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


The History of America’s Future

Sometime in the early 1990s, I became aware of a new book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, entitled Generations: The History of America’s Future, from 1584 to 2069. As a student of history, I eagerly dove into the book, studied it, and have revisited it often in the thirty years since.

In Generations, the authors speculate the history of America as a succession of generational biographies, beginning in 1584 and encompassing everyone through the children of today. Their bold theory is that each generation belongs to one of four types, and that these types repeat sequentially in a fixed pattern. The vision of Generations allows us to plot a recurring cycle in American history – a cycle of spiritual awakenings and secular crises – from the founding colonists through today and well into this middle of this century.

Generations come in cycles. Just as history produces generations, so too do generations produce history.

William Strauss and Neil Howe

From the book, a brief description of the four cycles:

Strauss and Howe labeled the four generational types Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist. With one exception, they have always recurred in a fixed order. During a spiritual awakening, Prophets are moving into rising adulthood while Nomads are appearing as children; during a secular crisis, Heroes are moving into rising adulthood while Artists are appearing as children. Later in life, these generations trigger another social moment and thus keep the cycle turning.

The first and third types are what we call “dominant” in public life – Prophets through redefining the inner world of values and culture, and Heroes through rebuilding the outer world of technology and institutions. The other two types are “recessive” in public life, checking the excesses of their more powerful neighbors – Nomads as pragmatists, Artists as ameliorators.

The passage of four generations, Prophets through Artists, completes one full generational cycle over the course of four, twenty-two year phases of life (a total duration of roughly ninety years). From the 1584 Puritan birth year forward, the authors traced five such cycles through American history – of which three (Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War) are fully ancestral, a waning fourth (Great Power) comprises the eldest 28 percent of the American population at the beginning of 1991 (when the book was released), and an emerging fifth (Millennial – the name of the cycle, not the name of the generational cohort) includes the youngest 72 percent. Within these cycles, we identify eighteen generations, from John Winthrop’s Puritans to Jessica McClure’s Millennials – and a recurring pattern of awakenings and crises.

Keep in mind that this was written in 1991.

So, here we are in late 2020, and what does the history of America’s future look like?

From above: during a secular crisis, Heroes are moving into rising adulthood while Artists are appearing as children.

That would be today’s Millennials moving into rising adulthood, and Gen Z appearing as children and teenagers.

So, according to Strauss and Howe, a secular crisis looms.

That pretty much describes 2020, don’t you think?

Here is where the life cycle can help. The story of civilization seldom moves in a straight line, but is rich with curves, oscillations, and mood shifts. The ebb and flow of history often reflect the ebb and flow of generations, each with a different age location, peer personality, and lifecycle story. By viewing history along the generational diagonal, by searching the cycle for behavioral clues, we can apply the mirror of recurring human experience to gaze around the corner of current trends and say something instructive about the decades to come.

William Strauss and Neil Howe

Here’s a timeline visualization of the generational cohorts:

What do you think?

Looking ahead: more ideas from Strauss and Howe, a look back (and today?) to the Gilded Age, and more!

Inspired and adapted from Generations: The History of American’s Future, 1584 to 2069

The Changing of Intergenerational Dynamics

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Judge Taylor in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

People are blind to the unexpected, the unusual, the periphery.

That’s all 2020 has been.

We’re at an unprecedented juncture in history: several generations of relatively similar size are sharing the stage and competing for influence. Generations matter because they behave in specific ways related both to when they came of age and to their situation at the current moment. “The creation of a world view is the work of a generation rather than of an individual,” wrote novelist John Dos Passos. “But we each of us, for better or for worse, add our brick to the edifice.”

I’m beginning a deep dive into current and future intergenerational dynamics, and the six books below are my starting point.

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe

William Strauss and Neil Howe will change the way you see the world—and your place in it. With blazing originality, The Fourth Turning illuminates the past, explains the present, and reimagines the future. Most remarkably, it offers an utterly persuasive prophecy about how America’s past will predict its future.

Strauss and Howe base this vision on a provocative theory of American history. The authors look back five hundred years and uncover a distinct pattern: Modern history moves in cycles, each one lasting about the length of a long human life, each composed of four eras—or “turnings”—that last about twenty years and that always arrive in the same order. In The Fourth Turning, the authors illustrate these cycles using a brilliant analysis of the post-World War II period.

First comes a High, a period of confident expansion as a new order takes root after the old 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.

The Fourth Turning offers bold predictions about how all of us can prepare, individually and collectively, for America’s next rendezvous with destiny.

Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam

Twenty years, ago, Robert D. Putnam made a seemingly simple observation: once we bowled in leagues, usually after work; but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolized a significant social change that became the basis of the acclaimed bestseller, Bowling Alone, which The Washington Post called “a very important book” and Putnam, “the de Tocqueville of our generation.”

Bowling Alone surveyed in detail Americans’ changing behavior over the decades, showing how we had become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures, whether it’s with the PTA, church, clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues. In the revised edition of his classic work, Putnam shows how our shrinking access to the “social capital” that is the reward of communal activity and community sharing still poses a serious threat to our civic and personal health, and how these consequences have a new resonance for our divided country today. He includes critical new material on the pervasive influence of social media and the internet, which has introduced previously unthinkable opportunities for social connection—as well as unprecedented levels of alienation and isolation.

At the time of its publication, Putnam’s then-groundbreaking work showed how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction, and how the loss of social capital is felt in critical ways, acting as a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, and affecting our health in other ways. While the ways in which we connect, or become disconnected, have changed over the decades, his central argument remains as powerful and urgent as ever: mending our frayed social capital is key to preserving the very fabric of our society.

The Gilded Age, Alan Axelrod

The Gilded Age—the name coined by Mark Twain to refer to the period of rapid economic growth in America between the 1870s and 1900—offers some intriguing parallels to our own time. Prolific historian Alan Axelrod tackles this subject in a fresh way, exploring “this intense era in all its dimensions. . . . This book will reveal it . . . as, truly, the overture of the ‘American Century.’” He also looks at how it presaged our current era, which many are calling the “Second Gilded Age.” Photographs, political cartoons, engravings, news clippings, and other ephemera help bring this fascinating period into focus.

Zconomy, Jason Dorsey and Denise Villa

Gen Z changes everything. Today’s businesses are not built to sell and market the way Gen Z shops and buys, or to recruit and employ Gen Z the way they find and keep jobs. Leaders need answers now as gen Z is the fastest growing generation of employees and the most important group of consumer trendsetters. 

The companies that quickly and comprehensively adapt to Gen Z thinking will be the winners for the next twenty years. Those that don’t will be the losers or become extinct.  Zconomy is the comprehensive survival guide on how leaders must understand and embrace Generation Z. 

Researched and written by Dr. Denise Villa and Jason Dorsey from The Center for Generational Kinetics, the insights in Zconomy are based on their extensive research, they’ve led more than 60 generational studies, and their work with more than 500 companies around the world.

In Zconomy, Dr. Villa and Dorsey answer: Who is Gen Z? What do employers, marketers, and sales leaders need to know? And, most importantly, what should leaders do now?

This is the critical moment for leaders to understand and adapt to Gen Z or become irrelevant. Gen Z is already reshaping the world of business and this change is only going to accelerate. Zconomy is the definitive manual that will prepare any executive, manager, entrepreneur, HR or marketing professional to successfully unlock the powerful potential of this emerging generation at this pivotal time.  

The Upswing, Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett

Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times.

But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.

In a sweeping overview of more than a century of history, drawing on his inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam analyzes a remarkable confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. He draws inspiring lessons for our time from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, putting us on a path to becoming a society once again based on community. Engaging, revelatory, and timely, this is Putnam’s most ambitious work yet, a fitting capstone to a brilliant career.

2030, Mauro F. Guillén

Once upon a time, the world was neatly divided into prosperous and backward economies. Babies were plentiful, workers outnumbered retirees, and people aspiring towards the middle class yearned to own homes and cars. Companies didn’t need to see any further than Europe and the United States to do well. Printed money was legal tender for all debts, public and private. We grew up learning how to “play the game,” and we expected the rules to remain the same as we took our first job, started a family, saw our children grow up, and went into retirement with our finances secure.

That world―and those rules―are over.

By 2030, a new reality will take hold, and before you know it:

– There will be more grandparents than grandchildren

– The middle-class in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa will outnumber the US and Europe combined

– The global economy will be driven by the non-Western consumer for the first time in modern history

– There will be more global wealth owned by women than men

– There will be more robots than workers

– There will be more computers than human brains

– There will be more currencies than countries

All these trends, currently underway, will converge in the year 2030 and change everything you know about culture, the economy, and the world.

According to Mauro F. Guillen, the only way to truly understand the global transformations underway―and their impacts―is to think laterally. That is, using “peripheral vision,” or approaching problems creatively and from unorthodox points of view. Rather than focusing on a single trend―climate-change or the rise of illiberal regimes, for example―Guillen encourages us to consider the dynamic inter-play between a range of forces that will converge on a single tipping point―2030―that will be, for better or worse, the point of no return.

2030 is both a remarkable guide to the coming changes and an exercise in the power of “lateral thinking,” thereby revolutionizing the way you think about cataclysmic change and its consequences.


Look for more in the coming weeks.