In their groundbreaking work, Generations, published in 1992, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe examined American history and discovered a remarkable pattern. American society has been subject to a cycle whose duration is approximately that of one long human life. In this cycle, a society experiences an alternation between a period of ideological conformity and institutional growth, and a period of ideological divisiveness and institutional decay. The cycle is driven by the changes in values and attitudes of each new generation, developing under conditions inherited from, but distinct from, those within which its parental generation was raised.
Strauss and Howe proposed a very specific theory of this cycle, or saeculum. They divided the saeculum into four social eras called turnings. Within each turning, a new generation is born, and in its formative childhood develops a distinct collective persona. This persona is shaped by the mood and orientation of the turning in which the generation is raised. As that generation comes of age, while simultaneously older generations are aging into the next phase of life, the social mood shifts. This happens because each phase of life is now occupied by a new generation with new attitudes and priorities.
The key to understanding this is to think along the generational diagonal. The human lifespan has four phases, each lasting about 20 years: childhood, young adulthood, mid-life, and elderhood. As a generation ages, it enters a new phase of life, but it retains its collective persona, bringing that persona into the new phase of life. So, from the perspective of the social era, people in a given phase of life are behaving differently than they were in the previous era. For example, in one era there might be a risk-taking generation in young adulthood; in another, a cautious generation.
Perhaps the most famous example of this in recent American history occurred when the rebellious Boomer generation came of age in the 1960s, replacing the more complacent Silent generation that had been young adults in the immediate post-war years. College campuses exploded with youth energy, as Boomers challenged the rectitude of the existing social order, quite unlike their conformist Silent predecesors.
Continuing to think along the diagonal, we see that as the social eras pass, each generation is aging from one phase of life to the next. In other words, if we chart the generations and phases of life across social eras, each generation follows a diagonal trajectory. We also see that, in each new social era, there is a new arrangement of generations up and down the age ladder. This arrangement is called the generational constellation, and as it changes, so does the mood and inclination of society.
Generations is based on thorough historical research, and traces these patterns of rising generations with differing characters all the way back to the dawn of Anglo-America. American society has conditions that are particularly conducive to forming the saecular cycle: it is dynamic, and not deeply rooted in tradition. Much of the book is microbiographies of people in American history, describing how they fit the mold of the different generational types the authors identify.
Basically, there are four kinds of generations, two of which are dominant and two of which are recessive. The Boomers are an example of a dominant Idealist generation, which attacks and undermines the existing regime, bringing about the era of ideological divisiveness and institutional decay. An Idealist generation is followed by a recessive Reactive generation, which must navigate the disintegrating social order.
As the supply of order in society reaches its nadir, a rising Civic generation, also dominant, institutes a new regime in line with the new values championed by the preceding Idealist generation, bringing about the age of ideological conformity and institutional growth. In their shadow, a recessive Adaptive generation lives comfortably within the newly ordered society and refines it. Eventually the order in society peaks and becomes too rigid, and the stage is set for the rise of another Idealist generation.
The cycle of four social eras, or turnings, is primarily driven by the way in which child-rearing interplays with the social mood. When society is well ordered, children are raised permissively, and so when coming of age they question authority and shake up the social order. But then as social disorder ensues, children are raised more strictly, so that new generations are inclined to obey authority and social order can be restored. Hence the supply of social order oscillates between one extreme and another. When social order reaches its apex, society is prepared to explore new values; it becomes more open and splinters into ideological camps, while the institutions which had been providing the order are neglected. Then social order reaches its nadir, and society seeks to close up again, to regroup and rebuild its institutions along the lines of one coherent values regime. That, in summary, is the saecular cycle.
The Fourth Turning
An American Prophecy
Generations was followed some years later by another book, which is perhaps better known - The Fourth Turning. This was a shorter work, less scholarly and more accessible. The authors reitereated their theory, comparing it to other examples of cycles in nature and history, and changed some of their terminology. They also offered predictions about the near future of America; that is, about the coming Fourth Turning.
One major change to the exposition of the theory was in renaming the generational types to reflect the idea of chraracter archetypes. The authors also dispensed with the dominant-recessive dichotomy, perhaps wanting to eliminate any suggestion that one generation was superior to another. Each generation, with its distinct archetypal role, has an important part to play in the historical drama. To paraphrase the authors, generations both create and are created by history.
So, in the updated theory, the narrative of a complete saeculum is something like what follows.
The saecular cycle begins in the aftermath of an epic struggle which remakes the society's political structure and empowers the rising generation to lead the new regime. In this First Turning of the cycle, the society expands and prospers, while its children are raised optimistically in a secure environment and encouraged to explore the frontiers of social values in an atmosphere of increasing freedom. These children develop into a Prophet generation, obsessed with meaning and distrustful of authority. When it enters young adulthood, the Prophet generation defies the rulership of the political regime, which at that point seems overly repressive and out of touch with reality.
Thus the Second Turning begins, in which the society is shaken to the core by a dramatic challenge to its basic values and institutions. Spiritual fervor sweeps the land, and children are more or less left to themselves as adults become preoccupied with self discovery and new movements. The underprotected children develop into a Nomad generation, tough and wild, who earn a bad reputation and bear the brunt of the blame for the ensuing social chaos. With the society's institutions discredited, civic decay sets in and the Third Turning begins. The Nomad generation has a rough and tumble coming of age, as traditional bonds and associations are broken and scattered. Meanwhile, children are raised pessimistically in a dangerous environment, restricted by ever-tightening codes and harsh judgements from their elders.
The urgency and concern of adults helps to develop a new Hero generation, civic-minded and optimistic, which provides the politically powerful leaders of the next regime. This regime is forged by the epic trials of the Fourth Turning. This is the phase of the cycle in which the Hero generation comes of age and the political order is transformed according to the new values which arose in the previous Second Turning phase. It is a dangerous and difficult time, during which children are heavily protected, developing into a sensitive and caring Artist generation. This Artist generation has a quiet coming of age in the subsequent First Turning of the new cycle, as the inheritors of the new regime.
The book was released during the last Third Turning, and the authors provide some scenarios that might trigger the next Fourth Turning. There are many listed; the key is understanding that the problems that arise will be ones that were foreseen but for which no one prepared. What happens in the Fourth Turning social era is that society is no longer inclined to delay resolving problems and instead confronts them.
The authors also provide some advice for how best to survive and manage in the Fourth Turning era. The advice is broken down by generation, to conform to the unique roles and responsiblities of the different archetypes. Each generation will have different proclivities, as well as be in a different phase of life. In general, one should remember that in the Fourth Turning society will be focused on the needs of the collective, not the individual. One should be community-minded, and work to build social bonds and support others.
Over twenty years have passed since the release of the book, and America is now well into the Fourth Turning, which the authors recognize as having started with the financial crisis of 2008. As of the writing of this review in 2018, the country remains in crisis, its government in shambles and its democracy threatened by deep division. The global orientation of the Third Turning has been swept aside as America struggles with internal issues, and a dissatisfied and increasingly disenfranchised electorate seethes with resentment and bitterly fights out the Culture Wars of the previous era to the finish. The final outcome of the struggle remains distant and unknowable.
When The Fourth Turning was published, a web site was created for it, one of the earliest web sites in existence to promote a book. There was a discussion forum on the site, which attracted a large user base of fans and detractors, and was a lively place of debate for many years. It has since shut down, but another forum cropped up, to which many of the users have migrated. In addition, there are other web sites where people study and elaborate on Turnings theory; there are links to some of them here, including the authors' own research site, LifeCourse Associates.
In conclusion, the generational theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe offers a powerful framework for understanding American history. Its predictions have been verified time and time again in contemporary life. The next decade will see the completion of the Fourth Turning and the dawn of a new saeculum, and the theory will remain an invaluable guide to events as they unfold in time.
This review of generational theory is based in part on background material in the Generation Watch blog written in the early 2000s.
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