Book Review: The Fourth Turning

06/25/10

By John Eberhard

Several years ago my wife started home schooling our kids. From other home schooling families, she found out about George Wythe College, in southern Utah. George Wythe was doing seminars in the Los Angeles area specifically geared to home schooling parents, centering around a method they called Thomas Jefferson Education.

My wife attended several George Wythe seminars, and I attended several, including a 3 day event in southern Utah back in 2005.

I found out about a number of important books and theories related to government, that the George Wythe people were promoting, including:

  • The Tytler Cycle theory of government and society, on which I have written several articles (1, 2, 3)
  • “The Third Wave” by Alvin Toffler
  • “The Five Thousand Year Leap” by W. Cleon Skousen
  • “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe

I have recently been reading “The Fourth Turning,” written in 1996, and have found this to be a fascinating book. The essence of this book is that society moves in cycles of roughly 80-100 years which the authors call a saeculum, with four periods within the saeculum called turnings.

According to Strauss and Howe, prior to the Enlightenment in the 1500s, people tended to view life as part of a repeating cycle, similar to the seasons, movement of the planets, etc. But during the Enlightenment a different view of life emerged, called “linear time.”

According to the linear time view, time just moves along from one period to the next, with no repeating, cyclical aspect. Someone with a linear view would look at the period we are in right now, and expect that in 10-20 years, we would just have more of the same as we have right now.

But would it surprise you to know that several periods in the past have had an eerily similar feel to the current time?

According to Strauss and Howe, we have just come through what is called an “Unraveling” period. Here are their four turning periods:

  • “The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.
  • “The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.
  • “The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.
  • “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.

“Each new turning comes with its own identifiable mood. Always, these mood shifts catch people by surprise.

“In the current saeculum, the First Turning was the American High of the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies. As World War II wound down, no one predicted that America would soon become so confident and institutionally muscular, yet so conformist and spiritually complacent. But that’s what happened.

“The Second Turning was the Consciousness Revolution, stretching from the campus revolts of the mid-1960s to the tax revolts of the early 1980s. Before John Kennedy was assassinated, no one predicted that America was about to enter an era of personal liberation and cross a cultural divide that would separate anything thought or said after from anything thought or said before. But that’s what happened.

“The Third Turning has been the Culture Wars, an era that began with Reagan’s mid-1980s Morning in America and is due to expire around the middle of the Oh-Oh decade, eight or ten years from now. Amid the glitz of the early Reagan years, no one predicted that the nation was entering an era of national drift and institutional decay. But that’s where we are.

“Have major national mood shifts like this ever before happened? Yes-many times. Have Americans ever before experienced anything like the current attitude of Unraveling? Yes-many times, over the centuries.”

The turnings are driven by the different generations, what type of generation they are, and where they are in their own cycle of life; childhood, young adult, mid-life and old age.

The book is, of course, called “The Fourth Turning,” which is a period of crisis. The last crisis period we experienced included the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and World War II. According to this theory, there is a crisis period, not necessarily just one crisis event.

Although the book was written in 1996, they predicted that we would enter a crisis turning at the latest in roughly 2005.

Although according to this theory, the bad news is that we are entering or have already entered a crisis period, the positive aspect of this is that crisis events will get resolved and then the country will enter a “high” period afterward. This is good news for linearist thinkers who tend to think things will just continue to get worse and worse in America.

I strongly recommend this book, although I will warn you that the authors have a large vocabulary and aren’t shy about using it, so keep a dictionary handy.

Here is my take, based on some thought I’ve given to this, as to the nature of the crisis that we are now IN:

  1. Islam vs the West. You could make a case that the crisis period started on 9/11/2001, when we were attacked by Muslim extremists. Regardless of whether you consider that that was the beginning of the crisis period, one element of the current crisis is definitely Muslim extremism and its conflict with the West. Violent conversion of non-believers is not just a radical fringe belief, but is actually a no-compromise core belief of Islam. I believe we have not seen the last of this, especially with Iran building a nuclear bomb, and that this conflict will have to be resolved in some way by the end of the crisis period, which will be roughly 2025-2030. I hope this can be resolved without major further violent conflict, but that is far from certain.
  1. Mortgage Meltdown (2007-2008). There is no question that the mortgage meltdown and the resulting real estate crash and recession with nearly 10% unemployment is another aspect of the crisis, and one that will require resolution. There is strong evidence that this crisis was manufactured, so true resolution will have to deal effectively with that issue.
  1. Socialism vs. Conservatism. Socialism became in vogue for a portion of the Baby Boomer generation during the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s to the 1980s. The culture wars that we have seen for the last 25 years are a result of this group imposing their values on the rest of us, despite the fact that liberals have never numbered more than 20% of the population. Now secular-socialists control the White House and both houses of Congress, and Obama and crew have decided to accelerate the “transformation of America” to a socialist state, exceeding the public’s acceptance level. Enacting health care reform against the loud and clear opposition of the majority of Americans, is only the most egregious of many examples. This has caused the rise of the Tea Party movement. The showdown between these two irreconcilable groups begins in earnest this November. Before the crisis period is over, we are going to see a resolution of this one way or another.

Future articles will discuss these issues in more depth.

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