Trump and the Generations Part 3: When Did the Fourth Turning Start?

In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we examined how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out. In Part 3 we will look at what is next based on that historical perspective.

America is headed towards an extreme crisis which will probably culminate in the next 4 to 8 years. According to “The Fourth Turning” written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, we are on track to repeat the historical cycle of Crisis that has gone on for centuries. But a big question remains in how this Crisis will play out: will it be a global war for domination or an internal war for control of the US?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Satayana

For a primer on Generational Theory, go to Neil Howe’s site

According to generational theory, we are now in a period called “The Crisis” which will culminate in a “Climax” that has historically been a military conflict. These world-changing events occur every 80-100 years:

  • 1929-1946 (17 years) – Great Depression and WWII
  • 1860-1865 (5 years) – Civil War
  • 1773-1794 (21 years) – American Revolution
  • 1675-1704 (29 years) – Glorious Revolution
  • 1569-1594 (25 years) – Armada Crisis
  • 1459-1487 (28 years) – War of the Roses

In most of the examples that “The Fourth Turning” outlines, the battles have resulted in clear winners and losers and the heroes are rewarded generously for their victory. This is true for all of their examples except for one: The American Civil War. This battle, fought on US soil with Brother against Brother, and the result did not feel like a victory for anyone, but rather defeat for all involved.

The reason that Strauss and Howe give for the quagmire that resulted from the Civil War had to do with timing. In the other Crisis battles, there had been adequate time for a “Hero” generation to form and prepare for battle. This was certainly true in WWII with the GI Generation as the heroes as well as the American Revolution with Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Generation. There were no such heroes in the Civil War because when the war started in 1860, the Progressive Generation of Woodrow Wilson were too young to fight.  The generation that did fight in the Civil war was the Gilded Generation who are more similar in character to current day Gen X’ers. They were not lauded for their role and were not interested in taking up the mantle of victors since survival was their main desire. Because the Civil War came too early, in generational terms, it also was extremely short, and brutish. All the other Crisis in history have covered from 17-29 years, enough for an entire generation to feel their full effect.

So the timing seems the key factor in determining the nature of the Crisis Climax. The timing of the current Crisis has been debated for some time in generational circles. There are three possibilities:

  1. The Crisis began 2001 with 9/11
  2. The Crisis began in 2008 with the Great Recession
  3. The Crisis hasn’t started yet

First we have to understand how the Crisis is broken down into sections. The Crisis starts with a Catalyst, which Strauss and Howe describe as “a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood”. Following the Catalyst, society should move quickly, typically from 1-5 years after the catalyst, into the regeneracy, which is “a new counter entropy that re-unifies and re-energizes civic life”. The Regeneracy should last from 10-15 years. And then finally we have the Climax which is a relatively short period of extreme conflict that leads to a resolution.

If we consider 9/11 as the Catalyst, we can certainly see that it was a startling event that produced a sudden shift in mood. But we would have expected 1-5 years later that the country really started to pull together. That would have been around Obama’s first term which got off to a strong start that seemed to pull young Millennials into a new civic engagement, but that energy was quickly lost after his first mid-term elections. The rest of his terms left most on the left and right feeling disillusioned not “re-energized”.

Perhaps the The Great Recession was the startling event that produced a massive shift in mood. Most in our society had never faced the degree of economic turmoil and worry that engulfed the nation. It was only the extreme actions of the Federal Government that staved off immediate disaster, and we are still deeply in debt from those actions. But once again, if we look 1-5 years after the Great Recession, the civic regeneracy did not seem to materialize.

It might also be possible that the Fourth Turning has not started yet at all. This seems very remote, given how Strauss and Howe characterize the Fourth Turning mood. Unlike the Unraveling it is a time of clear polarization between sides, not just a splintering of society into many pieces. Although today’s social mood is definitely split, it is primarily a battle between open or closed society, which is a new set of rules from the old liberal/democrat split. So it seems unlikely that we are still in an Unraveling waiting for the catalyst.

But now with the populist movement of Donald Trump, perhaps we are seeing the civic regeneracy that was going on, all along, unbeknownst to the mainstream media. The Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin’s popularity and the election of a large cache of extreme conservatives in State and Federal Legislatures should have tipped Americans off that something was changing. The American people, or at least the Electoral College, chose a decisive direction for the country during this volatile period.

But perhaps there is another possibility: that the Crisis began with 9/11, deepened with the Great Recession and finally forced its way towards a Climax when those who felt most ignored and repressed finally spoke their minds. This would put us on course to have a resolution to the Crisis sometime in the next 4-8 years, which would mean that we should be done with a massive decisive conflict sometime between 2021 and 2025. That is right in line with Strauss and Howe’s original predictions from “The Fourth Turning” and would make this Crisis total out at 20-24 years.

In Chapter 9 of “The Fourth Turning” Strauss and Howe outline how the prior Climax have occurred. In their analysis there is one striking similarity to each Crisis cycle: practically no one sees the climax coming, even less than a year in advance. This is very instructive for the situation today where most of our populace knows something feels very different than in the past, but they can’t imagine another World War or individual States rising up in defiance of the Federal Government.

But back to the original question: will the Crisis be an internal battle between Liberal States and Trump’s Federal Government? Or will it be a war between the US and some other Sovereign Nation(s)? We will answer that question in Part 4 of this series.


16 thoughts on “Trump and the Generations Part 3: When Did the Fourth Turning Start?”

  1. Dave: my concern is that if Millennials distrust Trump, Trump won’t have a chance to be Grey Champion and Millennials would be without a leader to guide them through crisis. We need to remember the fate of Millennials is at stake.

    “Of all today’s generations, the Millennials have the most at stake in the coming crisis. If it ends badly, they would bear the full burden of its consequences throughout their adult lives.”

    Whatever goes it’s the Mills fault unless they’re step up as Heros and maybe trust Trump.

    As for the Gilded, when the Civil War ended, the mantle would’ve only been on the table for the Union since the South was defeated. But both sides struggled to survive. The Civil War resulted from a polarized Society back then too.

  2. In the Fourth Turning, it also explained that the Millennials could end up being an Artist generation like the Progressives.
    Do you think that’s still possible?

  3. The heroes will be the ones who resist the current administration, who fight his tyranny, and the tyranny of those who empower him through their support. I hope that we make it through this climax in one piece as a country and as a united people again.

      1. Right. Millennials are against Trump and he’s the new Pearl Harbor moment.

        Millennials have been heroes for some time now with their intense focus on social justice, racial, social and economic equality and the Occupy movement.

        Trump threatens all that and we are finally seeing some of the older generations feel the pain and join the fight, instead of them dismissing younger people.

          1. Whether Mills end up being a Hero generation (like the GIs) or and Artist generation (like the Gilded) is still up for debate.

          2. The Artist Generation Millennials would mirror would be the Progressives. Xers would be the Gilded. As far as the Gilded taking the mantle, that option would’ve only been available for the Union soldiers since the Confederate Gilded lost. I’ve spoken with folks who believe they see a weakening of our institutional structure like the Civil War. The nation is still very polarized where in the 1930s we were uniting under FDR. Also it’s yet to see if Millennials fight a major conflict that defines the Hero generation.

        1. So if Millennials get Trump impeached and out of office as soon as Trump goofs, that’d be the Millennials D-Day moment, and getting in a Progressive (Democrat) that de-Trumps it all is there VE, VJ moment. I totally get it.

          1. The one scenario left out of this commentary (i.e., Millennials not supporting Trump) is that we’re still in the early days of his administration. We cannot discount that he may win over this generation. How is anyone’s guess, but Fourth Turnings are all about a society recognizing an existential threat and combining forces to defeat it.

            Millennials may yet decide Trump has their best interest at heart and may move to support him. Only time will tell.

  4. If the conflict is shifting from left v. right to open v. closed, then a new faction which forms from both the left and the right and favors the closed (the direction favored in the Fourth Turning) could become very powerful. A nationalist populism that embraces the best of both left and right, say.

    1. That’s saying a Nationalism that moves strictly to the center which promises to remodel our strength in government.

  5. I’ve been pondering this question lately, as it appears we’re certainly in the Crisis now. However, it only seems to partially fit what Strauss and Howe lay out.

    For example, they write “What makes a Crisis special is the public’s willingness to let leaders lead even when they falter…” (FT, p.258) On a national level, that’s far from true. Liberals are not letting Trump “lead, even when he falters.” Far from it, they are turning each misstep into a catastrophe. Republicans are not even submitting to his leadership, see, for example, the AHCA debacle. Things are not getting done.

    However, this claim might be true within certain spheres. Many Republicans do still stand behind Trump, despite his vices. Many Democrats are still devoted to Hillary, despite her mistakes. And there is a kind of “civic energy” forming on both sides of the political divide. It is just not a civic energy devoted toward national ends, but partisan ends.

    If we are in the regeneracy, it is a weird one, probably more like the Civil War than the New Deal and WWII.

    I’m looking forward to Part 4.

  6. I think the fourth turning began with the financial meltdown in 2008. If it only started recently then the length of the Unraveling would have been over 30 years. Neil Howe said the 1-5 years between the catalyst and the regeneracy is only what occurred for the six prior saeculum, that each one has its own rhythm. I think that the agency of the ruling elite can dramatically divert the saeculum, though not its overarching structure, if they are sufficiently isolated from the public. That is why I finger the Federal Reserve as the reason the regeneracy has only now at least possibly seem to have begun–8 years after the catalyst. They are at least nominally independent. They are also small enough in number for any idiosyncratic divergence from the characteristics of their generational archetypes to matter for policy. It also makes sense considering how much the Fed’s balance sheet has expanded, its continuation of near-zero interest rates for almost a decade, and the dearth of deleveraging among households and corporations. Ben Bernanke failed to let the market fully correct itself, as his analysis of Great Depression did not include generational changes. Thus, while he appeared solve the crisis, its consequences have just been postponed, such that Unraveling era-style politics continued way past the point it would have otherwise, if the economy had not “recovered.” Regeneracy does not necessarily happen on a unified basis if the fissures in a society are deep enough that they cannot be overcome in order to resolve the crisis, in which case that failure becomes part of the crisis in and of itself. Speaking of which, when the market does finally correct, will we at last come together to save ourselves? That is much more in doubt now than it would have been at the catalyst.

    1. @Greg – I think that the start/end of this Turning will be much bigger than just the financial issues. Although I can totally see your point about how the financial crisis occurred and whether it has fully resolved, I think that Trump’s election and the deep divisions in US politics will play a huge role. Add Russia and the Middle East to the mix (not to mention China) and we’ve got a lot of volatility that may come to a head sooner than later.

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