The Long View: The Fourth Turning

There was something magical and terrible about the end of the nineteenth century. The term coined to describe it, fin de siècle, itself accelerated the process already underway. Apocalyptic expectations can become feedback loops in certain situations. You might call it self-fulfilling prophecy, but in English this term carries a connation of self-deception. What I am describing is far more real. Sometimes, when you expect the world to end, it obliges you.

In John's book, The Perennial Apocalypse, he describes several civilizations that expected the end so fervently that they imploded when a reasonably close facsimile came along. The destruction of the Aztec Empire is a good example of this. What, you really thought 300 Spaniards conquered a highly militarized nation of millions of people?

The Fourth Turning is the book that predicted an American crisis sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hopefully the authors got better speaking fees afterward. They really got a double-whammy with 9-11 and the Housing Bubble together. John predicted it would start with an international issue, and end with a domestic one. Remember, this was written in 1997. However, it is also too soon to expect resolution. A turning lasts 20-25 years. We are only 13 years in, and 9-11 came a little early. Furthermore, we should expect something of a golden age of peace and prosperity to come after the successful revolution of the Crisis. Clearly, no one feels like that now.

John wanted to give this book another review in 2020. He is no longer with us, but I think it will make for an interesting retrospective in another 5-10 years.

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy
by William Strauss and Neil Howe
Broadway Books, 1997
$27.50, 382 pages
ISBN 0-553-06682-X

The Next Scheduled Performance of the Book of Revelation is in 2020.

The sense of impending wonder and catastrophe that began to percolate through western civilization toward the end of the nineteenth century did not come to an end when the century year arrived. Rather, in the decade and a half that followed the turn of the century, these intuitions evolved from fantasies in the minds of philosophers and millenarians to become concrete threats visible in broad daylight. When the First World War did break out, almost everyone was surprised by the actual sequence of events. Nevertheless, many people, from Hermann Hesse to H.G. Wells to the Jehovah's Witnesses, immediately knew that this was what they had been waiting for. If the evolution of apocalyptic expectation after the turn of the millennium follows the same pattern, this book could go down as one of the influences that made the sense of impending apocalypse reasonable.

The major reason it could do this is that the authors' theory of history really is reasonable, at least as theories of history go. "The Fourth Turning" expands on the cyclical interpretation of American history which the authors proposed in their 1991 book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." (Before the publication of that book, William Strauss was best known as a cofounder and director The Capitol Steps cabaret group. Neil Howe is an economist and senior advisor to the Concord Coalition. Now, of course, they are both best known as the authors of "Generations.") It has never been a secret that American history does show some striking periodicities. Most notable is the fact that the major "crises" of American history are all the same distance apart. That is, the Depression/World War II era occurred about as long after the Civil War as the Civil War did after the War of Independence, which in turn occurred about as long after the era of colonial disorders incident to King Philip's War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Similarly, there is a somewhat looser regularity to the peculiar episodes of spiritual and cultural ferment that characterize America history. The best known on these was "The Great Awakening" of the 1720s and 1730s. A similar or at least analogous era occurred just about a century later, in the "Second Great Awakening" or "Transcendentalist" period. This episode saw not just outbreaks of millenarian fervor, but the beginnings of such hardy perennials as the abolition and women's suffrage movements. Somewhat anomalously, another such period occurred in the final years of the nineteenth century, leaving as its permanent monuments the Fundamentalism of the Bible Belt and the Bohemianism of Greenwich Village. The last such episode was the period colloquially known as "The '60s," most of which, of course, actually happened in the 1970s.

Social historians have noted these regularities. Michael Barkun, for instance, has remarked on the recurrence of the "Awakenings." Some political historians have attempted to explain the pattern in terms of generational types (Arthur Schlesinger, junior and senior, both addressed this question). What Strauss and Howe have done is rather more complicated than what most other short-term cyclical theorists have attempted, however. Their model assumes that, at any one time, there are four generations alive, each generation consisting of everyone born during a 20 to 25 year period. The idea is that people in these groups will have roughly similar social roles. That is, they will be children, workers-and-soldiers, managers, and leaders. This division does not by itself suggest any social cycle, beyond the fact that a reasonably lucky newborn will go through all four social roles before dying about 80 years later. The cyclical element comes of the fact that each age group will experience a social crisis in a different way. When one occurs, each demographic group therefore acquires a certain group character. Strauss and Howe propose that, once these generational differences are established, they tend to replicate themselves. This is partly because of recurrent fashions in child rearing practices, and partly because certain configurations of generational types make a society accident-prone, so that it again experiences the sort of crisis that starts the system up all over again. They call a full cycle a "saeculum," and deduce that it can last for anything from just over 80 to just over 100 years.

In a war that threatens a society's existence, for instance, 20 to 40 year olds will be called on to be "Heroes." If the crisis is faced successfully, the Heroes will get and receive special deference all their lives. Such generations were those who fought the American Revolution and the Second World War. Their own children born after the crisis, however, will be indulgently raised, so when they grow up they will be more critical and less practical-minded than their parents. Strauss & Howe call the children of such generations "Prophets." They are the people who are attracted to "Awakenings" as young adults. They grow to be venerable moral leaders during the next crisis: among them one may number Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln and FDR.

The people who were children during the crisis itself, awed into good behavior by their parents' urgency, will be socially adroit but rather indecisive. They are compromisers in politics, like the Congressional leaders who dithered during the decade before the Civil War. As young adults they are conspicuous for their conformity, like the Silent generation of the 1950s. They grow up to be the sort of very smart people, like Daniel Webster and Michael Dukakis, whom no one much wants to be president. The authors call the people of such generations "Artists." When they have children themselves, however, they are likely to neglect them as they relax from their own inhibited youths. As young adults, these children will become a "bad" generation, like the Lost generation of the 1920s and Generation X today. Strauss and Howe call them "Nomads." Those who survive their youthful dissipations will take far better care of their kids, as will the later cohorts of the moralizing Prophets. The Nomads will be the managers and field commanders of the next crisis, where they will have the likes of Harry Truman and Ulysses S. Grant for company. Their children, if all goes well, will be the next Heroes. And so, saecula saeculorum, world without end, amen. Maybe.

If this sounds complicated, you don't know the half of it until you read this book or "Generations." In this review you are being spared the full rococo splendor of the authors' special vocabulary. Be warned, though, that "The Fourth Turning" is full of sentences like, "Where the Silent were children of a Crisis who came of age in a High, 13ers were children of an Awakening who came of age in an Unraveling." The scariest thing about Strauss and Howe's work, scarier even than their predictions for the first two decades of the twenty-first century, is that statements like this begin to make sense.

The book has flaws. "Generations" was, if anything, even more detailed and convoluted than "The Fourth Turning." It was stuffed with graphs and tables laying out dates and biographies, each table usually saying something so slightly different from the one 20 pages before that you had to puzzle over it just to figure out why it was included. "The Fourth Turning" is shorter on tables and summaries (though there are still quite a few), but tends to wax more mystical. We hear a lot about archetypes and Jungian shadows, and in general are treated to a cross-cultural review of the myth of the eternal return whose degree of detail is not always justified by the quality of the underlying research. To take a few points at random, Hesiod did not have four ages of the world but five, Tung Chung-shu did indeed describe a four-dynasty model of historical change but is better remembered for the five dynasty sequence, and by the time of the siege of Jericho, Moses was not an old Prophet but a Dead one.

More prosaically, the book also displays the shoehorning of awkward facts into the prescribed theoretical niches that is typical of any theory of history. (I should know; I did it myself in a book called Spengler's Future, but I was mostly kidding.) Thus, for instance, does anyone really think that Theodore Roosevelt is at all typical of the irresolute, "Artist"-type generation in which Strauss and Howe's system pigeonhole him? Can you really argue that ALL of the cycles that supposedly run through history fit into Strauss and Howe's saeculum? If that were the case, then the economic conditions of the 1760s and 1850s would have to parallel those of the 1920s. That would surprise me, as well as most economic historians. Similarly, so would many of the other details in this book come as surprises to people more conversant with the periods and topics the authors try to tie together. To be fair, the authors do try to deal with most of the objections that are likely to occur to you about an exercise like this, particularly in the interesting section "Accidents and Anomalies." Still, the book stands as another reminder, if any were needed, that history is too various to fit entirely into any quasi-algorithmic historical model.

So much for the caveats. The fact remains that Strauss and Howe are, broadly speaking, clearly onto something as regards the patterns of American history, and their ideas about the future are worth taking very seriously. Their periodization of American history since the late 17th century makes more sense than any I have ever seen. Their descriptions of comparable cultural eras from saeculum to saeculum are provocative and valuable. Their treatment of the Awakenings is brilliant. The sympathy that they display for the young adults of the 1990s has deservedly earned their books a cult following. While they do nothing to whitewash the sins of American history, "The Fourth Turning," like "Generations," is a deeply patriotic work. It is inclusive in a way that multiculturalism merely parodies. Let textbook publishers take note: here is the template for some unbeatable history texts.

Having disposed of the past, let us now turn to the future. According to Strauss and Howe, the ideal saeculum consists of four periods, each (as you might expect) of 20 to 25 years in length. The periods are called "Turnings," and the title of the book refers to the impending final turning of the current saeculum. The first Turning is the "High," a sort of Golden Age that follows the successful resolution of a crisis. The second is an Awakening, the time when social order begins to decline as the young propose new ideals and social goals. The third is an "Unraveling," which may be economically prosperous, but in a shortsighted way. The cultural and political life of the time grows rancorous with moral debate while private life begins to return to traditional forms. The fourth is a Crisis, when some combination of economic collapse, foreign discord and civil strife seem to threaten the very existence of society. It promotes teamwork, austerity, and strong government more concerned with the duties of citizens than with their rights. If all goes well, the Crisis is resolved, and society enters into another era in which everything seems to be as it should be.

Once things did not go well. Strauss and Howe claim, with some shaky support, to have run their model back 700 years to the end of the Middle Ages. They say that in all that time they have found only one saeculum that went seriously awry, the one that ended with the American Civil War. It came too soon, they say. The Unraveling period that began in the late 1840s should have gone on for another five or ten years. By that time, the aging Transcendentalists who had conceived both Abolitionism and Southern nationalism would have been inspiring elder statesmen, "Gray Champions" as the authors call them after a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Instead, they manifested a lethal combination of ruthlessness and moral conviction. Sick of the compromising ways of the Artist generation that had immediately preceded them, they consciously set out to fight the Battle of Armageddon and came as close as contemporary technology allowed. The authors point out that, while it is hard to conceive of happier outcomes to the Revolutionary period or (at least in America) of the end of World War II, the Civil War is still regarded with horror and dismay. Those who had fought in the war were looked on as victims rather than heroes. There was no opprobrium attached in later life to having avoided conscription in that war. There was economic progress in the years that followed, but spiritually it was a dark time of widespread cynicism and political corruption. Racial issues were tied into a knot that was not unraveled for 90 years. Government became less rather than more effective. Virtue was cultivated in the private sphere alone.

This is the sort of resolution of the coming Fourth Turning that the authors are keen to prevent (as well, of course, as discouraging even more deplorable outcomes, such as the construction of antimatter bombs and the incineration of the inner solar system). In fact, such is their concern for the proper handling of a Crisis that one wonders that, among all the literary sources they cite, they do not mention the fictional work that comes closest to their vision: Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.

According to Strauss and Howe, we are now in the Third Turning, an era of Unraveling that they call the age of Culture Wars (a magazine for which I write, by the way). Our current era resembles the period between the end of the French and Indian Wars and the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the end of the Mexican-American War and the beginning of the Civil War, and the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Great Depression. Social pathology is declining in the face of increasingly moralistic public rhetoric and harsher criminal law. School test scores are rising, divorce rates are falling. Among families that can afford it, women are choosing to stay home with the kids. At the same time, the system of rights and entitlements that government is expected to respect grows ever more elaborate. Rules promoting diversity and individualism are favored by all sides as regard for the common good becomes unimaginable. With more demands placed on public authorities at the very time when people are increasingly resistant to paying even accustomed levels of taxes, the whole idea of government becomes suspect. This process of disintegration has not yet reached its nadir.

The Fourth Turning, they suggest, could begin around 2005. It would be initiated by a catalytic event of some sort, some perfectly foreseeable incident that might have had little effect in a less rancorous time, but which in the explosive atmosphere of a late Unraveling can blast open a gateway to two decades of catastrophe. Foreseeability has its limits, of course. In the late 1920s, for instance, many people knew that the economy was becoming unbalanced in certain ways and that a severe correction was likely. In the 1850s, people knew that the election of even a moderate Abolitionist to the presidency would provoke a constitutional crisis. Far fewer people understood that it would prove impossible to deal with the new emergency in the terms set by the politics of the Unraveling, but so it was in both cases. In the 1920s, Congress enacted tariff and fiscal policies that guaranteed the creation of unmanageable trade surpluses, while the Supreme Court held unconstitutional ordinary legislation for the regulation of the economy. Before the Civil War, Congressional politics was composed of elaborate compromises and gentlemen's agreements about the spread of slavery. The Supreme Court, of course, made further compromise impossible by constitutionalizing the pro-slavery position in the Dred Scott decision. Nevertheless, once both crises started, the statutes and the deals and the constitutional law that had defined politics for 10 or 20 years simply evaporated.

The Crisis years are a time of simplification. Whereas the Unraveling sees the creation of new arts and political interest groups, the Crisis begins to build a more uniform world. Nuance and diversity are swept aside in the universal conviction: "If only this one big problem can be fixed." While there is something to be said for this formula, it might be well to keep in mind that the "one big problem" can change. The initial problem in the Crisis of the Revolutionary era, for instance, was the British Empire, but after the Revolution was secure the problem remained of constructing a domestic constitutional order. As the for the Crisis of the 1930s and '40s, the Gray Champions of those days never did succeed in defeating the Depression, though they had better luck against the Axis powers.

Though the authors are wise enough not to wax too specific on the catalyst of the next Crisis and its theme, still it seems to me that they lean too heavily on the Depression-World War II era for analogies. The U.S. economy just does not have the sort of growth imbalances that it had in the 1920s; neither does it have the widespread obsolescence and inefficiency from which it suffered in the 1970s and '80s. A depression is unlikely to be the "one big problem" of the next quarter century. Rather than start with domestic issues and end with international ones, as did the Crisis that began in 1928, it seems to me to be more likely that a Crisis would start with international issues and end with domestic ones, as happened between the beginning of the War for Independence and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The reason history is not a science is that either scenario would fit Strauss and Howe's system equally well.

The authors suggest, with good reason, that while the event that sparks a Crisis is sometimes foreseen before the Crisis begins, the Climax of a Crisis never is. In 1770, say, there were Americans who understood that there was some likelihood of further friction with London and even of violence. No one foresaw anything like the climactic Constitutional Convention of 1787. In the late '20s and early 1930s there were people who understood both seriousness of the economic problem and even the likelihood of world war. There was none, not H.G. Wells himself, who foresaw total victory for the Allies and the subsequent division of the world. Nevertheless, the authors suggest that the Climax of the coming Crisis should occur around 2020. After a few more years of adjustment and negotiation, the Crisis as a whole should end about 2025.

The authors give us largely sound advice on how to get from here to 2025 all in one piece. In the last 20 years or so, a whole literature has appeared on the general theme of "what to do during the coming bad years." Depending on whom you read, the bad years could be anything from a general economic depression to the reign of Antichrist. "The Fourth Turning," however, is blessedly free of exhortations to store bottled water and extra shotguns. Most of what they say is merely prudent. They advise individuals, particularly aging baby-boomers, not to plan on the assumption that entitlements for the elderly in the next century will be anything like as generous as they are today. They advise judges and politicians not to try to decide issues once and for all on which there is in fact no consensus. They suggest that the military concentrate on research and development rather than procurement, since anything they buy now is likely to be obsolete by the time they need it.

On the other hand, some of their advice is breathtaking in an era when politics is framed in such a way as not to distress the "soccer moms" of America. Strauss and Howe advise parents to get their kids involved in lots of group activities, since the odds are that the kids are going to be drafted someday. They advise readers who are members of racial minorities to make friends with people who aren't, because they are going to need them in an era that emphasizes conformity. In fact, they advise everyone with eccentric habits or behaviors to abandon them, because in the rush of an crisis you are likely to be judged by appearances. They do not go so far as to advise their readers to wear clean underwear in case they are ever taken to an emergency room, but the principle is the same.

Actually, in terms of current politics, Strauss and Howe have something to annoy just about everyone. They as much as say that baby-boomers should stay out of the presidency for the next few terms, lest, like Lincoln, they precipitate a Crisis too soon. (In "Generations," they had several nice things to say about Vice President Al Gore. They seem to have reconsidered.) Democrats will not be pleased to read that, in 10 or 15 years, people will recoil at today's notion of personal liberties. Republicans, on the other hand, will be disconcerted with the thought that, at no distant date, people will demand more government and be willing to pay almost any amount of taxes for it. Free trade and laissez faire economics will be out. Women in politics and industry (except for war work) will be out. Personal piety will be in decline, but church-going will be on the rise. As the Crisis matures, the United States will become a nation of happy campers led by the Gray Champion. Doubtless, like me, you can't wait.

Obviously, not all that Strauss and Howe suggest about the future can turn out true. For one thing, a lot of it is contradictory, since many of their historical parallels are not even very parallel to each other. Nevertheless, "The Fourth Turning" is a valuable tool for hoisting people out of any mental ruts they may have been in. The perspective it provides on contemporary issues really is irenic, if a little disconcerting. Their dramatic recasting of American history is gripping. As for the future, I have no plans for New Year's Eve 1999. Come 2020, however, if I still have my library and my wits, I will give this book another good going over.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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