In 1997, the historians William Strauss and Neil Howe published The Fourth Turning, a book that describes and expands upon the generational theory of history for which the two authors are regarded. Strauss and Howe contend that all of a society’s history is divided into saecula, or roughly 88-year periods that span the length of a long human life. Within each saeculum lie four ordered eras, or “turnings,” that include a “high,” “awakening,” “unraveling” and “crisis,” after which point the cycle repeats and a new saeculum begins. A high is comprised by an era of good, or stable feelings and conditions. The awakening occurs when high-era ideals are challenged and replaced. During an unraveling, society endures the clash of awakening ideals and burgeoning high-era institutions. Finally, the crisis witnesses events that ultimately change the meaning of life in one society and establish a new status quo in the next saeculum. The Fourth Turning applies this theory primarily to American history beginning after World War II. Postwar prosperity is the high; 1960s and 1970s Consciousness Revolutions form the awakening; 1980s and 1990s culture-clashes comprise the unraveling. Strauss and Howe predicted this saeculum’s crisis to begin in the early 2000s, and end sometime in the 2020s. So far, events like the September 11th attacks and the 2008 financial crisis have threatened to extend the validity of their theory.
The group of individuals born during one turning is considered a generation, and Strauss and Howe identify a similar cycle of generations, or archetypes. Those born during a high turning comprise the idealist “prophet” archetype. Prophets are indulged as children, and grow up to lead the self-oriented awakening following the high turning. The reactive “nomad” archetype is born during an awakening, and is particularly under-protected during childhood. They might grow up feeling somewhat alienated, or even shunned from other generations and thus take a pragmatic and cautious approach to later life. Civic-minded “Heroes” are born during an unraveling, and come of age during a crisis, where they provide that groundwork that steers a society into the next saeculum. Finally, the adaptive “artist” archetype is born during a crisis, and comes of age accepting the conformity and stability of a high turning.
I like Strauss and Howe’s theory because it provides an interesting sort of lens with which to consider artistic expression throughout history. If art is a type of reflected reality, then it can allow one to identify with various archetypes and moods of the past and aptly compare artists of entirely different times and eras. Take, for example, Jazz Age literature of the early twentieth century and grunge music of the 1990s – two movements that were led by nomad archetypes who worked during periods of intense social stratification. The burgeoning fervor of Progressive and Consciousness Era idealism (as well as brief American involvement in violent conflict) polarized the values of individuals and institutions. Thus, despite using vastly different mediums, writers like Fitzgerald or Hemingway and bands like Nirvana explored similar themes of youthful cynicism and disillusionment. A newly pessimistic Nick Carraway leaves West Egg after Gatsby’s death and sparsely attended funeral; Kurt Cobain highlights his discovered ennui with stardom on In Utero’s “Serve the Servants.” Tones and themes from antiquated works suddenly blister with life in juxtaposition with more aesthetically familiar pieces.
Perhaps most alluring about the Strauss-Howe generational theory is its implications for the millennial generation. As part of the lineage of “hero” generations, millennials will be busy, charged with solving current crises, such as mass student debt, income inequality or climate change. I think that it is far too difficult to aggregate current artistic trends without making completely inadequate generalizations. However, it is easier to assess the work of previous heroes who acted out the last crisis setting in and around World War II. Many authors who endured the war, like Vonnegut ’44 or Heller, wrote critically of it, describing the debilitating mental effects that combat inflicted on soldiers and citizens. As millennials gradually see the positive or negative resolutions of current problems, how will we reflect about our experiences? Will it consist of glorious portrayal or grim remembrance, through some unforeseen medium? As the great civic workers of all the archetypes, heroes possess a unique perspective of significant, lasting events, and thus have the ability to create some of the most inspiring artistic reflections.
Strauss and Howe’s theory is certainly not flawless. Its very nature relies upon the acceptance of gross generalizations about time periods and the individuals that inhabited them. Moreover, its established boundaries of generations and turnings are sometimes thought to be quite arbitrary. Yet, to indulge the notion of generational archetypes and turnings can, as Strauss and Howe stress, allow for clear insight into a common human nature. Furthermore, it gives meaning to why we reflect and express artistically, as so many remarkably similar individuals have done before.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]