How American Generational Cycles Influence Our Life’s Narrative

“[There is a link between] the seasons of nature and the seasons of a human life. Modern history does not beat to a rhythm invented by great nations, with all their vast economies, armies, and institutions — but to a natural rhythm, the rhythm of life itself.”

- Neil Howe

Are we really who we think we are?

When attempting to make sense of our life’s narrative, to identify the moments that shaped us the most — we are inevitably struck with a sobering conclusion: an impartial third-party, if given the ability to review our lives in its totality, could paint us an image of ourselves that radically differs from our own.

We may view our lives as an underdog story, a heroic struggle against liars, doubters, and snobs, but it’s possible others were sometimes correct in their harsh judgments against us. We may feel we were destined to pursue a certain line of work, but an upbringing in a foreign land could have led us to a wildly unrelated profession. There’s a chance certain impactful experiences have slipped from our memory, and we overstate the importance of the ones we do remember as compensation.

Is this worth obsessing over? No. But by recognizing the pivotal forces that mold the worldviews of our fellow humans, not only can we anticipate new societal trends, but infuse a timeless and mystical quality into our creations.

Many of us consider our family, faith (or lack thereof), nationality, and interests to be our main identity-shaping forces. We may place our birth era lower on the list, but what if this understates their influential power? What if our respective generation, be it Millennial or Gen X, possess notable qualities that aren’t unique?

What if, since 1620, Anglo-American society has repeatedly produced the same 4 types of generational archetypes, in identical successions, causing dire crises and cultural awakenings to occur at predictable intervals?

What if ancient cultures have always known of history’s seasonal rhythm, where societies undergo a cycle of rebirth, maturation, decay, and death to reach a higher form, and we humans simply recreate similar types of dramas as we ignore the wisdom of deceased generations?

Maybe we should deepen our understanding of generational cycles; only then can we see how a quaternary cycle of cultural mood shifts has recurred in America since the 1600s. The insights from Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny, will guide us on this exploration.

The Four “Turnings” of American History

The human life-cycle is about 80 years, and can be divided into four stages: youth (ages 0–20), young adulthood (21–40), midlife (41–60), and elderhood (61–80). Late elderhood (80+) is its own stage as well, but this only makes up a small percentage of the population. Within a society, the occupants of each life stage constitute a generation.

In a developed society, elders typically fill the leadership roles, mid-lifers the managerial ones, young adults play the foot-soldiers, and the youth are dependents. However, roughly every 20–24 years, a national mood shift occurs as each generation enters a new stage of life and occupies a different role.

This is how a nation comes to form a life-cycle of its own, an 80–90 year cycle ancient cultures have referred to as the saeculum. Generally speaking, as younger generations take up the roles of their deceased forebears, while adding fresher elements to society, they overlook what their elders learned via bitter experience, setting their nation up for predictable disasters.

America is currently on its fourth go-round of the saecular cycle, its fifth if you include the Anglo-American cycle of the 1600s. Since the saeculum mirrors a human life, it also has four stages (a.k.a “Turnings”) that are 20–24 years in length.

Each Turning of the saeculum can be described as follows:

First Turning “High” Era: An upbeat era where, having just overcome a mammoth crisis, government institutions are strong and the public values their services. The populace feels prosperous and unified, but the culture is rather bland and conformist, leading to a…

Second Turning “Awakening” Era: An impassioned era where government institutions are still strong, but the public loses appreciation for their services. Young-adults, having lived their formative years during a comfortable yet dull era, become fixated on revitalizing their inner-worlds. Religious revivalism, New-Age thinking, psychedelic use, etc., becomes widespread and adds much-needed vibrancy to the culture.

The elders begin to realize: even though the institutions they’ve built are well-run, the culture has atrophied as a consequence. The elders and the young-adults battle over whether the nation should remain community-oriented or adopt an individualistic ethos. As the era comes to a close, the young-adults win the fight and begin to assume managerial positions in society, leading to a…

Third Turning “Unraveling Era”: A downcast era where the national mood firmly shifts to one of individualism and self-gratification. Government institutions are increasingly ineffectual, but people are too preoccupied with themselves to care. A minority of perceptive citizens feel uneasy about the country’s future, but they silence their worries, only until the public’s self-absorption brings about a…

Fourth Turning “Crisis Era”: A riotous, rage-filled era where the nation finds itself engulfed in a sea of crises. It is now impossible to ignore the rot and appalling dysfunction of government institutions.

The Awakening Era’s young-adults, who are now elders in leadership positions, begin to realize: even though the culture they’ve created allows for more freedom of choice, government institutions have atrophied as a consequence (notice a pattern yet?).

A community-oriented ethos slowly reemerges as a mammoth crisis cripples the nation. As the era comes to a close, the current young-adults, having lived their formative years during difficult times, push for grand, sweeping societal reforms as they begin to assume managerial positions, helping to bring about a golden First Turning era.

Living Through Our Present-Day Fourth Turning

You are correct in guessing that America is currently in its Crisis Era. The Baby Boomers are the elders, Gen X’ers the mid-lifers, Millennials the young-adults, and Gen Z’ers the dependents.

Our current saeculum began in 1946, once the mammoth crisis of World War II was resolved. Government institutions were reinvented and offered valuable services that would have seemed unthinkable a generation prior (home loan guarantees, Social Security, G.I Bill, etc.).

The Baby Boomer generation (born 1943–1960) experienced childhood in an era of safety and security, rejected the bland culture upon reaching young-adulthood, then spearheaded the Consciousness Revolution of the 60s and 70s (hippie culture, anti-war protests, environmental and feminist movements, etc.)

As the Baby Boomers entered mid-life, the generation responsible for building the strong institutions they benefited from (G.I Generation) began to die off. It was the bitter experience of being young-adults during the Great Depression and WWII that compelled the G.I’s to forge such robust institutions in the first place. This is how America’s governance became so rotten and defective: most of today’s leadership positions are held by people who were never forced to prize community over individualism.

What’s so remarkable about this dynamic is how often it has played out. Every member of a generation doesn’t behave uniformly, but American history shows us that the impassioned adults of an Awakening Era become the incompetent elders during a Crisis Era, and the heroic young-adults of a Crisis Era become the unimaginative elders during an Awakening Era.

In fact, America has never gone longer than 50 years without a Crisis or an Awakening. This is about the length it takes for the elders and mid-lifers the young-adults are challenging to die off, their wisdom thus fading from the public consciousness.

We humans are still caught in societal loops that have existed for millennia, adopting different fashions as we convince ourselves, “things are different this time.”

The better you understand your own life’s narrative — how you got to where you are and why you think the way you do— the easier it is to steer your life in a favorable direction. Most people swim against the current, clueless as to how their outdated beliefs and limited perspectives disconnect them from the richness of existence.

Being attuned to how generational forces operate is akin to a superpower; you will have a multitude of lenses with which to analyze your surroundings. You will be able to capitalize on opportunities others miss because of your sense of where the future is headed. You can incorporate the best elements of each generation’s mindset into your thinking.

However, at several points in your life, you will almost certainly experience a generational clash — an event where, as a result of living in a different era than you were born in, a central part of your belief system comes into serious question. You will either accord yourself with the shifting nature of the times, or remain wedded to outmoded beliefs, complicating your life and inflicting collateral damage on those around you.

The rift between John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., over a bloody labor dispute in 1914 serves as a fascinating case study of this type of event. In the next part of this series on American generational cycles, we will see how catastrophes can arise when one ignores the ugly realities of their own life’s narrative.

Craftsman. Truthseeker.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store