Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote an amazingly prescient book back in 1997 called The Fourth Turning that describes the cyclical patterns and generational archetypes all societies go through.
The archetypes described in the book are Heroes, Prophets, Artists and Nomads, and each corresponds to specific periods in societal development called “Turnings”:
- The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.
- The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.
- The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.
- The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.
The Third Turning, or “Upheaval” period is where many believe we are today and there are three important reasons to pay close attention to it:
1. History is Cyclical
America has been blindsided by the sudden loss of faith in institutions in the last few years, but from a Fourth Turning perspective, it shouldn’t be surprising.
History is not linear, it’s cyclical. And the patterns of societal birth, growth and decay repeat over and over again in 80 to 100 year cycles. In fact, they apply more or less not just to nation states, but to virtually any institution.
What this suggests is that the generational Nomad archetype in America today is simply a natural cyclical response to the inevitable Unraveling and Crisis periods that have defined all societies in human history.
We see this today in the breakdown of faith in both corporate and government institutions (Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party movement), both of which have become top heavy, corrupt, and incapable of reform or even of adapting to changing circumstances.
We also sense this in larger societal issues: obesity; the breakdown of the family; the stratospheric use of antidepressants; crime; unemployment; the lack of community.
Yes, we are in a period of Unraveling where the old civic order is decaying rapidly. But there’s good news in this as well. As the old civic order decays and dies, it will be replaced with new values (I’ll get to those in a moment).
Looked at in this way, the bad news really isn’t so bad unless of course you’re clinging to the old decaying order.
2. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a Nomad
The emerging archetype in today’s societal cycle is the Nomad, an archetype that lives through great awakenings and cultural upheavals.
The Nomad archetype learns early that basic institutions are not to be trusted and that they must look out for their own interests. Thus, Nomads come of age as “free agents” who put a premium on individualism. They strike out on their own, and don’t look to dying institutions like the State or corporations to provide what they need.
Nomads think differently… About everything. They are “hell raisers” who don’t rely on decaying institutions to get things done, but do it themselves. They come up with novel new solutions on their own, without asking permission. They are the resilient types who create new businesses, innovations and civic orders. They are the Sergey Brin’s and Joel Salatin’s who ingeniously defy conventional wisdom and turn the status quo on its head.
They are often persecuted by the decaying orders because they think and act for themselves. Their extreme skepticism and lack of faith in existing social and civic structures as well as their willingness to break all the rules is an existential threat to the existing orders.
3. The Great American Upheaval will give way to a New American Dream… But it might not be where you look for it.
Nomads believe that the civic and social institutions that largely defined the American dream of thrift, self-reliance and hard work are now defined by selfishness, greed, entitlements and immediate gratification.
Rather than trying to reform the values of these institutions, Nomads simply ignore them. They are more interested in creating new institutions that better reflect their values. These new institutions won’t necessarily be where you look for them, nor will they likely look anything like our existing institutions.
Remember, history is cyclical and the four archetypes (Hero, Prophet, Artist and Nomad) repeat over and over again. So, chances are (Nomads being who they are) the New American Dream will put a premium on personal responsibility; sustainability; self-empowerment; entrepreneurship; localism; resilience; and community.
Fascinating times when you think about it this way… And a big, big reason to be optimistic.