The Fourth Turning is a book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, published in December of 1997.
The thing that first caught my eye was that they predicted an odd and rather catastrophic problem in US politics that would be unfolding between 2005 and 2025. It wasn’t entirely specific, but it was detailed enough to make me sit up and wonder, “How in the world did they know about THAT?”
Recall that, in 1997, Bill Clinton was president, Windows 95 was new, Islamic terrorists were firmly “over there,” the Twin Towers still stood tall in New York City, and you could wear your shoes all the way through the airports. The biggest, baddest thing on the horizon was the “Y2K Bug,” though it was comfortably three years away. Only scientists and science fiction authors talked about Hubbard’s Peak, and “Global Warming” was a private crusade of Al Gore.
Yet here the authors of this book were talking about Generation X (children born in the 1980’s, barely teens) being derided in the 2000’s as worthless in all possible ways, widespread distrust and disgust with all branches of national government including the Supreme Court, economic turmoil on a major scale, and the rise of fascism in the US, all brought about by a “trigger event” sometime in the mid-2000’s decade.
Think back, folks. Think hard. All of these things were purest dystopian science fiction in 1997.
Yet here we are.
How did they know about THAT?
There’s a remarkable simplicity to their observations: there’s a pattern in history. It’s as predictable as coming darkness, after the sun gets low in the West and the clouds start to turn orange.
I need to write about this, because writing is my way of thinking out loud and settling my thoughts. There is a lot to think about here.
Let’s start where the authors do, with the concept of the Saeculum. This is a Latin term, and it comes from a Roman concept, borrowed from the Greeks, and probably goes back as far in history as you wish to go. It is generally defined as a period of between 80 and 100 years, based on the measure of a long human lifespan. Most of us make it to our 70’s (if we survive childhood illness and wars and plagues), and always have. Many surpass 80. Some surpass 90. Few cross the 100-year line. Saeculum is the name for a historical period roughly equivalent to a “long human life.”
Another observation is the concept of a Generation. We’re all aware of the meaning of this, and most of us relate to a particular generation. A “generation” is not strictly bounded by dates or age. We could call it a kind of collective mindset. We talk about the “Boomer” generation, for instance, and nearly everyone alive either identifies with this generation, or does not, and usually quite strongly.
What’s interesting is that there is any identifiable thing called a generation. We are all born on different dates, and born to different parents over a wide range of ethnicities, wealth, geography, and recent history. First grade classes are always full, as are high school graduations, and new graduates enter the world as young adults every year. You would think we would be all quite different from each other, spread out along a continuum. Yet we somehow fall into these very distinct generational categories, and go through our life-changes as a cohort, or a “generation.”
Another observation is that generations have types that occur in a cycle over the course of the Saeculum. This is largely invisible to us as individuals, for the simple reason that there are roughly four distinct generations in a Saeculum, that is, a long human life. The generation most like our own was therefore our great-great-grandparents, and we will not see another generation like ours until our great-great-grandchildren. No one nearer in time is really anything like us, and because this spans the entire Saeculum, the long human life, most of us will never meet anyone like ourselves from a different generation. Our great-great-grandparents were gone before we were old enough to remember them, and we will be gone before our great-great-grandchildren will know us. So all that most of us ever see, throughout our lives, are the three generations before us, and the three after us, and they are all very different from us.
We all think — with good reason — that we are alone, and quite unique.
What I’m starting to notice, now that I’m a grandfather, is that there really are similarities between my own grandchildren, and my grandparents. Or in my case, my parents, since my parents were around 40 when they married.
Something about this concept of generations pulls all of us together into this generational collective mindset.
So let’s talk about this cycle of generations, using the latest cycle for reference. The authors give the generations “functional” (recurrent) names, as well as specific names that have been used to describe these particular generations in history:
- Hero : G.I. generation
- Artist : Silent generation
- Prophet : Boomer generation
- Nomad : X generation
The next generation to come is the Millennials, and they are currently in their school years. They will (or should) become the next Hero generation. The one that follows them is not yet named, because they haven’t been born, but they will be an Artist generation. The one to follow that will be a Prophet generation. And so the cycle continues.
The ordering of this is pretty much fixed, not just by the nature of the parental generation, but by the combination of the parent, grandparent, and great-grandparent generations, all functioning at different levels of society. When a generation is born, the great-grandparents hold the greatest influence within society, as the elders in government, religion, business, and communities. The grandparents hold the senior-management power: the supervisors, the deacons, the school principals, the senior bureaucracy. The parents form the young working class. This combination, and the tensions between these generations, are what shape the newborn generation.
As the new generation comes of age and starts having its own children, their great-grandparents are either dying or stepping-down, their grandparents are moving into fullest power, their parents are moving into senior management, and they themselves are becoming the young working class.
There are two major cyclic events within each Saeculum, one called The Awakening, and the other called The Crisis. The resolution of the Crisis is coincident with the coming-of-age of a Hero generation, while the Awakening is coincident with the coming-of-age of a Prophet generation. This is a straightforward pendulum between material and spiritual peaks. The Hero builds a functional society that glosses over spiritual values and justice in the name of expediency, and the Prophet addresses a spiritual awakening and re-assessment that glosses over functionality.
A Hero generation is an enthusiast of the society it has built. A Prophet generation is a critic of the society it lives in.
At cross-quarters to this cycle is the cycle of the Artists and Nomads. The Artists come of age in the midst of a materially functional society marked by stability, material opportunity, and cultural enthusiasm, but also by conformity, conventionality, and a certain kind of stagnation. The Nomads come of age in the midst of an increasingly dysfunctional society full of almost unlimited freedom (or license), but marked by increasing instability, declining safety and access to opportunity, and the need to improvise, partition, and disconnect just to survive.
An Artist generation is full of bright hope for the future of society, even if it is a tad dull. A Nomad generation sees little or no hope for the future of society, though it can be profitable and exciting if you are willing to be nimble and not-too-fussy about the rules.
So let’s talk a little about where we are in 2022. It sure ain’t 1997.
We are sixteen months out from an attempted coup by a sitting President to retain his office despite a resounding rejection at the polls.
We have a Supreme Court worried that a premature leak of a draft decision regarding Roe v. Wade is going to “damage confidence in the Supreme Court,” apparently in some strange universe where loss of decorum — rather than shit rulings — is what makes people lose confidence in the Court.
We have a Congress that simply cannot govern, and at least one party (Republicans) clearly not even interested in governing.
We have increasingly open Christo-Fascist movements agitating for dissolving the United States, by force and terror, with substantial support among Republican politicians at every level.
We have an economy constantly on the edge, just one misstep from inflationary collapse, supply-chain collapse, production collapse. The rot is deep.
We have a billionaire class rapidly advancing to a trillionaire class in an inflationary economy where much of the nation lives on less than $15/hour.
We have WW3 on the horizon, should an aging, ill, and demented Russian dictator decide, Oh, what the Hell….
We have global warming on a runaway course of destruction, and we are rushing into its arms like a lover.
The Prophet generation — the Boomer generation — is aging, and the Silent generation is dying out. The Nomad generation is well into parenting years, and the next Hero generation is is school.
We are moving toward a Crisis writ as large as WWII. Times that “try men’s souls.”
Here’s the comfort: this has all happened before. This has been the Saecular cycle for as far back as we care to look, with remarkable (though not infallible) regularity. The reason we don’t recognize it, as we recognized the cycle of day and night, or the cycle of the seasons, is that the cycle lives just outside living memory.
On the plus side of this comfort is that in the past, the US has always pulled through Crises into a new Saeculum that was better than what came before.
On the minus side of this comfort is that there is no guarantee that this Saeculum (or any other) will end well. Nations fall. Civilizations vanish.
I’d like to close with a figure he authors call the Gray Champion, dating from 1689.
King James II was about to strip the US colonists of their liberties and their fantasies of self-rule, and the Colonial Governor marched troops through Boston in a show of strength. As they marched, “the figure of an ancient man” with “the eye, the face, the attitude of command” appeared on the street and stood in the path of the soldiers, and demanded that they stop. His appearance was so daunting that they did. This so inspired the citizens of Boston that they deposed and jailed the governor, which set in motion forces that eventually led to the Revolution a century later. No one knew exactly who this “Gray Champion” was, save that he was once one of the young Puritans who had settled in New England a half-century before.
The Gray Champion has re-emerged in each of the major American Crises since.
A Boomer of a bygone age.
As the generation that has been charged with safeguarding the Spirit of the Nation, of looking deep into the spirit of the nation and of criticizing its hypocrisy, and injustice, and failings, it falls to us in our nation’s time of need to stand, and say, “This shall not pass.” To be the Gray Champion of our time.
And in so doing, to precipitate the Crisis, and guide the nation through it.
Just as it will fall to the Nomads to get us through the chaos by finding ways to keep the material side together.
Just as it will fall to the Heroes to build something — as a generation — that will rebuild from the wreckage, and inspire hope and enthusiasm for the future.
Just as it will fall to the next Artists to enjoy the harvest of fair times, to perfect and embellish.
Just as it will fall to the next Prophets to focus on what was left behind and corrupted in the chaos and compromise and rebuilding. To call out the injustice, and the spiritual emptiness, and the hypocrisy.
This is not a time to be cowed by statistics. This is a time to stand up for what is right.
To become the Gray Champion.