Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Fourth Turning by Howe and Strauss

I don’t remember why I decided to read this book. The political theory it describes is loved by both Gore and Bannon. This surprisingly heterogeneous recommendation reignited my interest when I saw it on my reading list.

The basic idea is this: history is cyclical with the unit of interest being 80-90 years. The authors call it a "saeculum", also known as a natural century, or a long human life. Each saeculum has four stages with the last one climaxing into a crisis. Each stage is associated with a general mood, and last roughly 20-22 years each.

  1. High - occurs after a crisis, institutions are strong, individuals weak.
  2. Awakening - institutions are attacked in the name of personal autonomy.
  3. Unraveling - institutions are weak, individuals strong.
  4. Crisis - often involves destruction, sometimes war or revolution.

Each stage brings forth a new generation with a distinct personality type which evolves the generational lifespan.

  1. Prophets (eg. Boomers) enter childhood during a High, a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order.
  2. Nomads (eg. Gen X) enter childhood during an Awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas, when young adults are passionately attacking the established institutional order.
  3. Heros (eg. Millenials, G. I. Generation) enter childhood during an Unraveling, a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez-faire.
  4. Artists (eg. Gen Z, Silent Generation) enter childhood during a Crisis, a time when great dangers cut down social and political complexity in favor of public consensus, aggressive institutions, and an ethic of personal sacrifice.

The authors view history through this lens, for example citing previous great crises in US history:

  • 1774-94: Era of the American Revolution and the Constitution
  • 1860-68: the Civil War and its immediate aftermath
  • 1929-45: and the Depression and the Second World War

The book is written in 1997, and the authors make grand predictions for the next decades, it's fun to see how well the theory predicts the present. It's still too soon to know how accurate their predictions were, but it's already clear that their track record will be a mixed bag.

The Crisis turning of this last saeculum was supposed to start sometime 2002-2008, peak around 2020, and resolve by 2026. Several important events can be shoehorned into the theory as demarcating the beginning of the fourth turning: 9/11 in 2001, the recession of 2008. Trump's election in 2016 can also fit into their framework. Other things are way off. The way the media represents millennials is quite far from heroic (at least so far). Or like the way that millennial’s are supposed to be like GIs, community focused and socially cohesive. The increased communitarianism in the 4th turning has not panned out.

A summary from Howe from 2017 retroactively glosses over the parts that don’t fit, and focuses on those that do:

Overall, the theory is unfalsifiable and overly general. Specific claims in the book are often unsubstantiated. However I found it an entertaining read, and potentially a fruitful “fake framework”.