End of the Age
There’s a quote, oft-repeated in Poor Richard’s Almanacks, Guinness Books of World Records, Federal Registers, VH1 Best Ofs, and other definitive cultural retrospectives, that a given decade doesn’t really end until a year or two into the next. This year was an exception.
For Americans, the 2010s began to end early, only three months into 2020, as COVID-19 started its febrile, withering, phantasmagorical parade across the United States. Its Churchillian “end of the end” took place sometime over the past weeks as Biden’s victory and the end of the reptilian Trump era became more certain.
Beyond this most recent one, it is difficult to perceive exactly when a decade comes to an end in terms of our popular perception of its prevailing mood, styles, mores, personalities, fads, icons, memes, stinks, etc.; only in retrospect does a decennary’s denouement become apparent. Other times, however, it is clear to everyone as it happens: “The ’__s are over.” But rarely do calendar-demarcated ten-year periods merely fade away. Rather, whether obvious or only later understood, every decennium seems to have a commonly agreed upon end, if not two or three. (I am done with obscure synonyms for ‘decade’ now, I promise — ed.) Here they are, limited to post-War American history.
The jazzy, swingy, boozy, egalitarian, Dieselpunk, Rosy-the-Riveter, stick ball, eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-may-die 1940s ended abruptly and early, nearly immediately being replaced by the stifling, conformist, corporate, Atomicpunk, hula hoop, black-and-white 1950s on February 9, 1950 when Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin* (*Take note, those wondering ‘What Happened to Liberal Wisconsin?’ ) uttered these words at a meeting of the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia:
I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.
The Korean War began in June of that year and the ’50s ensued.
This is an easy one. ‘0’-ending Presidential election years often mark the figurative end of a decade, but not in this case. The we’re-still-wearing-top-hats? 1950s continued on for almost four years, until Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Yet, you could say, and many of the best, smartest people do [Sorry for the Trumpism — ed.], that there were two ’60s: First, the early, optimistic ’60s, identifiable by thin ties, crew cuts, the Great Society, the Voting Rights Act, and the pre-Revolver Beatles. This was followed by the later, more enraged, psychedelic, crabby, riot-y ’60s, which we all recognize without further description.
The ’40s and ’50s ended with political events. Fittingly, the ’60s ended with a series of musical ones. On April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced he was leaving The Beatles. The first solo release by a Beatle, Give Peace a Chance, by John Lennon in the form of The Plastic Ono Band, was released on July 4, 1970. Every Beatle released solo albums that year, and McCartney filed suit to dissolve The Beatles on December 30, 1970, marking the end of the 1960s.
The end of the ’70s is one of the harder ones to define. Reagan’s election in November of 1980 certainly marked an epochal change in America’s political, cultural, and intellectual aesthetic. But the sweaty, hairy, analog, graffiti-strewn, urban-decaying, mustachioed, 1970s trudged on for quite a while, sporting their testicle-separating inseams until perhaps as late as 1983.
It seems apparent that by any measure, 1980 and 1981 were still firmly entrenched in the 1970s.
However, in August of 1982 the Commodore 64 was released, marking a clear transition from the hissy vinyl and Pong of the Carter years to the BEEP! BOOP! 8-bit ’80s. By then too, MTV had been on the air for a year and was spreading like wildfire via something called “cable.” The undeniably ’80s movies E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Rocky III, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in the summer of 1982. Yet it was also true that year that Burt Reynolds was still a movie star, ABBA was still putting out music, and the U.S. was still mired in recession, a 1970s hallmark.
Despite some outliers though, by late 1982 it can safely be said that by the ’80s were gathering spiky-haired, pegged-jeans steam. For example, the Compact Disc came out on 1 October 1982, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, perhaps the defining 1980s album, came out on November 30th, and Porky’s was released in December, beginning the ’80s fascination for gratuitous nudity and swearing film.
And certainly no one can say with a straight face that the ’70s continued into 1983, the year of Def Leppard’s Pyromania and the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi.
So, perhaps a more obscure event represents the safest and clearest demise of the 1970s: On January 1, 1983 the switchover from ARPANET to the TCP/IP protocol was completed, marking the birth of the modern internet, and thus as well, the end of the analog era that ran from c. 1880 through the 1970s.
Another easy call. The 1980s ended with the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit on September 10, 1991.
Yet another one that is almost too obvious to note. The 1990s ended on September 11, 2001.
There is really no distinction between the 2000s and the 2010s besides smartphones. This is really unprecedented as far as I can tell. To us today, perhaps the 1870s and the 1880s seem the same, though I doubt they did at the time. The 1890s and 1900s seem different at least by the centennial. The 1900s and 1910s might too be relatively indistinguishable to most of us today, but every other decade since then has marked distinctions in the popular mind: WWI of the 1910s, Prohibition and flappers of the 1920s, the Great Depression and New Deal of the 1930s, right up to where we began, with rowdy, WWII-era 1940s.
But as far as I can tell, the 2000s continued right up to now, with perhaps the only dividing line being Trump’s inauguration in 2017. That event, I believe, will be seen in the future as catastrophic, as I do not believe a Biden presidency, or even a Democratic presidential hegemony for the next 12 years will be enough to undo the damage wrought by the arrival of authoritarianism and kakistocracy on American shores, especially in the face of uncontrollable climate catastrophe and multi-trillion-dollar deficits.
So it is better to imagine the 2000s, up to the advent of COVID in the U.S. in March of this year, as the end of American hegemony and the global reign of liberal democracy that began in 1946/1991. It will mark too — and I wish I could make this part funny — as the beginning of an irreversible descent into a new era marked by privation, starvation, disease, autocracy, unchecked corporate power, environmental degradation, and really kick-ass smartphones and virtual reality googaws. That is, perhaps, unless we all get off our asses and change it for good.