American history can be broken into blocks of four twenty-year periods, the mood of each period approximately repeating itself a saeculum later. Two American historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, have noticed this "seasonal" rhythm that runs through history, corresponding in time to the length of a human life. Each twenty-year season corresponds to the years in which a single generation is born. This is no coincidence - the season of the saeculum in which a generation is born has a large impact on how the generation will turn out, and how the generation acts as it ages greatly influences the seasonal changes of the saeculum.

The four seasons (or "turnings") of the saeculum correspond to a "high", an "awakening", an "unraveling", and a "crisis", which leads into the next high. During a high, the nation is euphoric at the passing of the last crisis: ready to meet any challenges, patriotic fervor is high, crime is low, the future looks good, and most everyone agrees on the direction society should take. An awakening follows, as those who were brought up during the high take a very critical look at their culture, and start bringing its faults to the attention of everyone. In an unraveling, the sense of community present during the high is mostly gone; people are generally pessimistic about the future, crime is high, and most people think nothing can be changed: social problems seem insurmountable, and people turn inward. After an unraveling comes a crisis - a spark occurs, that catalyzes the nation to work together and fight for what they believe. A crisis usually involves war, and that war is usually momentuous. The society emerges from the crisis into a new high, visibly cleansed and changed, with a slightly different culture and feel, setting the tone for the new saeculum.

The generational archetypes corresponding to the turnings are as follows:

  • An "artist" generation is born during a crisis, and comes of age during a high.
  • A "prophet" generation is born during a high, and comes of age during an awakening.
  • A "nomad" generation is born during an awkening, and comes of age during an unraveling.
  • A "hero" generation is born during an unraveling, and comes of age during a crisis.

The last crisis was the Great Depression and World War II. The GI Generation were the heros that faught in it; the Silent Generation (artist) was born. The last high was the late '40s, '50s, and early 60's; the Silent came of age and the Baby Boomers (prophet) were born. The last awakening was the '60s and 70's; the Boomers came of age and Generation X (the 13th Generation, nomad) was born. We're now at the tail end of an unraveling; 13ers are coming of age, and the Millennial Generation (hero) has mostly been born. This means we're due for a crisis to start, any time now.

You can probably see the similarities between the most recent four turnings and my description of their archetypes above. The '50s were happy and domestically peaceful and optimistic, the '60s and '70s had Vietnam, hippies, college protests, and Watergate, the '80s and '90s were full of "culture wars", political correctness, legislative stagnation, and a general feeling that the country's going nowhere good.

If you need more convincing, and also because I think this stuff is nifty, here's a little chart showing the cycles (of Anglo-American history) from 1435 to now:

Is America at the start of a new crisis now? Maybe. I'll be keeping an eye on the news.

Split from saeculum by popular demand. For more information on the saeculum, generations, turnings, and how they influence one another, see Strauss and Howe's book, The Fourth Turning. Or (Yep, those two are my only sources this time, I'm afraid.)

If this writeup is making you think of September 11 (/nod SharQ), and you want to know whether the crisis is here already, go read this post (by Strauss and Howe):

Response to Shanoyu: Perhaps I can elaborate a bit. "Crisis", "high", "awakening", and "unraveling" are relative terms. They characterize events that are likely to happen during an era to a certain extent, but more than that, they characterize a society's response to an event. You mention the War of 1812 as "not a high" - (again perhaps I could have explained the hypothesis better, given more examples, but I didn't want to end up paraphrasing the entire book) on the contrary, it is typical of wars fought during highs. Look at the Korean War: both were echos of the previous war, and not fought with quite the same zest and will. The war is not the high, it occured during the high and the response to it was characteristic of the high. The same can be said for most of the other examples you list. Did the Red Scare prompt an all-out war against communism? No, it extended the huddle-together-even-closer-and-pretend-the-rest-of-the-world-doesn't-exist mentality characteristic of an unraveling. Nor did it cause a dramatic shift in the national mood. Clearly not a crisis, as I've defined one. Yes, it's hard to convince people that inflation is good - but did that stop Bryan from trying? No - an idealistic youngster on a crusade to make the world a better place, characteristic of an awakening. You'll note he didn't win. Sectionalism indeed has its roots earlier, but was most prevalent in national politics during the unraveling before the civil war. "Mexican War" is not my titling; it was called that by some historian years and years ago, and yes, you're right, it was the messily-fought unraveling reflection of an awakening idea, manifest destiny.

Yes, any person with any idea can rise up during any period of time, but this theory (and that's all it is - a theory - albeit a very persuasive one) says that there are certain times when they are more likely to be noticed. One man can change the mood of an era - if that era is ready, or nearly ready, for him. In fact, that happened during the civil war - Lincoln was elected too early, according to the cycles, which resulted in the wrong generational archetypes peaking in power during the crisis - which brought about the lowest high (post-civil war) in the spectrum (that's an understatement).

That's one reason why I, also, don't think we're in a crisis yet. It's a little too early. People in charge are reacting too inwardly and too forgiving ("justice" vs. "total annihilation", chuckle). Because of the Civil War precedent, however, I'm a bit frightened that we might be, and that if we are, it might end just as poorly or worse. We might be rounding the bend, though, or getting a glimse of what the real crisis will be like when it hits. I suggest you follow the link I gave above for more insight into this.

If the Lusitania had been sunk during a fourth turning, when we were ready for a crisis, perhaps we would have joined WWI because of it. We joined WWII after Pearl Harbor, not after diplomatically whining about it, when we were in a crisis.

Of course, a crisis requires more than casualties. Crises rarely come without them, though. A crisis is more about the society's reaction to casualties and the willingness of members of that society to become a casualty in order to allow the society to continue.

I merely skim over in my writeup the effect of generational aging on the turnings. That would require at least another node. Suffice it to say that which stage of life a generational archetype is in during a turning goes a large way toward shaping that turning. For example, during a crisis, old "artists" are fading from the scene, "prophets" are providing elder leadership, "nomads" are mostly in charge, young "heros" bear the brunt of the crisis, and new "artists" are being born and raised. If you carry this thought through, you might gain some more insight into the workings. Or, go see the website.

Again, this is a very short introduction to a theory which I found fascinating, intriguing, and persuasive. I'm not a history major; I'll be designing the planes, spy satellites, and colony starships used during the crisis. *grin*

Notes for US History students:

The Mexican war is the representation of Manifest Destiny. Part of an unraveling? Hardly. Calling it a war is almost an overstatement. Sectionalism has its roots far behind the period stated and existed at least from the time of the Hartford convention when marginalised New England representatives considered breaking off from the union, until Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans helped raise a new spirit of nationalism. That said, the war of 1812 was not a high, merely the end battle, (which, oddly enough, took place after the war) seeing as the USA got its ass more or less kicked. The war itself helped to provide the impetus for the Hartford convention. A rather striking omission to most lists is Jeffersons embargo, where he put the economy in paralysis. Panic after Panic could be placed on the list. The Red Scare is after WWI and definately smacks of Crisis, but that is before 1929. If William Jennings Bryan and his crusade for bimetallism qualify as an awakening, then pornographic novels qualify as high literature. (Which is to say, it is hard to convince factory workers in urban areas that inflation is the answer to their problems.) The Progressive era was followed by a great deal of disillusionment, see: babbit, The Great Gatsby and a return to 'normalcy'. Eugene V. Debs, the ever present socialist candidate consistently polled high numbers of votes through the late 19th to early 20th century.

There certainly are turning points in American History, and history does run in cycles, but not necessarily in a predictable manner. Are we in a 'Crisis'? Not as of yet. I see no widespread panic. There is no fear of anarchy. The nation may be at war, but nobody realises it. A true historical 'crisis' must have some over-arching effects and drastically change the mood of the nation. The US didn't join in WWI because Germany sunk a boat. They joined in WWI because Wilson was an Anglophobe, Large US loans to the allies, and the fact that Germany realised the full manufacturing capacity of the United States was already against them anyway; resulting in Zimmerman Telegram, Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, etc. etc. etc.

History is not the study of sheep in panic. (Thats economics!) One man can change the mood of an era. A Crisis requires more than casualties.
response response:

Historians often have theories of history much in the way generals have theories of warfare. I'm merely pointing out the problems with the theory.

Pearl Harbor was the, "oh, finally." rather than a "WOW!" the concept that we were shocked a colonial power would challenge our superiority in the pacific at what seemed like an opportune moment is rather silly, espically when we had been engaged in an arms race with Japan following WWI. The sinking of the Lusitania, by most accounts of the time, had a very similar response as the national response to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Why didn't we snap and go kill people? Woodrow Wilson was president. I'm not denying that these currents exist, i'm just denying that they have the power you think they do.

The high of 1794-1822: Um, from 1800-1812 we were no where near a high. Jeffersons embargo alienated New England and during the war they almost willfully became part of Canada (hence why they escaped most of the fighting) and small numbers of smugglers contributed war materials to the British effort! Fear of a war with France, the White Terror of Chief Justice Ellsworth (The worst supreme court justice we had, ever.) Alien and Sedition Acts, plagues at the nations capital (philadelphia), the beginnings of the end for the Federalist Party. The beginning of serious Anti-Slavery agitation due to no less an authority than Ben Franklin. The idea that any part of that era is a high is utterly mistaken. If anything we went from crisis to manic depression. The Era of Good Feelings was an era of good feelings because although nothing espically great was happening, nothing espically bad was happening either, in contrast to the previous years.

Whatever 'turning' we are in there are certain currents that exist nationally and regionally for long periods of time which usually trump any passing feeling. Jim Crow in the white south was a result of deep seeded anger and feelings of superiority that did not just exist towards blacks, but toward poor whites. So violent was the society from antebellum onwards that the mason-dixon line was sometimes called the "Smith and Wesson line". Feelings for the necessity of Race Vindication amongst African Americans that last, I submit to you, to this day, from Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass: An American Slave, written by himself to W.E.B. DuBois's historical works and his odd capacity for jumping into dark, angry prose within them. Nationally a faith in Republican Government/Democracy (The system, not the people within it), a desire for Individualism, (Which is what makes labor unions and commies so gosh darn scary) and as in many nations, a certain form of patriotism that ranges from the imperalistic urges of Jingoism to a simple feeling that the rest of the world is silly.

I'll admit that the theory is a decent and perhaps workable theory of history, (maybe it would work a bit better if it was combined with other currents?) but its failings make other theories, for instance the idea of a reform/apathy, simply work better in most circumstances. Ultimately however, any such system can be nothing more than very broad guidelines to describe the drift of impluses which can change at a moments notice.

Although I don't think 9/11 qualifies as a 'crisis' which causes an immediate catastrophic event outside of itself (save for the individuals which created it), I believe it did burn something into the national mentality which will not be removed for some time. A certain form of rage which plays right to our patriotism. My guess, an amateur guess at best, is that it will last until at least until the 20's. My percieved results of 9/11 thus far: A new hair trigger mentality to defend the nation, the comming constriction of immigration, the return of the Two War Doctrine, a new committment of intrest to the middle east outside of oil, the abrupt yet obivous end of porportional responses, and quite possibly improved relations with China. The end of Clinic bombings? (un-american now, don't you know?)

International effects I must admit to not being so attuned to. I expect that outside most of the english speaking world people figured, "Oh, terrorism in america again. Aren't they use to that by now?".

Point i'm trying to make with that: nothing is a crisis because its after an unraveling. We could go from this to a period of unprecedented peace, or to a long and brutal war. Any event has consequences. Would 9/11 have come had we elected Al Gore? Was it calculated to draw a response from Bush specifically? We'll never know. There are responses, there are events, there are things you forget about ten minutes later, there are catastrophes. It's not a jigsaw puzzle. It doesn't usually fit perfectly.

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