“One large chapter of history ends, and another starts. In a very real sense, one society dies – and another is born.”— William Strauss and Neil Howe
“The Crisis ends one saeculum and launches the next.”— William Strauss and Neil Howe
“The cycle of four generations spans the length of a long human life, roughly 80 to 100 years. Many of the ancient peoples recognized this cycle. The Roman name for it was saeculum.”— William Strauss and Neil Howe
“The Fourth Turning is history’s great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another.”— William Strauss and Neil Howe
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”— Mark Twain
Bad times eventually end. Something new replaces them. Perhaps just some brand new bad times? Fortunately, the world doesn’t seem to work quite that way. So, that’s good news?
Not yet: The crisis phase may not be done with us
History is defined by cycles, eras, and epochs. It seems to repeat itself, or at least rhyme as Mark Twain observed, in broad patterns across the ages. Despite huge changes, many periods appear to have significant commonalities.
What if whatever-is-going-on-out-there-today is actually part of a fundamental long-term cycle? Different in detail from past cycles but similar and equally inevitable in broad outlines. Scary thought, yes?
Suppose that COVID is simply a detail-happening within our current underlying cycle? Lots of similar nasty stuff has occurred in past, such as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 where some 50 million are estimated to have died globally. Black plagues of various flavors plagued Europe regularly across much of the past 1500 years.
Viewing COVID as just another nasty happening riding on top of a far greater underlying cycle makes an enormous difference in how we might move forward today. COVID seems very likely to go away “shortly” but we may still be faced with the underlying long-term cycle and how it may play out.
William Strauss’ and Neil Howe’s theory of “Turnings”
The quality of any historical theory is determined largely by how well it fits a lengthy period of facts. Strauss and Howe looked at over 500 years of history to come up with a cyclical explanation of what occurred.
Wikipedia describes Neil Howe as an “author, historian and consultant” while William Strauss is described as an “author, historian, playwright, theater director, and lecturer.” Their theory, The Fourth Turning, was published in 1997.
A relatively brief overview of this theory appeared in 2018 in the SupplySideLiberal.com: “William Strauss and Neil Howe’s American Prophecy in ‘The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny’”:
“Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era—a new turning—every two decades or so. At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future. Turnings come in cycles of four. Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years, a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum. Together, the four turnings of the saeculum comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction:”
“The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.”
“The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.”
“The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.”
“The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.”
Our current Fourth Turning – Crisis – is underway
As described by unherd.com, the latest cycle looks something like this in: “How apocalyptic is now? The sudden death of ways of life has been a regular occurrence throughout history”:
“We’ve had four turnings, each about 20 years, since the late 1920s: the Crisis turning (1929-1945), which was bookended by the Great Depression and World War II; the High turning (1946-1964), when a new world order was established in a time of shared prosperity; the Awakening turning (1965-1984), characterized by rising individualism and declining confidence in institutions; and the Unraveling turning (1985-2008), with a cynical culture and eroded support for institutions.”
“This leads us to where we are now—the Crisis turning (2008-2028). Looking at how the last crisis unfolded can give us clues about the next few years. History speeds up in fourth turnings and is characterized as having an urgent view of the future. Change, risk and uncertainty reach their peak [emphasis added].”
It would be hard to argue against 2008 being the concluding timeframe of the Third Turning of “Unraveling”. Definitely when a lot of things unraveled, like the global financial system. According to the theory, we entered the Fourth Turning of Crisis in roughly 2009. Crisis, as you may have noticed, is certainly well-established a decade or so later.
Does this mean that we have another ten years of Crisis to endure? Too awful to contemplate.
But it gets even worse. Much worse. Or better, depending on your point of view.
Just in time for Agenda 2030
You do of course know all about the United Nations’ Agenda 2030. Just a reminder, via Wikipedia:
“The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or Global Goals are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. They are included in a UN Resolution called the 2030 Agenda or what is colloquially known as Agenda 2030. The SDGs were developed in the Post-2015 Development Agenda as the future global development framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals which ended in 2015.”
“The 17 SDGs are: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, (10) Reducing Inequality, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life On Land, (16) Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, (17) Partnerships for the Goals.”
A tad ambitious in my view, but all good things to do – someday, maybe, if possible. In any case, these seem hardly to be the picture of any Crisis phase. If the UN has its way with the world, the second decade of the current Fourth Turning Crisis may well be cancelled.
Any bets on this outcome?
A Fourth Turning Crisis period in case the UN is running late
Previous Crisis periods in America brought the fun times popularly known as the American Revolution (1773-1794), the Civil War (1860-1865), and the Great Depression-WWII combo (1929-1946). How will the current Fourth Turning (2009-2029) keep up with stellar predecessors like these?
You probably don’t want to know.
The 2009-2019 years seemed to have been filled with extremely annoying events and situations but hardly in the class of a serious Fourth Turning Crisis. Just when we might be justified in thinking that this Crisis has fizzled or gone AWOL, the never-ending COVID happening finally got this Crisis into high gear. COVID with its ongoing consequences definitely qualifies as a full-blown Crisis situation.
So, we’re now faced with maybe having our 20-year Fourth Turning Crisis phase all scrunched up into the 2020-2029 decade. That’s not a good thought, yes?
I read regularly about the “Oh-Oh” decade starting in 2009 as being one of colossal efforts globally to prevent or mitigate various catastrophes and disasters. Enormous and endless money-printing. Sketchy elections. Brexit. Earthquakes (Haiti, Japan). Hurricanes. Perhaps these were evidence of the Fourth Turning action just getting spun up. Practice runs for the big one(s) to come. Like now?
Seriously, the coming decade may be extremely serious
You may have read a couple of earlier posts dealing with the Great Reset and the New World Order, both brainchildren of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab. Klaus may be a really good guy but some of WEF’s directions are very scary to me. Real Fourth Turning stuff.
For one thing, COVID is being retooled and rebranded, and may never go away. Lockdowns and vaxx mandates are everywhere and getting worse. Shortages of all kinds of stuff as well as all kinds of workers. How do you get worker shortages in a world of nearly 8 billion folks? Some of us are even beginning to see a very serious, bad agenda driving much or all of this.
Strauss and Howe emphasized that you can’t avoid the various Turnings. They just happen regardless of what else may be going on in the world. Fourth Turnings especially. Based on a lot of history, our turn at living through (hopefully) a Fourth Turning experience seems both unavoidable and underway.
Is “Apocalypse Now” occurring today?
On the evidence that such happenings happen regularly, history-wise, the thought that we might indeed be in our very own version has occurred to more than a few folks. Such as unherd.com, for example: “How apocalyptic is now? The sudden death of ways of life has been a regular occurrence throughout history”:
“Actually history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.”
“When you read diaries of people who lived through the revolution in Russia, you find them looking on in disbelief as the vast, centuries-old empire of the Romanovs melted into nothing in a matter of months. Few then accepted that the world they knew had gone forever. Even so, they were haunted by the suspicion that it would not return.”
Yet another from Leaders Edge in mid-2020 that explicitly brings in Strauss-Howe: “The Fourth Turning Is Here ”:
“Right now we are in the winter of history—the fourth turning of a crisis. It started with the Great Recession of 2007-09 and is likely to last toward the end of the decade—between 2027-2030, which means we are not out of the woods after the coronavirus. If history repeats itself, as it has for the last three centuries, we still have a bumpy road for the next several years.”
“The economy and institutions that support it (like the U.S. government) turn to rubble during the first half of a fourth turning and are founded and reborn in the second half. Just about now we are knee-deep in rubble.”
“In the book The Fourth Turning, historians William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote, ‘Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate of history, commensurate with the American revolution, The Civil War, and the twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.’ Is the coronavirus our World War II? The best scenario says it is, but it is likely to be something after the coronavirus.”
“The coronavirus crisis is a dress rehearsal for an even larger set of events in the next couple of years. And it is not just our public health system that is inadequate. Global fracturing continues. Leadership within countries is reflecting and encouraging tribalism. The last time this happened was in the 1930s and ’40s. The rise of totalitarianism and the inability of leadership to respond more quickly ended in a world war killing 85 million people.”
“The crisis is inevitable and necessary. The crisis period serves as a reset button to our priorities as a country. It levels the playing field and provokes a social priority of unified community building. Institutions are founded as world vision becomes urgent. This creates a new world order, putting community at the center of policy making. This runs its course and eventually begins to disintegrate with rising individualism, which leads to another crisis, and we begin again. Arthur Wing Pinero wrote, ‘The future is only the past again, entered through another gate.’”
This seems like a good time for serious caution and preparation
“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”— Winston Churchill
The time to prepare is before preparation is actually needed. The timing of such need is rarely evident except after the fact. Not a good time then to begin preparing.
Strauss & Howe in their 1997 book The Fourth Turning provide some foundation thoughts:
“The seasons of time offer no guarantees. For modern societies, no less than for all forms of life, transformative change is discontinuous. For what seems an eternity, history goes nowhere – and then it suddenly flings us forward across some vast chaos that defies any mortal effort to plan our way there. The Fourth Turning will try our souls – and the saecular rhythm tells us that much will depend on how we face up to that trial. The saeculum does not reveal whether the story will have a happy ending, but it does tell us how and when our choices will make a difference.”
“Don’t think you can escape the Fourth Turning the way you might today distance yourself from news, national politics, or even taxes you don’t feel like paying. History warns that a Crisis will reshape the basic social and economic environment that you now take for granted. The Fourth Turning necessitates the death and rebirth of the social order. It is the ultimate rite of passage for an entire people, requiring a luminal state of sheer chaos whose nature and duration no one can predict in advance.”
“The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule. If there is a war, it is likely to be one of maximum risk and effort – in other words, a total war. Every Fourth Turning has registered an upward ratchet in the technology of destruction, and in mankind’s willingness to use it.”
What does this mean for businesses and other organizations?
Hunker down for sure. Major storms ahead. And, as mentioned in these posts occasionally, agility, adaptability, and resilience are the keys to arriving safely at the next First Turning High around 2030 or so. Assuming survival.
It should be noted in this context that Turning Saeculum durations have varied from 90 years (Revolutionary), 71 years (Civil War), 81 years (through WWII), and the current 75 years (to 2020) (Millennial). Average – about 80 years. So, maybe we have to endure our saeculum crisis phase only through about 2025. Only.
The most important ultimate success factor in my mind is adaptability. You can’t foresee what is coming along over the next 5-10 years so the best you can do is to structure and operate to allow quick, effective adaptation to whatever occurs.
This is a defensive posture for the most part. If we are truly in the second half of a serious Fourth Turning episode, then we will face a lot of very bad stuff happening over the next several years.
Or maybe not? What are you willing to bet that they are wrong? Your business or organization?
Resilience may be the right place to start
This suggestion is based on the not-unreasonable concept that nothing else much matters if you don’t survive. Resilience deals primarily with survival, and secondarily with return to prosperity – assuming survival. In practice, it involves looking for your major points of vulnerability to impacts of various kinds from whatever causes. Once located and assessed, you can begin strengthening each point.
Example: What if your sales dropped 75% within a short period. Loss of a major customer. Loss of a major production facility. Inability to obtain a vital part or material. Yet another lockdown or other regulation. Yet another COVID hit. Stuff happens. Could you survive and largely resume operations with a 50% sales hit? How about 75%, or even just 25%? If you don’t know your resilience limits, you are exposed – possibly at the worst possible time in recent history.
What might trigger a Crisis phase? Strauss & Howe in their “The Fourth Turning” book offer these possibilities:
“’In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party. The catalyst will unfold according to a basic Crisis dynamic that underlies all of these scenarios: An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies. The core elements of these scenarios (debt, civic decay, global disorder) will matter more than the details, which the catalyst will juxtapose and connect in some unknowable way. If foreign societies are also entering a Fourth Turning, this could accelerate the chain reaction. At home and abroad, these events will reflect the tearing of the civic fabric at points of extreme vulnerability – problem areas where America will have neglected, denied, or delayed needed action.”
“Reflect on what happens when a terrible winter blizzard strikes. You hear the weather warning but probably fail to act on it. The sky darkens. Then the storm hits with full fury, and the air is a howling whiteness. One by one, your links to the machine age break down. Electricity flickers out, cutting off the TV. Batteries fade, cutting off the radio. Phones go dead. Roads become impossible, and cars get stuck. Food supplies dwindle. Day to day vestiges of modern civilization – bank machines, mutual funds, mass retailers, computers, satellites, airplanes, governments – all recede into irrelevance. Picture yourself and your loved ones in the midst of a howling blizzard that lasts several years. Think about what you would need, who could help you, and why your fate might matter to anybody other than yourself. That is how to plan for a saecular winter. Don’t think you can escape the Fourth Turning. History warns that a Crisis will reshape the basic social and economic environment that you now take for granted.”
Fourth Turning crises are not catastrophes – we will recover and forge ahead
The quote paragraph just above seems to get a bit far into the realm of serious catastrophe. Dinosaur asteroid hit territory. In such cases, all bets are off. Only the little four-footers survive.
If Strauss & Howe are basically right in what is coming, last paragraph excepted, then we are going to come out of the other end surviving but likely pretty badly messed up. But we will survive and eventually prosper once again. As the current Fourth Turning Crisis is inevitable, so will be the next First Turning High. The trick is being there when the next High happens. Historically, the High seems inevitable. Being there, not so much.
It appears that COVID is simply a detail in our current long-cycle of Strauss & Howe Turnings. If so, this means that we need to deal with what’s happening, including COVID wandering off in all directions, as part of a social and economic transition and regeneration and not as a one-off, black swan type occurrence. Major implications here for managing a business or organization to ensure survival and success in the coming-soon First Turning High.
Wikipedia, as is so often the case, has a useful overview of this topic:
“The Strauss–Howe generational theory, devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe, describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history and global history. According to the theory, historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) lasting around 20–25 years, in which a new social, political, and economic climate (mood) exists. They are part of a larger cyclical “saeculum” (a long human life, which usually spans between 80 and 100 years, although some saecula have lasted longer). The theory states that a crisis recurs in American history after every saeculum, which is followed by a recovery (high). During this recovery, institutions and communitarian values are strong. Ultimately, succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which eventually creates a tumultuous political environment that ripens conditions for another crisis.”
“Turnings. While writing Generations, Strauss and Howe described a theorized pattern in the historical generations they examined, which they say revolved around generational events which they call turnings. In Generations, and in greater detail in The Fourth Turning, they describe a four-stage cycle of social or mood eras which they call ‘turnings’. The turnings include: ‘The High’, ‘The Awakening’, ‘The Unraveling’ and ‘The Crisis’.”
“High: According to Strauss and Howe, the First Turning is a High, which occurs after a Crisis. During The High, institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, though those outside the majoritarian center often feel stifled by the conformity. According to the authors, the most recent First Turning in the US was the post–World War II American High, beginning in 1946 and ending with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.”
“Awakening: According to the theory, the Second Turning is an Awakening. 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 ‘self-awareness’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘personal authenticity’. Young activists look back at the previous High as an era of cultural and spiritual poverty. Strauss & Howe say the US’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 1980s.”
“Unraveling: According to Strauss and Howe, the Third Turning is an Unraveling. The mood of this era they say is in many ways the opposite of a High: Institutions are weak and distrusted, while individualism is strong and flourishing. The authors say Highs come after Crises, when society wants to coalesce and build and avoid the death and destruction of the previous crisis. Unravelings come after Awakenings, when society wants to atomize and enjoy. They say the most recent Unraveling in the US began in the 1980s and includes the Long Boom and Culture War.”
“Crisis: According to the authors, the Fourth Turning is a Crisis. This is an era of destruction, often involving war or revolution, in which institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s survival. After the crisis, civic authority revives, cultural expression redirects towards community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group. The authors say the previous Fourth Turning in the US began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and climaxed with the end of World War II. The G.I. Generation (which they call a Hero archetype, born 1901 to 1924) came of age during this era. They say their confidence, optimism, and collective outlook epitomized the mood of that era. The authors assert the Millennial Generation (which they also describe as a Hero archetype, born 1982 to 2004) show many similar traits to those of the G.I. youth, which they describe as including: rising civic engagement, improving behavior, and collective confidence.”
“The Saeculum: Howe and Strauss describe a concept called the Saeculum. It is an ancient unit of time that spans roughly 80 to 100 years. The idea is that the cycle of human affairs approximates the length of a long human life.”
“The notion of a Saeculum or cycle is anathema or alien to modern Western thinking that has become linear. Indeed, that is why it is likely that both the leadership and the public in America are unprepared for the crisis that is coming, just as they were unprepared for the pandemic itself.”