The Fourth Turning: A crisis after the war in Iraq is inevitable, 2 historians say

April 7, 2003 | By Marta Salij

Are you ready for 20 years of turmoil?

If you’ve studied your American history, you might have seen the turmoil coming, say two historians who are forecasting a cycle of civic crisis that will last a generation.

William Strauss and Neil Howe call this era a Fourth Turning, and they say how you react to it will depend on your generation.

Other historians, such as Arnold Toynbee, have traced cycles of peace and war. What Strauss and Howe have added is a correspondence among four cycles, or turnings, of history and four archetypes of generations.

Just as history shapes generations, generations shape history, in other words.

As each generation comes of age, it brings a predictable shift in public mood through crisis to rebuilding to spiritual awakening to civic unraveling. Strauss and Howe described their ideas in 1991’s “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069” (Perennial, $16) and 1997’s “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy” (Broadway Books, $15.95).

Prediction Comes True

Reading “The Fourth Turning” today is chilling. Six years ago, Strauss and Howe predicted that an era of crisis would be sparked in the early 2000s. Here’s one scenario they offered:

“A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft and announces it possesses portable nuclear weapons. The United States and its allies launch a preemptive strike. The terrorists threaten to retaliate against an American city. Congress declares war and authorizes unlimited house-to-house searches. Opponents charge the president concocted the emergency for political purposes.”

Strauss claims no psychic gifts. The most recent Fourth Turning brought the Great Depression and World War II. The one before that brought the Civil War and the end of slavery. The one before that, the American Revolution.

A Fourth Turning involves a response “to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice,” Strauss and Howe wrote in “The Fourth Turning.”

To those who say that a Fourth Turning could be averted by refusing to go to war, Strauss says it’s fruitless to try to dodge the pressures of history. “We would have encountered them in a different way,” he says.

It will be left to historians to date the beginning of this Fourth Turning, whether to the Sept. 11 attacks, or to the invasion of Iraq, or to an event yet to occur. The beginnings are often a series of sparks, Strauss says.

Political and social change will accelerate until a climax, often a large-scale war or revolution that was unimaginable a decade earlier.

“The climax shakes a society to its roots, transforms its institutions, redirects its purposes and marks its people,” Strauss and Howe wrote.

That’s for the pessimists.

“But we can say that after something happens, our response will be to rebuild the civic fabric,” Strauss says.

That’s for the optimists.

Generations, Archetypes

This Fourth Turning sees the coming-of-age of the Millennials, the Americans born since 1982. They belong to a generational archetype Strauss and Howe call the Hero, and they will resemble the GI’s who fought World War II. Millennials will attack the crisis with relish, Strauss and Howe predict, because they believe in action.

After the crisis is over, the generation being born now will enter adulthood. Their archetype is the Artist, and they will rebuild communities and stress cooperation, Strauss says.

This new generation will resemble another group of Artists who followed Heroes, the Silent Generation that was born from 1925 to 1942. The Silents have supported multinationalism and the United Nations more than any other generation, Strauss says.

The Artist generation is consistently followed by a Prophet generation—the Boomers born between 1943 and 1960—which comes of age during a spiritual awakening. Prophets have the seemingly paradoxical ability to favor wars for ideals but to resent being forced to fight. President George W. Bush is a Boomer, of course, but so is Osama bin Laden.

The Prophets are followed by Nomads, such as the Gen-Xers born from 1961 to 1981. Nomads grow up fast; they’re children while the adults are off finding themselves. They come of age during the unraveling of civic structures that precedes a Fourth Turning, and then become pragmatic managers during the crisis.

“The most supportive of this war have been the youngest edge of the Boomers and leading edge of the Gen-Xers,” the generation that follows the Boomers, says Strauss. In other words, 40-somethings and 50-somethings who are driving the political structures.

Strauss and Howe are Boomers.

Each Turning, as Strauss and Howe describe them, can have a war in it, but the wars will be received very differently. A Third Turning war is often inconclusive, as the first Persian Gulf War and World War I proved to be. A Second Turning war is often particularly controversial, as the Vietnam War was.

The war in Iraq is receiving the kind of general support that Fourth Turning wars tend to have. About 70 percent of Americans support the war, according to several major news polls conducted last week, and even more support the troops.

“You look around this war and its attitude toward the military, and it’s almost like this great big hug,” says Strauss.

“People say, ‘Oh, there’s all this support because the war is being brought into their living rooms,’” Strauss says. “But guess what? Vietnam was brought into living rooms and there it had the opposite effect.”