The Fourth Turning – Finally

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After many instances of prodding from readers, I finally bought and read The Fourth Turning, and I'm sorry 0812-fourth that I waited so long. It was a superb read, and it puts into words (340 pages of words, in fact) the general feeling I've had for so long that something big and bad is happening all around us.

I want to emphasize at the outset that this isn't some doom 'n' gloom book that came off the presses after all the calamities we've seen over the past decade. It is, in fact, a fifteen-year old book, and I imagine much of it was written around 1995 or so, during the feel-good Clinton years. When the book came out in 1997, the authors made clear that they were currently in the Third Turning, and that the Fourth Turning – the final quarter of a cycle that they postulate recurs throughout modern human history – was coming around 2005 or so.

Strauss and Howe write:

Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era – a turning – every two decades or so….Together the four turnings of the saeculum comprise history's seasonal rhythm of growth, naturation, entropy, and destruction:

+ The First Turning is a High; an upbeat era of strengthening instutitions and weakening individualism;

+ The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spirtual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime;

+ The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strrengtening individualism and weakening institutions;

+ 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.

As they anticipated the next "Turning", they referenced its start point around 2005, in the middle of the "Oh-Oh" decade (which I've now heard referred to as the "Naughts"):

The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millenium, midway through the Oh-Oh decade. Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood…Political and economic trust will implode…severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire…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.

I would suggest, and I'm sure many would agree, that the attacks of 9/11 were the "sudden spark". Early in the book, the authors describe how there have, through human history, been three general ideas about the path of time in our lives – chaotic, cyclical, linear. The entire basis of the book is that the cyclical perception of the world is the accurate one, and the human species continues to move its way through this quartet of cycles, totalling about the length of a human life, called a Saeculum. We are presently in The Millennial Saeculum, which is broken down into these four parts:

+ The American High (1946-1964);

+ The Consciousness Revolution (1964-1984);

+ The Culture Wars (1984-2005?);

+ The Millennial Crisis (which, when the book was published, was yet to arrive)

If you consider the four quarters of a Saeculum to the time "axis" of the grid, the other is made of the human archetypes, whose character depends on their generation as well as what portion of the Saeculum is currently running. The present archetypes are described as follows:

+ The Boom Generation (Prophet archetype, born 1943-1960);

+ The 13th Generation (Nomad archetype, born 1961-1981);

+ The Millennial Generation (Hero archetype, born 1982-?);

+ The Artist archetype is being born now

I'm a member of what they dub the 13th Generation, so-called simply because it is the 13th generation of Americans that they track.

Many of the predictions about the near-future that were offered are eerily accurate, whereas others are embarassingly wrong, such as the supposition that, to celebrate the year 2000, "Others will board a chartered Concorde just after midnight and zoom back through time from the third millennium to the second." Of course, I can't fault the authors for not anticipating the fiery end of the Concorde fleet!

I am, of course, most interested in the Crisis era, since that is supposedly what we're in the midst of living; the authors declare the Crisis can be constructed with this morphology:

+ A Crisis era begins with a catalyst – a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood

+ Once catalyzed, a society achieves a regeneracy – a new counter-entropy that reunifies and reenergizes civic life.

+ The regenerated society propels toward a climax – a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and birth of the new.

+ The climax culminates in a resolution – a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates the winners from losers, resolves the big public questions, and establishes the new order

Here again, I would think most would agree the 9/11 attacks would serve the definition of "catalyst" quite well. As the book draws to a close, it delves into greater detail about what could be forthcoming from the perspective of someone writing in 1997. I've emphasized a few items in bold:

Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning…..a spark will ignite a new mood…In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party……the following circa-2005 scenarios might seem plausible:

+ A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft and announces it possesses portable nuclear weapons.…..Congress declares war.….Opponents charge that the president concocted the emergency for political purposes.

+ An impasse over the federal budget reaches a stalemate. The President and Congress both refuse to back down, triggering a near-total government shutdown…..Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Default looms. Wall Street panics.

As superb as these projections were, the authors hasten to add – ironically –  "It's highly unlikely that any one of these scenarios will actually happen." On the contrary, these guesses about the future (which, let's face it, required the authors to really go out on a limb) were excellent. They continue (although I am using ellipses to replace large chunks of text, since I'm not in the mood to re-type an entire book):

Time will pass, perhaps another decade, before the surging mood propels America to the Fourth Turning's grave moment of opportunity and danger: the climax of the Crisis…..the molten ingredients of the climax, which could include the following:

+ Economic distress, with public debt in default, entitlement trust funds in bankruptcy, mounting poverty and unemployment, trade wars, collapsing financial markets, and hyperinflation (or deflation)

+ Social distress….

+ Cultural distress……

+ Technology distress, with cryptoanarchy, high-tech oligarchy, and biogenetic chaos

+ Ecological distress….

+ Political distress….

+ Military distress…….

This is a thoughtful, well-articulated, and engrossing book. As with any text that makes broad sociological assertions and generalizations, the authors have opened themselves up to plenty of criticism about the plausibility of their prophecy. Taken as a whole, I think this book provide an enlightening blueprint of both the present and the near-future. I strongly recommend it.