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OK, So The Fourth Turning Is Here: Now What?

OK, So The Fourth Turning Is Here: Now What?

  • Is time random and chaotic, or is it linear and constantly progressing? The former idea has mostly appealed to mystics and sages; the latter to Western monotheistic religions.
  • In his new book, “The Fourth Turning Is Here,” Neil Howe argues in favor of cyclical time akin to the seasons of the year. He believes that historical cycles repeat themselves in a predictable pattern, even though we can’t predict the events that will unfold or the length of the cycles.
  • Unfortunately, we are destined to repeat history — but the good news is that we can learn from the past and feel confident that humanity will persevere.

As the adage goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But what if we are destined to repeat it anyway, regardless of our understanding of the past?

During the 1930s, many political observers thought American “democracy and capitalism were doomed,” says bestselling author and historian Neil Howe. In fact, just over a century ago, the prevailing mentality was that the future would bring either communism or Fascism. That milieu was “every bit as hopeless” as it may seem today — and even more so. 

So although autocracy and populism are undoubtedly on the rise in the U.S. and worldwide, today’s hyper-partisan politics aren’t unprecedented. Our atmosphere now is eerily similar to that of the years between the 1929 stock market crash and the end of World War II. 

In his new book, “The Fourth Turning Is Here,” Neil argues that modern history moves in generational cycles. Each complete cycle spans approximately 80 to 100 years, the length of one long human life. Within one cycle, there are four eras he calls “turnings” that last for about 20 or 25 years apiece. 

Every turning has a trajectory linked with the social generations that live within that time. Neil writes that each generation is shaped by the turning of their youth and each generation shapes the turning they experience in midlife. 

Neil’s book is particularly important right now. He claims we are midway through a “Fourth Turning,” the end of which is always a time of conflict and crisis. The Great Depression and World War II were the hallmarks of the last Fourth Turning, as were the U.S. Civil War and the American Revolution during their respective eras.  

Neil joined host Kevin Coldiron on a Top Traders Unplugged Ideas Lab episode to talk about his theories of historical and generational change, what we might expect in the next “turning” cycle and why, even in the face of a potentially grim future, we have plenty of reasons for optimism.

The ‘Turning’ seasons

Neil says historical cycles are like seasons — and each one is driven by the cultural traits of the generation coming of age (and its differences with older generations). The First Turning is spring, a time of rebirth following the resolution of the previous Fourth Turning crises. (Appropriately, one of the first chapters of Neil’s book is titled “Winter is Coming.”)

Fourth Turning crises redefine the politics, economics and even the “constitutional arrangements” of nations. Toward the end of the Fourth Turning, the upheaval threatens to dismantle society itself, but people band together to solve the problem and rebuild.

The most recent First Turning is the post-WWII era, which spanned the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. 

“It was a period when institutions were strong, individualism was sort of weak and there was a strong ethic of social conformity,” says Neil. That’s what he characterizes as a “social mood,” which not only informs institutional life and legal systems, but “our very way of relating to each other … and what we expect of each other,” he adds. 

During these years, people were generally “modest about what they thought about themselves” and “were taught and agreed to make a lot of effort to fit in with the needs of others.” In practice, that took the form of gendered expectations (boys should grow up to be wage earners and girls should be homemakers). There was an emphasis on community — because fear of the last turning hangs over every new turning. Although Black and indigenous people obviously didn’t enjoy the same socioeconomic progress as white Americans, First Turning eras tend to see those in power strengthen institutions in an effort to avert future crises.

Individuals often feel constrained during First Turning years, but “society itself is able to solve huge problems … [and there is] a great sense of progress,” Neil explains. “[The mid-20th century] was a time in which we spent a lot more on defense, as a share of GDP, than we do today. But we always managed to balance the budgets. In fact, we had surpluses.” 

Those surpluses meant the U.S. could build interstate highways, develop lifesaving vaccines  and launch a project that eventually put a man on the moon. The overall standard of living increased, and the improvements were “extraordinarily rapid,” he adds.

Summertime rebellions

We can think of the Second Turning as an “awakening” — “the summer season, if you will,” says Neil. According to his thesis of turnings as seasonal cycles, Fourth Turnings are akin to winter (in which we experience the dark and often bleak shortest days of the year), and awakenings are like 15-hour days in late June.

The last Second Turning years began in the mid-1960s and lasted until the late ’70s and early ’80s. Neil calls it the “consciousness revolution.” 

The cultural mores of this revolution began on college campuses and among urban activists. It was the era of civil rights, second-wave feminism, gay rights and “counterculture.” 

One of the Baby Boomers’ primary critiques of their parents, most of whom were in what we call the “Greatest Generation,” who survived and won World War II — was that they built institutions that became too big and too strong. They were too civic-minded. The government stopped building so many dams, bridges and other infrastructure. Boomers rejected the conformist, discontented “man in the gray flannel suit” archetype and adopted a “tune in, turn on, drop out” ethos. By the mid-’70s, the Apollo missions were old news and NASA funding dried up. 

In the new book, he writes that in the Second Turning, “society begins to search for soul over science, meaning over things.” The zeitgeist becomes more isolationist and individualistic, turning (ahem) “toward the inner world” and solving problems at home instead of on a societal (or global) level.

Autumn ‘unraveling’

The “Third Turning” is the fall season, in which individualism is strong and institutions are weak. Big civic projects no longer work well; civic authority diminishes and bad manners abound. These years are times of “unraveling,” in which society embraces the cultural shifts launched during the previous (awakening) era. But they are also times of political polarity, cynicism and pessimism. (Think of the “culture wars” that began in the Reagan years and lasted through the administration of George W. Bush.)

Our last Third Turning dawned as the Reagan administration came to power and culminated with the global financial crisis of 2008. 

These autumnal eras tend to feature more conservative politics and policies like tax cuts and deregulation. But the successes of the previous “awakening” period meant that people on the right and the left felt they could “throw off all kinds of social obligations,” Neil explains. “We didn’t really care about necessarily saving for our kids anymore, so deficits became standard … and increasingly, we no longer wanted to make institutions big and lasting anymore.”

The roaring 1920s, the 1850s, the 1760s and even the 1990s are all similar in that regard, says Neil. In these eras, young adults (born during “awakenings”) come of age and rebel  — like Generation X (the cohort born between 1965 and 1982) did in the ’90s.

The security of a ‘fishbowl existence’

Inevitably, fall gives way to winter and another era of crises; another Fourth Turning marked by increasingly severe organized conflict, in which new institutions are born. And finally, “a new common Republic emerges, in which competitors are destroyed.”

Kevin wonders if the late 20th-century American cult of individualism fragmented our society and led to the kinds of conflicts we see in a Fourth Turning crisis. 

“It leads to the opposite,” says Neil. In an awakening, society imposes order, structure and constraint. Meanwhile, the younger generations rebel against that order, which gives rise to conflict. By the next season — the next turning — order and security are weak and people begin to clamor for more order.

Millennials crave order and “social guarantees,” says Neil. Today’s 25- to 40-year-olds are rebelling against their mostly Boomer parents’ laissez-faire approach to life. 

“Boomers are very cavalier about risk-taking in their own lives,” he adds. As a generation, they tend to be quite individualistic; they like to live alone and don’t care if they know their neighbors. Millennials, on the other hand, are extremely peer- and community-oriented. They flock to social media in spite of its drawbacks: a “fishbowl existence” and constant feedback from others. 

History in the making

The Fourth Turning is far from over. Neil predicts that it will last through about 2030 and that the society-changing revolution typical of Fourth Turnings is yet to come. He admits it could take the form of a global armed conflict or even another American civil war. But one thing is certain: In every season of change, “the swiftness and permanence of the mood shift is only appreciated in retrospect — never in prospect.”

In other words, we rarely recognize history as such when it happens. 

In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait and see how it unfolds.

This is based on an episode of Top Traders Unplugged, a bi-weekly podcast with the most interesting and experienced investors, economists, traders and thought leaders in the world. Sign up to our Newsletter or Subscribe on your preferred podcast platform so that you don’t miss out on future episodes.