The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy
by William Strauss and Neil Howe
New York: Broadway Books, 1997
Almost twenty years ago I read Strauss and Howe's first book Generations: The History of America's Future which tells the story of America through the cycles of generations. In that book they identified a repeating cycle of four different generational archetypes they called Prophet, Nomad, Hero and Artist. The Prophets are the idealists, Nomad are reactive, Heroes civic minded and Artist are adaptive.
As the generational drama plays out, the country goes through a cycle of four types of periods: a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling and finally a Crisis. Each period is ushered in by a "turning" when our culture, and sometimes our politics and economy, get turned in a different direction.
The Fourth Turning was published in 1997, and I wish I'd read it then, but I finally bought it for my Kindle and read it. The final chapters predict much of what we're going through right now, including the current economic crisis. It also goes into more detail about the generations involved in the current "saeculum", a Latin word used by the Romans to refer to the human life cycle. These generations include:
- G.I. (Hero) generation (Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation) born 1901-1924
- Silent (Artist) generation (Nixon's Silent Majority) born 1925-1942
- Baby Boom (Prophet) generation born 1943-1960 (their cut-off point, others extend the Baby Boom to 1961-1964)
- Thirteenth (Nomad) generation (the self-described Gen-X) born 1961-1981
- Millennial (Hero) generation (also called Gen Y) born 1982 - app. 2000
- New Silent (artist) generation born 2001-
Their thesis is that we live through 80-100 cycles of history with visibly repeating patterns, and both books make a persuasive case for that view of history. I think there's something to be said for cyclical time rather than linear time, but maybe that's because I've studied astrology and have no bias against the concept of cycles. Linear time assumes that things will always progress and get better, and to some extent that's true in science and technology, but a study of history shows that something always happens to disrupt the "best laid plans of mice and men".
I found the book quite fascinating. I just wish they'd write a new edition to bring us up to date, but everything is in such turmoil now, it's hard to see what's going to happen. I don't think anyone will argue that we're not in a Crisis period. The question is, how bad will it get before things get better? Since every previous Crisis period they describe ended in some form of "total war", e.g. the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Great Depression/WWII period, I'm feeling a little nervous.
Still, I recommend the read for anyone interested in American history. The concept of generational differences may also be of some interest to writers of historical fiction.
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