Editor's Note: The video below hosted by Neil Howe and his accompanying essay were originally published one year ago.
We live in a tumultuous time in American history. The 2008 financial crisis and all its hardships was the catalyst that tipped us into this age of uncertainty. It marked the start of a generation-long era of secular upheaval that will continue to run its course over the next decade or so. This is the generational theory I laid out in The Fourth Turning, a book I co-authored with William Strauss in 1997.
The Fourth Turning explains the rise of a figure like President Trump. In Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, he painted a bleak picture of “American carnage,” of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” with “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities.”
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon co-wrote that Inauguration Day speech. Much has been made of Bannon’s role in shaping the new administration’s policies. I know Bannon and he certainly knows about The Fourth Turning. It’s the book that informs his worldview.
Looking abroad, it’s unclear whether America will turn inward and fall prey to nativism or maintain its nearly 70-year role as leader of the free world. Other countries are becoming similarly insular. Britain voted to exit the European Union and we’ve heard anti-EU rumblings echoed throughout Europe from France to the Netherlands.
Other nations and peoples around the world are looking to either fill the vacuum in global leadership or exploit it to advance their own ambitions. We’ve seen the thunderous rise of Chinese economic clout, the calculating geopolitical maneuvering of a resurgent Russia, and the barbarous chaos wrought by the so-called Islamic State.
In many ways, this era of uncertainty follows the natural order of things. Like nature’s four seasons, the cycles of history follow a natural rhythm or 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 80 to 100 years, or a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.
The First Turning is called a High.
This is an era when institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, even if those outside the majoritarian center feel stifled by the conformity.
America’s most recent First Turning was the post-World War II American High, beginning in 1946 and ending with the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, a key life cycle marker for today’s older Americans.
The Second Turning is an Awakening.
This is an era when institutions are attacked in the name of personal and spiritual autonomy. Just when society is reaching its high tide of public progress, people suddenly tire of social discipline and want to recapture a sense of personal authenticity. Young activists and spiritualists look back at the previous High as an era of cultural poverty.
America’s most recent Awakening was the “Consciousness Revolution,” which spanned from the campus and inner-city revolts of the mid-1960s to the tax revolts of the early ‘80s.
The Third Turning is an Unravelling.
The mood of this era is in many ways the opposite of a High. Institutions are weak and distrusted, while individualism is strong and flourishing. Highs follow Crises, which teach the lesson that society must coalesce and build. Unravelings follow Awakenings, which teach the lesson that society must atomize and enjoy.
America’s most recent Unraveling was the Long Boom and Culture Wars, beginning in the early 1980s and probably ending in 2008. The era opened with triumphant “Morning in America” individualism and drifted toward a pervasive distrust of institutions and leaders, an edgy popular culture, and the splitting of national consensus into competing “values” camps.
And finally we enter the Fourth Turning, which is a Crisis.
This is an era in which America’s institutional life is torn down and rebuilt from the ground up—always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. Civic authority revives, cultural expression finds a community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group.
In every instance, Fourth Turnings have eventually become new “founding moments” in America’s history, refreshing and redefining the national identity. Currently, this period began in 2008, with the Global Financial Crisis and the deepening of the War on Terror, and will extend to around 2030. If the past is any prelude to what is to come, as we contend, consider the prior Fourth Turning which was kicked off by the stock market crash of 1929 and climaxed with World War II.
Just as a Second Turning reshapes our inner world (of values, culture and religion), a Fourth Turning reshapes our outer world (of politics, economy and empire).
To be clear, the road ahead for America will be rough. But I take comfort in the idea that history cycles back and that the past offers us a guide to what we can expect in the future. Like nature’s four seasons, the cycles of history follow a natural rhythm or pattern.
Make no mistake. Winter is coming. How mild or harsh it will be is anyone’s guess—but the basic progression is as natural as counting down the days, weeks, and months until spring.