Days of Future Past: What the Repeating Patterns in History Tell Us About the Years Ahead

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— attributed to Mark Twain
[In other words, specific events don’t repeat, but patterns of events do.]

         When the times we’re living get as scary as they are right now, it’s natural to worry about the future. But while many people see the events unfolding around us as random — which implies that the future is unpredictable — they’re actually not random at all. In fact, it’s possible to know quite a bit about what’s coming down the line.

         One of the most interesting things about the human race is that periodically, someone sees a pattern in the world around us that no one has previously noticed — sometimes leading to a completely new understanding of how the world works. Isaac Newton looked around at the seemingly random world we all live in and detected patterns in the way things moved that everyone else had overlooked. Those observations led to his laying out groundbreaking laws of motion and gravity, among many other things.

         The field of physics was never the same.

         I’m fascinated by Newton and many other people who have likewise noticed patterns in the world around us that most of us have overlooked. Studying their work often leads to my seeing the world in a different way.

The Generations Theory

         One of the most profound sets of insights that I’ve encountered is the basis of the Generations book series written by William Strauss and Neil Howe. (The last one in the series was recently written by Neil Howe alone, after William Strauss died in 2007.) I’ve only read three of the seven books in the series, but their insights about repeating cycles in history, outlined in the books, has profoundly altered the way I see four key things: historical events; our American culture; human behavior in general; and what the future likely holds for all of us.

         Here, I’d like to share some of Strauss and Howe’s insights about what will probably happen in the next few years, based on the insights shared in these books. (Of course, it’s impossible to truly distill volumes of insight into a few paragraphs, but I’ll do my best to share the highlights of their work. If Neil Howe should stumble across this article, I hope he’ll forgive any inadequacies in my representation of their work!)

         Perhaps the most significant insight in the books is that Strauss and Howe identified the nature of, and ramifications of, a repeating pattern of historical events — or perhaps I should say repeating types of events — that can be be traced back to the 1500s in Europe. The pattern consists of a four-part cycle that repeats every 80 to 90 years. (They refer to the four parts of each cycle as “turnings.”)

         Here’s a simplified description of how the cycle works:

         Following a crisis that disrupts what existed before, a new set of ideas takes over, starting a new cycle. In the first part of the cycle, young adults who were raised during the preceding crisis still remember what just happened, and the society is largely focused on cooperation and building using the new ideas. But after about 20 years, the young adults now finding their place in the world do not remember the crisis, since they were born after it occurred, and they feel justified in criticizing the new system. (Think: the Baby Boomer generation in the 1960s.)

         After another 20 years or so, the mood shifts again, because the next generation of children was raised in a very different environment than the critical generation was. Then, in the fourth and final segment of the cycle, a new crisis occurs, eventually leading to the start of a new 80- to 90-year cycle. In recent American history, for example, the crisis parts of these cycles have included the American Revolution, the Civil War and most recently the Great Depression and World War II.

         What makes this especially interesting is the idea that each 18- to 20-year part of the cycle produces different generations of adults with very different attitudes and world views. For example, children raised during a crisis period tend to be overprotected and obedient, which shapes their behavior as adults and the culture around them. The young adults in America in the 1950s were raised during the Great Depression and World War II, and they created the culture seen in the 1950s — almost no rebellion against “the system,” very traditional gender roles, etc. The “baby boomer” generation, in contrast, was raised after the crisis period ended, so those children grew up with no first-hand memory of the crises. That generation rebelled against “the system” constantly.

         This kind of generational change and its consequences are outlined in great detail in the books.

Is the Generations Theory Valid?

         It’s worth noting that some critics have expressed skepticism about Strauss and Howe’s view of history. (No one likes having their world view challenged!) That probably explains why Neil Howe chose to devote an entire chapter in the most recent book to discussing all the other historians and academicians who have observed the same cyclical repetition running through history, each interpreting it in their own way.

         Basically, Howe’s chapter on this is pointing out that this isn’t a new idea; he and Strauss simply did a really good job — in my opinion — of laying out how it works and what the ramifications are. (Readers familiar with my own essays and my book Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune may recognize that what I refer to as the SEICR cycle, which stands for Stability, Expansion, Instability, Collapse and Rebirth, is my own interpretation of this repeating pattern.) Of course, even back in antiquity some of the great thinkers of the day pointed out repeating cycles that they observed in their own histories.

         Nevertheless, some may claim that Strauss and Howe’s observations are “just a theory.” Technically, so is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s still called a theory even though the evidence for relativity is so overwhelming that no one challenges it anymore. In my opinion, the same is true for Strauss and Howe’s Generations theory; the evidence for its correctness is overwhelming, including the fact that predictions made using the theory have turned out to be quite accurate. Plus, it passes the “common sense” test. (That’s more than I can say for Einstein’s Relativity, which struck me as impossible the first time I encountered it in high school because it contradicts everyday experience so dramatically!)

So: What’s Coming in the Next Few Years?

         One of the ramifications of a repeating pattern is that  we can extend it into the future and make some good guesses about what’s likely to happen. That’s one of the main purposes of Neil Howes’ current volume, The Fourth Turning Is Here.

         As I write this in early 2024, we’re in the middle of the fourth “turning” of the cycle that began in America after World War II. It’s not possible to predict the exact events that are going to unfold in the next few years, because the specific events that unfold are different in every cycle. But it is possible to predict, based on all of the preceding cycles, the types of events that we’ll experience in the next few years, as well as some basic things that are almost certain to happen — given that they’ve happened in every cycle since the 1500s.

         Here are a few things that are VERY likely to happen in the upcoming years:

•         The polarization we see in America today will disappear by the end of the upcoming crisis. Each of the last few crisis periods falling at the end of a cycle has been preceded by polarization in the United States. Before the American Revolution it was loyalists (stay with Britain) versus patriots (break from Britain); before the Civil War it was pro-slavers versus abolitionists; during the Great Depression it was pro-New-Deal versus anti-New-Deal people. (In fact, in the years before the last “fourth turning” peaked with the onset of World War II, the polarization in the U.S. was startlingly similar to what we see today. Antisemitism and racism were on the rise; many prominent figures supported the idea of authoritarianism — even going so far as to praise the Nazi regime; and there was an attempted coup of FDR’s government that was foiled before it had any chance of succeeding.)

          In every previous cycle, the polarization evaporated by the end of the crisis. It was either resolved, or so insignificant in comparison to the peak crisis, that it was no longer an issue. (I look forward to that development!)

•         At some point in the next few years, there will be an event so devastating that it will shock everyone into rallying together. This will be the beginning of the peak of the crisis. For example, in the last crisis, the attack on Pearl Harbor served this purpose (ending the polarization about the New Deal). In the previous crisis, it was the attack on Fort Sumpter that led to the start of the Civil War. When one of these pivotal events occurs — and they always seem to catch the public by surprise — everyone’s mood and outlook on the future abruptly changes.

         What will the primary crisis be this time around? That’s impossible to predict at this point. We’re faced by multiple problems, any one of which could suddenly become the focus of everyone’s attention. The pivotal event could be a cyber attack on the U.S. by Russia and/or China, leading to a large-scale conflict. It could be an environmental collapse that threatens everyone so directly that climate change becomes an immediate threat to our existence. It could be a massive pandemic caused by 50,000-year-old viruses and bacteria released from melting permafrost. It could be artificial intelligence suddenly taking control of everything. It could be an outbreak of civil war inside the United States. Whatever it turns out to be, it will probably happen within the next few years, and it will shift society’s mood drastically. Suddenly, everyone will be united in order to deal with a do-or-die situation.

•          Based on how this has unfolded in the long series of cycles that have come before, this crisis will be resolved by the early 2030s. How it will resolve depends on the nature of the crisis, but it’s usually resolved at great cost in lives and effort. (Resolving whatever the big crisis turns out to be certainly won’t solve all of the other big problems, but it will reset our world on a new and different path and bring an end to the do-or-die crisis feeling.)

         It’s worth noting that in America at least, past crises have resolved in relatively positive ways; so far, the worst possible outcome has never materialized. That’s no guarantee about how this one will resolve, but it certainly implies that a decent outcome is possible.

•          After the crisis is resolved, the world will seem completely different. After each crisis resolution, well-known figures have commented that the world and/or country seemedcompletely different from what it was before the crisis. These crisis-based events really do start a whole new cycle, and moving forward, it feels like a “new ball game” to everyone.

•          The resolution of the crisis will be followed by an 18- to 20-year period of community-focused growth, with teamwork and “getting along” as the primary societal focus. This has happened following the crisis resolution in each of the previous cycles. While these periods are not known for their artistic creativity, they tend to be periods of new technological achievement that helps the community. After the American Revolution, canal building caused a huge expansion of commerce in the U.S.; after the Civil War, steam locomotives had the same effect. After World War II, the Interstate Highway system championed by President Eisenhower had a similar impact. So it’s likely that the period following the resolution of this crisis will also bring huge technological developments. Perhaps safe nuclear fusion, providing inexpensive energy for all? Warp drive for exploring space? New ways to produce food that have less negative impact on the environment? Time will tell…

         To summarize, we can expect a shocking event to unfold at some point in the next few years, triggering a huge change in national mood. Whichever crisis it represents, it will cause people to unite and make a massive effort to deal with it. The crisis will be resolved by the early 2030s, possibly at great cost, and will usher in a period of calm and cooperation, featuring major technological achievements, that will last about 20 years. Today’s polarization will be all but forgotten.

         And, after the crisis is resolved, everyone will agree that the world seems completely different from what it was a few years earlier.

One Final Thought

         Of course, no prediction of this sort can say what any individual person’s experience will be. Each of us is charting our own course and making our own choices within our own unique set of circumstances; we get to decide how we respond to the events unfolding around us.

         Nevertheless, I find it helpful to know that there is a pattern to the events of history, and to know that tumultuous times like these — when everyone fears that the end of our civilization may be in sight — have always led, not to the end, but to a new and different chapter.

— Christopher Kent, February 2024

Copyright 2024 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Elizabeth Jakab for her editorial insights and suggestions for this piece.