William Strauss and Neil Howe's American Prophecy in 'The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny'

Ever since I read it, one of the books I find myself thinking about most often when I think about current events is The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. We often talk about the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and now Gen Z. Thinking of different generations as having different attitudes owes a lot to Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book “Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069.” (On Wikipedia, Neil Howe is described as an “author, historian and consultant” while William Strauss is described as an “author, historian, playwright, theater director, and lecturer.”)

In their 1997 book The Fourth Turning William Strauss and Neil Howe they used their theory of generational replacement combined with different generational attitudes to predict the future. Overall, their theory is almost too good to be true. But between 1997 and today their predictions have done very well. Two passages from The Fourth Turning make the idea clear. First, here is the synopsis of their theory:

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 saeculum. Together, the four turnings of the saeculum 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 civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.

  • 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 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.

Each turning comes with its own identifiable mood. Always, these mood shifts catch people by surprise.

In the current saeculum, the First Turning was the American High of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies. As World War II wound down, no one predicted that America would soon become so confident and institutionally muscular, yet so conformist and spiritually complacent. But that's what happened.

The Second Turning was the Consciousness Revolution, stretching from the campus revolts of the mid-1960s to the tax revolts of the early 1980s. Before John Kennedy was assassinated, no one predicted that America was about to enter an era of personal liberation and cross a cultural divide that would separate anything thought or said after from anything thought or said before. But that's what happened.

The Third Turning has been the Culture 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 decade, eight or ten years from now. Amid the glitz of the early Reagan years, no one predicted that the nation was entering an era of national drift and institutional decay. But that's where we are.

And here is the remarkable prophecy they made in 1997:

The Fourth Turning is history's great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another.

History is seasonal, and winter is coming. Like nature's winter, the saecular winter can come early or late. A Fourth Turning can be long and difficult, brief but severe, or (perhaps) mild. But, like winter, it cannot be averted. It must come in its turn.

Here, in summary, is what the rhythms of modern history warn about America's future.

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 a 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. Every Fourth Turning has registered an upward ratchet in the technology of destruction, and in mankind's willingness to use it. In the Civil War, the two capital cities would surely have incinerated each other had the means been at hand. In World War II, America invented a new technology of annihilation, which the nation swiftly put to use. This time, America will enter a Fourth Turning with the means to inflict unimaginable horrors and, perhaps, will confront adversaries who possess the same.

Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people. Many despair that values that were new in the 1960s are today so entwined with social dysfunction and cultural decay that they can no longer lead anywhere positive. Through the current Unraveling era, that is probably true. But in the crucible of Crisis, that will change. As the old civic order gives way, Americans will have to craft a new one. This will require a values consensus and, to administer it, the empowerment of a strong new political regime. If all goes well, there could be a renaissance of civic trust, and more: Today's Third Turning problems—that Rubik's Cube of crime, race, money, family, culture, and ethics —will snap into a Fourth Turning solution. 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.

Thus might the next Fourth Turning end in apocalypse—or glory. The nation could be ruined, its democracy destroyed, and millions of people scattered or killed. Or America could enter a new golden age, triumphantly applying shared values to improve the human condition. The rhythms of history do not reveal the outcome of the coming Crisis; all they suggest is the timing and dimension.

How did this prophecy do? In 2000, it looked like Bush v. Gore might precipitate a crisis. But then 9/11 unified the country. Close to William Strauss and Neil Howe’s schedule, the souring of many people on the second Iraq War after weapons of mass destruction failed to be found in Iraq began to rend the country apart. Fueled by a variety of different events, America’s political and cultural polarization have grown since then.

The following chart gives a better picture of how the workings of the Strauss-Howe generational theory play out in attitudes. Here, the most recent “High” was 1946-1964. The most recent “Awakening” was 1964-1984: the “Conciousness Revoluation.” The most recent Unraveling was 1984-2003 or so: “The Culture Wars.” Since 2003 or so, we have been in a Crisis period. (In my mind I have often called these periods “Constitutional Crises.”)

William Strauss and Neil Howe make a prediction, still to be tested, of what will happen in the next few years. They say things will come back together in America. One key to things coming back together is Baby Boomers aging out of politics. The trouble with Baby Boomers is that they are what William and Neil call “Prophets” who cut their teeth as adults on the Consciousness Revolution and everything else that happened in the 1960s and 1970s, or cut their teeth as adults on the reaction to the 1960s and 1970s. On both sides of the political spectrum, there are many Baby Boomers who have a deep conviction in their beliefs—too deep a conviction for compromise, or even toleration, of the other side. And Baby Boomers don’t have a lot of more more mature supervision any more. This diagram shows the theory:

The other key to things coming back together is Millennials starting to vote in greater numbers. This is primarily a function of age, but movements in the participation rate for voting holding age fixed can accelerate or slow down the process. One of my personal favorites among my Quartz columns is “That Baby Born in Bethlehem Should Inspire Society to Keep Redeeming Itself.” There I write:

… however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way. 

In the long run, gay rights are in no danger, because the young are convinced that gay rights are necessary for basic fairness and compassion. I think the young feel the same about treating minorities well, and treating immigrants (documented or not) as human beings. Thus, I think Donald Trump’s assaults on human dignity in these areas are unlikely to stand in the America of even ten years from now, let alone further in the future.

Grimly, this simple prediction of mine—in line with the earlier and thus much more daring prediction of William Strauss and Neil Howe—is backed up by the concentration of Trump supporters in the ranks of those who are close to death’s door as a result of old age. Donald Trump may win in 2020, but in America many of the most odious ideas he stands for are unlikely to survive long beyond his second term, should things come to that.

But William Strauss and Neil Howe’s prediction of things coming back together seems unlikely if Democrats got everything they wanted and Republicans got nothing. It is hard to know how things will be resolved; part of William Strauss and Neil Howe’s prediction is based on the rising generations being more civil than those who will be aging out of politics. That mechanism doesn’t tell us with what settlement the current crisis will be resolved.

But here is one possibility for a settlement of the current crisis: beginning in 2024, there is a period in which the Democrats hold the Presidency and both houses of Congress. But the Supreme Court and many lower courts are solidly Republican at that point. With the legislative and executive power in their hands, the Democrats would be able to get the most important things they wanted, while the Republicans would be protected by the Supreme Court from the outcomes they feared most.

Part of what makes William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory impressive is its postdictions and well as its predictions. Here is a chart of how their cyclical theory of history based on generational replacement works out in the past. The last crisis was the Great Depression and World War II. The crisis before that was the Civil War. And the crisis before that was the American Revolution. All were write on schedule. And the Great Awakenings have also been right on schedule at the opposite end of the cycle.

The bottom line, if you take this theory seriously, is that there is hope for a less riven American politics. But the reason there is hope is that some people will die, and others will grow up. It is in the same spirit as Max Planck’s dictum:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

which has been shortened in the inevitable game of “telephone” or “Chinese whispers” to “Science advances one funeral at a time.”