Timing of Generations and Turnings

Last Updated: Feb. 17, 2012

The basic length of both generations and turnings—about twenty years—derives from longstanding socially and biologically determined phases of life. This is the reason it has remained relatively constant over centuries.

Some have argued that rapid increases in technology in recent decades are shortening the length of a generation. This is not the case. As long as the transition to adulthood occurs around age 20–22, the transition to midlife around the early 40s, and the transition to old age around age 65, the basic length of both generations and turnings will remain the same. After all, human history is made of lives, coursing from birth to death. Of the cycles known to man, the most basic, perhaps, is the human life cycle. No other societal force, not class, not nationality, not culture, not technology, has as predictable a chronology.

However, it is important to remember that neither turnings nor generations appear on an exact timetable. That is as it should be. If the timing were precise, it would show human events to occupy the simple, inorganic domain of physical time, rendering society hardly more complex than an orbiting comet or a ticking metronome. Instead, the imprecise saeculum shows that society occupies the complex, organic domain of natural time. Nature offers numerous examples of this domain: the beating of a heart, the budding of a flower, the molting of a sparrow. The mere act of breathing requires hundreds of physiological feedbacks involving blood chemistry, neuronal signals, hormonal balance, and body temperature. No one can calibrate or predict its timing with exact precision. But each phase of breathing must follow another in the proper order and at roughly the right moment, or a person would quickly die.

Likewise with the saeculum: History moves in a progression of ebbs and flows whose schedule is regular yet not precisely fixed. As the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once argued on behalf of his own cycle of American politics (whose “mainspring,” he too argued, was “generational change”), “A true cycle... is self-generating. It cannot be determined, short of catastrophe, by external events. War, depressions, inflations, may heighten or complicate moods, but the cycle itself rolls on, self-contained, self-sufficient and autonomous…. The roots of this self-sufficiency lie deep in the natural life of humanity.”

So, again, think of turnings as you think of the seasons. Even when winter arrives a bit early or late, it is still possible to anticipate in what order the leaves will fall, the birds will migrate, and the streams will freeze. By correctly foretelling these things, you can prepare for the coming of a harsh season. If, on the other hand, you have no clue—if you think that history is random and that the ‘50s could just as well follow the ‘60s or the ‘70s could follow the ‘80s—you might as well think that the spring could follow the summer and that birds could fly backward. You would be ignoring what your intuition is telling you about the direction of social change, and about the emergent order of both nature and history.

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