Howe’s prediction rests on a model that at its core is timeless and simple. In fact, it can be summed up by a four-line Internet meme: “hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.” Howe’s version manages to fill most of 500 pages with further nuance, however.
At least in the Anglo-American world that Howe has surveyed, history appears to move in predictable cycles of about 80 to 100 years that, resurrecting a Roman term for the concept, he calls a saeculum. These cycles each have four distinct phases—or “Turnings”—of around 20 to 25 years that always flow in the same order: a “High,” an “Awakening,” an “Unraveling,” and a “Crisis.” Turnings are driven by the changing of generations, or those portions of the population whose collective character was shaped by coming of age amid the societal conditions specific to a previous turning. Each generation’s character, embodied by one of four generational archetypes (“Artists,” “Prophets,” “Nomads,” and “Heroes”) is largely determined by its proximity to the last Crisis. Howe goes into great detail about each generation, but for our purposes all you really need to know is that Prophets, coming of age knowing only the softness of a spring High, begin to dream of utopia during a hotheaded summer Awakening and rebel against the world that their Hero fathers built, seeking to tear it all down during a quarter-century-long autumn Unraveling. This process culminates in a winter of true Crisis (a Fourth Turning), which a new generation of Heroes must struggle to resolve, after which they establish a new order, leading to another High. And yes: the baby boomers of the 1960s counterculture are our most recent Prophets, which means the millennials will have to be our Heroes.
Don’t be (too) alarmed, Howe urges his readers. We’ve been here before, multiple times in fact, and managed not only to survive but also to thrive. Previous Fourth Turning crises (each occurring about a century apart) have included the Great Depression and World War II, the Civil War, and the American Revolution. Before that: England’s Glorious Revolution, the Spanish Armada Crisis, and the War of the Roses. Each was preceded by the same societal trends we’re seeing now, he argues, offering supporting data. But each cyclical crisis, in the end, gave birth to stronger nations.
Howe is grimly adamant, however, that “sometime before the mid-2030s, America will pass through a great gate in history” commensurate with these past crises.
— N.S Lyons, “Present at the Destruction”
Once events have taken place, a horde of learned commentators demonstrate that the unexpected was inevitable. Actually, chance, stupidity, and cowardice were chief factors. Nothing was inevitable.
— Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath