Sept. 11 Tragedy Marks Another Turning Point

October 29, 2001 | By William Strauss, Neil Howe

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans have become a changed people. The attacks left us disoriented, depressed and angry—but also patriotic, united and determined.

The rules seem to have changed; our surroundings shifted. We yearn for “normalcy,” but what will that new normal be?

Senior citizens who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II remark on the similarity between how America felt then and how it feels now. Is this the new normal?

The lesson of history is: yes. While history does not repeat in its particulars, it does in its rhythms. Why? Because of the rhythms—and cycle—of generations.

The generations alive today have much in common with the generations alive in the USA around 1929. Elder veterans of the last total war—the Civil War, that is—were passing away. A moralistic generation born after the Civil War was deep in middle age. The free-agent barnstormers of the Lost Generation were wearing out, their Gen X-like pragmatism now a tired subject. A new generation of protected, special, scoutlike children was filling high schools and colleges.

That is why the 1990s bore so many similarities to the 1920s. What we are experiencing now, post-Sept. 11, resembles no year as much as 1930, whose mood shift historian Frederick Lewis Allen described as “bewilderingly rapid,” as “an old order was giving place to the new,” reflecting an “aching disillusionment of the hard-boiled era, its oily scandals, its spiritual paralysis, the harshness of its gaiety.”

Sound familiar? It should. This mood shift—into what we call a “Fourth Turning”—has happened many times before.

At the core of modern history lies this remarkable pattern: During the past 5 centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era—a new turning—every 2 decades or so.

At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation and the future.

Turnings come in cycles of four, spanning four generations (or the length of a long human life), roughly 80 to 100 years.

  • The First Turning is a High. Boomers and those older can recall the Great American High from V-J Day through the early 1960s.

  • The Second Turning is an Awakening. Even Gen-Xers can recall (as kids) the Consciousness Revolution, from the John Kennedy assassination through the early 1980s.

  • The Third Turning is an Unraveling. Every American recalls the most recent Third Turning, because this era of long booms and culture wars was still going strong as recently as Sept. 10, 2001.

  • The Fourth Turning is a Crisis. The next Fourth Turning may have already begun. Only today’s oldest Americans recall the last such era, which spanned the Great Depression and World War II.

Each time, America encounters an abrupt shift in the social mood, triggered by every generation’s passage into a new phase of life.

Each time, the new mood shift catches nearly everyone by surprise. That has especially been true for Fourth Turnings. Nearly no one expected them—but they came.

In 1770, did colonists expect a revolution? No.

In 1855, did Americans, North and South, expect a bloody civil war? No.

In 1925, did a roaring nation expect a stock collapse, depression and global war? No.

Reflect on the magnitude of the recent change. Violent movies are being shelved, and comics are cleaning up their acts. National identity cards are being proposed. Uniformed troops are patrolling public places. Nine out of 10 Americans support a huge war against an unseen enemy. A solid majority believes the government does the right thing most of the time. All of this would have been unthinkable, as recently as August.

It’s not yet possible to say whether this mood shift is permanent or merely suggestive of what’s poised to come soon—in other words, whether we’re in the Fourth Turning or in the last throes of the third.

Within the next year, we’ll know. Here’s a checklist. If the following trends deepen, then America will be in the Fourth Turning, a new era of crisis.

  • Are leaders describing the problem in larger rather than smaller terms, proposing grand solutions, and seeking to destroy (and not just contain) enemies?

  • Is there a shift away from individualism (and civil liberties) toward community purpose (and national survival)?

  • Are the old “culture wars” arguments beginning to feel lame, ridiculous, even dangerous to national unity?

  • Is the celebrity culture feeling newly irrelevant? Is youth fare becoming less gross and less violent?

  • Is immigration reversing? Are mobility and openness declining? Is there more nativism in our culture and less “globalism” in our commerce?

  • Is there a new willingness to pay a human price to achieve a national purpose? Will we harness technology only to reduce casualties and inconvenience, or also to achieve a total and lasting victory.

  • Is each generation entering its new phase of life with a new attitude? Are aging boomers overcoming narcissism? Are Gen-Xers on the edge of midlife, circling their wagons around family? Are Millennials emerging as a special and celebrated crop of youth?

Suppose we are in a Fourth Turning. How long will it last? Probably 2 decades. How will it turn out?

Perhaps in triumph, or in tragedy, or in some unknowable combination of the two. That will be up to us.

For a long time, Americans have been waiting for history to happen. It’s happening. Let’s hope we, and our leaders, handle it well.