We are closing on the centennial of the beginning of decades having identities in the USA, the “Roaring 20s” of the 20th century. It may be that this centennial will clearly mark the end of this odd phenomenon that we had been used to, but which was always a bit odd. Why did this start and why might ibe ending? I have a few thoughts on this.
My theory oon why it started in the 1920s is that this was the first appearance of national news media in the form of radio, which was the first time we could really have aunified discusson and consciousness in a way not possible previously. Certainly there were decades earlier that had the potential for having identities. The 1860s had arguably the most dramatic event of US history, the Civil War, but nobody has ever talked about “the 60s” meaning the 1860s rather than the 1960s. Likewise, there serious economic downturns through most of both the 1870s and 1890s, but nobody has ever talked about the 70s or 90s referring to those decades.
Indeed this continued into the beginning of the 20th century, with many dramatic events in the first decade and, of course, WW I in the second, although the US was in that war for less than two years. But it was the 1920s that got an identity for the first time in US history. Maybe it is not the spread of radio, maybe it is the spread of automobiles, which became the dominant form of personal transport in that decade, which helped increase social mobility and communication. So add the auto to radio, and maybe some other things, jazz, although we also got the spread of records and movies also. So, there we had that roaring decade.
So for the rest of the 20th century people talked about each decade as something with an identity, even as some had less clear identities than others. The 30s were dominated by the Great Depression. The 40s were clearly dominated by WW II, and its aftermath in the latter half of the decade. The 50s was that golden time of US dominance with big cars and suburbs and I Like Ike. The 60s, well, from civil rights to the Vietnam War, not to mention sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The 70s were more complicated, marked after 73 by economic stagflation and much pulling back from excesses of the 70s, while certain movements that barely began (or started up again) got going more seriously in the 70s, notably both the womens’ movement and the gay rights movement (the latter only really getting going with Stonewall in 69). The 80s saw the major shift associated with Reagan, the 90s had the foloowup to the end of the Cold War with an economic boom under Clinton in its latter part. Indeed, the 90s may have been the last decade with a clear identity, with the US arguably reaching some sort of optimistic peak of world standing at the end of the millennium/century, although in fact the US was more globally dominant in the late 40s and 50s.
Here is where things get complicated, and I would argue that neither the Noughties, as the first decade of this century tends to get called when somebody bothers to call it anything, and the current nearly ending teens, do not have strong identities.. Of course the early part of the Noughties was dominated by 9/11 and the following War on Terror, including the awful war in Iraq. But then we got someting that spilled over into the teens, the Great Recession, which began at the en of 2007. Ironically the teens have not had a single period of time when the US economy was officially in recession, but certainly the first part of the decade was dominated by the recession that happened at the endo of the prvious decade. Somehow by the end of the decade we had come back to reasonably growing and full employment economy, but the long dragging aftermath of the Great Recession soured our society, with the nationalist, racist, populist attitudes that brought us Trump, but have also spread across the world. And while ISIS has been defeated, we continue to be “fighting terror” in many places. In short, it is hard to separate these two decades. When we look at it hard, we may be in a situation where we have been in period where we have a kind of two decade period that has its own identity, with in effect the Great Recession and its long aftermath being the unifying factor spilling across from the latter part of the first of them into the early and mif part of the second one.
I shall comment on one other reason why we may be coming to a time when the decades lose their identities, if in fact we may have already done so as I have suggested just above. If this is the case, it may be due to an undoing of what happened a century ago, a disintegration of the unified mediia based story that emerged with radio. As has been noticed for quite some time we have had an increasing diversity of media into ever more fragmented parts, which has allowed for large groups to simply live in different worlds, with the polarization between those who watch Fox News versus most of the rest of us symbolic of it. But watching the current situation I am struck that I have never seen such a divide in the nation in terms of fundamental perceptions about the nature of reality.
So what this centennial of the Roaring 20s brings I do not know, but it may well be that 2020s will have no more decadal identity than did the 1820s in the USA.