be needed to diffuse the culture wars at once to congeal around the goal of national survival.”
Yes, the season of the famed American writer Nathanial Hawthorne’s ‘Gray Champion’ is now upon us. May we rise to the occasion with a fresh sense of destiny and renewed compassion toward our posterity.
At the end of our days, may it be said that we faithfully served our purpose, like King David… “For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers.” -Acts 13:36