One of the intriguing things about history is trying to distinguish and define specific periods of time as belonging to one era, epoch, or generation or another. There are any number of ways to slice the historical onion and countless numbers of historians have done this over the years, often in unique and interesting ways.
I am not a historian nor do I claim there is any special insight in the observations that follow. However, while pondering events of the past few days, I’ve begun to believe that we may have crossed another demarcation line in American history and may have entered in what we will later understand as a new time period delineated from the recent past. Following that train of thought a bit further, here’s one way to break down the last fifty years or so.
1963-1973: From the time of the JFK assassination to the US military withdrawal from Vietnam and the beginning of Watergate. This is the period that most people have in mind when they say “The Sixties.” It was a time of political and social upheaval. Leaders were killed, cities were burned, and political violence was not rhetorical but very real. Youthful rebels fought against the “system” and, with rare exceptions, the systems meekly caved in to their demands. Our society is still dealing with the repercussions from this time of rapid and often ill-considered change.
1974-1983: From the time that Nixon leaves the White House in disgrace to the time when the economy starts swinging under Reagan. When people think of “The Seventies” this is what they remember. The feeling of “malaise” that dampened the economy and national spirit that began in the Carter administration carried over into the early years of Reagan. The moral decay and rot of personal fulfillment and egotism that started in the previous era now swept over the culture of the country during “The Me Decade” with disastrous consequences for children and families. America seemed to be in irreversible decline, but Americans were too busy doing their own thing to worry about it.
1983-1991: From the beginning of the Reagan boom to the fall of the USSR. It was morning in America again and the country, its economy, and people were strong and confident. The Cold War was on-going, but with a renewed sense of purpose and pride it seemed certain that America would now prevail. America was back on its feet and ready to go toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union to determine which system would survive and which would end up on the ash heap of history.
1991-2001: From the fall of the USSR to 9/11. Despite a brief interlude with the 1991 recession, this was a golden time for America. History-at least as we had known it-certainly appeared to be at an end. The close of the Cold War meant we had a “peace dividend” which, along with an influx of tax revenue from the tech boom, allowed us to balance the budget. Political disagreements were about much smaller issues and even when politics got heated-as in the 1998 impeachment trial or the 2000 election recount-rarely did it result in anything more than strong words. The economy was booming, freedom was sprouting up around the globe, and we were for the most part a dumb, fat, and happy country.
2001-2010?: From 9/11 to sometime late in 2010 when it became clear that despite (or because of) all the best TARP, stimulus, auto bailouts, health care reform, and QE2 efforts of the government, the economy wasn’t going to recover as it had after previous recessions. The beginning of this era is easy to define because 9/11 really did change everything. No longer were we immune from what was going on around the world and history was in fact very much not over. The political battles became bigger and the stakes higher. We were fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and trying prevent further attacks against the US. On the surface, the economy appeared to be doing well, but it was largely illusory and we had simply traded one speculative bubble (tech) for another (property). The 2008 recession was another defining event. While some might want to divide this period between the Bush and Obama administrations, I don’t think that’s as a clear a line as it might appear. No, something truly fundamentally different began to happen in late 2010 which is beginning to feel like the start of the next era.
2010?-?: While most of this speculation has focused on American history, it’s important to note that what happened in The Sixties wasn’t limited to the US. Countries in Western Europe went through similar upheavals as did some in Asia and Latin American (to a lesser extent). Similarly, this change that seems to be happening now is global. The riots in Greece and now the U.K. seem to be precursors to what we may be in for here (which might in fact already be underway in the form of recent violent flash mobs in US cities). The recent unprecedented downgrade of Americas’ credit rating and this week’s Wall Street panic are signs that something has changed. While there are many who compare the period we’re living in now to The Seventies and President Obama to President Carter, I’m wondering if we’re not already in (or on the verge) of an era that more resembles The Sixties. Political tensions have already spilled over into violence and we’re almost certain to see more sit-ins and protests like we did in Madison as states and the federal government are forced to cut budgets. It seems like we’re headed into very turbulent times which will differ from the most recent period in American history in that the tumult we experience will be much closer to home.
Again, you can disagree with the points that I staked out to mark the beginnings and ends of each period. Some may say the current period we’re in actually started with the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. I would argue that as dire as the onset of the global recession was, it was a downturn that we appeared to be recovering from and it looked like we were on the road to a return to normalcy. That changed in 2010 and the pace and severity of events since then appear to be increasing. Something has definitely changed. Does it mean that we’ve entered a new era? Only time will tell.