To boil it down to its basics, the book is about an 80- to 100-year cycle that has taken place throughout American history, dating back into English history, wherein, in the course of four generations, society swings from focusing on community and doing what is best for the community to focusing on individual freedom and doing what will most allow personal freedom to flourish. This cycle has four definable eras, or turnings:
- The High - "an upbeat era of strenghtening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays"
- The Awakening - "a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime"
- The Unraveling - "a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants"
- The Crisis - "a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one." [pg. 3]
- A Prophet generation is born during a High
- A Nomad generation is born during an Awakening
- A Hero generation is born during an Unraveling
- An Artist generation is born during a Crisis [pg. 19]
"This dynamic has recurred throughout American history. Roughly every two decades (the span of one phase of life), there has arisen a new constellation of generations - a new layering of generational personas up and down the age ladder. As this constellation has shifted, so has the national mood. Consider what happened from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, as one generation replaced another at each phase of life:
In elderhood, the cautionary individualists of the Lost Generation (born 1883 - 1900) were replaced by the hubristic G.I. Generation (born 1901 - 1924), who launched American into an expansive era of material affluence, global power, and civic planning.
In midlife, the upbeat G.I.s were replaced by the helpmate Silent Generation (born 1925 - 1942), who applied their expertise and sensitivity to fine-tune the institutional order while mentoring the passions of youth.
In young adulthood, the conformist Silent were replaced by the narcissistic Boom Generation (born 1943 - 1960), who asserted the primacy of self and challenged the alleged moral vacuity of the institutional order.
In childhood, the indulged Boomers were replaced by the neglected 13th Generation (born 1961 - 1981), who were left unprotected at a time of cultural convulsion and adult self-discovery. Known in pop culture as Generation X, its name here reflects the fact that it is literally the thirteenth generation to call itself American." [pg. 17]
The authors go back through history, generation after generation, showing how the the boom-to-bust cycle occurred over and over, illustrating how when certain generational archetypes - heroes and artists - are in mature adulthood and elderhood, authoritarian society spreads its wings and establishes institutions, and then when prophets reach adulthood, having grown up under secure, predictable, conformist, authoritarian governance, they rebel and demand consideration be given to the individual. This demand, eventually given its head, leads to an unraveling of societal organization and expectation, which in turn leads to a crisis which, after bloodshed and/or destruction, results in the reestablishment of authority.
Each generation plays its part. It is born to play a certain role, and it does not shirk. Heroes beget Prophets, Nomads raise Artists. The cycle continues.
The title of the book, The Fourth Turning, refers to that fun fourth part of the cycle, the Crisis which features war, death, poverty, and destruction. That is what part of the cycle we are coming up on now. During previous fourth turnings American society has experienced stuff like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II. Wars and economic troubles happen in other parts of the cycle too, of course, but the reaction of the leaders during those times is different because the generational deck is stacked differently. The combination of old Prophets and middle-aged Nomads in charge tends to result in total war, not insert/extract conflicts, and Depressions, not recessions. The prolonged Unraveling that proceeds the Crisis leaves everyone feeling that society is going to hell in a handbasket, and they might as well solve the problem once and for all, cost be damned. To win a total war, however, you have to have the willing participation of every member of society, which means the funeral bell tolls for individual freedom and self-actualization.
"A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.
People support new efforts to wield public authority, whose perceived successes soon justify more of the same. Government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside. A grim preoccupation with civic peril causes spiritual curiosity to decline. A Sense of public urgency contributes to a clampdown on bad conduct or antisocial lifestyles. People begin feeling shameful about what they earlier did to absolve guilt. Public order tightens, private risk taking abates, and crime and substance abuse decline. Families strengthen, gender distinctions widen, and child rearing reachers a smothering degree of protection and structure. The young focus their energy on worldly achievements, leaving values in the hands of the old. Wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.
Eventually, the mood transforms into one of exhaustion, relief, and optimism. Buoyed by a newborn faith in the group and in authority, leaders plan, people hope, and a society yearns for good and simple things." [pgs. 103 - 104]In other words, if it all doesn't go up in flames, after the Crisis is over, things are much more stable for everyone and society resets itself into a working model again.
There is, of course, a whole book's worth of additional detail and information. I will talk about my reactions to some of it in later posts, but that is the basic premise of The Fourth Turning. Thoughts?
Addendum: Thoughts on The Fourth Turning, part 2: Gen X's childhood