What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny

Today is a follow on post to The History of America’s Future, which looked at Generations, a 1992 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Generations is a speculation by the authors that the history of America can be seen as a succession of generational cycles.

The Fourth Turning is one of their follow-up books, taking a DEEP dive into what the next “turning” could look like. Keep in mind that this was written in 1997, and uses past history to project a possible future.

A few quotes from the opening chapter sets the tone:

America feel’s like it’s 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.

Not long ago, America was more than the some of its parts. Now, it is less. Where we once through ourselves collectively strong, we now regard ourselves as individually entitled.

Yet even while we exalt our own personal growth, we realize that millions of self-actualized persons don’t add up to an actualized society. Popular trust in virtually every American institution – from businesses and governments to churches and newspapers – keeps falling to new lows. Public debts soar, the middle class shrinks, welfare dependencies deepen, and cultural arguments worsen by the year.

Wherever we’re headed, America is evolving in ways most of us don’t like or understand. Individually focused yet collectively adrift, we wonder if we’re headed toward a waterfall.

I first read these words when the book was released, and readily identified with them. Over the 20+ years since, I think they are even more prophetic.

Here is how Strauss and Howe set up this book:

At the core of modern history lies this remarkable pattern: Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era – a new turning – every two decades or so. At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future. Turnings come in cycles of four. Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years, a unit of time the ancients called the speculum. Together, the four turnings of the speculum comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction:

  • The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.
  • The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civil order comes under attack from a new values regime.
  • The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast er a strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.
  • The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the new values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.

Each turning comes with its own identifiable mood. Always, these mood shifts catch people by surprise.

Strauss and Howe label The Fourth Turning as a book that turns history into prophecy, taking you on a journey through the confluence of social time and human life.

Part One – Seasons – Acquiring new tools for understanding self, life, family, society, and civilization. Learn about the cycles of life, generational archetypes, turnings, and history.

Part Two – Turnings – Revisit post-World War II American history from the perspective of turnings and archetypes. Gain new insight about why the first three turnings of the current Millennial Saeculum have evolved as they have. Read why this saecular journey must culminate in a Fourth Turning and what is likely to happen when it does.

Part Three – Preparations – Explore what you and the nation can do to brace for the coming Crisis. Learn how, by applying the principles of seasonality, we can steer our destiny.

An appreciation for history is never more important than at times when a saecular winter is forecast. In the Fourth Turning, we can expect to encounter personal and public choices akin to the harshest ever faced by ancestral generations. We would do well to learn from their experience, viewed through the prism of cyclical time. Through much of the Third Turning, we have managed to postpone the reckoning. But history warns that we can’t defer it beyond the next bend in time.


Part of a series looking at history and future through the lens of generations


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