The Fourth Turning: Out of Crisis, a New Social Contract

If you read one book this year, let it be The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Published in 1997, it is truly a prophecy. One that gives us perspective and much to think about. Perhaps a sense of direction, if we choose to use the political and Covid crises as silver lining opportunities.

The book’s premise is that although crises may be uncomfortable for us individually, they are normal and even necessary for the human species. Humanity has persevered over several thousand years through cycles lasting about one hundred years. These cycles roughly span four generations. Four “turnings”.

A new cycle is launched out of a major crisis, typically war. The book relates how many historians have seen and discussed the cycles over recent millennia. It focuses mainly on American history. Our major crises were the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the two World Wars of the 20th century. We’re ripe for the next one. Could the war against a virus be regarded as a blessing, better than World War III, a war that unites humans around the globe?

Americans settled into a new social contract after each crisis/war, jettisoning old ways and assumptions that were no longer relevant.

In the First Turning, called “A High”, folks are optimistic and community-oriented. Institutions are strengthened.

During the Second Turning, which the authors name “An Awakening”, civic order is under attack from the new values regime. Full of passion and spiritual upheaval, many begin to question the new patterns and assumptions.

The Third Turning, “The Unraveling”, is marked by rising individualism and weakening institutions. The old order decays, and new values begin to implant.

The authors name the Fourth Turning “Crisis”. This is an era of secular upheaval. That sure describes the current era.

“Unlike a race, religion, or sex, a generation is mortal.” Each generation shares a common location in history, a “common collective persona”. The authors describe and give examples of the four generational archetypes: prophet, nomad, hero, and artist. “History creates generations, and generations create history.” This is the symbiosis between life and time.

In a Crisis they note that emergencies demand massive sacrifice. People put community ahead of self. That’s what we’re doing around the planet.

The book notes that technology could spell the end of mankind in a modern war. One can hope for change. But we can also act to ensure it happens — and constructively. This book shines a bright light on the possibilities and the roles played by those who lead.