This is called a preemptive posting. If there’s ever a question I get asked a lot, it’s this: When did the Fourth Turning start? So rather than wait for someone to ask again, let’s get right to it.
Readers of The Fourth Turning already know that 4Ts in history are dated and internally subdivided into stages by four critical events. The first event, the catalyst, triggers or starts the 4T. It is “a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood.” The second, the regeneracy, marks the beginning of “a new counter-entropy that reunifies and re-energizes civic life.” The third, the climax, is “a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and triumph of the new.” The fourth is the resolution, “a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates winners from losers, resolves the big public questions, and establishes the new order.”
So to ask when the current 4T began is to ask, when was the catalyst?
Pending stunning new developments, I believe the catalyst occurred in 2008. It’s a date that is looking better and better as time goes by. The year 2008 marked the onset of the most serious U.S. economic crisis since the Great Depression. It also marked the election of Barack Obama, which could yet turn out to be a pivotal realignment date in U.S. political history.
Let’s look at each of these separately. First, the economy. Yes, the U.S. recession technically started in December of 2007, but neither the public nor the market felt it until the spring and summer of the following year. In fact, if I had to give the catalyst a month, I would say September of 2008. The global Dow was in free fall. Banks were failing. Money markets froze shut. Business owners held their breath. Thankfully, America’s leaders succeeded in avoiding a depression by means of a massive liquidity infusion and fiscal stimulus policies whose multi-trillion-dollar magnitude has literally no precedent in history. Today, for the time being, the U.S. economy seems safe again, though to be sure it has emerged weaker and more fragile—and certainly more leveraged—than it was before.
Yet at the time, behind closed doors, many of America’s top leaders believed that they were skirting the edge of a catastrophe that could have exceeded 1932 in its destructive potential. And they were probably right. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson later recounted (in On the Brink) that in the last two weeks of September, 2008, they were only “days away” from “economic collapse, another Great Depression, and 25 percent unemployment.” At one Thursday-evening meeting, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke famously urged legislators to “break the glass” and pass a bailout package with the simple admonition: “If we don’t do this, we may not have an economy on Monday.”
And, to add even greater edge to this catalyst, we were at that time just six weeks away from the election of Barack Obama, who brought a new party to power and was America’s first African-American President. Would he have won without the meltdown? Who knows. It would have been a much closer election. Yet as time goes by, we may see something more important in the 2008 election—how it may mark the beginning of a new political realignment. Admittedly, it’s still too early to say. Obama’s approval ratings are still relatively low, and the GOP—though showing deep fissures and light turnouts in this year’s primaries—may still experience a resurgence. This is a call that will be much easier to make a year or two from now.
People have asked me how confident I am about 2008. All I can say is, the catalyst has to be sometime around 2008 given the generational dividing lines. As a rule, a new turning starts a few years (typically 2 to 6) after each living generation (especially the new youth generation) enters a new phase of life. 2008 was 4 to 6 years after the oldest Millennials reached age 21 and graduated from college—and 3 years after the oldest Boomers (born in 1943) started to receive their first Social Security retirement checks. In terms of phase of life, this is right on.
On the other hand, 2001 was too early—and Bill and I repeatedly explained this to many readers who once told us that 9/11 “must be” the catalyst. We agreed that the mood shift was sudden and dramatic. But we pointed out that it the living generations were simply too young: The oldest Millennials, for example, were barely college sophomores. As time passed—and as the Greenspan bubble welled up under the U.S. economy and as public disillusionment set in over the U.S. invasion of Iraq—our initial doubt was justified. 9/11 will go down as one of the more famous crisis precursors in American history. A crisis precursor is an event that foreshadows a crisis without being an integral part of it. Other such precursors in American history include the Stamp Act Rebellion (1765), or Bleeding Kansas (1856), or perhaps the Red Scare (1919). Incidentally, the media did several retrospectives on the 1919-20 bombings in the wake of 9/11—since they represented, prior to 9/11, the most destructive act of political terrorism by foreigners ever attempted on U.S. soil.
OK. Now let’s move on to the next question: Where is the regeneracy?
I think it’s pretty obvious that the regeneracy has not yet started. So how long do we need to wait for it? And how will we know when it starts? Those are good questions. I recently went back over The Fourth Turning to recall how we dated the stages of the each of the historical 4Ts. And I found that we were very explicit about dating the other three stages (catalyst, climax, and resolution) for each 4T. But we were always a bit vague about dating the regeneracy, treating it more like an era than a date. There is a reason for this. We may like to imagine that there is a definable day and hour when America, faced by growing danger and adversity, explicitly decides to patch over its differences, band together, and build something new. But maybe what really happens is that everyone feels so numb that they let somebody in charge just go ahead and do whatever he’s got to do. I’m thinking of how America felt during the bleak years of FDR’s first term, or during Lincoln’s assumption of vast war powers after his repeated initial defeats on the battlefield.
The regeneracy cannot always be identified with a single news event. But it does have to mark the beginning of a growth in centralized authority and decisive leadership at a time of great peril and urgency. Typically, the catalyst itself doesn’t lead directly to a regeneracy. There has to be a second or third blow, something that seems a lot more perilous than just the election of third-party candidate (Civil War catalyst) or a very bad month in the stock market (Great Power catalyst).
We are still due for such a moment. We have not yet reached our regeneracy. When it happens, I strongly suspect it will be in response to an adverse financial event. It may also happen in response to a geopolitical event. It may well happen over the next year or two. Given the pattern of historical 4Ts, it is very likely happen before the end of the next presidential term (2016). Which means we already know who will be President at that time: Either Obama or Romney. (Or at least this is high probability: According to Intrade, it is now over a 96 percent bet, so if you disagree you can make 25-to-1 by betting against global future traders.) It’s interesting that both men are temperamentally similar—cool, detatched, capable of gravitas–and that one could imagine either playing a Gray Champion role if history required it. It’s also worth noting that Romney is the only GOP candidate who could steal a sizable share of the Millennial vote that would otherwise go to Obama. (Romney has consistently done better in the GOP primaries with voters under 30; Santorum and Gingrich with voters over 50.)
Next question: When will the 4T climax take place? To be honest, I have no idea. On timing, let me toss out my guess based on the typical pattern of historical 4Ts: The climax may arrive around 2022-2025.
And when will the resolution occur and the entire 4T come to a close? Again, there is no way to know. If the 4T turns out to be of average length, I would say 2026-29. At that time, an entire saeculum will draw to a close. And the first turning of a new saeculum will commence.
Let me add one more thought. Bill and I once explained the dynamic of seasonal turnings by applying a four-fold typology of social states invented by Talcott Parsons. It seemed to work pretty well. Parsons said that each state was defined by the demand and supply for social order, each of which could be high or low. So here are how the four turnings may be defined:
Demand for Order Supply of Order
1T High High
2T Low High
3T Low Low
4T High Low
The point here being that 4Ts are pretty chaotic. During 4Ts, the future seems much less certain than in retrospect. They are mostly defined not so much by how much institutions provide order, but by how much people want order. Here’s where the Millennials will play a key role.