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The Fourth Turning is upon us. What now?
A primer to Strauss-Howe Generational Theory and how it offers perspective on our current crisis
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayan
Boomers. Gen X. Millennials. Gen Z.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard these terms.
We didn’t make up these terms on Tumblr or Facebook.
They come from the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, a framework created by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe in the 1990s to understand the cyclical nature of American history and its impact on generations.
While not perfect, this theory provides an interesting perspective on how different generations have shaped society.
The following provides a primer to the theory and my opinion on why we should think deeply about these concepts in 2023 and beyond.
The Fourth Turning
“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 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” — The Fourth Turning, Strauss-Howe, 1997
If reading the above quote from 1997 doesn’t make you feel something then you might want to put this article down and check your pulse.
According to Strauss and Howe, American history has four distinct cycles, or turnings: high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. These turnings occur every 20-25 years and shape the experiences and attitudes of the generations growing up during these periods.
Let’s break down each turning and explore the generational archetypes that emerge from them: Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist.
Highs are periods of stability, strong institutions, and societal unity. They mark the first turning in the cycle. Notable highs in American history include:
The First Great American High (1630-1673)
The Augustan Age of Empire (1710-1742)
The Era of Good Feelings (1794-1821)
The Post-Civil War High (1865-1885)
The Post-World War II High (1946-1964)
Awakenings follow a high and are characterized by Americans questioning established norms, individualism, and spiritual exploration. This second turning has given rise to the following periods:
The First Great Awakening (1734-1743)
The Second Great Awakening (1822-1837)
The Third Great Awakening (1886-1908)
The Consciousness Revolution (1964-1984)
Unravelings are marked by divisiveness, negativity, and weakening institutions. They represent the third turning in the cycle. Examples of unravelings include:
The Enlightenment Unraveling (1673-1692)
The Revolutionary Unraveling (1743-1773)
The Antebellum Unraveling (1838-1860)
The Gilded Age Unraveling (1908-1929)
The Culture Wars Unraveling (1984-2008?)
Crisis periods are characterized by significant challenges that demand collective action. There is debate over the exact timing of the current crisis, but here are the crisis periods identified by Strauss and Howe:
The Glorious Revolution Crisis (1675-1704)
The American Revolution Crisis (1773-1794)
The Civil War Crisis (1860-1865)
The Great Depression and World War II Crisis (1929-1946)
The Current Crisis (2008?-Present)
“Okay, cool story Heidi, but what does this have to do with boomers and millennials?”
The Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist archetypes emerge from these turnings and shape the generations we know today:
The Prophet (Idealist): Baby Boomers, born during The Post-World War II High, are known for their optimism and belief in strong institutions.
The Nomad (Reactive): Gen X, born during The Consciousness Revolution, value individualism and self-actualization.
The Hero (Civic): Millennials, born during The Culture Wars Unraveling, are shaped by events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis.
The Artist (Adaptive): Gen Z, born at the end of the last unraveling and the start of the current crisis, are adaptable and creative.
Makes sense. Let’s go a little deeper, though.
Let’s break these generations down by personality traits.
Prophet (Idealist) AKA Boomers
Visionary: Prophets tend to have strong convictions and beliefs, aspiring to bring about meaningful change in society. They are often idealistic and able to inspire others with their vision for a better future.
Moralistic: They are deeply concerned with issues of right and wrong and are driven by a desire to reform and improve society according to their moral principles.
Passionate: Prophets are emotionally intense and can be quite passionate about their beliefs, which can make them persuasive and influential leaders.
Self-focused: They often place a high value on personal fulfillment and self-expression, which can lead them to prioritize their own needs and desires over those of the group.
Nomad (Reactive) AKA Gen X
Pragmatic: Nomads are known for their practical, no-nonsense approach to problem-solving. They focus on what works rather than adhering to abstract principles or ideals.
Independent: Growing up in a time of uncertainty, Nomads learn to rely on themselves and often develop a strong sense of self-reliance and autonomy.
Cynical: They tend to be skeptical of authority and institutions, which can make them more likely to question established norms and seek alternative solutions.
Resilient: Nomads are often adaptable and resourceful, able to persevere in the face of adversity and navigate challenging situations with determination.
Hero (Civic) AKA Millennials
Collective-minded: Heroes tend to prioritize the needs of the group over their own and are driven by a strong sense of duty and responsibility to their community.
Action-oriented: They are focused on solving problems and achieving tangible results, often preferring practical action over philosophical debate.
Optimistic: Despite growing up in a time of turmoil, Heroes generally maintain a positive outlook and believe in their ability to bring about change and overcome adversity.
Disciplined: They are often characterized by a strong work ethic and a willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good.
Artist (Adaptive) AKA Gen Z
Creative: Artists are known for their imagination, innovation, and ability to think outside the box. They are often drawn to artistic or intellectual pursuits and excel at finding new ways to approach problems.
Empathetic: They tend to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, which makes them skilled at diplomacy and fostering cooperation.
Flexible: Artists are highly adaptive and able to navigate changing circumstances with ease. They often prefer compromise and collaboration over rigid adherence to rules or principles.
Risk-averse: Having grown up in a time of upheaval, Artists often prioritize stability and security, which can make them more cautious and risk-averse in their decision-making.
It all sounds eerily accurate to me. It seems obvious that those who experience the same life events would have similar personality traits. None of this will ever be 100% accurate, of course. It depends on where you were raised, whom raised you, and many other factors.
Criticisms and Implications
The theory, like any other, has its imperfections.
A significant critique is that it may be overly simplistic, as it attempts to categorize individuals within specific generations and time periods. Indeed, the complex factors influencing each generation make it difficult to place everyone neatly into well-defined categories.
A prime example of this is the concept of "generational cusps," which refers to individuals who feel they do not fit squarely into one generation or another.
As a member of the Xennial generation, born at the cusp of Gen X and Millennials, I can relate to this sentiment.
I don't identify entirely as a millennial and find myself drawn to the individualistic nature of Gen X. I also came of age slightly earlier than most millennials, making my experiences and perspectives differ from those who grew up fully immersed in the crisis period. Consequently, I find myself agreeing with Gen X's critique of my generation, which argues that we are overly focused on external factors and don't take enough responsibility for our circumstances.
Similarly, if you were raised by a particular generation then you may feel like you don’t fit exactly with your assigned generation. I was primarily raised by my grandparents and they are part of the artist generation. In many ways, they relate more closely to my younger Gen Z cousins.
Another pitfall of the theory is its susceptibility to confirmation bias. Critics argue that it is easy to selectively choose historical events to support the theory, rather than relying on empirical evidence. The approach to constructing the theory may not be entirely scientific, as it seems as if history has been organized into predefined categories to fit the narrative.
Lastly, some argue that this all could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people may consciously or unconsciously adjust their behavior and expectations to align with it. However, this criticism may not hold much weight, given that the majority of people remain unaware of the theory itself.
Implications and Perspective
“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 Fourth Turning, Strauss-Howe, 1997
Do you feel the tension rising? American culture has never felt so divided.
We’re fighting over the definitions of words, what it means to be a man or woman, whether children can consent to permanent medical procedures or not, and we’re fighting a proxy war in Ukraine.
No matter how you slice it, nearly everyone agrees that America is in a crisis.
In fact, this might be the only issue that could unite the left, right, and center.
Politically, we’re more divided than ever. Even within parties there is more division than unity.
Something has got to give.
My prediction is that we’ll go through a twin crisis similar to the Great Depression and World War II. However, this time, the financial consequences will be more grim and the war may be longer lasting and more violent than before.
I’m certainly not the first to speak about this.
The most prominent voice to speak on the issue of impending civil war has been journalist Tim Pool.
Here’s a clip of Tim discussing his thoughts on a civil war in America with Joe Rogan.
Sure, it’s from four years ago, but I think we’ve escalated even more recently.
The film critiques gender ideology and the transgender activism movement. It was labeled as sensitive material and commenting and sharing were blocked.
I stumble upon pornographic content on Twitter all the time, and it’s never marked as sensitive. How is it controversial to have a discussion about what it means to be a woman?
It doesn’t make much sense, right? Well, unless you consider that we’re in the fourth turning and in the middle of a full blown crisis that is about to blow like a volcano.
Conclusion: You are here
The inspiration for this article came from a Candace Owen’s tweet and my subsequent reply.
Check the thread for yourself if you like.
No one understood that I meant exactly what I said. I’m not criticizing either group. Boomers had a crisis in their middle age and millennials have been in crisis mode their entire adult life.
It shouldn’t be insulting to say that boomers are overly optimistic and millennials have their heads up their asses.
There’s a lot of truth there. No, it doesn’t apply to everyone, but these are simply frameworks for understanding what’s going on around us.
Don’t you crave a way to understand our current crisis?
You may find some solace in picking up The Fourth Turning or other works by Strauss-Howe.
If we approach our culture war with more understanding of history then I think we perhaps could mitigate losses from the upcoming war and depression.
There will still be war. There will be economic crisis. There will be turmoil.
How long will it last, and what will the cost be? Future generations depend on our awareness of the present moment and our consideration of history.
The next generation, Generation Alpha, will be the next baby boomers. Optimistic. Moralistic. Visionary. They’ll grow up during a time of institutional strength and economic prosperity.
Seems far-fetched, right? It feels like everything is getting worse and worse.
Well, don’t forget the quote from the start of this article.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayan
We are living in a cyclical reality.
I’ll leave you with this thought that I often have.
Everything that will happen has already happened.
Everything that has happened will happen again.
Now, what will you do with this knowledge? No matter when you were born, we all have a responsibility to make it through this crisis and come out stronger on the other side. It’s all in our hands now.
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