posted: December 27, 2023
tl;dr: It’s hard to know now how the fourth turning will end, but Neil Howe tries his best...
Good news for people who never read The Fourth Turning, first published in 1997 and which went on to become a classic among a certain type of investor: you don’t have to read that book in order to fully appreciate Neil Howe’s new book The Fourth Turning is Here. I, on the other hand, read The Fourth Turning about a year ago in preparation for the publication of The Fourth Turning is Here. The first half of the latter is a somewhat condensed version of the former, laying out the generational theory of history that Neil Howe and his co-author on the first book, the now-deceased William Strauss, pioneered. The Fourth Turning is Here lacks some of the historical details of its predecessor, but is effectively a rewrite and updating of that book. It wasn’t until midway or later in The Fourth Turning is Here that significantly new material was covered.
When The Fourth Turning was first published, the United States was in the midst of a third turning, an era of “unraveling” in the Howe/Strauss theory. Howe’s argument that we have now entered a fourth turning, an era of “crisis”, is a pretty easy one to make. He calls 9/11 a precursor event, and marks the onset of the fourth turning with the Great Financial Crisis in 2008. After the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the U.S. has seen its political system become highly polarized starting with the 2016 election, and has endured a global pandemic followed by two proxy wars, in Ukraine and now Israel/Gaza. A third front may be opening up with China having taken full control of Hong Kong and increasing its military activity in Taiwan. With the current President actively trying to throw the previous President in jail to ensure re-election, there’s no doubt that we’re in a crisis. But how will it end? Civil War II or World War III?
I won’t give away the book except to point out that it’s an extremely difficult question to answer. Howe does remind readers that, even in the midst of wars with active combat, there are often elements of both internal and external conflict. During the American Revolutionary War, it’s not true that 100% of the colonists backed the patriots: some remained loyal to the British crown. There was a possibility of external intervention in the American Civil War, had events happened differently. But it is fair to say that one of those two types of wars needs to happen in order for the Howe/Strauss theory to come true, although Howe does mention the possibility of major political upheaval: the end of the entrenched two-party system would qualify as a combat-less revolution in government. I look forward to pulling this book off the shelf in ten years to see if Howe and Strauss are ultimately proven correct.
After reading The Fourth Turning, I had a hard time envisioning the Millennial generation as a “hero” generation, which is what they necessarily are in the Howe/Strauss theory. They seem to be too addicted to screens and social media to resemble the last heroes, the so-called Greatest generation, who fought and won World War II. In The Fourth Turning is Here Howe makes the argument that the Millenials are forming communities on a small scale now, and will do so on a larger scale in coming years, when they are called upon. They do appear to gravitate towards community-based action and are enticed by socialism. Still, they need to undertake major actions in the near future to fulfill the Howe/Strauss prophecies. As one of the oldest GenX members, I get to be a grizzled, no-nonsense pragmatist, which suits me just fine.
The Fourth Turning is Here is heavy on sociology, with many discussions of surveys, attitudes, and impressions of different groups of people. When those impressions are from long-dead writers discussing distant timeframes, they need to be taken with a certain amount of skepticism, as it is all too easy for Howe/Strauss to cherry pick only writings which support their case. However I do believe that people are heavily influenced by events that they experience or observe firsthand. I turned three in 1967’s Summer of Love, and hence have no recollection of it or Woodstock, two of the seminal events for Boomers. Instead among my earliest memories are the Apollo program, the retreat from Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the Iran hostage crisis. So it’s fair to say that I appeared on the scene after the post-World-War-II American High was over. That situation has indeed affected my outlook on life.
If there is one key lesson in the Fourth Turning books, it is that one cannot accurately predict the future by doing a straight-line extrapolation of current trends. Many aspects of group behavior go in cycles: just because the birth rate has been falling for years doesn’t mean that it is going to go to zero. Someday it will bottom and start moving back up. Howe and Strauss have done an admirable job in developing their theory, and it definitely deserves attention. If you’ve not read one of their books before, then The Fourth Turning is Here is a great place to start. However, those looking for absolute clarity on the next ten years will have to consult some other source.