The Fourth Turning — Unravelling the quirky theory that gave us “Millennials” and “Boomers”

Photo by Florian Hahn on Unsplash

Boomers, Millennials, Zoomers — we’re constantly talking about our generations.

These words influence the strategy of corporations, charities and governments alike, while the media and education system integrate it into our consciousness. Each name carries an expectation of how each group behaves, what they value, buy, watch and avoid.

It’s also led to a number of societal stereotypes, including the purpose-driven Millennial saving the planet (one like at a time), the materialistic Baby Boomer giving outdated advice to young people and the overprotected Zoomer getting life advice from TikTok.

But have you ever wondered why we label generations in the first place?

It’s an important question, given how much society defines people by them. This article explores the theory behind the labels, how it’s applied and whether it has any scientific basis.

The theory behind these words is the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, popularised by the 1991 book Generations and revised in the 1997 book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe propose every generation of humans is part of a four generation cycle, with each generation defined by a common age location (as they move through history), beliefs, behaviours and perceived membership of their generation²¹. These attitudes are conveyed through an archetype, a story designed to map the life progression of a generation¹³. The four archetypes are Prophets, Nomads, Heroes and Artists¹⁴.

Alongside the generations are four turnings — a period of American history that describes the state of individualism, community and institutions¹⁸. Generations experience turnings while their archetype describes them in each quarter of life. The turnings are labelled High, Awakening, Unravelling and Crisis²⁰.

The theory claims we are probably in the Crisis period²².

Our last cycle began at the end of World War II (1945–1963) and is considered the High¹⁸. This period began America’s role as a global power and was the beginning of a number of international organisations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund¹⁰ ²⁹. At this time, society is highly unified, individualism is weak, institutions are trusted and a new generation of Prophets are born (who were also coined Baby Boomers)¹⁸.

The next generation is born into a period of Awakening (1964 -1984)¹⁸. Our last awakening is involved a number changes in Western society including the sexual revolution, highly publicised drug use and protests against Vietnam War involvement¹ ²⁶ ²⁷. The establishment was being rebelled against as people tire of social discipline and seek personal authenticity¹⁸. The people born in this period are referred to as Generation X and given the Nomad archetype¹⁴.

Next comes the Millennial generation (1982 - 2004), a group which constantly draws the attention of media and marketers¹⁹. This group is born in the Unravelling, a time where society is most focused on individualism and society was split into “values camps”¹⁶ ²⁰. This generation is also thought to be affected by an embellishment of children and a more conformist attitude than their Gen X parent¹⁹. They are also considered to be risk-averse and achievement-oriented in their nature. The theory assigns them the Hero archetype¹⁴.

We are in the Crisis turning— a time where people band together to replace the old order and transform institutions and social order to fit a new status quo, in response to a perceived existential threat¹⁸. This period follows it’s own a path, a catalyst that brings people that sets the tone, a regeneracy of civic life in response to the catalyst, a climax that marks the transition between old and new order and a resolution which establishes the new order²⁸.

The last Fourth Turning saw the Great Depression, followed by an expansion of government and involvement in World War II, the D-Day invasion of Western Europe to end the Third Reich and the 1945 - 1947 demobilization of the US Army¹¹ ¹⁵ ²⁴. War is not guaranteed in a Crisis but the risk of war increases, and so is the ability to accomplish things that wouldn’t be possible in other periods²⁰.

Although authoritative voices on the theory hesitate to make predictions, they believe the Global Financial Crisis and 2008 US election is the probable beginning of the period, with the climax occurring around 2025 and the end of the turning thought to be 2029¹⁹ ²⁰. The matches the time when Zoomers are born who given the Artist archetype, which started 2005 and is yet to be given an official end date²⁰.

The Fourth Turning finds many supporters across corporations, public sector agencies and non-profits. This is largely due to LifeCourse — the strategy consulting, speaking and publishing company established by Strauss and Howe which applies the theory.

The consulting services they provide include market research, demographic forecasting and brand redevelopment¹². They’ve worked with over 238 clients from prominent organisations including Disney, Ford, Goldman Sachs and multiple branches of the US military¹⁷.

The theory is also a source of inspiration for many political figures, including former US Vice President Al Gore, who was so inspired by the book to send a copy to each member of Congress. This might have influenced the decision to release An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on the threat of climate change, in 2006⁷ ⁸. The timing lines up to the approximate start of the fourth turning.

It also captivated Steve Bannon — film maker, media executive and Chief Strategist to former president Donald Trump. He also produced a documentary inspired by it called Generation Zero in 2010, which contains a feature from Neil Howe. Bannon’s documentary focused on the Global Financial Crisis, claiming the Baby Boomer’s mindset “sowed the seeds of economic disaster that will be reaped by coming generations”².

It’s possible this theory influenced his actions as Trump’s Chief Strategist.

Despite a number of US corporations and government departments championing the theory, it is often met with scepticism or criticism by academics. An article by Newsweek written in 1991 called it “an elaborate historical horoscope that will never withstand scholarly scrutiny…”²⁵.

Science is the process of formulating a hypothesis, testing it and modifying it based on the results until it’s consistent with the observed phenomenon. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, refers to an idea considered scientific but ignores this rigorous process²³. The process used by Strauss and Howe is more pseudoscientific.

In a 1991 interview with C-SPAN, they describe the compilation of Generations as a “creative process”, which involved documenting the historical experiences of different life stages, marriage, spirituality and important historical events, then refining their understanding as more research was conducted³.

This work is not a scientific endeavour, but a “thematic historical narrative” that tries to explain the changing values of people as they age. The lack of scientific basis, although weakening its credibility, doesn’t discount all of its validity. The same article in Newsweek, while acknowledging the shortcomings of Generations, also called it an “provocative, erudite and engaging analysis of the rhythms of American life”²⁵.

I think Strauss-Howe Generation Theory is an insightful blend of conventional wisdom, historical research and accessible narration. But I also think it’s a modern attempt at astrology which has helped LifeCourse make serious bank.

Their model of individual and collective behaviour based on historical records subject to bias, combined with their oversimplified model of generational behaviour leaves much to be desired. Because of this vagueness, authors leave ample opportunity to adjust their predictions and narrative as required, while also making their rationale hard to disprove.

Neil Howe, the only surviving author of the theory, is not obliged to make concrete predictions about the future, but can draw attention for making prophetic claims about the future and be respected. He can also take the observations made in Anglo-American society and it apply to other countries such as China.

There is no doubt that Strauss and Howe have constructed a thoughtful narrative with valuable insights, but based on my research I wouldn’t take their model too seriously.

All sources were accessed 22nd April 2021 at latest:

[1] Canadian Centre For Addictions. (2020). Hippies & Drugs: How 60s Drugs Use Shaped Modern Trends. https://canadiancentreforaddictions.org/the-hippie-era-60s-drugs-use/

[2] Citizens United Productions. (ca. 2010). Abount The Film. http://www.generationzeromovie.com/about.html

[3] C-SPAN. (2016). Generations: The History of America’s Future. https://web.archive.org/web/20160703075922/http://booknotes.org/Watch/17548-1/William%2BStrauss.aspx

[4] Encyclopedia Brittanica. (n.d.). Scientific method. https://www.britannica.com/science/scientific-method

[5] Hoover, E. (2009). The Millennial Muddle. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-millennial-muddle/

[6] Howe, N. (2014). The Millennial Generation, “Keep Calm and Carry On” (Part 6 of 7). https://www.forbes.com/sites/neilhowe/2014/09/04/the-millennial-generation-keep-calm-and-carry-on-part-6-of-7/?sh=47ed8c13bb20

[7] IMDb. (n.d.). An Inconvenient Truth (2006). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/

[8] IMDb. (n.d.). An Inconvenient Truth (2006) — Release Info. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/releaseinfo

[9] IMDb. (n.d.) Generation Zero (2010). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1624385/

[10] International Monetary Fund. (2021). The IMF at a Glance. https://www.imf.org/en/About/Factsheets/IMF-at-a-Glance

[11] Keegan, J. (n.d.). Normandy Invasion. https://www.britannica.com/event/Normandy-Invasion

[12] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Consulting. https://www.lifecourse.com/services/consulting.html

[13] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Generational Archetypes. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/generational-archetypes.html

[14] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Generations in Anglo-American History. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/timelines/generations.html

[15] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Great Depression & WW II. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/def/great-depression.html

[16] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Long Boom & Culture Wars. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/def/culture-wars.html

[17] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Our Clients. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/clients.html

[18] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). The Four Turnings. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/the-four-turnings.html

[19] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). The Generational Constellation. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/the-generational-constellation.html

[20] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). The Turnings in Anglo-American History. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/timelines/turnings.html

[21] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). What is a Generation? https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/phases.html

[22] LifeCourse Associates. (n.d.). Where We Are Today. https://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/where-we-are-today.html

[23] Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Pseudoscience. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pseudoscience

[24] National WWII Museum (New Orleans). (2020). The Points Were All That Mattered: The US Army’s Demobilization After World War II. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/points-system-us-armys-demobilization

[25] Newsweek Staff. (1991). The Generation Game. https://www.newsweek.com/generation-game-202378

[26] PBS. (n.d.). Protests and Backlash. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/two-days-in-october-student-antiwar-protests-and-backlash/

[27] PBS. (n.d.). The Pill and the Sexual Revolution. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-and-sexual-revolution/

[28] Quinn, J. (2011). Years of the Modern. https://www.lifecourse.com/media/articles/lib/2011/04172011.html

[29] United Nations. (n.d.). History of the United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/history-of-the-un

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