The Four Turnings

Last Updated: Jun. 17, 2014

The Anglo-American Saeculum
SaeculumTime from
climax of
Crisis to
climax of
(climax year)
(Full Era)
Time from
climax of
to climax
of Crisis
(climax year)
(Full Era)
Time from
one Crisis
climax to
next Crisis
Late Medieval (1485)
Wars of the Roses
Reformation 51 years (1536)
Protestant Reformation
52 years (1588)
Armada Crisis
103 years
New World 52 years (1640)
Puritan Awakening
49 years (1588)
Glorious Revolution
101 Years
Revolutionary 52 years (1741)
Great Awakening
40 years (1781)
American Revolution
92 years
Civil War 50 years (1831)
Transcendental Awakening
32 years (1863)
Civil War
82 years
Great Power 33 years (1896)
Third Great Awakening
48 Years (1944)
Great Depression
and World War II
81 years
Millennial 30 years (1974)
Consciousness Revolution
51 years? (2025?)
Global Financial Crisis
81 years?

Below is a description of each of the four turnings, including which generational archetype fills each phase of life during that type of era. We also note which generation came of age during the most recent example of each turning, and how it contributed to that era’s mood. The descriptions refer to a four-phase model of social change devised by the famous sociologist Talcott Parsons, who hypothesized that society moves into a new phase every time the availability or demand for social order rises or falls.

First Turning

The First Turning is a High. Old Prophets die, Nomads enter elderhood, Heroes enter midlife, Artists enter young adulthood—and a new generation of Prophets is born. This is an era when institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, even if those outside the majoritarian center feel stifled by the conformity. America’s most recent First Turning was the post-World War II American High, beginning in 1946 and ending with the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, a key lifecycle marker for today’s older Americans. Coming of age during this High was the Artist archetype Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1942). Known for their caution, conformity, and institutional trust, Silent young adults embodied the ethos of the High. Most married early, sought stable corporate jobs, and slipped quietly into America’s gleaming new suburbs.

In Parsons’ terms, a First Turning is an era in which both the availability of social order and the demand for social order are high. Examples of earlier First Turnings include the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, sometimes called the Victorian High of industrial growth and stable families, and the post-Constitution Era of Good Feelings, when Thomas Jefferson celebrated the advance of science and empire.

Second Turning

The Second Turning is an Awakening. Old Nomads die, Heroes enter elderhood, Artists enter midlife, Prophets enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Nomads is born. This is an era when institutions are attacked in the name of personal and spiritual autonomy. Just when society is reaching its high tide of public progress, people suddenly tire of social discipline and want to recapture a sense of personal authenticity. Young activists and spiritualists look back at the previous High as an era of cultural poverty. America’s most recent Awakening was the “Consciousness Revolution,” which spanned from the campus and inner-city revolts of the mid 1960s to the tax revolts of the early ‘80s. Coming of age during this Awakening was the Prophet archetype Boom Generation (born 1943 to 1960), whose passionate idealism and search for authentic self-expression epitomized the mood of the era.

In Parsons’ terms, a Second Turning is an era in which the availability of social order is high, but the demand for such order is low. Examples of earlier Second Turnings include the Third Great Awakening around 1900, marked by labor protests, Billy Sunday evangelicals, and “new woman” feminists, and the Transcendental Awakening, which Henry David Thoreau described as a period “when we have lost the world…and begin to find ourselves.”

Third Turning

The Third Turning is an Unraveling. Old Heroes die, Artists enter elderhood, Prophets enter midlife, Nomads enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Heroes is born. The mood of this era is in many ways the opposite of a High. Institutions are weak and distrusted, while individualism is strong and flourishing. Highs follow Crises, which teach the lesson that society must coalesce and build. Unravelings follow Awakenings, which teach the lesson that society must atomize and enjoy. America’s most recent Unraveling was the Long Boom and Culture Wars, beginning in the early 1980s and probably ending in 2008. The era opened with triumphant “Morning in America” individualism and drifted toward a pervasive distrust of institutions and leaders, an edgy popular culture, and the splitting of national consensus into competing “values” camps. Coming of age during this Unraveling was the Nomad archetype Generation X (born 1961-1981), whose pragmatic, free-agent persona and Survivor-style self-testing have embodied the mood of the era.

In Parsons’ terms, a Third Turning is an era in which both the availability of social order and the demand for such order are low. Examples of earlier Unravelings include the periods around the “roaring” 1920s of Prohibition, the Mexican War in the 1850s, and the French and Indian Wars in the 1760s. These were all periods of cynicism and bad manners, when civic authority felt weak, social disorder felt pervasive, and the culture felt exhausted.

Fourth Turning

The Fourth Turning is a Crisis. Old Artists die, Prophets enter elderhood, Nomads enter midlife, Heroes enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Artists is born. This is an era in which America’s institutional life is torn down and rebuilt from the ground up—always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. Civic authority revives, cultural expression finds a community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group. In every instance, Fourth Turnings have eventually become new “founding moments” in America’s history, refreshing and redefining the national identity. America’s most recent Fourth Turning began with the stock market crash of 1929 and climaxed with World War II. The generation that came of age during this Fourth Turning was the Hero archetype G.I. Generation (born 1901 to 1924), whose collective spirit and can-do optimism epitomized the mood of the era. Today’s Hero archetype youth, the Millennial Generation (born 1982 to 2004) show many traits similar to those of the G.I. youth, including rising civic engagement, improving behavior, and collective confidence.

In Parsons’ terms, a Fourth Turning is an era in which the availability of social order is low, but the demand for such order is high. Examples of earlier Fourth Turnings include the Civil War in the 1860s and the American Revolution in the 1770s—both periods of momentous crisis, when the identity of the nation hung in the balance.

Moods of the Four Turnings
Generation Entering…First Turning
Second Turning
Third Turning
Fourth Turning
Elderhoood Nomad Hero Artist Prophet
Midlife Hero Artist Prophet Nomad
Young Adulthood Artist Prophet Nomad Hero
Childhood Prophet Nomad Hero Artist
Families Strong Weakening Weak Strengthening
Child Nurture Loosening Underprotective Tightening Overprotective
Gap Between Gender Roles Maximum Narrowing Minimum Widening
Ideals Settled Discovered Debated Championed
Institutions Reinforced Attacked Eroded Founded
Culture Innocent Passionate Cynical Practical
Social Structure Unified Splintering Diversified Gravitating
Worldview Simple Complicating Complex Simplifying
Special Priority Maximum Community Rising Individualism Maximum Individualism Rising Community
Social Motivator Shame Conscience Guilt Stigma
Sense of Greatest Need Do What Works Fix Inner World Do What Feels Right Fix Outer World
Vision of Future Brightening Euphoric Darkening Urgent
Wars Restorative Controversial Inconclusive Total

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