The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 222012

On the Fourth Turning Forum, there is an interesting discussion going on about exactly when the last 2T ended and when the 3T began.  Some readers wonder if the years of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the Chicago 7 could really belong to the same era as the first term of President Ronald Reagan.  It’s a good question.

My short answer is that the one big theme that ties both ends of this (or any) awakening era together is a society-wide determination to defy convention, shed constraints, and throw off every manner of social obligation.  Early in the last 2T, this impulse erupted most strongly against cultural standards and social authority (giving rise to the “counter-culture,” minority “power,” and epic demonstrations and riots).  Late in the last 2T, it rose up most strongly against fiscal burdens and economic burdens (giving rise to “tax revolts” and “deregulation”).  The people involved in these movements were not the same, but they certainly overlapped and each group ultimately drew sympathy from across the aisle.  Meaning: Even Republicans went along with the looser manners and mores that sprung up in the mid-60s, and even Democrats recoiled the horrors of dysfunctional statism during the stagflation of the late ’70s.

A nice way to track this directional shift (from the culture to the economy) in the rebellion against authority is to look at the UCLA Freshman survey from 1967 to 1980: Boomer freshmen born in the late ’40s were 3-to-1 more likely to say the most important goal in life is “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” rather than “be financially well off”; by the time to you get to last-wave Boomer and first-wave Xer freshmen (yes, Jonesers), the split is 2-to-1 the other way.  Yet by 1983 and 1984, everyone started to climb onto the same page.  Republican Ronald Reagan brought the Beach Boys to the White House (amazing to recall how controversial this was!), showing that the uptight GOP was coming to terms with Good Vibrations.  And hippies were turning into yuppies (with “babies on board”), while a fair number of New Deal veterans were voting for lower taxes, showing that statist Democrats were coming to terms with Free Agency.  In Reagan’s first term, the battle was still raging.  By the beginning of his second, the battle was over.  And so a new turning was born.

For a long answer, take a close look at The Fourth Turning, pages 199 through 207.  I think Bill and I did a pretty good job defending 1984 as a pivotal year.

In 1984 Steve Jobs’ Apple came out with a lousy computer but a brilliant ad.  The iconic slogan: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  The ad instantly appealed to everyone (hippies and yuppies) and showed just how much everyone agreed that the Establishment was dead—and how much everyone was comfortable with that.


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  • Justin

    Hi Neil, Thanks for weighing in on this, as we were going back and forth for weeks (months?) trying to come to some consensus (and ultimately none was reached). I think there is a popular meme among conservatives to see Reagan as some kind of national savior, and therefore his election would be viewed as the start of a new era, a new dawn following the consciousness experimentation of the 1960s and malaise of the 1970s (by the way, I am not trying to start aflame war about Ronald Reagan’s legacy, so, fellow readers, don’t try to engage me in one). But when I think of my own childhood, the pre-1984 period is certainly apart from what came after. I know that you have portrayed 2Ts as era of major upheaval for children, (and they were, at least of my friends’ parents were divorced), but they were also a very introspective, liberating time for children as well. The major films of the early 1980s were fantasy/science fiction — E.T., Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Dark Crystal, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Time Bandits, Clash of the Titans, Excalibur, Star Trek — I put these all in the same category because there was very little distinction between what was for children and what was for adults. My birth year is 1979. I saw all these films before the time I was five years old, many of them in the theater (think about that!). So there is a great deal of nostalgia among later Xers for this era too.

  • JPT

    When I first read The Fourth Turning, the 1984 date was the thing I had the most questions about. With prior turnings, you were able to identify specific events that served as a catalyst, like the 1929 stock market crash and the Kennedy assassination. 1984 doesn’t seem to have anything like that. I don’t know that there’s a better alternative, but there have been a lot of questions raised.

    • Of all of the turning endpoints, I would say that throughout history the 2T endpoints are the hardest to date.  2T and 4T starts are relatively easy: Look for the beginning of the crises.  4T endpoints (i.e., 1T starts) are typically identifiable by the public celebrations and ceremonies occasioned by the end of public disorder, like great treaties signed at the end of great wars.  But the end of an awakening?  Almost by definition, there is no public notice.  You have to look at what’s going on inside people’s heads.  It isn’t easy.

  • Crabclaw24

    So was 1984 the last year of the Awakening or the first year of the Unraveling?

    • For the turnings, we use the same date for both starts and stops.  So 1984 becomes both the last year of the Awakening *and* the first year of the Unraveling.