Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The Fourth Turning is finally here and it might not end well
A new epidemic (Photo: Reuters)
A new epidemic (Photo: Reuters)

Opinion | The Fourth Turning is finally here and it might not end well

The world is undergoing a churn set in motion by a crisis that could actually bend the arc of history

If someone predicted in 1997 that sometime around 2005, give or take a few years, a global terrorist group would blow up an aircraft or that the Centers for Disease Control would announce a new epidemic with the Congress enacting quarantine measures, a financial crisis would erupt and that a high-tech oligarchy would emerge, we would be highly impressed with them. We would like to know what they studied and how they came up with such startlingly precise predictions. These were the predictions made by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 1997 book, The Fourth Turning. In an interview with Rana Foroohar of the Financial Times, fund manager Kiril Sokoloff called the book prophetic, and now you know why.

Howe and Strauss describe a concept called the Saeculum. It is an ancient unit of time that spans roughly 80 to 100 years. The idea is that the cycle of human affairs approximates the length of a long human life. It is not easy to wrap one’s head around the book, especially if one is not already intimately familiar with American history. The book speaks of four turnings—high, awakening, unravelling and the crisis. Then, there are the characteristics of people—prophets, nomads, heroes and artists. More specifically, with respect to the generations that are still around in the US, we have the GIs who fought World War II, a silent generation that followed GI contemporaries, and then boomers who were born right after that war. They were followed by the 13-ers (13th Generation born between 1961 and 1981), and then millennials.

If, as the authors assert, the Fourth Turning started somewhere around 2005, then based on their analysis of historical patterns, this decade would turn out to be the climax of the Fourth Turning, and could mark the end of the Saeculum that began with America’s hour of triumph in the War. Ominously, Sir John Glubb, in his magisterial analysis of the life cycle of empires, suggests that empires last at most 10 generations (The fate of empires and the search for survival, 1977), i.e., around 250 years. America declared itself an independent nation in 1776.

The notion of a Saeculum or cycle is anathema or alien to modern Western thinking that has become linear. Indeed, that is why it is likely that both the leadership and the public in America are unprepared for the crisis that is coming, just as they were unprepared for the pandemic itself. Linear thinking predicted “the end of history", in Francis Fukuyama’s memorable words. The same thinking underlies the monetary policy efforts to prolong business cycle expansions and to put a floor under asset prices whenever they sag. It regards economic growth as an inalienable right, and policymakers pursue whatever it takes to keep it going. But business cycles are necessary cleansers, just as mini forest fires and small avalanches help avoid raging forest fires and major avalanches.

John Gray, in a brilliant article, How Apocalyptic Is Now? (unherd.com, 13 May 2020), noted that a reversion to history was unthinkable for practitioners of linear thinking, and that much progress occurred when history was idling. For the West led by America, history has been mostly idling over the last 75 years and, hence, it had taken progress for granted. The pandemic could be an alarm bell for history to stir, and in multiple theatres. The late historian William McNeill wrote in Plagues and Peoples that pandemics come after an era of overwhelming openness, which they mark the end of. The Bubonic plague, the Spanish Flu and the covid pandemic testify to that. In other words, globalization will end, immigration restrictions will multiply and isolationism will return. Industrial policy will be back. Further, Neil Howe asserts that one absolute rule of history is that crisis eras are marked by large, dictatorial, authoritarian and intrusive regimes. No exceptions.

The good news is that five of the last six Fourth Turnings have ended well for America. The end of the War ushered in economic development and the end of colonization in many parts of the world. The bad news is that neither mainstream political party in the US has thrown up the kind of leadership that can steer the country through the crisis to a new ‘High’. Nor does the boomer generation that is going to lead 13-ers and millennials during the climactic years of the Fourth Turning seem endowed with moral credibility, given their proclivity for permissiveness in youth and capitalistic excesses in their middle age. Therefore, there is no guarantee that today’s crisis will end well.

Those who salivate at the prospect of America in turmoil must remember two things. One is that since the First Turning began simultaneously for many countries with the end of the War, other parts of the world are entering their own Fourth Turning. Two, the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949 and its Communist Party celebrates its centenary next year.

In another book, published a year before The Fourth Turning, China declaring full control over the South China Sea and invading Vietnam triggers a clash of civilizations. Get ready for a decade that you may never (want to) experience again in your lifetime.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views.

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