The Strauss–Howe generational theory, devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe, was published in their book titled “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny” back in 1997.
The Fourth Turning is a theory that proposes history follows a cyclical pattern, with each cycle lasting about between 90-100 years and comprising four “turnings” or generations, each with distinct characteristics and roles. The Fourth Turning, specifically, refers to a crisis period where legacy insititutions are destroyed or renovated, making way for new ones. It’s a tiem of upheaval and major change that sets the stage for a new cycle to begin. Through this lens, history isn’t linear but rather unfolds in predictable, repeating cycles, with the Fourth Turning being the phase that resets the cycle.
The most recent Fourth Turning, according to theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe who coined the term, began with the financial crisis of 2008 and is expected to last until around the 2030s. This period is characrterized by ecocomic distress, institutional decay, and a demand for social and political renewal. The outcome of this crisis period, as per the theory, will set the stage for a newsocietal order until the next Fourth Turning occurs in the future. Grasping the degree of change that occurs leads one to understand that each Fourth Turning reshapes society in a fundamental way, and the actions taken during this period have long lasting effects on nations.
What about prior to the current one? Strauss and Howe outlined the Great Depression followed by WWII, which spanned from 1929 to 1946. This period witnessed great economic upheaval, widespread poverty, and eventually a global conflict that led to significant losses and reshaped international relations. The societal response to these crises, including the establishment of new economic and political systems, exemplifies the cycle of destruction and renewal characteristics of the Fourth Turning theory, setting the stage for the next cycle.
The Fourth Turning prior to the Great Depression and WWII was the American Civil War era, spanning from early 1860s to later that decade, according to Strauss and Howe. This period was characterized by national division, social upheaval, and conflict. The resolution of the crisis led to the abolishment of slavery, reformation of national policies, and the reunification of the nation, thereby setting a new societal order for the subsequent First Turning, which is identified as a period of collective confidence, harmony and, order.
Preceeding the Civil War era Fourth Turning was the American Revolution which spanned from the 1770s to early 1790s. The crisis period culminated with the establishment of an independent United States and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, setting groundwork for a new societal order.
Before the Amercian Revolution era, the previous Fourth Turning, as identified by Strauss and Howe. was the Glorious Revolution in England which took place in 1688. This event was a significant turning point, marking the overthrow of King James IIby the union of Parliament with William III and Mary II. It’s viewed as a crucial step in the development of a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in in Britain. The changes that took effect in this period laid the groundwork for modern political and government structures in England, setting a new societal order as per the Fourth Turning theory, and initiating a new cycle in the historical pattern.
Priod to the Glorious Revolution, the preceeding Fourth Turning identified by Strauss and Howe was the Armada Crisis in the late 16th century, specifically around 1569-1594. This period was marked by heightened religious and political tensions, culminating in the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588. The successful defense against this invasion bolstered national pride and solidified Queen Elizabeth The First’s reign, marking a crucial period of crisis and transformation that, according to the theory, laid the groundwork for the subsequent era of relative stability, and expansion known as the Elizabethan Era.