I just finished reading The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. I’ve got to be honest I didn’t love the book. It was waaaay to long to make the points it was trying to make and it goes so in to the weeds that I couldn’t make it through some huge chunks of it. However, there were quite a few great concepts that I tried to pull out and the book gave me a new mental models on evaluating and viewing the differences between the generations.
The book is really based around 1 primary concept, that history moves cyclically through 4 cycles each cycle produces a generation that falls in to a matching personality archetype. A big part of the book is on the focus that we may not be reaching the end of another era and how we should prepare for that (hence the title).
The 4 Turnings:
- 1st Turning is a High. Characterized by strong institutions, weaker individualism and strong civic participation and patriotism. A renaissance to community life.
- 2nd Turning is an Awakening. Characterized by spiritual upheaval and attacks against institutions. Arrives with a dramatic challenge against the High’s assumptions.
- 3rd Turning is an Unraveling. Characterized by strong ind individualism, weakening institutions and decay. Begins with society wide embrace of liberating cultural forces.
- 4th Turning is a Crisis. Characterized by upheaval and the replacement of institutions (this ends a cycle and can be quite dangerous). Arrives in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred but are not perceived as dire.
The Four Generational Archetypes are born under specific cycles:
- A Prophet Generation is born during a high
- A Nomad Generation is born during an Awakening
- A Hero Generation is born during an Unraveling
- An Artist Generation is born during a Crisis
- Prophets grow up as increasingly indulged post-Crisis children, comes of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of an Awakening, cultivates principle as moralistic midlifers, and emerges as wise elders.
- Nomads grow up as unprotected children during an Awakening, come of age as young alienated adults, mellows into pragmatic midlife leaders during Crisis and age into tough post-Crisis elders.
- Heroes grow up as increasingly protected children, come of age as the heroic young teamworkers of a Crisis, demonstrate hubris as energetic midlifers, and emerge as powerful Elders of an Awakening
- Artists grow up as overprotected children of Crisis, of age as sensitive young adults, break free as indecisive midlife leaders and age into empathetic post-Awakening elders.
- 1901 – 1924 The WWII Generation (my grandparents) – Hero
- 1925 – 1942 Silent Generation – Artist
- The Boomers (my older aunt and uncle) – Prophet
- Thirteenth or X (my parents) – Nomad
- Millenials (me) – Hero
The authors talk about generations identifying with their parallel generation. “Each archetype’s shadow is best revealed by the one directly across the cycle, 2 phases of life distant. Your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you” In which case Hero’s with Hero’s and I would identify with my grandparents. At least anecdotally I find that to be true and it may be part of what’s driving millenials back toward their roots. You can see this by the rise of frugality, gardening, homesteading and a host of other trends in that direction. As Igor Stravinsky once said, “we often feel closer to distant generations than to the generation immediately preceding us.”
Story Telling and Archetypes
The authors discuss how these archetypes enter stories which I thought was pretty fascinating. The regular reoccurance of the young hero and the old prophet – Arthur and Merlin, Joshua and Moses, Bilbo/Frodo and Gandolf, Luke Skywalker and Yoda, etc…Young valor tempered by wisdom of age.
The opposite archetype can be seen with young prophets and old kings – Abraham in Ur, Moses in Egypt, etc…
Nomad and Artist stories are less common, less grand and more personal. Examples were young nomads. Nomad themes were abandoned/alienated children left to survive and succeed against adults – Aladdin, Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Hansel and Gretel. Nomad adults tend to be individualt heros going it alone (think Han Solo) surrounded by the young hero and old prophet.
I found thinking of story telling through the archetypes to be a pretty fascinating exercise and I find myself doing it when watching movies or reading fiction. It creates a great framework through which to view the characters. This gem alone was probably worth skimming the book.
Random Thoughts from the book.
Ancient societies saw time as circular, hence constant circular symbolism – wreaths, snake eating its tale, etc. Modern era sees time as linear.
War tends to occur in 50 year cycles and super powers tend to rise in fall in 100 year cycles.
Humans live through 4 phase cycles – childhood, young adulthood, maturity, old age.
Cicero wrote, “Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once and to each stage of existence has been allotted its appropriate quality.”
Viewing generations through these archetypes adds a mental model to my tool box for evaluating someones point of view and how they may see the world. It helps me understand myself better and my relationships with the people in my life from various time periods.
Paying attention to a generation entering a new part of the life cycle can help see the trend changes in the business world and other arena’s of life.
It’s really interesting to view story telling through the archetypal lens. I had never considered the hero/prophet/nomad narratives so common in storytelling.
The book was too long and I didn’t get much value from the extremely detailed breakdowns of each period in American history back to its founding, but I loved the concepts and think there were some gems worth taking away. So take a look at The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe
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