America feels like it is unraveling.

The Fourth Turning 

William Strauss & Neil Howe


We live in difficult times. I wrote this piece in 2010. Looking back ten years, we can see how prescient William Strauss and Neil Howe were and what American history and deeper patterns of change can teach us.

 In The Fourth Turningauthors William Strauss and Neil Howe identified a recurrent pattern in American history: America transforms herself about every 80 to 100 years. Four turnings each about two decades in length—make up a cycle that comprises history’s seasonal rhythms of growth, maturation, and entropy.

The fourth Turning:

The First Turning is a High: an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, where a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays. In the current cycle, the First Turning was the American High of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies.

The Second Turning is an Awakening: a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime. The Second Turning was the Consciousness Revolution, stretching from the campus revolts of the mid-1960s to the tax revolts of the early 1980s.

 The Third Turning is an Unraveling: a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants. The Third Turning has been the Cultural Wars, an era that began with Reagan’s mid-1980s morning in America and is due to expire around the middle of the Oh-Oh (2000’s) decade….

The Fourth Turning is a Crisis: a decisive era of secular upheaval when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one. The Fourth Turning is history’s great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another.

Strauss and Howe:

The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millennium, midway through the Oh-Oh decade. Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth. Americans will share regret about recent mistakes—and a resolute new consensus about what to do. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.

The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule. If there is a war, it is likely to be one of maximum risk and effort—in other words, a total war.

Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people. America’s post-Crisis answers will be as organically interconnected as today’s pre-Crisis questions seem hopelessly tangled. By the 2020s, America could become a society that is good by today’s standards, and also one that works.

The rhythms of history do not reveal the outcome of the coming crisis; all they suggest is the timing and dimension. Thus might the next Fourth Turning end in apocalypse—or glory.

Today, in 2010, now already into the Fourth Turning, we share the sense that America is coming apart; a mood of crisis engulfs us. Few trust leaders, institutions, or government. The great spirits at all levels throughout our nation who strive to move America forward face vicious resistance from those wedded to a world view that can no longer solve problems. Americans face economic hardship not experienced since the great depression. Two wars will not end well. Politicians don’t even talk about war or energy policy as they campaign for the November 2010 mid-term elections. Neither political party knows what to do. Yet they desperately seek power. We spiral downward.

In 1997 Strauss and Howe described present-day (2010) America accurately, except we do not yet have a new consensus about what to do. In 2010, we are more polarized than ever, our politics more extreme, entitlement reigns strong, our sense of community weak, and our desire for a quick-fix more addictive than ever. Many Americans remain in denial about our many challenges.

Nihilistic Americans want to say “NO” to the transitions we must make. Heavily invested in ways of doing things that benefit them but no longer solve our national problems, they slow America’s evolution. Frozen in fear and denial, they long for a romanticized time that never existed; we cannot live life in reverse. We can only go forward into the unknown of the future. These people need to believe in values beyond themselves.

Other Americans want a hero to rescue them; they are irresponsible and immature. They don’t understand that real change is hard and calls for them to engage, sacrifice, and be patient and persistent. They need to find their courage and strength.

Strauss and Howe:

History offers even more sobering warnings: Armed confrontation usually occurs around the climax of crisis. If there is confrontation, it is likely to lead to war. This could be any kind of war—class war, sectional war, war against global anarchists or terrorists, or superpower war. If there is war, it is likely to culminate in total war, fought until the losing side has been rendered nil—its will broken, territory taken, and leaders captured. And if there is total war, it is likely that the most destructive weapons available will be deployed.

With or without war, American society will be transformed into something different. The emergent society may be something better, a nation that sustains it Framers’ visions with a robust new pride. Or it may be something unspeakably worse. The Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.

All of life is interconnected, intertwined, and interdependent—far too complex for anyone to know what will happen and what further dynamics will be set off by what does occur. Other nations have their cycles of change, as does our planet. We are not separate from other countries or nature.

We would be wise to walk boldly into the future. The given is that the global and national transformations brought forth by the seasons of life will occur. We cannot avoid them. The outcome of these transitions is still unknown. We cannot control outcomes; we can only influence them.

Our choice of leaders will affect the outcome of our Fourth Turning and the coming crisis that is the culmination of the last era and the birth of our next epoch. We will have crazy, immature, irresponsible, and even evil people and many rational, wise, sober, and spiritual people who will gain followers as they seek to lead us.  

But followers will have an even more significant influence on our future than the leaders they select. We are responsible for changing what we think about how to live on our planet and in America. Will we remain asleep, entitled, ignorant, and easily manipulated to vote against long-term self and national interest? Will we stay passive, helpless, and irresponsible victims of the tides of change?

Must we suffer even more significant loss as life drags us kicking and screaming to our next era? Or can we walk boldly and proactively into the unknown of the future?

Can we hear deep within us the call for the rebirth of America, and as Strauss and Howe wrote, where “the nation considered no obstacle too big, no challenge too great, no goal too distant, and no sacrifice too deep?”

We need a national “moment of authenticity” where together we shout “NO” to all the dark forces around us and speak up loudly for the best that is within us to come forth as we move to a new era for America.

See: Are We Ready to Change or Not?

See:  Leading in Chaos: Character Comes First