The Fourth Turning

By Bret Burquest


William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book titled The Fourth Turning, theorize that society has a collective personality that changes on a regular cyclical basis. This cycle repeats itself every four generations (every 80 to 100 years), with each generation having a distinct persona. When the collective persona changes, every 20 years or so, it’s called a turning. The four turnings comprise a repeatable cycle of social human growth.


The first turning is a high -- an optimistic period of idealism with social order and weak individualism. People born in this time frame are classified as Prophets. They challenge the moral failure of previous generations.


The second turning is an awakening -- a passionate era where social order comes under attack. Those born in this generation are Nomads. They defend society and attempt to slow social change.


The third turning is an unraveling -- a down period of strong individualism and weakening social order. This generation is called Heroes. They tend toward pessimism, fueling a society-wide crisis.


The fourth turning is a crisis -- a tumultuous period where the old social order is replaced by a new one. Those born in this generation are Artists. They believe in cooperation and become sensitive helpmates.


The repeatable cycles of social change always start out on an optimistic high, followed by an awakening, leading to an unraveling, culminating in a crisis. History is replete with this four-generation cycle.


The American Revolution – (1701-1791). It started as an optimistic age of enlightenment and culminated with the American Revolutionary War.


The Civil War – (1791-1866). The newly created nation was in an optimistic period full of promise. The cycle climaxed with the bloody Civil War.


The Great Power – (1866-1946). The era started with reconstruction after the Civil War with a positive outlook toward the future and ended with World War II.


The Present Cycle began in 1946, just after the end of the last world war. In the first turning, society entered a period of building and fortification. There was great optimism when soldiers returned home to start a fresh life and the economy began to boom.


The second turning is an awakening. According to Strauss and Howe, an awakening is when a society takes a sudden turn in a new direction. In the mid-1960s, about 20 years after the start of the Present Cycle, our social fabric was torn apart by our involvement in Vietnam. The Prophets born in the first turning became teenagers and young adults in this time frame, rebelling against the established civil structure and ideals.


The third turning in the Present Cycle took place in the mid-1980s, a period of unraveling when social anxiety caused the old order to decay and new values to emerge. This was an era of self-interest replacing societal interests. After decades of liberal rule by Democrats, with their big government social programs, the more conservative ideals of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. became the social order of the day. Individuals began to become more materialistic and less caring about others. It was dubbed the “Me Generation.”


The fourth turning is a period of crisis. It often starts with an event that triggers an upheaval in public life. We are now in the early stages of the fourth turning of this cycle. It probably started on September 11, 2001. This will be a time of focus and sacrifice in a struggle for survival. If the theory of cyclical social events is correct, it may last another 15 years or so. Then we will start all over with a new high, a rebirth of optimism and idealism.


As a society, we appear to be trapped in an endless cycle of inevitable highs and lows. Apparently, history repeats itself in some sort of bizarre 80-year mood swing, pitting each generation against one another.


As individuals, all we can do is treat others the way we want to be treated and go along for the ride.


Like it or not, we’re all in this together.


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Bret Burquest is an award-winning columns and author of four novels. Contact




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