The Prophecy of the Fourth Turning

Peter Turchin


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Over the past few years many people, including readers of this blog, asked me to comment on the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory (SHGT). The “notoriety” of this theory has been recently given a boost by reports that it inspired the worldview of Steve Bannon, who was until recently Donald Trump’s chief strategist.

Superficially, SGHT shares several common elements with theories of Cliodynamics, and specifically the Structural-Demographic Theory (SDT):

  • There are cyclic patterns in history
  • Swings of social mood from one human generation to the next play a role in this cyclic change
  • We in the US are entering a Time of Troubles, which will peak during the next decade.

Beyond this point, SHGT and SDT part ways. To put this difference in one sentence, SHGT is a prophecy (in fact, the main work of SHGT was titled The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy), while SDT is a scientific theory. I explain the difference in my post Scientific Prediction ≠ Prophecy. Let’s see how this general distinction works out in the specific case of SHGT versus SDT.

The SDT is a scientific theory because (1) it presents a logically cohesive explanation of why change occurs and (2) it then tests critical assumptions and predictions of the theory with independently gathered data.

Let me quickly deal with the second point. SHGT is not a scientific theory because it uses what I call the “Procrustean” approach. Like the mythical Procrustes, one forces the historical record to fit a postulated cycle by stretching in some places and cutting off a bit here and there in others.

Here’s how the famous “Procrustean bed” works Source

In the scientific approach, one tests dynamical theories by collecting quantitative data and feeding the data to statistical analysis. For example, to collect data on political violence in the United States I did systematic searches of newspapers and other databases, and included in the resulting database all instances of political violence in which at least one individual lost life.

Let’s now deal with the first point at some length.

Unlike SDT, SHGT simply postulates that there is a recurring cycle of four generation-length stages in Anglo-American history from 1584 (later pushed back to 1433) to the present. These four stages, or “turnings” are: “The High”, “The Awakening”, “The Unraveling”, and “The Crisis”. Why do we see this specific sequence? It’s just because it is.

That’s not how it works in science. When we see a recurring pattern (why does winter come every twelve months?), we want to understand the mechanisms giving rise to it (in this case, rotation of the planet Earth around the Sun).

While doing research on the SDT, I observed that disintegrative periods of secular cycles tend to be “lumpy”: it’s not a continuous internal war dragging on for a century. Instead, there are typically peaks of political violence, recurring roughly every 50 years or so. I proposed that such cycles could arise as shifts of social mood between generations (“fathers-and-sons cycles”). Next, I built a mathematical model to see whether this mechanism could actually result in 50-year cycles, and whether such dynamics would be possible for realistic assumptions about model parameters.

Let me give you a bit more detail, so that you can appreciate the flavor of such modeling (full details are in Chapter 2 of Ages of Discord, in section Wheels within Wheels: Modeling Complex Dynamics of Sociopolitical Instability).

The model makes no assumptions about generations. Individuals enter the population when they become adult (at age 20) and leave it upon “retiring” (at age 55). Initially they all are “naives”, who are neither for, nor against violence. But naives can become radicalized after encountering a “radical” and converting to their ideology (by a process akin to “social contagion”, which is why I called it a social contagion model). When there are many radicals, social instability and political violence become so high that many radicals become disenchanted with their radicalism and turn into “moderates” who value peace and order above all, and who work actively to bring about an end to violence. In this way high levels of political radicalization, by breeding moderates, create a backlash against violence and yearning for peace.

This is it. It’s a very simple model that makes no assumption about discrete generations. Yet, for a broad spectrum of plausible parameters, it predicts that the proportion of population that is radicalized (and therefore political violence) would peak every 50 years. In other words, we will see an alternation of violent and peaceful “generations” (remember, generations are not built in, they arise as a result of interactions in the model). Here’s what model predictions look like:

Source: Figure 2.3 in Ages of Discord.

This is, of course, a very simple model. But in science this is a virtue. The model shows that it’s not so difficult to get a pattern of alternating peaceful/violent generations. Incidentally, it’s much more difficult to get a pattern of four different generations – in fact, my modeling experience says that it would take truly “heroic” assumptions to get the pattern assumed by SHGT, if it is even possible.

In SDT social contagion is just one of the social mechanisms explaining political violence outbreaks. This mechanism interacts with structural-demographic cycles, producing a complex dynamical pattern, like this one:

Source: Figure 2.4 in Ages of Discord.

This is why this section of Ages of Discord is called Wheels within Wheels—because the two cycles superimpose on each other, and the longer structural-demographic cycle can suppress an outbreak driven by social contagion (simply because most everybody is feeling good and doesn’t want to radicalize and fight a civil war).

I realize that my critique of SHGT will strike many readers as overly academic. But the scientific method is the best way we have to understand how the world operates, so that we can nudge it to better outcomes. Science requires a lot of “slogging”. It takes a lot of work to build and analyze models, and to collect and analyze data. Prophesies are much easier. They are also much more likely to persuade people, than careful science. The reason is that prophesies are vague. People who listen to them are free to supply their own content, in a kind of internalization of a prophesy, which makes it more convincing. This is why, I think, many prophesies enjoy a good run for a while. But in the long run science wins.

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Guillaume Belanger

Thumbs up for sticking to the scientific method and building models based on data. Great work!

Ross Hartshorn

I much prefer your method. 🙂 However, it raises the question, do we have any data about the process of “radicalization” and “moderatization”? I would imagine that Israel and perhaps other countries that have had to deal with the threat of radical terrorists for a while, might have done some work on this, to collect data on how radicalization actually tends to work. For example, do economic conditions have a major impact, and especially do the number of other radicals in the population have an impact, and does the amount of political violence in the previous decade have an impact on ”

Perhaps there is no data yet, but it occurs to me that this has been a concern long enough that someone may have started to develop theories and perhaps a body of data on how these processes work.


The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory shows there is a massive, popular demand for conceptualizing history in terms of repeating, objective patterns; which actually happens but is currently denied, for political reasons, by post-modern and critical theory academics who control humanities and social science departments at universities.

Structural Demographic Theory requires some understanding of mathematics. It’s not surprising that more people are aware of SHGT than SDT but the same zeitgeist is behind both theories. That is, to reject relativist and teological conceptions of history and instead look for a solid foundation based on perceived experience for SHGT, or on data in the case of SDT. SHGT has a wishywashy methodology and does not provide a solid foundation for understand history but it’s better than complete relativism that people who have never heard of SDT are otherwise taught.


They couldn’t do more harm than relativists, post-modernists and critical theorists.

Some people will dismiss Cliodynamics as ‘just another cycles theory’ but they will be people who haven’t even read the wikipedia page. I’d expect students who first glance at the wikipedia page park it with Kondratiev waves and other business cycles that are heavy on statistics.

The biggest obstacle to wider engagement is that many people are turned off by statistics and data which is what Cliodynamics is all about. They wrongly tend to associate people who use statistics as bullshitters. Narrative-weavers who can basically write a fiction they want to hear sounds better to them.

SHGT is more well-known because it is mostly all narrative but it is not as bad a other narratives out there by a long shot.

There is nothing anyone can do about the appeal of narrative. If it wasn’t SHGT it would be another narrative. People want to be told stories. Data is just not charismatic.

I believe Cliodynamics has the potential to be more popularly known but because people are data-phobes they must first have a better grasp of the many and varied narratives of world history – all the stories about the rise and fall of historic societies, not just Rome and Chinese but the obscure ones too.

Once people have a better grasp of world history then they will be able to appreciate what Cliodynamics is about. Before that it will mean nothing to them unless they are a nerd.

Loren Petrich

Why is the objection political? There is another, more serious, objection that has no obvious politics behind it. It is that looking for cycles in history makes as much sense as looking for shapes in clouds. Something called pareidolia, the perception of features that are not there. I’ve gotten that criticism myself when I mention the SDT in some online forums.

I suspect that a good part of that viewpoint is disenchantment with previous attempts to look for cycles in history. Like Oswald Spengler’s and Arnold Toynbee’s theories of cycles.

Loren Petrich

Another interesting cycle of US history is Frank Klingberg’s extroversion-introversion foreign-policy cycle. He wrote a book on it, “Positive expectations of America’s world role: historical cycles of realistic idealism”, and he cites a lot of evidence, like politicians’ speeches and Navy budgets. In an extroverted period, the US challenges big foreign powers, while in an introverted one, the US avoids doing so. Extroverted phases usually last around 27 years and introverted ones around 21 years. Extroverted ones end from being burned out from big wars, while introverted ones end from unmet foreign challenges. This cycle runs independent of both structural-demographic and Schlesinger cycles. Here is a rough summary:

1776 In: Revolution, new government, 1798 Ex: LA Purchase, 1812 War, 1824 In: Nullification, Texas, passing on “liberating” Canada, 1845 Ex: TX, OR annex, Mexican War, Civil War, 1871 In: passing on the Scramble for Africa, 1891 Ex: Spanish-American War, WWI, 1919 In: League of Nations rejection, Neutrality Acts, 1940 Ex: WWII, Cold War, Korean Vietnam Wars, 1968 In: Vietnamization, detente, fall of Soviet Union, 1989 Ex: Post-Cold-War assertion, Gulf War, War on Terror

It looks like the US is due for another introverted phase, and in 2016, Donald Trump more-or-less promised one in his campaign.

Loren Petrich

Even the missing one of the 1820’s. Canada had some rebellions against British rule in 1837 and 1838, but the US passed on a chance to “liberate” Canada back then. Also, American settlers went southwestward into some Mexican territory, and they proclaimed an independent Republic of Texas in 1836. Nearly a decade later, the US confronted Britain about dividing up the Pacific Northwest, it annexed Texas as a state, and it conquered even more of Mexico’s northern territory. The US had changed from introversion to extroversion.

But around 1870, 1920, and 1970, some of the political violence was associated with opposing disliked wars. Some young men rioted against being drafted for the Civil War in New York City, and World War I and the Vietnam War also had a lot of opposition, some of it violent. So rebellions against disliked wars could be part of extroversion-to-introversion transitions.

Opposition to other wars, like with Mexico (1846-1848) and the Spanish Empire (1898), did not go nearly as far, and most Americans who opposed World War II only did so for its first two years, with the America First movement and the like. But Japan attacking the US navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii put an end to that, ending interwar introversion and pushing the US into another extroverted phase. According to journalist Colin Woodard in one of his books on US history, the US became more united than at any other time before or since.

I must note that Ronald Reagan seemed like a frustrated international extrovert. He grumbled about many Americans’ “Vietnam syndrome” of introversion, calling the war a “noble cause”. According to one author of a book on the Soviet Union, he wanted to teach that nation a harsh lesson, though he was vague on what it was or how that nation’s leaders could show that they had learned it. Fortunately, his bark was worse than his bite.

Loren Petrich

In some of his publications and , like “Secular Cycles” and “Ages of Discord”, our host mentioned the biggest European powers before the Industrial Revolution, starting with Rome, then jumping to medieval France and Germany, then staying at early-modern France. Any more detail about France over its history? Germany?

For Rome, let us not forget about the Byzantine Empire. It was on the periphery of Europe, but it was a big power for most of its history. I have guessed its intergrative and disintegrative periods from some common reference sources. Here, including Rome’s earlier history:

350 BCE Int: From city-state to major power, 130 BCE Dis: Civil wars, some conquests, 30 BCE Int: Principate: early Empire, Five Good Emperors, 165 CE Dis: Bad and short-lived emperors, Crisis of the Third Century, 285 Int: Dominate: Diocletian and Constantine reorganize the Empire, 395 Dis: Western-Empire terminal decline to 476, Eastern-Empire status unclear, 527 Int: Justinian I’s conquests, 602 Dis: decline, 20 years anarchy, iconoclasm fights, 867 Int: Macedonian Renaissance, 1025 Dis: crisis and fragmentation, 1081 Int: Komnenian period, another renaissance, 1186 Dis: terminal decline to 1453

The iconoclasm fights were between the iconoclasts (“image breakers”) who opposed pictures of saints and the like and their opponents, the iconodules (“image servants”) who supported such pictures.

george strong

So when does the civil war start? Diversity+Proximity=War. Every time.
The Millennials won’t win; they seem especially worthless. Gen Z whites are mostly right-wing Trump supporters, probably in reaction to the insanity of PC they have grown up with/forced upon them.


Strauss and Howe made a very specific prediction that the downward turning point for the next cycle would hit in the second half of the last decade, most likely in a financial, then political crisis. They made that prediction in 1999. If we count that kind of prediction as just “lucky guess,” then, okay, it’s not “science.” But please don’t claim their model doesn’t make predictions that hit on the money. Frankly, they’ve been as precise with that as you with the new religion of “data” with all their well-known pitfalls and problems for projection modeling.

John Lilburne

Mr Mclleland was an interesting psychologist who studied motivation. he divided motivation on a societal basis in terms of tracking achievement, power and affiliation. In his book “Power the inner experience” he gives the relative scores for these motivations over an extended period. When I compared these scores they correlated (very roughly) with the turnings described in SHGT book.
If you are unaware of his work he is worth reading. He fell from popularity as in non individualistic societies where there is little freedom, you simply do not find the same effects. ( Haidt’s WEIRD are weird)

Loren Petrich

There are other cycles that I’ve seen, cycles that seem rather convincing to me.

For the United States, Arthur Schlesingers Sr. and Jr. have proposed a liberal-conservative cycle, a cycle of reform and stagnation, of public purpose and public interest. Liberal periods end because reform efforts can be difficult to sustain, especially if they seem to succeed, while conservative periods end because problems pile up that society’s leaders refuse to recognize or try to solve. Each period has an average length of about 15 years, but the Gilded Age lasted about 32 years and the current one, Gilded Age II, has lasted 39 years with no clear sign of stopping. Interestingly, the first Gilded Age was over the second half of the first disintegrative period and the second one is over most of the second one so far.

I remember expecting both the Clinton and the Obama presidencies to end Gilded Age II, but those two presidents turned out to be feckless cowards, obsessed with trying to please Republicans who refused to cooperate with them. Almost as if they had battered-partner syndrome.


Prophecy may precede science in the process of consciousness being raised. The receptivity of both the general public and academia to Turchin’s highly narrative type of analysis (what economist would admit a “social cohesion” proxy variable?) may have been fostered by Strauss and Howe’s ideas, which in fact center on the idea of social contract.

So kudos to Prof. Turchin for slogging it out. As an apostate economist, I trust that even in their relatively rough form, his models have more to say about American society than the entire literature of dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models that economics offers.

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