11. Repeating Cycles of History
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
My favorite season has always been spring—the bursting forth of new life after the harsh destruction of winter. We live and we die within repeating cycles. Some, such as seasons, more frequent and obvious than others.
I am in the winter of my life, both literally and figuratively. I can now look back over the span of my 80 years on this beautiful blue orb. I see history as seasonal and repetitive. It takes about 80-86 years for one complete cycle of history. That length of time assures there will not be many of us remaining to recognize when history begins to repeat itself.
My academic support in this observation is The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us about America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. A shorter subtitle for this 1997 publication is “An American Prophecy,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The authors’ study of European and American history shows a new era, generation, or “turning” happening about every 20 years. The First Turning, or “high,” is an upbeat era of strengthening institutions. The Second Turning or “awakening” is a passionate time of spiritual upheaval, when the old order comes under attack. The Third Turning is an “unraveling”—a time when individualism is strengthened and institutions weakened. The Fourth Turning is “crisis”—a decisive era of secular upheaval. The old order is toppled and a new one put in its place. The word saeculum in the diagram above is used to represent one cycle of approximately 80-90 years, or the length of a long human lifetime.
So, to bring this topic from the abstract to explicit, I was born at the end of a Fourth Turning, so I missed most of the hard times of my generation’s childhood. I came-of-age during a spring “high.” You may know this era as the “Happy Days Fifties” of post-WWII America. My generation became known as the Silent Generation (1921-1942). Our GI parents had survived the Great Depression and Second World War, over-protecting and giving to us what they had gone without. During this era institutions were strong, individualism weak, and society possessed confidence in its direction. Teachers were so badly needed, half my student loan was paid for by the government. Returning GIs enjoy free education. Generally, members of my generation were eager to conform, comply and unify. This “high” lasted up until JFK was assassinated in 1963.
The Second Turning and abundance of summer arrived with the Baby Boomer Generation (1943-1960). Coming-of-age in their twenties, this huge cohort tossed aside convention and attacked existing institutions in the name of personal, spiritual and social change. As a young mother I remember my dismay at watching my school-age sons refuse to cut their hair and similar “hippy” noncompliance of the era. As rebellious as this generation was, they called attention to important social inequities previously ignored. This was the tumultuous Consciousness Revolution of the 60s and 70s. The Silent Generation had helped to rebuild structures. Now, the Boomer Generation seemed determined to tear it down. Idealists to the core, unfortunately, Boomers seldom agree upon the same idea. This Second Turning lasted until the early 80s Tax Revolt and the release of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by pesticides and over-population.
Birth control pills went on the market and children were definitely out of vogue, ushering in the Third Turning (1961-1981). Fall arrived in America and the “unraveling” began. The complete opposite of the “high,” now institutions weaken and individualism flourished. This was the time of zero population growth, “latchkey” kids, rise of technology, and Culture Wars. The country divided into red states and blue states. Even this generations’ name, Generation X or 13th Generation, reflected the mood of the nation during this period of harvest and decline. The attacks on the World Trade Center culminating in the War on Terror was a foreshadowing of the bitter winter to come. This Third Turning lasted until the Financial Housing Crisis of 2008. Millions lost their homes and the country was plunged into a deep recession.
The Fourth Turning is rightfully characterized by “crisis.” Winter has come to America—a time of creative destruction of public institutions. Our dysfunctional systems are crumbling under the pressure of perceived threat to the country’s very survival—climate change resulting in fires, floods, and extinction of species; a deadly global pandemic; disappearing middle class and wavering economy; etc. Politics, economics, public infrastructure will be reshaped by the rising values of the Millennial Generation (1982-2008), and more specifically Cultural Creatives. As of this writing, we are only halfway through our winter, according to author Neil Howe.
Those born 2009 to present have so far have been named the Homelanders Generation. This generation seems destined to depend upon their parents for support until the economy recovers. The equivalent to my Silent Generation, this new cohort will hopefully enjoy a happy and fruitful coming-of-age as we move into spring. Author Neil Howe predicts another eight to ten years of winter.