03.20.17 | The Fourth Turning

Sometimes it takes a grand unifying theory – say, for example, quantum mechanics to explain the laws of physics beyond that which Newton could teach – to really make sense of the world. The ambition of The Fourth Turning is no less profound: to discern and explain the evolutionary patterns of America’s culture to describe her past, understand her present, and anticipate her future.

There is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that we can apply the past five centuries of Anglo-American history to definitively conclude that our country will shortly pass through this current rights-mongering, entitlement-oriented, politically-dysfunctional, militarily-overextended, environmental-despoiling, anxiety-ridden, bankrupt era of Unraveling and emerge into a new High.  To paraphrase the proverb, this too shall cycle. The bad news is that we will go through Crisis to get there.

Just as it has always been it shall always be. History, far from being a collection of random events, moves in predictable cycles. Each grand cycle, a so-called saeculum spanning the length of a long human life of approximately eighty years, begins after a convulsion e.g the Revolutionary War; the Civil War; the Great Depression/WWII. Contained therein are four generational “turnings” – High; Awakening; Unraveling; Crisis -- of approximately twenty years each.

This proposition is huge. Why? Because it flies in the face of the more traditional Western view of history proceeding along a linear timeline, that our  social destiny is entirely self-directed and that we can extrapolate the present to anticipate the future. Yet, then we’re surprised by the inevitable discontinuities. The Boomer Sixties weren’t an extension of the Silent Fifties. Who knew? No linear-thinking social scientist of that earlier era predicted the youth explosion and its consequences. 

Biography, not some astrological hocus-pocus, accounts for the seasonality. It turns out  that the real lesson of history is that four generational archetypes – Hero; Artist; Prophet; and Nomad --  arrive in a fixed pattern as life phases intersect with events and react to the generation which spawned it. A turning occurs upon that inevitable change in the social mood.   Generations, even neighboring generations, thus have markedly different attitudes, behaviors, and self-identity. History creates generations, just as generations create history.

There have been seven Anglo-American secular dating back to the Late Medieval cycle beginning in 1435 with America now at the threshold of the fourth turning of the so-called Millennial saeculum commencing after the last Crisis period (end of WWII). The book’s overview of those twenty-four generations strikes a pleasing balance: the description of each such generational turning is complete enough to demonstrate in a compelling way the validity of the zeitgeist cycling yet not so tedious that it makes the eyes glaze over.

The City Club, its membership representing every generational archetype, is an ideal forum in which to observe, discuss, and debate the thesis. Of particular interest, of course, is the honoring of five centuries of history to anticipate what we are facing as we fully engage “the fourth turning.”

Steve SmithComment