The Fourth Turning is a Crisis. This is an era in which America’s institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s survival. Civic authority revives, cultural expression redirects towards community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group. Fourth Turnings have all been new “founding moments” in America’s history, moments that redefined the national identity. America’s most recent Fourth Turning began with the stock market crash of 1929 and climaxed with the end of World War II. The G.I. Generation (Hero archetype, born 1914 to 1928) came of age during this era. Their confidence, optimism, and collective outlook epitomized the mood of the era. Today’s youth, the Millennial Generation (Hero archetype, born 1982 to 2000), show many traits similar to those of the G.I. youth, including rising civic engagement, improving behavior, and collective confidence.
America’s current position in the cycle
Howe posits that America is currently in or about to enter a Fourth Turning. The individualism, risk-taking, and conspicuous consumption of the recent Third Turning are winding down, and today’s social mood is marked by new sobriety about unpaid debts at home and unmet challenges abroad. Society is beginning to view the recent Third Turning as a period of drift when public problems were allowed to accumulate—problems that are now reaching a level of urgency where the nation must tackle them head-on.
Like all turnings, Fourth Turnings are pushed by the aging of each generation into a new phase of life. Yet unlike other turnings, the emerging lineup of generational archetypes is likely to push history forward in a sudden, concerted, and decisive direction. According to Howe, this is true today as well. As Boomers replace the Silent as elder leaders, they will reject caution and compromise and act on moral absolutes. As Gen Xers replace Boomers in midlife, they will apply a new pragmatic survivalism to management decisions. As Millennials replace Gen Xers in young adulthood, they will revitalize community, social discipline, and public purpose.
According to Strauss and Howe, there are many potential threats that could feed a growing sense of public urgency as the Fourth Turning progresses, including financial collapse, a protracted war on terror, a crisis of weapons proliferation, an environmental crisis, an energy shortage, or new civil wars abroad. The generational cycle cannot explain the role or timing of these individual threats. Nor can it account for the great events of history, like thebombing of Pearl Harbor, President Kennedy’s assassination, or 9/11. What the generational cycle can do, however, is explain how society is likely to respond to these events in different eras. It is the response, not the initial event, which defines an era.
With the generations aligned as they are now, the risk of a major continuing Crisis remains high for the next twenty years. Yet Howe emphasizes that the Fourth Turning will also offer crucial opportunities to fix national or even global problems that seem unsolvable today.