Fourth Turning Theory

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From the Wikipedia:

"The Strauss–Howe generational theory, also known as the Fourth Turning theory or simply the Fourth Turning, which was created by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history. According to the theory, historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) in which a new social, political, and economic climate exists. Turnings tend to last around 20–22 years. They are part of a larger cyclical "saeculum" (a long human life, which usually spans between 80 and 90 years, although some saecula have lasted longer). The theory states that after every saeculum, a crisis recurs in American history, which is followed by a recovery (high). During this recovery, institutions and communitarian values are strong. Ultimately, succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which ultimately creates a tumultuous political environment that ripens conditions for another crisis."



Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist and Suzanne Newcombe:

"This theory of cycles puts generations in tension, battling for different cultural priorities. Strauss and Howe emphasise this alternation between eras of awakenings and crises, both of which radically alter the social environment. Awakenings are marked by individualism, inward-focused renewal with the focus on values. In contrast crises are marked by an external threat provoking social consensus, and an ethic of personal sacrifice in favour of institutional order and dominance.

Millennialism enters generational theory with the fourth turning. The cycle of turnings eventually lead to crises that destroy the status quo. After this a rebuilding is necessary to create a new beginning. Strauss-Howe theory sees ‘fourth turnings’ as challenging, but necessary stages. Through crisis is created national unity and a spirit of self-sacrifice for the greater good."



Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist and Suzanne Newcombe:

"Many descriptions of the human lifespan often include four stages, that of childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age. A social generation is a cohort group that shares an age location in history, meaning that members of the generation encounter similar historical events and social influences while in the same phase of life. Hence such people are likely to share common beliefs and behaviours and share a perceived social identity as being part of that generation.

Strauss and Howe generalise from these ideas to the concept of ‘generation identities.’ The Strauss-Howe theory emphasises generational archetypes that arise from turnings (pivotal generational events) of that particular era. They theorise that the mood and values of society (focused on the USA) changes according to the characteristics of the dominant generation.

Historical cycles, according to Strauss-Howe, consist of four turnings that repeat for each cycle. Each cycle has thematically similar turnings, which they typify as:

  • The High (which follows the crisis that ended the previous cycle). This period is typified by strong institutions and social collectivism, and weak individualism.
  • The Awakening. This period is typified by increasing personal and spiritual autonomy of people. During this period social institutions may be attacked, impeding public progress.
  • The Unravelling. This period is typified by weak institutions that are distrusted. During this period, individualism is strong and flourishing.
  • The Crisis. This is an era of destruction, e.g., through war, where institutional life is destroyed. However, as this period ends, institutions will be rebuilt. Society will rediscover the benefits of being part of a collective, and community purpose will take precedence again.

A single historical cycle of ‘four turnings’ is believed to typically take 80–90 years. Strauss-Howe term this period as a ‘Saeculum.’ This is a Latin word translated into English as ‘century,’ but which originally meant the span of a long human life. Its significance to generations and historical change was explored by Neil Howe and William Strauss in The Fourth Turning.

Strauss and Howe argue that within the cycles four-generational archetypes repeat sequentially. They argue that these archetypes, between cycles, share basic attitudes towards family, risk, culture and values, and civic engagement. In Generations (1991) these archetypes are identified as idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive.

In The Fourth Turning (1997) the terminology has changed to identifying generations as prophet, nomad, hero and artist.

  • Prophet generations are born near the end of a crisis, during a time of community cohesion and strong social order. Prophets are described as indulged children of a post-crisis era. Prophets are believed to grow up as young crusaders who in middle life become focused on morals and principles.
  • Nomad generations are born during an awakening, when crusader prophets are attacking the status quo and its institutions. Consequently, Nomads are described as growing up under-protected and alienated in social chaos. Nomads are believed to grow into pragmatic and resilient adults.
  • Hero generations are born after an awakening, during an unravelling, when social institutions are weak and individuals have to be self-reliant and pragmatic. They are more protected than the children born during the chaos of an awakening. Heroes are believed to grow up as young optimists, into energetic and over-confident and politically powerful adults.
  • Artist generations are born after the unravelling, during a crisis, when external dangers recreate a demand for strong social institutions. Artists are believed to be overprotected by parents who are pre-occupied with the dangers of the crisis. Artists grow up into conformists and process orientated yet thoughtful adults.

Strauss and Howe describe the turnings as the seasons of history. They have analysed that every 80-90 years in the history of the United States a national crisis has occurred, while halfway between crises, a cultural awakening has occurred."



See: The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory — the last three saeculum and the turnings for each, at

More information


Howe, Neil and Strauss, William. 1991. Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow & Company.

Howe, Neil and Strauss, William. 1993. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? London: Vintage Books.

Howe, Neil and Strauss, William. 1997. The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Broadway Books.