Turnings: Introduction

Last Updated: Jun. 7, 2012

History creates generations, and generations create history. This symbiosis between life and time explains why, if one is seasonal, the other must be. If generational archetypes repeat in a fourfold cycle, this implies a recurrence of social moods or eras that form these archetypes sequentially.

This is precisely what Strauss and Howe discovered as they investigated generations in American history: Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has traversed a four-stage cycle of social moods or eras. At the start of each era—or “turning” as the authors call them—people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future. Each turning tends to last about twenty years: roughly the span of a generation, and the amount of time it takes to pass through one entire phase of life. Four turnings comprise a full cycle of about 80 to 90 years, or the length of one long human life. The Romans named this length of time the saeculum, meaning both “a long human life” and “a natural century.” In Generations, Strauss and Howe trace seven Saecula in Anglo-American history going back to the late 15th century (for more information see Historical Generations and Turnings).

Each of the four turnings comes with its own identifiable mood, recurring over the centuries, from one saeculum to the next. We can think of these turnings as the seasons of history: At one extreme is the winter or “Crisis,” a period marked by major secular upheaval, when society focuses on reorganizing the outer world of institutions and public behavior. At the other extreme is the summer or “Awakening,” a period marked by cultural or religious renewal, when society focuses on changing the inner world of values and private behavior. Both of these are defining eras in which people observe that historic events are radically altering their social environment. During Crises, great peril provokes a societal consensus, an ethic of personal sacrifice, and strong institutional order. During Awakenings, an ethic of individualism emerges, and the institutional order is attacked by new social ideas and spiritual agendas. Between the Crisis and Awakening are transitional seasons, similar to Spring and Fall.

It is therefore no accident that America has experienced great cataclysms or “Crises” about every eighty years or so. Exactly eighty-five years before Pearl Harbor Day, the first Confederate shot was fired at Fort Sumter. Eighty-five years before that, the founding fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence, launching the American Revolution. Another eighty-seven years passed between the Anglo-American “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 and Independence day. Go back a slightly longer period, and you reach the English naval victory over the Spanish Armada—a turning point in England’s history. And another century before that takes you to the end of the War of Roses, a bloody civil war whose passage enabled “Tudor” England to emerge as a modern nation state.

The cycle of turnings also explains why episodes of spiritual and cultural upheaval tend to occur about halfway in between these nation-defining events. Go forty-five years backwards from the Spanish Armada and you land near the end of England’s tumultuous Protestant Reformation. Go forty-five years forward from 1929, the onset of the Great-Depression-World War II era, and you land in 1969, in the first throes of the America’s Consciousness Revolution.

What social force drives the cycle of turnings and determines its periodicity? The answer is generations. America’s national character reflects a composite of generational personas across all phases of life, from youth to old age. Every two decades or so, the current elder leaders pass on, new generations enter old age, midlife and young adulthood, and a new batch of children arrives. As all generations age into the next life phase—and a new social role—their distinct generational attitudes and behaviors transform these life phases, provoking powerful new currents in the public mood. The composite lifecycle becomes something altogether new, fundamentally changing the attitudes and behaviors of society as a whole. The national mood shifts, and America enters a new turning.

The notion that events and social attitudes recur in history is not a new idea. It is a concept that has long fascinated social scientists, who have applied it to everything from the largest dynamics of geopolitics to the most intimate aspects of personal life. For example, the cycle of Crises corresponds with long cycles of war identified by such scholars as Arnold Toynbee, Quincy Wright, and L.L. Ferrar Jr., and with geopolitical cycles identified by William Thompson and George Modelski. The cycle of Awakenings corresponds with Anthony Wallace’s definitive work on “revitalization movements,” which scholars such as William Mcloughlin and Robert Fogel have argued are cyclical. Recurring Crises and Awakenings also correspond with broadly accepted two-stroke cycles in politics (Arthur Schlesinger, Walter Dean Burnham), foreign affairs (Frank. L. Klingberg), and the economy (Nikolai Kondratieff) as well as with long-term oscillations in crime and substance abuse.

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