Prophets, Nomads, Heroes and Artists

Fourth TurningWilliam Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a book called The Fourth Turning back in the ‘90s that has enjoyed a lot of renewed popularity recently.

The two authors proposed a really cool idea of history: Rather than advancing in a linear fashion, which always propels us forward to higher and higher levels of progress and advancement, history is actually cyclical and should be viewed just like the changing of the seasons in nature.

They argue that the growing perception that the world is in crisis today shouldn’t be surprising. Based on their cyclical theory of history, we are in crisis, and these crises happen with fairly predictable timing every 80-100 years.

In Strauss’ and Howe’s view, each season of history is defined by a generational archetype – prophets, nomads, heroes, and artists – and these archetypes largely define the age in which they live, called “turnings.”

In recent history (say the last 70-80 years), the four generational archetypes, as well as the time periods in which they live, and the defining example of each era break down roughly as follows:

  • 1945-1965 – The First Turning (Prophet Generation): Born during a High; Post WWII America when everything in society seemed to be clicking and when     society, the economy and the nation advanced at a break neck pace. Think baby boom, the “golden age” of capitalism, growth of the middle class.
  • 1965-1985 – The Second Turning (Nomad Generation): Born during an Awakening; Society begins questioning established values and institutions. Think the hippie movement of the ‘60s, Vietnam, Watergate, civil rights movement, women’s rights, inflation and gas lines.
  • 1985-2005 – The Third Turning (Hero Generation): Born during an Unraveling; Pervasive distrust of institutions and leaders and the splitting of national consensus and cohesiveness into competing “values” camps. Think Generation X teens, crummy popular culture, fall of the Berlin Wall, political gridlock.
  • 2005-2025 – The Fourth Turning (Artist Generation): Born during a Crisis; Institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to a perceived threat to a society’s or nation’s survival. Think Wall Street mortgage crisis, deep distrust of big government and big business, Tea Parties and Occupy Wall Streeters.

Now, your first instinct might be to dismiss all of this as pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo that more closely resembles palm-reading or astrology – throwing around enough generalities that can be interpreted to support the author’s conclusions.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss their conclusions out of hand.

For one thing, Strauss and Howe do a very convincing job outlining how these four turnings and archetypes keep repeating in the same way through history.

For another, as a “Nomad” who was born during an Awakening and came of age during an Unraveling, the archetype has me pegged pretty accurately.

If you’re a Nomad, see how accurately the following applies to you:

Nomads survived a hurried childhood in a society with new spiritual agendas (hippie movement) when young adults passionately attacked the established institutional order (Vietnam, Watergate). We grow up as under-protected children at a time of social convulsion and adult self-discovery (divorce, latchkeys, AIDS).

As teens, we generally had a reputation as real shits: Wild and out-of-control. We listened to music every other generation thought was crappy (grunge and hip hop). We were defined as slackers (Reality Bites, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). We had sex and smoked weed in our parents basements. We were described as the “Nowhere generation”.

Now adults, we’re much more likely to keep our distance from established social orders. We’re inclined to go-it-alone and do our own thing. While previous generations climbed the corporate ladder or went to Washington to staff the Great Society, we want no part of either.

We’re four times more likely to be entrepreneurs and have little loyalty to institutions. We change jobs or careers frequently. We have no strong allegiance to political parties and are far more likely to register as independents or to not vote at all. We tend to be realists with a harder edge who are highly individualistic and self-reliant.

Coming of age during a Third Turning or unraveling, our world view is largely defined by the generational season of autumn.

But what happens in the “Crisis” or “Fourth Turning” we’re entering now?

Strauss and Howe predicted the following – keep in mind that they wrote this in 1997, four years before 9-11 and roughly a decade before the Wall Street crisis;

  • Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning…a spark will ignite a new mood…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 following circa-2005 scenarios might seem plausible: A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft…Congress declares war…Opponents charge that the president concocted the emergency for political purposes.
  • An impasse over the federal budget reaches a stalemate. The President and Congress both refuse to back down, triggering a near-total government shutdown...Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Default looms. Wall Street panics.

Pretty eerie isn’t it?

The bad news is that we still have roughly another 10-12 years before we reach what Strauss and Howe suggest is the “grave moment of opportunity and danger – the climax of the crisis.”

The good news if you buy into Strauss and Howe’s theory of generational cycles is that we’ve been there done that numerous times before in history and come out just fine.

Interestingly, once crises become fully catalyzed, there is a natural regeneration or counter-entropy that reunifies civic life and gives birth to a new social and institutional order that results in a new “High.”

Yes, things can seem pretty grim at the moment, but hang in there, because Strauss and Howe argue convincingly that this is all just the natural cyclical rhythm and flow of history.

Fourth Turnings, they say, always begin with a low-note of cynicism, distrust, and society-wide demoralization. However, they almost always end on a high note of optimism, trust and a rebirth of civic confidence as the old order is swept away and new orders and institutions rise to take their place.

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