It was 2019 when I finished a book titled The Fourth Turning. I found myself referring to it a couple of weeks ago during a conversation about the cycles of history. I went back to the book after our discussion given the many changes the world experienced since I added it to my library. The repeated cycles of history described by the book remain both fascinating and ominous.
First comes a High, a period of confident expansion as a new order takes root after the old has been swept away. Next comes an Awakening, a time of spiritual exploration and rebellion against the now-established order. Then comes an Unraveling, an increasingly troubled era in which individualism triumphs over crumbling institutions. Last comes a Crisis—the Fourth Turning—when society passes through a great and perilous gate in history. Together, the four turnings comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and rebirth.Frank Diana – adapted from the book “The Fourth Turning”
Read that description of the historical cycles carefully. Turnings come in cycles of four. Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years. Now, let’s trace the current cycle back in time – quoted right from the book – keeping in mind that the book was written in 1997.
HIGH: The First Turning was the American High of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies.
AWAKENING: The Second Turning was the Consciousness Revolution, stretching from the campus revolts of the mid-1960s to the tax revolts of the early 1980s.
UNRAVELING: The Third Turning has been the Culture Wars, an era that began with Reagan’s mid-1980s Morning in America and is due to expire around the mid-2000s, eight or ten years from now.
CRISIS: In 1997, the book predicted that the crisis period would begin in 2005. Each turning lasts about 20 years, placing the end of the cycle near 2025, or sometime during this decade. This 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.
Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II. 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.The Fourth Turning, 1997
That prediction above feels far too real, with multiple signals emerging 25 years after the book was written. As I have come to learn, to think about the future, we must consider the past. A fourth turning in this cycle may be very different than the crisis period that culminated in World War Two. This emerging era brings the potential for a phase transition – that moment in time when long standing beliefs, structures, and institutions of a prior era give way to a new organizing system. The book describes in detail each of the prior cycles and the role that generations, archetypes, and the seasons of life play in each cycle.
I’m not a big believer in prediction, but I am a growing believer in the cycles of history. As authors William Strauss and Neil Howe state in the book: The rhythms of history do not reveal the outcome of the coming crisis; all they suggest is the timing and dimension. We cannot stop the seasons of history, but we can prepare for them. This message today is about preparing for a very uncertain – but sure to be transformative future.