The Fourth Turning is well and truly here

As I read the resignation letter of Bari Weiss from New York Times and Prof. Joshua Katz’ declaration in response to the declaration of Princeton Academic Community, I immediately wanted to refer to the pages in ‘The Fourth Turning’ by Neil Howe and William Strauss.

What they wrote about the 13-ers in 1997 sounds so prescient:

As the Crisis deepens, 13ers will feel little stake in the old order, little sense that their names and signatures are on the social contract. They will have reached full adult maturity without ever having believed in either the American Dream or American exceptionalism. They will never have known a time when America felt good about itself, when its civic and cultural life didn’t seem to be decaying. From childhood into midlife, they will have always sensed that the nation’s core institutions mainly served the interests of people other than themselves.

One has to be impressed by the above prescience. It is extraordinarily close to the reality that is unfolding before our eyes.

13-ers are the 13th generation born since the American independence. They are roughly those born between 1961 and 1980. It can be easily stretched by five or ten years.

If you want to understand the various labels attached to the generations since the ‘Baby Boomers’, this link from Pew Research is very useful.

As I excerpted from their work the above paragraph, I thought I would offer you a glimpse of what the ‘Fourth Turning’ has in store for America, given that we are in the climatic phase now. The ‘Fourth Turning’ began sometime between 2005 and 2010. It should conclude by the end of this decade – around 2030.

What will America be like as it exits the Fourth Turning?

History offers no guarantees. Obviously, things could go horribly wrong—the possibilities ranging from a nuclear exchange to incurable plagues, from terrorist anarchy to high-tech dictatorship.

Losing in the next Fourth Turning, however, could mean something incomparably worse. It could mean a lasting defeat from which our national innocence—and perhaps even our nation—might never recover.

More important, a good ending will probably mean that America has taken individual freedoms that now seem socially corrosive and embedded them constructively in a new social order.

However sober we must be about the dark possibilities of Crisis, the record of prior Fourth Turnings gives cause for optimism. With five of the past six Crises, it is hard to imagine more uplifting finales.

Writing in 1997, in the above extract, the authors had offered a somewhat upbeat assessment of how it all might end, given that five of the six previous crises (the ‘Fourth Turning’ is the ‘crisis’; the ‘Third Turning’ is the ‘unravelling’; the ‘second Turning’ is the ‘Awakening’ and the ‘First Turning’ is the ‘High’) ended well for America, although the crises themselves were severe and the outcomes were not guaranteed.

In the following extracts, the importance of understanding cycles as opposed to a linear view of history is highlighted:

A common modern reaction is to seek to avoid harsh seasons altogether. Whether facing old age or winter, many of us look for a bridge or a wall or a cure, anything that can keep unwanted seasons from interfering with our fixed purpose. That’s the essence of linear thinking. 

The ancients understood that to participate in cyclical time is to bear the responsibility for participating well or badly. Were history pure chaos, every expression of human will could be undone at any time.

Were history purely linear, humanity would also find itself degraded.

For what seems an eternity, history goes nowhere—and then it suddenly flings us forward across some vast chaos that defies any mortal effort to plan our way there. The Fourth Turning will try our souls—and the saecular rhythm tells us that much will depend on how we face up to that trial. The saeculum does not reveal whether the story will have a happy ending, but it does tell us how and when our choices will make a difference.

​Nietzsche believed that delusions about never-ending progress toward an unattainable standard had become a root malady of the Western psyche.

As an alternative, Zarathustra teaches the doctrine that every event is perpetually reenacted, that everything anyone does has been done before and will be done again forever.

Linear time tempts us moderns to believe that we are immeasurably better or contemptibly worse than our ancestors.

What will the ‘Fourth Turning’ be like?:

In recent years, many Americans have despaired that their nation no longer produces leaders who can galvanize and inspire. Yet it is the turning, not the nation, that elevates great people to the apex of power.

A Fourth Turning does not require economic depression or civil war, but it does require public sacrifice and political upheaval.

While a Crisis mood renders societies newly desperate, it also renders them newly capable, which is why a saecular winter is to be welcomed as much as feared.

America’s culture warriors need not worry whether values will return to public life. They always do in a Fourth Turning—with a vengeance.

The Fourth Turning will trigger a political upheaval beyond anything Americans could today imagine. New civic authority will have to take root, quickly and firmly—which won’t be easy if the discredited rules and rituals of the old regime remain fully in place.

Come the Fourth Turning, national survival will require a level of public teamwork and self-sacrifice far higher than Americans now provide.

Not far into the Fourth Turning, today’s long-term projections for Social Security, Medicare, and other elder benefits programs will lie in history’s dust bin.

At that point, no one will be entitled to anything; those in need will merely be authorized something. Public figures should alert today’s working Americans to their vulnerability.

American economy will experience the most extreme shocks to asset values, production, employment, price levels, and industrial structure in living memory.

The prospect that, as a nation, we might not prepare makes it all the more important for individuals to prepare on their own.

To raise public-sector savings, we should aim not just for federal budget balance, but for budget surplus as soon as possible. America would be wise to risk a Third Turning recession, if need be, to help alleviate the risk (or at least mitigate the severity) of a Fourth Turning depression.

If 13ers play their script weakly, old Boomers could wreak a horrible apocalypse, and 13er demagogues could impose a mind-numbing authoritarianism—or both.

Now that we are in 2020 and we know that America had unleashed extraordinary monetary stimulus in response to the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic of 2020. Debt and deficits are soaring. In other words, America has entered the crisis decade least prepared.

There is no avoiding the crisis decade:

Modern societies too often reject circles for straight lines between starts and finishes. Believers in linear progress, we feel the need to keep moving forward. The more we endeavor to defeat nature, the more profoundly we land at the mercy of its deeper rhythms. Unlike the Navajo, we cannot withstand the temptation to try closing the circle ourselves and in the manner of our own liking. Yet we cannot avoid history’s last quadrant. We cannot avoid the Fourth Turning, nor its ekpyrosis. Whether we welcome him or not, the Gray Champion will command our duty and sacrifice at a moment of Crisis. Whether we prepare wisely or not, we will complete the Millennial Saeculum. The epoch that began with V-J Day will reach a natural climax—and come to an end.

Or the Fourth Turning could simply mark the end of the Millennial Saeculum. Mankind, modernity, and America would all persevere. Afterward, there would be a new mood, a new High, and a new saeculum. America would be reborn. But, reborn, it would not be the same. The new saeculum could find America a worse place. As Paul Kennedy has warned, it might no longer be a great power.


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