Where We Are Today

Last Updated: Jul. 18, 2012

Periodically, society experiences a transition from one turning to another. Today we have just experienced such a transition. The frenzied individualism and carnival culture of the recent Third Turning—the years of the Roaring ‘90s, the Dot-com Boom, and the Greenspan Asset Bubble—is fading into memory.  America has entered a Fourth Turning, marked by new sobriety about unpaid debts at home and unmet challenges abroad. Like all turnings, the current Fourth Turning will draw its momentum from the aging of each generation into a new phase of life. Unlike the last three turnings, the emerging lineup of generational archetypes is likely to push history forward in a sudden, concerted, and decisive direction.

As visionary Boomers replace the Silent as elder leaders, they are rejecting caution and compromise and acting on moral absolutes. As pragmatic Gen-Xers replace Boomers in midlife, they are manifesting a new toughness and resolution as hands-on managers. As group-oriented Millennials replace Gen Xers in young adulthood, they are getting ready to mobilize behind some new model of public authority with collective action and social discipline. All of these generations are likely to view the recent Third Turning as an era of drift when public problems were allowed to accumulate—problems that must now be tackled head-on.

There are many potential threats that could feed a growing sense of public urgency as the Fourth Turning progresses, from financial collapse to a protracted war, from a crisis of weapons proliferation to an environmental crisis, from an energy shortage to new civil wars abroad. The generational cycle cannot explain the role or timing of these individual threats. It cannot account for specific great incidents in history, like Pearl Harbor, or President Kennedy’s assassination, or 9/11. What it can do is explain when Crisis or Awakening events are most likely to happen—and, even more importantly, how society is likely to respond to these events in different eras. It is the response, not the initial event, which defines an era.

In Anglo-American history, there have been six Fourth Turnings dating back to the fifteenth century (see Historical Turnings). In the modern history of many other societies whose generational currents have run roughly parallel to that of the United States (especially in Europe and Asia), there have been many other Fourth Turnings. By observing the similarities in how these eras unfold, a morphology can be constructed.

A Crisis era begins with a catalyst, a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood. In America’s last Fourth Turning, the catalyst was the 1929 stock market crash. In the current era, we may ultimately look back on the global market meltdown and historic national election of 2008--ushering in a “Great Recession” and a seemingly endless era of deleveraging--as the initial mood-changer. Several years after the catalyst, society enters a regeneracy, a drawing together of the community in response to a worsening outlook and a growing determination to surmount the challenge. Thus regenerated, a society then propels toward a climax—a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and triumph of the new. The climax can end well, badly, or some combination of both. Either way, it shakes a society to its roots, transforms institutions, redirects social purposes, and marks people (and generations) for life. Eventually, the mood transforms into the exhaustion and relief of resolution, the moment when treaties are signed and celebrations are staged.

As the new order quickly hardens and people embrace dreams of domestic contentment, the Crisis era ends and society enters the First Turning of the next saeculum. Roughly twenty years, in most cases, will have elapsed since the catalyst. In today’s context, we at LifeCourse anticipate the end of the Fourth Turning to occur sometime in the late 2020s. By then, we expect that a new “Homeland Generation” (born, 2005– ?) will begin to come of age as young adults. We tentatively tag them as belonging to the Artist archetype. They will strike older Americans as well-educated, well-behaved, risk averse, and perhaps also credulous and conformist.

As America moves into a Fourth Turning, this will be a time of great national trial and upheaval. Yet seeing this on the horizon is not a prophesy of some horrible tragedy. A Fourth Turning also could be a time of triumph. Just as the risk of war is great in a Fourth Turning, so too is the possibility of accomplishing things that in other eras would be impossible—particularly in the areas of government, institutions, and infrastructure. It’s important to remember that Fourth Turnings have occurred many times before in American history. Each has been an era when America felt good about itself as a society and a nation, a time when big problems have been solved, when businesses ultimately emerged prosperous, and when people came together with a new ethic of community and consensus.

Seeing the story of America as a sequence of generational lifecycles provides a new paradigm for understanding history—and, especially, for appreciating how history is nonlinear, always moving toward the next great bend in its path. Those who understand the rhythms of history can also look for ways to anticipate them—and, thereby, make use of them. In business and investment as in government, marketing, HR, strategic planning, education, and many other areas, the people who succeed in a Fourth Turning mood will be those who understand how history creates generations, and generations create history.

For more analysis and detail on the current Fourth Turning, see this 2012 post on “The Saeculum Decoded” (Neil Howe’s blog).

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