- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

"There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny."

President Roosevelt in 1936 during the Great Depression


About 60 years after Mr. Roosevelt spoke these words, Virginia historians Neil Howe and William Strauss included them in a book about historical cycles of peace and upheaval in America. Published in 1997, "The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny" made this chilling forecast:

Based on historical patterns, America will hit a once-in-a-century national crisis within the decade.

Messrs. Howe and Strauss asserted that, "like winter," the crisis or "fourth turning" cannot be averted. It will last 20 years or so and bring hardship and upheavals similar to previous fourth turnings, such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II.

The fourth turning is a perilous time because the result could be a new "golden age" for America or the beginning of its end.

It all will begin, the authors wrote, with a "sudden spark" that catalyzes a crisis mood "around the year 2005."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the book's public-discussion Web site (www.fourthturning.com) has exploded with comments.

"Of course, I'm assuming that 911 was the catalyst and that we're now in the 4T. You can't convince me otherwise," said one e-mailer, using shorthand for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and fourth turning.

"Who can read what Bush said tonight and not believe that we are formally committed to a 4T crisis," another e-mailer said after President Bush addressed the nation on Thursday.

"This is not the catalyst," argued a third e-mailer. "Tragedies are entertainment [and] 911 will end up another 24-hr. newschannel freak show like the Gulf War, OJ, Clinton, the 2000 election and Condit.

"When the real catalyst comes," the dissenting e-mailer added darkly, "it will be called an atrocity."

In their own e-mail message, filed two days after the terrorist bombings, Messrs. Strauss and Howe said the Sept. 11 attacks were enough to catalyze a crisis mood.

But it's not yet clear if America has entered a fourth turning or is still in the end stages of its "third turning," which the authors describe as a time of "unraveling" for institutions and old civic orders.

In any case, the authors said, the catalyst event is only "a gateway, a prelude, not the main event."

"The climax of the Fourth Turning, the true history-bending moment, remains well in the future, its nature unknowable," they said in a Sept. 13 e-mail message.

The two authors, who have written several books on American generations, have had their work praised and panned.

"I put down 'The Fourth Turning' with a mixture of terror and excitement . If Strauss and Howe are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets," naval war professor David Kaiser said in a book review for the Boston Globe in 1997.

However, Michael Lind, a reviewer for the New York Times, said the authors' predictions were "as vague as those of fortune cookies: 'Decisive events will occur events so vast, powerful and unique that they lie beyond today's wildest hypotheses.'"

An Amazon.com review of "The Fourth Turning" said that it may be "only the first of an impending wave of pseudo-scholarly tracts prognosticating future (but imminent!) doom" and referred readers to other, more popular trend-watching books like "Future Shock," "Megatrends" and "Powershift."

Mr. Strauss, who is co-founder of the Capitol Steps political satire group, hasn't found a reason to doubt his and Mr. Howe's work.

With "The Fourth Turning," "we're saying, 'Here's a theory. Test it. Put this book on a shelf. Come back in a while and see if we're right,'" he said. "We've been reading about people making forecasts who are rewriting their chapters on this and that," he added. "Well, we don't have to rewrite 'The Fourth Turning.'"

The duo, who live in Northern Virginia with their families, became involved in historical "turnings" while working on their 1991 book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069."

In "Generations," they identified characteristics of Americans, based on when they were born, for 18 generations.

With one exception, the authors said, the "generational personalities" have followed each other in fixed order: Idealists are followed by reactives, who are followed by civics, who are followed by adaptives.

Today's American leaders, for instance, are either members of the silent generation, which is adaptive, or the baby-boomer generation, which is idealist, the authors said. Coming behind them are Gen Xers, who are reactive, and the Millennials, born in 1982 or later, who are another civic generation, like their G.I. generation great-grandparents.

While studying generations, the authors saw a pattern of historical change that seemed to emerge every two decades or so.

They named these historical changes "turnings," and identified them as follows:

• The first turning is a "high," upbeat era in which institutions are strengthened, new civic orders are planted and individualism is weakened.

• The second turning is an "awakening," a passionate era of spiritual upheaval in which the civic order is challenged by new values.

• The third turning is an "unraveling" time when individualism rises and institutions and civic orders weaken and new values are implanted.

• The fourth turning is a "crisis" time when there is widespread upheaval and civic orders are replaced with new ones.

In early American history, for instance, the four turnings included a blooming Colonial civilization (1704-1727), a "great awakening" spiritual revival (1727-1746), the rebellious French and Indian Wars (1746-1773) and the American Revolution (1773-1794) as the climactic fourth turning.

In recent years, the post-World War II years of 1946-1964 were a first-turning time of American ascendancy, the authors said. The years of 1964-1984 marked a time of spiritual revival amid the rise of feminism, environmentalism and black power. The culture wars, a third-turning period of unraveling, started in 1984 and were scheduled to end around 2005.

But the perilous fourth-turning time could be here already. "It's like a winter it can come early or late, it can be severe or mild. But it's going to come. The only way to get to spring is through it," said Mr. Strauss.

People can draw strength from what they learn from history, but change is disorienting, said Mr. Howe, who is an economist and historian. "Everyone always likes to have some impression of where they are in history, some idea that they're in some trajectory. I think this has thrown into doubt where they are."

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