So many books, so little time. I have more books stacked up to read than I feel like I can ever get to. Can you relate?

After hearing about this book on multiple financial podcasts, I finally started reading The Fourth Turning back in June. These podcasters kept mentioning that this COVID crisis, as well as the social unrest we were seeing around the country at that time, was somewhat foretold in this book, which was written in 1997.

I was immediately hooked from the first chapter, titled “Winter Comes Again”. On page 6, it reads:

“Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.

The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into indirection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule… Every Fourth Turning has registered an upward ratchet in the technology of destruction, and in mankind’s willingness to use it.”

Given what we had just gone through in the previous 3 months I was both amazed and concerned.

 How are these authors able to determine a reasonably accurate timeframe for when we may go through some level of world crisis? By looking back throughout history and identifying a repeating, circular pattern related to generational changes — what they call the saeculum.

According to Strass and Howe, most Americans have a linear view of history. They see everything as one long progression with a societal focus on purposeful self-improvement. As we move through history, goals are made and society sets out to attain them. Each new achievement or failure is viewed as an original journey, unconnected to past events.

If you, instead, review history through the circular lens, rather than the linear, you can begin to see patterns emerge. Most of our ancient civilizations saw the world this way and created the calendars we still use based on these time cycles.

Of all of these cycles, the one that the authors believe has the most impact on society is the human life cycle. This 80-100 year cycle has remained consistent through recorded history. The periods within are divided into 4 phases: childhood, young adulthood, mid-life, and elderhood. Each of these phases holds one generation at a time, and each phase is associated with a specific societal role. Most importantly, in each human life cycle, society goes through four major turning events as each generation passes from one phase to the next.

The book goes into great detail on how this has progressed through both American as well as much of human history. In short, there are 4 turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis) that follow this repeatable pattern. These four turnings are a cycle of growth, maturation, entropy, and death (and rebirth).

The High is the First Turning and brings forth a renaissance to community life following a Crisis – usually a major war. Life seems to be more in control but the spirit of society is damaged.

The Awakening follows with new spiritual and social agendas – often a very anti-establishment mood develops. Society searches for soul over science and meanings over things.

The Unraveling leads to a society that has embraced the cultural shifts. Although, having had their fill of spiritual rebirth and moral protest, the focus now shifts to a more pragmatic and individualistic view.

Finally, The Crisis arises when threats that society would have looked the other way on are now perceived as dire. This brings a willingness to invite more authority in to ensure society’s survival and sacrifice their freedoms to do so.

Based on the book, their best guess for the start of the Fourth Turning would have been 2005, plus or minus a few years. While the book was written before the latest shift, it appears that the 2008 Financial Crisis was the catalyst for the move into the current Fourth Turning.

So where are we now? From the book:

“If the Crisis catalyst comes on schedule, around the year 2005, then the climax will be due around 2020, the resolution around 2026.”

And later:

“A Fourth Turning does not require economic depression or civil war, but it does require public sacrifice and political upheaval.”

It is clear that 2020 has been a challenging year. An epidemic, racial and social unrest, and a likely contentious election less than a month away. While this all seems unrelated, could it be that much of what we are experiencing this year is just part of a cycle? Do we potentially have 5 more years in this turning before we move back into a High and start the cycle over again? Only time will tell.

So, what can we do?

Unfortunately, knowing a crisis may be upon us does not necessarily dictate how the markets will perform. There are not really any short-term actionable changes to make in an investment portfolio based on this knowledge. . This year has shown that enough stimulus from the Central Bank and Treasury can provide enough fuel to keep the stock market propped up. However, with the number of small businesses closing up shop[1] and over 25 million Americans[2] on some form of unemployment benefits, we may be just at the tip of the iceberg on the challenges our economy will face.

Overall, I think this was a very interesting read that provides a much different perspective on what our society is going through than you can get from traditional history books and news media. If you are interested in history and sociology, add this book to your list. It has definitely allowed me to view what is happening now with a different lens as well as see how the development of our current generations has impacted our society over the last 20 years.

I have included the details on the book if you are interested. My goal is to keep reading, learning, and sharing my thoughts with you. I hope this review sparks contemplation and brings you value. Thanks for reading!


[1] https://www.thestreet.com/phildavis/stocks-options/wednesday-worries-25-of-small-businesses-are-closed

[2] https://www.dol.gov/ui/data.pdf?mod=article_inline


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