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Book Summary: The Fourth Turning – An American Prophecy, What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny

The Fourth Turning (1997) presents a fascinating picture of history, past, present, and future. Though the people of modern Western societies tend to view history as a linear process, the reality might instead be cyclical, repeated regularly and predictably. By studying the ways in which history does indeed repeat itself, we can better prepare ourselves for what is likely to come in the future.

Book Summary: The Fourth Turning - An American Prophecy, What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Look at American history from a different perspective.
History unfolds in a cyclical pattern.
Every saeculum consists of a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis.
Turnings shape people into four distinct archetypes.
Prepare for Turnings by acting in accordance with the season.
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Social Sciences, Government, Theory of Politics, United States History, Sociology, Philosophy, Psychology, Business, Economics, Finance

Introduction: Look at American history from a different perspective.

First comes the High. In the wake of a Crisis, morale is upbeat, institutions are strong, and communities flourish as individualism weakens.

Then comes the Awakening. People begin to revolt against the old civic order and supplant it with new values.

Next, an Unraveling. Much the opposite of a High, individualism begins to rise while institutions weaken. The new values determined in the Awakening begin to replace the old regime.

Finally, the Crisis. Society is in a state of upheaval. The old social order disintegrates, hardship besets the population, and political and economic trust is at an extreme low. Yet, in its wake, new seeds of social rebirth begin to grow, bringing about another eventual High. And so the story repeats.

These are what Neil Howe and William Strauss call the four Turnings of history: High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis. It’s a model with which we can understand the flux and flow of history – the way it follows particular patterns that repeat regularly over time. In this summary to The Fourth Turning by Neil Howe and William Strauss, we’ll take a deep dive into what each of these four Turnings signifies, which generations occupy the roles within them, and how you may prepare for the Turnings to come.

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • why time is more like a spiral than a line;
  • how history shapes the character of each generation; and
  • how to prepare for a Crisis.

History unfolds in a cyclical pattern.

Humankind is obsessed with time – measuring it, dividing it, observing it, and most recently, controlling it.

Throughout the course of our species’s history, humans have developed three distinct ways of thinking about time. The first is chaotic time, which was the dominant theory during our primitive days. In this view, historical events occur randomly. There’s no point in trying to determine the causes of events or to try and improve society because history doesn’t follow a path and there’s nothing people can do to influence it.

The second theory of time, which became prevalent during the classical period, was cyclical time. The idea was that events occurred in cycles, much like the rotation of the earth, the orbit of the moon, or the procession of the zodiac. Humans can participate in and shape history by performing the right actions at the right times, thus winning favor from the gods. As such, this theory gives people more agency than in chaotic time.

Finally, the third theory of time – linear time – became the dominant force alongside the Western monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this version of time, history occurs as a straight line – a story with an absolute beginning and end with events following each other logically. This theory enabled humanity to liberate itself completely from the shackles of fate. People didn’t need to believe anymore that they were powerless in the face of external events because they could influence the story directly.

But linear time also cuts people off from natural cycles and their relationship to something greater than themselves. For example, by suppressing the flow of a river by damming it, we might think we’re stopping a flood cycle. But we may instead be simply ensuring that the cycle is less frequent but more devastating.

No Western nation denies natural rhythms and proclaims its freedom from them more than America. Perhaps for that reason, those rhythms play out even more dramatically there than elsewhere.

Like other Western societies, America follows the saecular cycle, a temporal sequence of a hundred years – around the length of a human life span. This length of time is called a saeculum, and it contains patterns that repeat. Within each saeculum is a Turning – a span of about 20 years. This corresponds to about the length of one phase of human life, from childhood to elderhood. In miniature, a saeculum is like a year, while a turning is like a season.

All together, the four turnings of a saeculum comprise its four seasons of growth, maturation, entropy, and decay. In the next chapter, we’ll go into more depth as to what characterizes each of these periods.

Every saeculum consists of a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis.

Winter follows autumn and summer follows spring. Every year, the seasons repeat in the same pattern. You’ll never find winter following summer. In the same way, the Turnings within each saeculum follow a particular pattern every single time they occur.

The pattern begins with a High. You can think of this like the season of spring. A High always follows a Crisis, so the fact that the Crisis has ended means that the nation’s mood is now upbeat and triumphant. Government is powerful and effective, the gap between rich and poor narrows, productivity grows, the economy prospers, and society, in general, becomes more community-minded. On the other hand, Highs are characterized by a conformist culture, with the nation succeeding in public cooperation but failing in personal fulfillment. Additionally, people tend to overlook or ignore injustice, preferring not to rock the boat.

The last High in America occurred immediately after the Crisis of World War II. Victory over Japan was declared in 1945; the High began in 1946. Those who lived through this period generally remember it as “Pax Americana” and the “Best Years.” The nation’s leaders pushed society toward greater order, stability, conformity, and institution-building.

However, this mood couldn’t last forever. Cracks began to appear, and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, sounding the opening bell of the second of the saecular seasons – the Awakening. This season is most like summer, oscillating between the extremes of thunderstorms and bright sunshine.

In 1946, the victory in Japan had led to a postwar baby boom. These “victory babies” were just coming of age when Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles exploded in popularity, and Berkeley’s Free Speech movement began railing against the academic establishment. This period is remembered today as the Consciousness Revolution.

As it was in past Awakenings, this one was characterized by a newfound focus on spiritual renewal, inner individual desires, and cultural upheaval. Young adults came to view authority as a force that crushed the individual, the police an institution that brutalized the poor, and academia as a killer of creativity. Spiritual authenticity began to be favored over social discipline. Though this meant that society’s inner life was strengthened, institutions could no longer maintain order. Violence and chaos were the result.

In Awakenings, both the demand for and the supply of order falls, while spirits rise. However, institutions begin to lose the ability to deliver peace and prosperity. As a result, people find themselves in an Unraveling, the Turning most similar to the season of autumn.

This saeculum’s Unraveling was the Culture Wars. It began in 1984 after the triumph of the Awakening. Antiestablishment and pro-individual sermons had originally been the hallmark of left-wing hippies. But by the end of the Awakening, Republicans had delightfully taken up this messaging too. President Ronald Reagan stood against everything the Consciousness Revolution represented at its beginning. But now, he too was a champion of individual rights, a rejector of the establishment, and a representation of the primacy of the self.

During this Unraveling, people’s trust in government fell even lower than in the Awakening. Meanwhile, their trust in the individual was even higher. Broad, overarching national narratives were rejected in favor of highly personal ones. As a result, people began to seek out those who would validate their experiences. Social niching based on sex, race, religion, income, and hobbies began, causing public opinion to become even more tribal and polarized. Meanwhile, the economy faltered and people became cynical and focused on short-term gain over long-term benefit. Risk-taking and recklessness were prevalent.

The authors were writing during the second half of the Unraveling, in the 1990s. They predicted that as the Unraveling progressed, sparks would begin to fly – perhaps a fiscal crisis, a terrorist attack, or a pandemic. One of these sparks would then catch, triggering a chain reaction of responses which would lead to further emergencies. These emergencies would reveal America’s vulnerabilities in the areas it neglected during the Unraveling. Calls for action would increase; perhaps the fiscal crisis, the attack, or the disease would be quelled for a while. Yet the nation would be firmly in its fourth Turning: the Crisis. This is the saecular winter, the time of death and decay.

As the Crisis period progressed, the authors imagined, societal trust would eventually implode. Elders would suddenly realize their failure to save money and the unsustainability of their public promises. Midlifers would learn the hard way that the average income had stagnated. And youth would come of age facing debts, tax burdens, and other barriers to their future success. The government would have become fiscally overcommitted and any solutions it promised would hardly be believed. The Crisis would eventually reach a climax, which could involve any number of forms of distress – economic, social, cultural, technological, ecological, political, or military.

Yet, simultaneously, the Crisis era would inspire great leaders to give speeches that would be remembered far into the future. New political visions would be forged and framed. A new generation of youths would summon the courage to fight and die for a communal cause, and the Spirit of America would return. At the end of the Crisis, trust would be reborn – and a new High would follow.

Americans tend to think of their country as outside of or immune to nature. They think that the course of their history can and has been determined by a battle that was barely won or the assassination of a president. Yet many of those seemingly random events are in fact linked to the saecular cycle – the types of events that occur within them and, even more so, how people respond to them. It turns out we can predict that, too – which you’ll learn more about in the next chapter.

Turnings shape people into four distinct archetypes.

Imagine an average person raised in a warm climate versus an average person raised in a cold climate. Ignore things like skin tone or eye color – focus on personality. For the warm climate person, you’re probably imagining someone extraverted and gregarious. For the cold climate person, you might be thinking about someone more introverted or conscientious.

The bottom line is: we know that the “season” in which we grow up has an impact on our personality. In the same way, people are shaped by the historical “seasons” – the Turnings – that they live through as children and throughout the rest of their lives. The result is that we end up with generations, well-defined groups of people, every 20 years or so. Since the seasons arrive in a fixed pattern, so too do generations.

It’s possible to identify four distinct archetypes – recurring qualities or types of people – that characterize every generation in Western society since the Wars of the Roses in fifteenth-century England. Each archetype has distinct values, perspectives, and behaviors that result from how history shaped them – and how they, in turn, will go on to shape history. Those archetypes are Heroes, Prophets, Nomads, and Artists.

Hero generations are born and raised by Prophet parents during an Unraveling and come of age during a Crisis. As young adults, they help to shepherd a society through its struggle and usher in a High. They are courageous and self-sacrificing. Then, as they reach midlife, they begin to show an excess of pride and demand to be rewarded for their efforts. The last Hero generation in America was the GI generation, born from 1901 to 1924 – these are the people who fought and won the battles of World War II. Today’s Hero generation is the Millennials, born from 1982 to the late 1990s.

As the Heroes are helping to quell the Crisis, Artist generations are being raised by overprotective Nomads. They become sensitive young adults during the High, and they tend to be deferential to the Heroes who fought the battles of their childhood. During midlife, they become indecisive leaders and eventually empathic elders. The last Artists were the Silent Generation, born in the midst of World War II, too young to be drafted. Generation Z, born from around 1996 onward, are today’s Artists.

When Heroes reach childbearing age, they give birth to a Prophet generation, whose childhood occurs during a High. As children, they are indulged, and then, as young adults, they assert their morals. Rebelling against the system established by their elders, they act as the crusaders of a new world order. During midlife, they become moralistic; as elders, they serve as wise leaders who help guide the society through the next Crisis. Today’s Prophets are the Boomers, born in the wake of World War II from 1943 to 1960.

Finally, Nomads grow up under protected by their Artist parents during an Awakening. During this period, adults are discovering themselves and culture is convulsing, leaving children alone and alienated, essentially raising themselves. During the Unraveling, they come of age as pessimistic young adults, become pragmatic leaders during a Crisis, and then age into tough and cautionary elders during the High. The previous Nomad generation was the Lost Generation, born in the 20 years prior to the GIs. Today’s Nomad generation are 13ers, otherwise known as Generation X, born from 1961 to 1981.

The constellation of generations during each Turning has an impact on the way it unfolds. For example, consider the transition from the American High of the 1940s and ’50s into the Awakening of the 1960s and ’70s. Toward the end of that period, elder Nomads started to become reactionary, impeding the ambitions of the Heroes. Heroes in midlife became full of hubris, wishing to build an ever-greater world. Young adult Artists began to chafe at their role as silent helpmates of the Heroes. And child Prophets began to sense that the Heroes’ new social order was devoid of a spiritual core. Thus the Awakening began.

Each archetype can only occupy its former role for one life cycle. In each phase, no generation will accept the role its predecessor assumed at the same age. Prophet Boomers would never be acquiescent helpmates like the Artist Silent; Hero GIs would never be cautious stewards like the Nomad Lost. Every two decades, the current elders disappear, a new generation of children arrives, and the generations in between transform their society. This is how archetypes shape history.

Prepare for Turnings by acting in accordance with the season.

The saecular winter – the Crisis – is a dire period of time. It is unavoidable and inevitable. Does that mean there’s nothing any of us can do about it?

Not necessarily. Just like in farming, there’s always a time to reap and a time to sow. The same is true when it comes to weathering the Turnings of the saecula. The key is to recognize when which behaviors are appropriate. It’s useless at best and dangerous at worst to try and avoid unwanted seasons. Instead, prepare for and accept them. Most importantly, participate in seasonal activities while avoiding unseasonal ones.

What might that look like, exactly?

Take, for example, an Unraveling prior to a Crisis. During this period, we should cultivate alliances with people who hold different perspectives and visions. We should avoid polarization at all costs and instead work to elevate our moral standards. Decadent and nihilistic cultures are prone to sliding into fascism. If the media or public doesn’t exercise caution, it becomes all too easy for a despotic outsider to step in and impose control.

Likewise, we should focus on fostering teamwork and self-sacrifice within our local communities. We should improve functions like schools, housing, and transportation, create public spaces, and expect citizens to attend meetings. People of different ethnicities should be encouraged to intermingle, and group niching – whether it’s through segregated college dorms or walled suburban enclaves – should be discouraged at all costs. However, we should hold off on trying to foster this spirit on a national scale. Building a sense of civic community and battling against local dysfunction should be the main priorities.

On a deeply personal level, diversification is key.

When Crises catalyze, survivalists with a broad range of skills and knowledge will have an advantage over those whose skills are niche or over-specialized. What will happen during the crisis is totally unpredictable – so learn other languages, familiarize yourself with a wide range of technologies, and if you have a business, build safety nets that will help it withstand a total alteration of market conditions. Assume that your personal financial safety nets like pensions or Social Security will dry up to nothing, and invest in equities and foreign markets. All of this is to ensure that no one severe outcome – such as inflation, deflation, a market crash, or a default on the national debt – can completely destroy your assets.

By following these seasonal patterns and acting in accordance with them, you increase your power to influence history – or, if not, at least be able to hold steady as its waves break on the shore. And if society as a whole consciously prepares itself for these seasons – what then? The power to alter the course of history is possible, to steer it in the right direction, avoid total catastrophe, and set the stage for future Turnings.

Summary

The most important thing to take away from all this is:

History progresses in the form of a spiral, progressing forward yet eternally following the same four-season saecula which occur repeatedly over time. First, there is a High, then an Awakening, next an Unraveling, and finally a Crisis, populated by four generational archetypes: Heroes, Prophets, Nomads, and Artists. The best way to weather all four seasons is to participate in seasonal behavior and activities and avoid unseasonal ones.

So, here’s a quick piece of actionable advice to take with you:

Cultivate a support system within your family.

During a Crisis, having a support system is essential – and family is the ultimate. Other supports, socially and institutionally, will falter and crumble during this period of time. An interconnected and multigenerational web of relatives can help serve as a safety net. If you’re a wealthy elder, for instance, you might start transferring assets to your heirs in order to avoid the risk of estate taxation later. If you’re young or you don’t have a partner or children, be sure to establish an alternative family structure with neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Whatever you do, don’t find yourself socially stranded.

About the author

William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future and 13th-GEN, write and lecture frequently on generational issues. Strauss is the cofounder and director of the Capitol Steps, a political cabaret. Howe, a historian and economist, is a senior advisor for the Concord Coalition. They both live in the Washington, D.C., area.

Table of Contents

Overview

William Strauss and Neil Howe will change the way you see the world—and your place in it. With blazing originality, The Fourth Turning illuminates the past, explains the present, and reimagines the future. Most remarkably, it offers an utterly persuasive prophecy about how America’s past will predict its future.

Strauss and Howe base this vision on a provocative theory of American history. The authors look back five hundred years and uncover a distinct pattern: Modern history moves in cycles, each one lasting about the length of a long human life, each composed of four eras—or “turnings”—that last about twenty years and that always arrive in the same order. In The Fourth Turning, the authors illustrate these cycles using a brilliant analysis of the post-World War II period.

First comes a High, a period of confident expansion as a new order takes root after the old has been swept away. Next comes an Awakening, a time of spiritual exploration and rebellion against the now-established order. Then comes an Unraveling, an increasingly troubled era in which individualism triumphs over crumbling institutions. Last comes a Crisis—the Fourth Turning—when society passes through a great and perilous gate in history. Together, the four turnings comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and rebirth.

The Fourth Turning offers bold predictions about how all of us can prepare, individually and collectively, for America’s next rendezvous with destiny.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“I put down The Fourth Turning with a mixture of terror and excitement….If Strauss and Howe are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets.” – David Kaiser, Boston Globe

“One of the best efforts to give us an integrated vision of where we
are going.” – Wall Street Journal

“A startling vision of what the cycles of history predict for the future.” – USA Weekend

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Winter Comes Again

America feels like it’s unraveling.

Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within.

Neither an epic victory over Communism nor an extended upswing of the business cycle can buoy our public spirit. The Cold War and New Deal struggles are plainly over, but we are of no mind to bask in their successes. The America of today feels worse, in its fundamentals, than the one many of us remember from youth, a society presided over by those of supposedly lesser consciousness. Wherever we look, from L.A. to D.C., from Oklahoma City to Sun City, we see paths to a foreboding future. We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.

Not long ago, America was more than the sum of its parts. Now, it is less. Around World War II, we were proud as a people but modest as individuals. Fewer than two people in ten said yes when asked, Are you a very important person? Today, more than six in ten say yes. Where we once thought ourselves collectively strong, we now regard ourselves as individually entitled.

Yet even while we exalt our own personal growth, we realize that millions of self-actualized persons don’t add up to an actualized society. Popular trust in virtually every American institution–from businesses and governments to churches and newspapers–keeps falling to new lows. Public debts soar, the middle class shrinks, welfare dependencies deepen, and cultural arguments worsen by the year. We now have the highest incarceration rate and the lowest eligible-voter participation rate of any major democracy. Statistics inform us that many adverse trends (crime, divorce, abortion, scholastic aptitudes) may have bottomed out, but we’re not reassured.

Optimism still attaches to self, but no longer to family or community. Most Americans express more hope for their own prospects than for their children’s–or the nation’s. Parents widely fear that the American Dream, which was there (solidly) for their parents and still there (barely) for them, will not be there for their kids. Young householders are reaching their midthirties never having known a time when America seemed to be on the right track. Middle-aged people look at their thin savings accounts and slim-to-none pensions, scoff at an illusory Social Security trust fund, and try not to dwell on what a burden their old age could become. Seniors separate into their own Leisure World, recoiling at the lost virtue of youth while trying not to think about the future.

We perceive our civic challenge as some vast, insoluble Rubik’s Cube. Behind each problem lies another problem that must be solved first, and behind that lies yet another, and another, ad infinitum. To fix crime we have to fix the family, but before we do that we have to fix welfare, and that means fixing our budget, and that means fixing our civic spirit, but we can’t do that without fixing moral standards, and that means fixing schools and churches, and that means fixing the inner cities, and that’s impossible unless we fix crime. There’s no fulcrum on which to rest a policy lever. People of all ages sense that something huge will have to sweep across America before the gloom can be lifted–but that’s an awareness we suppress. As a nation, we’re in deep denial.

While we grope for answers, we wonder if analysis may be crowding out our intuition. Like the anxious patient who takes seventeen kinds of medicine while poring over his own CAT scan, we find it hard to stop and ask, What is the underlying malady really about? How can we best bring the primal forces of nature to our assistance? Isn’t there a choice lying somewhere between total control and total despair? Deep down, beneath the tangle of trend lines, we suspect that our history or biology or very humanity must have something simple and important to say to us. But we don’t know what it is. If we once did know, we have since forgotten.

Wherever we’re headed, America is evolving in ways most of us don’t like or understand. Individually focused yet collectively adrift, we wonder if we’re heading toward a waterfall.

Are we?

It’s All Happened Before

The reward of the historian is to locate patterns that recur over time and to discover the natural rhythms of social experience.

In fact, at the core of modern history lies this remarkable 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 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.

Have major national mood shifts like this ever before happened? Yes–many times. Have Americans ever before experienced anything like the current attitude of Unraveling? Yes–many times, over the centuries.

People in their eighties can remember an earlier mood that was much like today’s. They can recall the years between Armistice Day (1918) and the Great Crash of 1929. Euphoria over a global military triumph was painfully short-lived. Earlier optimism about a progressive future gave way to a jazz-age nihilism and a pervasive cynicism about high ideals. Bosses swaggered in immigrant ghettos, the KKK in the South, the mafia in the industrial heartland, and defenders of Americanism in myriad Middletowns. Unions atrophied, government weakened, third-parties were the rage, and a dynamic marketplace ushered in new consumer technologies (autos, radios, phones, jukeboxes, vending machines) that made life feel newly complicated and frenetic. The risky pleasures of a “lost” young generation shocked middle-aged decency crusaders–many of them “tired radicals” who were then moralizing against the detritus of the “mauve decade” of their youth (the 1890s). Opinions polarized around no-compromise cultural issues like drugs, family, and “decency.” Meanwhile, parents strove to protect a scoutlike new generation of children (who aged into today’s senior citizens).

Back then, the details were different, but the underlying mood resembled what Americans feel today. Listen to Walter Lippmann, writing during World War I:

We are unsettled to the very roots of our being. There isn’t a human relation, whether of parent or child, husband and wife, worker and employer, that doesn’t move in a strange situation. We are not used to a complicated civilization, we don’t know how to behave when personal contact and eternal authority have disappeared. There are no precedents to guide us, no wisdom that was not meant for a simpler age.

Move backward again to an era recalled by the oldest Americans still alive when today’s seniors were little children. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, America drifted into a foul new mood. The hugely popular Mexican War had just ended in a stirring triumph, but the huzzahs over territorial gain didn’t last long. Cities grew mean and politics hateful. Immigration surged, financial speculation boomed, and railroads and cotton exports released powerful new market forces that destabilized communities. Having run out of answers, the two major parties (Whigs and Democrats) were slowly disintegrating. A righteous debate over slavery’s westward expansion erupted between so-called Southrons and abolitionists–many of them middle-aged spiritualists who in the more euphoric 1830s and 1840s had dabbled in Transcendentalism, utopian communes, and other assorted youth-fired crusades. Colleges went begging for students as a brazen young generation hustled west to pan for gold in towns fabled for their violence. Meanwhile, a child generation grew up with a new regimentation that startled European visitors who, a decade earlier, had bemoaned the wildness of American kids. Sound familiar?

Run the clock back the length of yet another long life, to the 1760s. The recent favorable conclusion to the French and Indian War had brought eighty years of conflict to a close and secured the colonial frontier. Yet when England tried to recoup the expense of the war through taxation, the colonies seethed with a directionless discontent. Immigration from the Old World, emigration across the Appalachians, and colonial trade arguments all rose sharply. As debtors’ prisons bulged, middle-aged people complained of what Benjamin Franklin called the “white savagery” of youth. Middle-aged orators (peers of the fiery young preachers of the circa-1740 Great Awakening) summoned civic consciousness and organized popular crusades of economic austerity. The youth elite became the first to attend disciplined church schools in the colonies rather than academies in corrupt Albion. Gradually, colonists began separating into mutually loathing camps, one defending and the other attacking the Crown. Sound familiar again?

During each of these periods, Americans celebrated an ethos of frenetic and laissez-faire individualism (a word first popularized in the 1840s) yet also fretted over social fragmentation, epidemic violence, and economic and technological change that seemed to be accelerating beyond society’s ability to absorb it.

During each of these periods, Americans had recently achieved a stunning victory over a long-standing foreign threat–Imperial Germany, Imperial New Spain (alias Mexico), or Imperial New France. Yet that victory came to be associated with a worn-out definition of collective purpose–and, perversely, unleashed a torrent of pessimism.

During each of these periods, an aggressive moralism darkened the debate about the country’s future. Culture wars raged, the language of political discourse coarsened, nativist (and sectional) feelings hardened, immigration and substance abuse came under attack, and attitudes toward children grew more protective.

During each of these periods, Americans felt well-rooted in their personal values but newly hostile toward the corruption of civic life. Unifying institutions, which had seemed secure for decades, now felt ephemeral. Those who had once trusted the nation with their lives were growing old and dying. To the new crop of young adults, the nation hardly mattered. The whole res publica seemed on the verge of disintegrating.

During each of these previous Third Turnings, Americans felt as if they were drifting toward a cataclysm.

And, as it turned out, they were.

The 1760s were followed by the American Revolution, the 1850s by Civil War, the 1920s by the Great Depression and World War II. All these Unraveling eras were followed by bone-jarring Crises so monumental that, by their end, American society emerged in a wholly new form.

Each time, the change came with scant warning. As late as December 1773, November 1859, and October 1929, the American people had no idea how close it was. Then sudden sparks (the Boston Tea Party, John Brown’s raid and execution, Black Tuesday) transformed the public mood, swiftly and permanently. Over the next two decades or so, society convulsed. Emergencies required massive sacrifices from a citizenry that responded by putting community ahead of self. Leaders led, and people trusted them. As a new social contract was created, people overcame challenges once thought insurmountable–and used the Crisis to elevate themselves and their nation to a higher plane of civilization: In the 1790s, they triumphantly created the modern world’s first democratic republic. In the late 1860s, wounded but reunited, they forged a genuine nation extending new guarantees of liberty and equality. In the late 1940s, they constructed the most Promethean superpower ever seen.

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

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