Neil Howe, co-author of the books The Fourth Turning and Generations, recently sat down for an interview to talk about the fourth turning. You can hear this interview here:

An Overlooked Generation?

Posted in: Current Events,history by bill-o on July 03, 2009

Recently, shadows and symbols happened to notice a trend at his local workplace in the United States. All of a sudden, as I walk the halls of my office building, everyone seems to be either about 25 years old or, conversely, 55 years old. The large number of young new-hires seem to be gathering around the offices of the senior leaders (the 55-60 year olds) in order to receive inspiration and directions. Additionally, my workplace is organizing a special meeting that is focussed on addressing the concerns of both the younger-adult, twenty-something generation *and* the more senior, 55-65 generation. Another interesting trend is that rising stars in the younger generation seem to be on the fast-track to promotions.

In the midst of this trend, however, there is a problem: There is a generation in between, and as a member of that generation, I’m feeling a little overlooked these days.

Referencing Strauss and Howe’s work on generations in the U.S., which I surveyed in a shadows and symbols post a few months ago (, there are now primarily three generations in the American workplace:

1. The oldest is the Boomer generation. According to Strauss and Howe, this idealist generation was born between the years of 1943 and 1960. They are now, as of 2009, between the ages of 49 and 66. They are known as “boomers” because they were born during the great post-World War II “baby boom” in the United States. Their current ages now put them firmly in control of most business management positions, with the very noticeable exception of the White House.

2. The youngest is the Millenial generation. According to Strauss and Howe, this civic-minded generation was born between the years 1982 and 2000. They are known as “millenials” because they were born right before the start of a new millenium. They are now between the ages of 9 and 27, with their older members now filling the junior ranks of American workplaces.

3. The in-between generation is sometimes known as Generation X. According to Strauss and Howe, this “nomadic” or reactive generation was born between the years of 1961 and 1981. They are now between the ages of 28 and 48. Sometimes called the “baby bust” generation, this generation is about 40% smaller than the Boomer generation.

So, is this just an errant Generation X perspective of the workplace that I think that my generation is being overlooked? Perhaps my generation is just too small in size to have an impact. Or perhaps this is just a natural part of the approaching Fourth Turning time of crisis that Strauss and Howe talk about in their books. In such a time of crisis, the civic-minded younger generation is supposed to look to the older idealist generation for wisdom, guidance, and inspiration.

So, I’m inviting comments here. If you think that I’m being too sensitive or complaining, please leave a comment here. If, on the other hand, you’re a member of the so-called Generation X and you agree with me, please leave a comment here, too.

I have been fortunate to have read William Strauss and Neil Howe’s seminal work Generations when it was first introduced in 1991. I was introduced to it when I read the authors’ preview article for this book in late 1990 in the Washington Post. As soon as their sequel book The Fourth Turning came out, I bought it and read it quickly from cover to cover.

The thesis of these two books is that the course of the history of the United States is not entirely linear but also cyclical in nature. There are regular patterns in the course of the life and times of the nation that are repeated usually once every four generations. The term used in Generations for this four-generation cycle is the Latin word saeculum. A saeculum usually lasts for about 88 years (the length of a relatively long lifetime), where each of four successive generations is about 22 years long.

The four types of generations come in the following order:

Idealistic, then
Reactive, then
Civic, then

As the generations move through time in four life-stages (childhood, young adulthood, midlife, elders), the eldest generation fades away from public life and is replaced shortly thereafter with a brand new generation of children of the same type.

The alignment of the types of generations specifies what is called a turning. A turning, which roughly corresponds to the length of time of a generation, strongly influences the events of the day and how the public at large reacts to those events. The eldest generation during a turning most strongly influences its events and reactions, whereas the youngest (child) geneation influences events the least.

The first turning is called a high. In this turning, a reactive generation is in charge and uses blunt-force to push through projects of national scale and scope. Society appears to be the most orderly during high turnings, yet witch hunts often occur during these times.

The second turning is called an awakening. This is where young adult idealists begin to criticize the perceived lack of spiritual depth of the society as a whole. They begin to confront the existing order of things by protest in the streets or by withdrawal to communes in the countryside. Religious questions and yearnings that were suppressed during the previous turnings are pursued with fervor, and religious revivals usually occur during such awakenings. The arts and music are usually at their most creative during this period.

The third turning is called an unraveling. This is when the spiritual fervor of the previous awakening burns out and people concentrate on individual pursuits and goals. Starting and growing businesses and the stock market takes a high degree of public focus. Civic-mindnesses deterioriates as the elder adaptive generation tries to patch over the fraying social contract with increasingly complex sets of rules and laws. Unresolved cultural disputes reach hard impasses, while show trials and silliness in the life of public figures are most likely to occur during such times.

The fourth and final turning is called a crisis. This is where the entire resources and energies of the nation are put towards resolving a crisis or series of crises. This is where society as a whole is at its greatest peril and the entire social contract and fabric is rewritten for future generations. Here, the elder idealistic generation pours out the spiritual zeal that it had found in its youth for the good or ill of society at its darkest hour. The no-nonsense reactive generation produces mid-life leaders to lead the civic-minded young adults into life and death situations. People want to see big actions taken to confront big challenges and are even willing to tolerate big mistakes along the way.

In the U.S., the latest first turning (high) came from 1945 to 1963. The second turning (awakening) lasted from 1963 to about 1984. The third turning (unraveling) started in 1984 and may now be giving way to the fourth and final turning of a saeculum, a crisis.

To give you a better idea of how serious crisis turnings are, consider previous crisis eras in U.S. history. According to these books, the periods of crisis in American history include the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II (which were twin crises).


Are we now at the next fourth turning, the next crisis era in the United States? My honest answer is mixed: yes and no. Yes, as per the overall mood and state of the nation; no, as we have not necessarily seen the dramatic “catalyst” event that Strauss and Howe say must usher in each fourth turning. (For example, the catalyst event for the Great Depression was the stock market crash in 1929. The catalyst for the Civil War was Lincoln’s election.) A catalyst event is so significant that even people contemporaneous to that event can recognize in it a clear “watershed” moment in the affairs of the world.

We now see an idealist generation, the baby boomers about to enter their elder years of public and political influence. The adaptive, or “silent”, generation is starting to fade from public view and influence. An ice-cold and hardened “Generation X” is turning from its young adulthood as “slackers” into mid-life (as crisis managers?). And a young and eager generation is rising that is comfortable with moving in close step together with others in order to accomplish large-scale projects for the good of the whole society.

The recent financial disturbances can be seen as a classic harbinger of a crisis turning. We see here the careful compromises of the past thrown out for quick and decisive public action: for example, very large bailouts of failing financial institutions with very little forethought or debate. We observe the yearning for change and hope for a new civic-mindedness that is expressed in Senator Obama’s presidential campaign. We look at the possibility of divided government giving way to nearly one-party rule (we’ll see in one week after the election), which is something characteristic of a fourth turning. We notice popular movies starring teens like the High School Musical series, where all of the young adults are dancing and singing together in choregraphed steps. (This is something that would have been unthinkable in the previous young adult generation of so-called slackers.)

If this is not the start of the fourth turning, then it must be right around the proverbial corner.

Please also see: