Book Summary: The Fourth Turning by Neil Howe and William Strauss

A book summary of the key ideas from The Fourth Turning by Neil Howe and William Strauss, along with informal book notes and quotations.

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The Book in a Nutshell

In The Fourth Turning, Neil Howe and William Strauss argue that history follows a clear and predictable cycle. Each cycle lasts around a lifetime and consists of four seasons (turnings), each marked by a profound shift in the national mood and culture. This lifecycle of four seasons is made inevitable by four generational archetypes and their order, which they argue has recurred throughout modernity. The book was written in 1997, at which point the authors suggested we were approaching the Fourth Turning: a lifechanging period of crisis that marks every saeculum.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: The Saeculum: The last 500 years can be viewed through the lens of cycles, with each cycle lasting 80 to 100 years, and each cycle containing four turnings that typically last 20 to 25 years. Each of these turnings brings with it a different mood and culture, and a different relationship with institutions.

#2: Generational Archetypes: The saeculum has four recurring generational archetypes, always in the same order: 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.

#3: The Four Turnings: Each cycle starts with a post-crisis High (First Turning), which is defined by a renewal of community life, general periods of stability and an appreciation for things that were lost during the preceding crisis. An Awakening (Second Turning) period then follows, where the mood shifts to defiance and spiritual discovery. This is followed by an Unraveling (Third Turning), where people become ever more distant from one another and more individualistic. Finally, a Crisis (Fourth Turning) takes hold, where a great threat to livelihoods and lives drives a surge from individualism to civic duty.

#4: Preparing for a Fourth Turning: By understanding cyclicality, we can prepare for major crises. Most importantly, during an Unraveling period we should shift our approach towards building a strong foundation in our communities and diversifying our skills and incomes in readiness.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

The below are more detailed notes on the key ideas from The Fourth Turning by Neil Howe and William Strauss, along with some quotations that caught my eye. These notes do not by any means cover the full breadth of ideas within the book. They are instead intended to serve as an introduction to some of the key ideas, from which to decide whether the book is worth further attention.

Key Idea #1: The Saeculum

History is cyclical, and our education systems have disregarded this reality in favour of linear time. This focus on linearity has consequences not only for our anticipation of events, but also for our experience of our societies and lives.

“The great weakness of linear time is that it obliterates time’s recurrence and thus cuts people off from the eternal – whether in nature, in each other, or in ourselves. When we deem our social destiny entirely self-directed and our personal lives self-made, we lose any sense of participating in a collective myth larger than ourselves.”

Historical cycles follow predictable patterns. At the time of writing (1997), Howe and Strauss argued that the western world – and particularly the United States – had gradually attached more importance to self than community. This left society with material comfort but a sense of unease.

“Where we once thought ourselves collectively strong, we now regard ourselves as individually entitled. Yet even while we exalt our own personal growth, we realize that millions of self-actualized persons don’t add up to an actualized society… Individually focused yet collectively adrift, we wonder if we’re heading toward a waterfall.”

This pattern has happened before. Howe and Strauss contend that it forms part of a life cycle that consists of generational “turnings”. Each turning lasts two decades or so, and is defined by people feeling different about themselves, their culture, their nation, and their future. A full life cycle consists of four turnings, typically totalling between 80 and 100 years.

Throughout the last five centuries, Strauss and Howe observe that the following cyclical pattern has taken place.

  1. The First Turning (High). This is a post-crisis, upbeat era where institutions and communities strengthen while individualism weakens. The most recent case was the American High, post World War II.
  2. The Second Turning (Awakening). This is a period of spiritual upheaval, with current value system under attack by a new values regime. The most recent case was the Consciousness Revolution, stretching from the mid-1960s to early 1980s.
  3. The Third Turning (Unraveling). A less upbeat era of strengthening individualism and weaking institutions, with a new value system emerging. The most recent case was the Culture Wars, which began with Reagan’s mid-1980s and continued at the time of the book’s writing.
  4. The Fourth Turning (Crisis). A decisive era of crisis and climax, where the values regime results in the replacement of the old civic order with a new one. The last case at the time of the book’s writing was from the Great Crash of 1929 through to World War II. (The beginning of the latest Fourth Turning perhaps corresponds with 9/11. The latest Fourth Turning is therefore expected to reach its climax and end in the 2020s.)

The book was written in 1997, but Howe and Strauss had this prophecy about the next Fourth Turning:

“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 […] Every Fourth Turning has registered an upward ratchet in the technology of destruction, and in mankind’s willingness to use it […] This time, America will enter a Fourth Turning with the means to inflict unimaginable horrors and, perhaps, will confront adversaries who possess the same.”

Key Idea #2: Generational Archetypes

The saeculum has four recurring generational archetypes. Howe and Strauss believe that the order of these archetypes helps to explain how and why cycles occur throughout history. The order (or “generational constellation”) of archetypes is observed to be the same throughout every cycle.

“History creates generations, and generations create history. This symbiosis between life and time explains why, if one is seasonal, the other must be.”

The four archetypes can be identified by the turnings of their birth:

  • A Prophet generation is born during a High (First Turning).
  • A Nomad generation is born during an Awakening (Second Turning).
  • A Hero generation is born during an Unraveling (Third Turning).
  • An Artist generation is born during a Crisis (Fourth Turning).

As each generation ages, its persona undergoes profound changes.

“By definition, each phase of life imparts an entirely new social role and self-image to those who enter it. We appeal to this role and image every time we say to someone, “Act your age.””

But 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 phases 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.”

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

  • Prophet generation:
    • Cyclical characteristics: Grow up as indulged post-Crisis children. They become young and narcissistic adults in an Awakening and later become moralistic mid-lifers during the Unraveling. When faced with the Crisis of the Fourth Turning, they become wise elders.
    • Principal endowments: Vision, values, and religion.
  • Nomad generation:
    • Cyclical characteristics: Grow up as underprotected children during an Awakening. They are then alienated young adults during an Unraveling, mellowing into hands-on, get-it-done leaders during a Crisis. They age into resilient post-Crisis
    • Principal endowments: Liberty, survival, and honour.
  • Hero generation:
    • Cyclical characteristics: Grow up increasingly protected as children during the Unraveling. They come of age as teamworkers during the Crisis period, before evolving into energetic post-Crisis leaders in the High. They become powerful elders and are often attacked during the next Awakening.
    • Principal endowments: Community, affluence, and technology.
  • Artist generation
    • Cyclical characteristics: Grow up as overprotected children during a Crisis. They come of age as sensitive young adults in the post-Crisis world and become indecisive leaders during the Awakening. They age into empathic post-Awakening
    • Principal endowments: Pluralism, expertise, and due process.

Key Idea #3: The Four Turnings

The First Turning (High)

During a High, there is a renewal of community life. The prior turning (the crisis) brings with it a new civic order. People want to put the crisis behind them and feel a collective sense of achievement.

The fear for survival which defined the crisis now acts as a force for desires to invest, grow and strengthen. This in turn produces a period of economic prosperity and political stability. Towards the end of the High, a desire to fill a spiritual void begins to grow.

Historically, these periods are not defined by big crusades or wars, but rather by stable community and family life. Periods that marked a High in the past date back from the post-World War II American High to the Tudor Renaissance (with four more Highs in between).

The Second Turning (Awakening)

An Awakening is defined by a dramatic shift from a focus on the outer world to a focus on the inner world. Spiritual and social ideas reach the forefront of cultures. As Howe and Strauss put it, “A society searches for soul over science, meaning over things.”

Led by youth, attacks against the established order start to break out. Gradually this serves to start the shift from collectivism to individualism. Crime and substance abuse start to rise, gender distinctions narrow, and children receive minimal protection.

Periods that marked Awakenings date back from the Consciousness Revolution (1964-1984) to the Protestant Reformation from 1517 to 1542 (with four more Awakenings in between). During the Consciousness Revolution, the Awakening mood was palpable, with a loss of outer discipline at the expense of inner spiritual yearnings. The imprint of this spiritual upheaval left an imprint on the Boomer generation that was raised in it.

The Third Turning (Unraveling)

An Unraveling starts with an emphasis on liberties and freedoms, propelled by the surge towards individualism of the Awakening. The cultural focus switches from spiritual to pragmatic, with an emphasis on self-reliance.

Personal satisfaction is high, but the culture begins to become fragmented. Moral debates become prevalent and decisive public action becomes difficult. As the Unraveling progresses, a sense of pessimism about the future takes greater hold.

As the book was written, Howe and Strauss claimed to be in the Third Turning from 1984 (which they termed a period called the Culture Wars). In line with the above description, this period was defined by a push towards more libertarian policymaking and a further shift toward individualism.

Heading into the Fourth Turning, the public mood begins to feel stale, ready for something to spark a new mood.

“Whether we realise it or not, we will be ready for a dramatic event to shock the nation out of its complacency and decay.”

The Fourth Turning (Crisis)

A crisis starts with a sudden and startling catalyst. As society becomes more threatened by an existential problem, the survival and success of society becomes the simple imperative. Society achieves a “regeneracy” which drives people to reunify toward concerted national effort. People support greater public authority, and the perceived successes of these public policies justify more interventions.

“What makes a Crisis special is the public’s willingness to let leaders lead even when they falter and to let authorities be authoritative even when they make mistakes. Amid this civic solidarity, mediocre leaders can gain immense popular following; bad policies can be made to work (or, at least, be perceived as working); and, as at Pearl Harbor, even a spectacular failure does not undermine public support.”

Crises can involve economic distress, social distress, ecological distress, political distress, technological distress, and military distress. They typically involve wars, which are fought until there is a clear and decisive conclusion. Eventually, the public mood becomes exhaustion, relief, and optimism. Society yearns for the things it before took for granted.

Crises end with a climax and a resolution. This can be either triumphant or tragic, and it leads to a new civic order.

Previous Fourth Turnings include the War of the Roses (1459-1487), the Armada Crisis (1569-1594), the Glorious Revolution (1675-1704), the American Revolution (1773-1794), the Civil War (1860-1865) and the Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945).

Howe and Strauss sum up the mood of the nation in each of the turnings in one sentence:

“In a High, people want to belong; in an Awakening, to defy; in an Unraveling, to separate; in a Crisis, to gather.”

Key Idea #4: Preparing for a Fourth Turning

A knowledge of cyclical time can help us not just to accept the natural rhythm of history but make the best of the turnings. Perhaps the most important area in which we can do this is through preparation for the Fourth Turning (Crisis).

Howe and Strauss suggest we can use cyclicality to our advantage through three core approaches:

  1. Participate in seasonal activities. While the social environment is safe and technology thriving, we should embrace the positive creative aspects of these seasons. While the economy offers vast arrays of things to consume, we should enjoy and harness what we can. These things become less abundant in Fourth Turnings.
  2. Avoid post-seasonal habits. Act your age and run with the spirit of the current cycle, not the last.
  3. Make pre-seasonal preparations. Prepare in advance for the next cycle, particularly the Fourth Turning (more on this below).

To prepare for a Fourth Turning, we must ready institutions and ourselves for the collective spirit.

Institutions should shift their focus towards cultivating pragmatic alliances and fostering a culture of community spirit in advance of any crisis. They should encourage community participation, particularly for young people, treating the children of the Unraveling period as a top priority.

The economy should also be put on the best pre-crisis footing. Policymakers should seek to balance the books and if possible, run a budget surplus. Governments should invest in advance in defense, preparing for large-scale war in advance, ensuring diverse defensive capabilities at scale.

To ready ourselves for the Fourth Turning, we should focus on community and practical preparations.

“Picture yourself and your loved ones in the midst of a howling blizzard that lasts for several years. Think about what you would need, who could help you, and why your fate might matter to anybody other than yourself. That is how to plan for a saecular winter.”

We should expect our community reputation to matter more. As a result, we should focus on forging strong local relationships, involving ourselves in community affairs. Ideally, we should build up face-to-face contacts with people (neighbours, bosses, suppliers, police, etc.).

We should also move towards social and business structures that involve bringing people together.

“Stress less what sets you apart as an individual, and more what you have in common with others.”

Finally, we build up a financial safety net by practicing good financial habits. It is critical to diversify our skills and our income sources ahead of a Fourth Turning. We should assume the worst-case scenario that all government safety nets are eliminated, entering the crisis with reliable cash flow, diversified savings and some liquid assets.

“If you are starting a career now, realize that generalists with survival know-how will have the edge over specialists whose skills are useful only in an undamaged environment.”

You can buy the book here or for further reading, try The Sovereign Individual or The Price of Tomorrow.

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