In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve got 18 days left in a decade that really hasn’t seemed like one.
We talk freely about the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s – and decades before and after – but it’s hard to know what to call the first decade of the new millennium. The “aughts” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
Aside from what to call it, what will history remember as this decade’s identity, other than the repetitive mantra of “21st Century” this and that? What will immediately come to mind about these last 10 years?
The easily named decades of 20th Century America have settled into their own strong identities.
The 1920s was a “roaring” time of cutting loose from old standards, of rollicking excess, the full arrival of a consumer economy, extravangances of all types, including the financial bubbles that burst into the Great Depression. The 1930s brought economic calamity and the expansion of the federal government’s role with the New Deal. The ’40s were about World War II and the United States’ emergence as a superpower, as well as the beginning of the Cold War.
The ’50s brought economic prosperity, a booming middle class, and a large measure of self-satisfaction. The Cold War accelerated, the civil rights movement challenged national complacency, and rock ‘n’ roll signaled social changes on the horizon.
The ’60s were a time of division, a protracted and unpopular war, political assassinations, and social upheaval of many kinds, including the climactic victory of basic civil rights for black citizens, as well as nascent feminist, environmental and gay rights movements. In other words, a decade of social change like few others in the nation’s history.
The ’70s gave us the first “energy crisis” and a recognition of the perils of dependence on foreign oil, as well as slowing economic growth and American slippage on the world scene. The ’80s became a go-go time of stock market boom and bust, the acceleration of technological change, the collapse of communism, the thawing of the Cold War, and the celebration of free markets both at home and abroad. The ’90s brought sustained economic growth, relative peace, huge technological leaps, and the “irrational exuberance” of the stock market.
This decade will likely be defined as much as anything by the two “T’s” – terrorism and technology. The seminal event of the decade will always be 9/11, which ushered in the new reality of a non-state enemy intent on murdering Americans on our own soil. National security would come to take on a new and expanded meaning, and after a decade free of the nuclear anxiety of the Cold War era, a new fear for our collective safety would take hold, leading to two wars that have lasted most of the decade.
For those who have been sent to those wars and their families, this has been the decade’s definition. Yet the rest of us have not really been anywhere close to a war footing at home; very little has been asked of us, except to “support the troops” and to take off our shoes in airports. Not only have we not had taxes raised to fund the war effort, they’ve been cut and other government benefits expanded.
Meanwhile, the other T – technology – has produced fundamental changes in the way we communicate, occurring at a break-neck speed. When the decade began, a minority of Americans had Internet access and text was not a verb. Nearly half way into the decade, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter or even “smart” phones.
Technological innovations aren’t just re-inventing social and business relationships, they’re rewiring our brains. And they’ve accelerated the trend of globalization to the point where the world, as one of the decade’s catch phrases holds it, is once again flat.
Which means financial calamities such as the one we’ve experienced in the last year and a half reverberate faster and more deeply. Surely the “Great Recession” will be the other bookend event, along with 9/11, that provides the context for everything in between in the “aughts.”
The calendar is sometimes an artificial device – historical trends don’t stop at the end of a year or 10 years – but we humans need our reference points, our ways of ordering our experience. Sometimes we dwell too much in the past or future, but the ability to look either way is useful.
Looking back over the last 10 years is both exhilarating and frightening. All that is certain about the next 10 years is that no one really has the foggiest notion what we’ll be saying about them when they’re over.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal