The Fourth Turning

The Fourth Turning (Book Summary)

In this post, we’ll provide a summary of the book The Fourth Turning written by authors William Strauss & Neil Howe which looks at the cyclical nature of mankind and its reflection on society of that time.

What Is The Fourth Turning?

The Fourth Turning is a phrase introduced by William Strauss and Neil Howe as part of their generational theory which describes how human societies go through clear and predictable cycles.

Each cycle typically lasts around 80-100 years ― a unit of time that the ancients called the saeculum ― and consists of four “Turnings” which typically last around 20-25 years. Each Turning is marked by a profound shift in how people feel about themselves, the culture, the nation and the future.

This lifecycle of the four Turnings is made inevitable by four generational archetypes and their order, which Strauss and Howe argue has recurred throughout modernity.

Below we’ll unpack the key concepts that are discussed.

“The reward of the historian is to locate patterns that recur over time and to discover the natural rhythms of social experience.” ― William Strauss & Neil Howe

The Four Turnings

The four Turnings that William Strauss and Neil Howe describe are:

  • The First Turning | The High ― This is an upbeat era where institutions strengthen while individualism weakens, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays (think American High).
  • The Second Turning | The Awakening ― This is a passionate era where there is spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime (think Consciousness Revolution).
  • The Third Turning | The Unravelling ― This is a downcast era where institutions weaken while individualism strengthens, when the old civic order decays and a new values regime implants (think World War 1).
  • The Fourth Turning | The Crisis ― This is a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one (think World War 2).

After the Fourth Turning comes a new cycle that follows the same pattern.

“Just as floods replenish soil and fires rejuvenate forests, a Fourth Turning clears out society’s exhausted elements and creates an opportunity for fresh growth.” ― William Strauss & Neil Howe

Below is a table summarising the defining moods of the four Turnings.

1st – High2nd – Awakening3rd – Unravelling4th – Crisis
FamiliesStrongestWeakeningWeakestStrengthening
Child NurtureLooseningUnderprotectiveTighteningOverprotective
Gender RolesStrongestWeakeningWeakestStrengthening
InstitutionsDefendedAttackedErodedFounded
Social PriorityMax CommunityRising IndividualismMax IndividualismRising Community
Greatest NeedDo What WorksFix Inner WorldDo What Feels RightFix Outer World
Vision Of FutureBrighteningEuphoricDarkeningUrgent

“Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning…If the Crisis catalyst comes on schedule, around the year 2005, then the climax will be due around 2020, the resolution around 2026.” ― William Strauss & Neil Howe

Generational Archetypes

The saeculum has four recurring generational archetypes, always in the same order. They are: Prophets, Nomads, Heroes and Artists. Each archetype has a general set of characteristics and endowments which feed into the self-fulfilling nature of the four turnings.

As each generation ages, its persona undergoes profound changes. However, each archetype has an underlying identity that endures. When a generation reaches mid-life and occupies the leadership roles of society, it reflects this orientation on its social environment. This is one of the key reasons why each generation exerts a dominant formative influence on people who are two generations younger ― no two consecutive generations are alike.

“Your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you. Archetypes do not create archetypes like themselves, instead, they create the shadows of archetypes like themselves.” ― William Strauss & Neil Howe

As we will see, hard times tend to create strong people, strong people tend to create good times, good times tend to create weak people and weak people tend to create hard times.

Throughout their lives, the archetypes can be characterised as follows.

  • The Prophet Generation (Most Recent 1946-1964)

A Prophet generation is born during the First Turning.

A Prophet generation tend to grow up as increasingly indulged children during a High, evolve into narcissistic young adults during an Awakening, emerge as moralistic mid-lifers during an Unravelling and age into wise elders during a Crisis.

Principal endowments for the Prophet generation include vision, values and religion.

  • The Nomad Generation (Most Recent 1964-1984)

A Nomad generation is born during the Second Turning.

A Nomad generation tend to grow up as underprotected children during an Awakening, evolve into alienated young adults during an Unravelling, emerge as pragmatic mid-lifers during a Crisis and age into resilient elders during a High.

Principal endowments for the Nomad generation include liberty, survival and honour.

  • The Hero Generation (Most Recent 1984-2005)

A Hero generation is born during the Third Turning.

A Hero generation tend to grow up as increasingly protected children during an Unravelling, evolve into teamworkers during a Crisis, emerge as energetic leaders during a High and age into powerful elders during an Awakening.

Principal endowments for the Hero generation include community, affluence and technology.

  • The Artist Generation (Most Recent 1929-1946)

An Artist generation is born during the Fourth Turning.

An Artist generation tend to grow up as overprotected children during a Crisis, evolve into sensitive young adults during a High, emerge as indecisive leaders during an Awakening and age into empathic elders during an Unravelling.

Principal endowments for the Artist generation include pluralism, expertise and due process.

“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” ― Winston Churchill

Summary

The Fourth Turning is defined by four recurring “Turnings” ― the High, the Awakening, the Unravelling and the Crisis) and four recurring generational archetypes (the Prophets, the Nomads, the Heroes and the Artists.

Understanding the cyclicality of the four Turnings allows us to not only accept the natural rhythm of human nature, but it also empowers us with the knowledge on how to best prepare for and navigate each of the Turnings.

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