Punchinello’s Chronicles

March 8, 2009

Understanding the Fourth Turning

Filed under: The Great Adventure! — Punchinello @ 2:29 am
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Not too long ago I read a fascinating book called “The Fourth Turning,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It’s an analysis of what’s called a “saeculum” (SEK-you-lum). In a nutshell, the word means “approximately a long lifetime,” and tends to work out to about 80 years.

At the time I encountered the book, I was feeling very much what so many of us have been feeling. Life is getting out of hand, problems are so large nobody can solve them, there are so many types of problems we can’t even see where to start to fix them. The economy is shot, tensions everywhere are huge, everyone’s angry or depressed, and it seems like the end of the world.

Then I read the book, wading through the first half, and discovered that it’s not so bad! Everything we’re experiencing today has been experienced over and over again, throughout at least the past 500 years. In fact, written accounts from previous parts of the cycle are so similar that they could’ve been written today.

A saeculum is basically four generations, with each generation lasting about 20 years. The “turn” is when a generation enters into the next major phase of human life. So, for example, a child is born. Then, at around 20, becomes a young adult. The “first turning” would be that first 20 years and the time they become independent as young adults.

The next phase is our adult life, 20-40, where we work and get married, start families and careers and go into the world. At around 40-60, we begin to enter middle life, perhaps as young elders. This is when we become managers, executives, and begin making more of the decision processes.

At 60-80, the Fourth Turning, we embark upon wisdom and experience, being the leaders and elders of the society. Not easily accounted for, there’s now a potential “fifth turning,” at 80, when we are the “old ones,” coming to terms with life in general and contemplating the wisdom of the ages.

Similarly, because people are people everywhere, we tend to see whole groups of people as a social generation. It’s why we label whole demographics as The WWII generation, or the Baby Boomers, or the X Generation.

There are four archetypal descriptions the authors apply to each overall generation within the saeculum. It doesn’t matter what the names, you can read the book. But what matters is that the archetypes work because as we go back through history, we see them repeated. So the Baby Boom generation was filled with ideals, rebelling against the regimentation of the “Beat” generation.

So too, in the late 1800s, there also was an idealistic generation, wanting to overthrow the staid regimentation of their parents.

Coinciding with this particular examination of social cycles, the authors looked at books about the cycles of war. There too, the same 80-year pattern emerged, showing that wars happen over and over again. There are major wars, usually around the 2nd, and 4th turning, and minor wars around the 1st and 3rd turning.

The way I began to finally understand the cycles of the book relate to both natural quarters of a year, and to music. The authors point out that nothing lasts forever. We have Spring, a time for planting and where the earth is born into green. We have Summer, during which life grows, infants are born, and life is good. Then comes Autumn, a time for harvesting and preparing for the cold of winter. And then Winter, where everything withers and dies, returning to the ground in preparation of Spring.

So too, generations and cultures go through the same cycles. It’s not a good idea for a social structure to last forever, as there’d be no progress or development. As such, built into the nature of each of us is the archetypal “push” toward changes.

The 1990s, leading into the early 2000s was the harvest time for the WWII generation. They were young adults when the last 4th turning took place, and fought in the major war. Coming home from that war, all they wanted was peace and a nice place to raise a family. They were tired of war, tired of death, and tired of discord. And so they came home to rest.

Where it gets a bit difficult, and where I think the authors didn’t really do a good job of explanation, is that there are two “waves” to a saeculum. So when a young adult at 18-25 went off to war, half way between that person and his or her children is another generation. They would be the ones who were 10-15 at the time, too young for war, but no the children of their older siblings.

That “in between” generation is now our oldest politicians. They’re “artists” and “builders” by archetype, but also filled with guilt. They didn’t fight the war, but they reaped the benefits of peace. They used that guilt and built the infrastructure we have in America today. They’re now in their 70s and 80s, watching the fourth turning and experiencing what happened just prior to their own birth, back in the previous saeculum.

We came through Autumn, back in the 1990s, and now we’re entering Winter. The authors propose that 2005 would be the natural start of that season. As such, we have adult Baby Boomers who are great at coming up with ideals, but short on follow-through. That move toward expectations, but leaving the practical application to someone else is a hallmark of the generation.

At the same time, we have the Gen-X kids, raised on their own and left to their own devices. They’re not interested in ideals because they saw their parents go off to “do their own thing, man,” and leave the kids alone. Those are today’s adults, with a strong practical nature and not so much long-term planning.

We saw children born in the late 80s, early 90s who are just now turning military age. They’re still trying to figure out how to have all the things they were told life should be. They’re the “warriors,” and will take the ideals of the elder Baby Boomers and try to make them happen.

Over and over again, we see the same cycles. Over and over again, there’s a time when ideals come face-to-face with reality, and nobody wants to give on either side. Repeatedly we see the stresses of today’s liberal versus conservative ideologies. And over and over again, it eventually leads to war.

Those major wars lead to a restructuring of the geopolitical world. Fragmentation comes first, but then leads to a great consolidation. In the 1930s, America was an isolated country, mostly agricultural, and highly regional. Following 1945, America became part of an international consolidation. We no longer said we were from this or that region, we said we were from America.

So too, we saw the initial attempts to consolidate into a global economy, but with the coming fragmentation it has to stop for a moment. We’ll fracture, with each nation going back toward isolation. Following the next major war, we’ll see an entirely new concept of human civilization. With everyone exhausted and tired to the bone of fighting, the children being born in the first decade of the 2000s will be those who come up with entirely new ideas.

Yes it’s depressing that we’re about to have major conflicts and upheavals. But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of optimism in knowing that over and over again, century after century, humanity has always gone through these cycles. And at the start of each new saeculum, we’ve emerged with an even more interesting and sophisticated civilization.



  1. Thanks for getting the word out on this great book! I agree, it is both valuable (and a little depressing) to know what is coming next. I am part of Generation X, and I realize that our generation will likely be a forgotten footnote (like the Lost generation before us). But we all have our roles. I have been writing about generational theory (based on the work of Strauss and Howe) on my blog: http://www.thegenxfiles.com. I would love to hear your take.

    Comment by davesohigian — March 10, 2009 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

  2. šŸ™‚ How coincidental! I first learned of “The Fourth Turning” on the same Coast-to-Coast George Noory you have on your site! Thanks for connecting: people can hear the video on your site here, at The Gen X Files

    Comment by Punchinello — March 11, 2009 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

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