American history can be broken into blocks of four twenty-year periods, the mood of each period approximately repeating itself a saeculum later. Two American historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, have noticed this "seasonal" rhythm that runs through history, corresponding in time to the length of a human life. Each twenty-year season corresponds to the years in which a single generation is born. This is no coincidence - the season of the saeculum in which a generation is born has a large impact on how the generation will turn out, and how the generation acts as it ages greatly influences the seasonal changes of the saeculum.
The four seasons (or "turnings") of the saeculum correspond to a "high", an "awakening", an "unraveling", and a "crisis", which leads into the next high. During a high, the nation is euphoric at the passing of the last crisis: ready to meet any challenges, patriotic fervor is high, crime is low, the future looks good, and most everyone agrees on the direction society should take. An awakening follows, as those who were brought up during the high take a very critical look at their culture, and start bringing its faults to the attention of everyone. In an unraveling, the sense of community present during the high is mostly gone; people are generally pessimistic about the future, crime is high, and most people think nothing can be changed: social problems seem insurmountable, and people turn inward. After an unraveling comes a crisis - a spark occurs, that catalyzes the nation to work together and fight for what they believe. A crisis usually involves war, and that war is usually momentuous. The society emerges from the crisis into a new high, visibly cleansed and changed, with a slightly different culture and feel, setting the tone for the new saeculum.
The generational archetypes corresponding to the turnings are as follows:
- An "artist" generation is born during a crisis, and comes of age during a high.
- A "prophet" generation is born during a high, and comes of age during an awakening.
- A "nomad" generation is born during an awkening, and comes of age during an unraveling.
- A "hero" generation is born during an unraveling, and comes of age during a crisis.
The last crisis was the Great Depression and World War II. The GI Generation were the heros that faught in it; the Silent Generation (artist) was born. The last high was the late '40s, '50s, and early 60's; the Silent came of age and the Baby Boomers (prophet) were born. The last awakening was the '60s and 70's; the Boomers came of age and Generation X (the 13th Generation, nomad) was born. We're now at the tail end of an unraveling; 13ers are coming of age, and the Millennial Generation (hero) has mostly been born. This means we're due for a crisis to start, any time now.
You can probably see the similarities between the most recent four turnings and my description of their archetypes above. The '50s were happy and domestically peaceful and optimistic, the '60s and '70s had Vietnam, hippies, college protests, and Watergate, the '80s and '90s were full of "culture wars", political correctness, legislative stagnation, and a general feeling that the country's going nowhere good.
If you need more convincing, and also because I think this stuff is nifty, here's a little chart showing the cycles (of Anglo-American history) from 1435 to now:
- 1594-1621: High: English Renaissance, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, dreams of empire
- 1621-1649: Awakening: Great Protestation, exodus of religious groups to America, Long Parliament, execution of King Charles I
- 1649-1675: Unraveling: Oliver Cromwell, Stuart Restoration, fractured American colonies, war with Holland in New York
- 1675-1704: Crisis: Indian wars, Glorious Revolution, war against New France, Parliamentary crack-down and Colonial resistance
- 1704-1727: High: rising trade, cities, discipline, pride in Great Britain throughout England and America
- 1727-1746: Awakening: spiritual revival, Jonathan Edwards, moderate dispersal of the establishment
- 1746-1773: Unraveling: French and Indian wars, fears of colonial fracturing, lack of competent colonial leadership, corruption in Parliament
- 1773-1794: Crisis: Boston Tea Party, Continental Congress, Declaration of Independece, American Revolution
- 1794-1822: High: Era of Good Feelings, canals, steamboats, turnpikes, Lewis and Clark, new territories, War of 1812
- 1822-1844: Awakening: transcendentalism, Nat Turner, abolitionism, populism, romanticism, feminism, utopianism, Manifest Destiny
- 1844-1860: Unraveling: gold rush, Mexican war, Walt Whitman, Underground Railroad, splinter parties, sectionalism, Bleeding Kansas
- 1860-1865: Crisis: (yes, this one's short. It's the only exception.) Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln assasination
- 1865-1886: High: Reconstruction, Gilded Age, railroads, mines, mass production, prosperity
- 1886-1908: Awakening: Great Awakening, William Jennings Bryan, muckrakers, missionaries, labor violence, feminism
- 1908-1929: Unraveling: World War I, prohibition, weak politicians, moral crusades, flappers, wide class divides, The Great Gatsby
- 1929-1946: Crisis: Great Depression, World War II, New Deal, D-Day, atomic bomb
- 1946 - now:
- 1946-1964: High: global superpower, growing middle class, suburbs, interstates, uncontroversial budget, Happy Days
- 1964-1984: Awakening: Vietnam War, rioting, feminism, environmentalism, black power, New Age, Watergate, Beatles
- 1984-now: Unraveling: pessimism, individualism, violence, end of Cold War, distrust of leaders at home and abroad
Is America at the start of a new crisis now? Maybe. I'll be keeping an eye on the news.
Split from saeculum by popular demand. For more information on the saeculum, generations, turnings, and how they influence one another, see Strauss and Howe's book, The Fourth Turning. Or www.fourthturning.com. (Yep, those two are my only sources this time, I'm afraid.)
If this writeup is making you think of September 11 (/nod SharQ), and you want to know whether the crisis is here already, go read this post (by Strauss and Howe): http://www.fourthturning.com/forums/viewtopic.php?topic=195&forum=2&2098
Response to Shanoyu: Perhaps I can elaborate a bit. "Crisis", "high", "awakening", and "unraveling" are relative terms. They characterize events that are likely to happen during an era to a certain extent, but more than that, they characterize a society's response to an event. You mention the War of 1812 as "not a high" - (again perhaps I could have explained the hypothesis better, given more examples, but I didn't want to end up paraphrasing the entire book) on the contrary, it is typical of wars fought during highs. Look at the Korean War: both were echos of the previous war, and not fought with quite the same zest and will. The war is not the high, it occured during the high and the response to it was characteristic of the high. The same can be said for most of the other examples you list. Did the Red Scare prompt an all-out war against communism? No, it extended the huddle-together-even-closer-and-pretend-the-rest-of-the-world-doesn't-exist mentality characteristic of an unraveling. Nor did it cause a dramatic shift in the national mood. Clearly not a crisis, as I've defined one. Yes, it's hard to convince people that inflation is good - but did that stop Bryan from trying? No - an idealistic youngster on a crusade to make the world a better place, characteristic of an awakening. You'll note he didn't win. Sectionalism indeed has its roots earlier, but was most prevalent in national politics during the unraveling before the civil war. "Mexican War" is not my titling; it was called that by some historian years and years ago, and yes, you're right, it was the messily-fought unraveling reflection of an awakening idea, manifest destiny.
Yes, any person with any idea can rise up during any period of time, but this theory (and that's all it is - a theory - albeit a very persuasive one) says that there are certain times when they are more likely to be noticed. One man can change the mood of an era - if that era is ready, or nearly ready, for him. In fact, that happened during the civil war - Lincoln was elected too early, according to the cycles, which resulted in the wrong generational archetypes peaking in power during the crisis - which brought about the lowest high (post-civil war) in the spectrum (that's an understatement).
That's one reason why I, also, don't think we're in a crisis yet. It's a little too early. People in charge are reacting too inwardly and too forgiving ("justice" vs. "total annihilation", chuckle). Because of the Civil War precedent, however, I'm a bit frightened that we might be, and that if we are, it might end just as poorly or worse. We might be rounding the bend, though, or getting a glimse of what the real crisis will be like when it hits. I suggest you follow the link I gave above for more insight into this.
If the Lusitania had been sunk during a fourth turning, when we were ready for a crisis, perhaps we would have joined WWI because of it. We joined WWII after Pearl Harbor, not after diplomatically whining about it, when we were in a crisis.
Of course, a crisis requires more than casualties. Crises rarely come without them, though. A crisis is more about the society's reaction to casualties and the willingness of members of that society to become a casualty in order to allow the society to continue.
I merely skim over in my writeup the effect of generational aging on the turnings. That would require at least another node. Suffice it to say that which stage of life a generational archetype is in during a turning goes a large way toward shaping that turning. For example, during a crisis, old "artists" are fading from the scene, "prophets" are providing elder leadership, "nomads" are mostly in charge, young "heros" bear the brunt of the crisis, and new "artists" are being born and raised. If you carry this thought through, you might gain some more insight into the workings. Or, go see the website.
Again, this is a very short introduction to a theory which I found fascinating, intriguing, and persuasive. I'm not a history major; I'll be designing the planes, spy satellites, and colony starships used during the crisis. *grin*