NEW YORK – History repeats itself. But do decades duplicate each other?
As hopes of the pandemic subsiding in the United States and Europe have risen, visions of second “roaring twenties,” corresponding to the decade following the pandemic of the last century, have increased. Months of lockdown and restrictions on social life have given way to dreams of a new era of frivolity and decadence. For some, it feels like party time.
Such thoughts are unthinkable in many parts of the world. India is in a crisis. The virus is raging in South America. Japan is grappling with a punitive new wave of cases. And even where the number of cases falls and vaccinations expand, deep wounds of more than a year of death, illness, and isolation remain. COVID-19 won’t go away. Other infectious variants are circulating. Herd immunity can be elusive. Long-term health effects will persist. There will be no Hollywood ending.
But an upcoming summer and a rising stock market have lifted optimism and fueled predictions of the new Roaring Twenties. This time, as Bill Maher suggested, we do it without “the depression at the end”. The New Yorker joked that the “New Roaring Twenties” ban should be “corporate-mandated virtual happy hours.” Madison Avenue turned up the heat. Suitsupply, a men’s fashion brand, runs a suggestive advertising campaign with squirming models and the slogan: “The New Normal Is Coming”. Summer travel is booming. A summer of love “sex explosion” is predicted. Even the bob is back in style.
Is it fair to join these twins of the 20s, both decades hot on the heels of the global pandemic? Could two 20s really roar? Do we all need to start buying flapper dresses and freshening up our F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Some of the parallels are legitimate, says Nicholas Christakis, professor of sociology and medicine at Yale University and author of Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. After an intermediate phase of “dealing with the clinical, psychological and economic shock of the virus”, he says, we will see an upswing this summer, with a post-pandemic phase until 2023 “a bit of party”
“People will understandably be very relieved when this is finally over. People have been locked up in one way or another for a very long time, ”says Christakis. “We will see people tirelessly looking for social opportunities in nightclubs and restaurants and bars, as well as at sporting events and music concerts and political rallies. We could experience sexual licentiousness, a relaxation of sexual mores. “
Such predictions have attracted many who are striving for the fabulous liberation a century ago – what Fitzgerald called “the most expensive orgy in history”. Outside the 1960s, the collective imagination may not be a decade larger than the 1920s, thanks in part to the emerging mass culture that conquered the time – the swinging speakeasies, the Harlem renaissance, the first “talkie” in “The Jazz” from 1927 Singer. “In the course of time the mythology has only become more colorful (cf. Baz Luhrmann,” Gatsby “, 2013).
There is truth in this 1920s portrait, but mostly for wealthier white Americans.
The decade punished the peasants; for the first time, more people lived in cities. The Ku Klux Klan, which targeted African Americans, immigrants, Jews and Catholics, grew in membership – anyone who fell short of its definition of “real American”. In 1921 one of the worst incidents of racist violence occurred – the Tulsa Race Massacre. Three years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration from Asia and Eastern Europe.
In short, the 1920s wasn’t all it was supposed to be. “We have in the United States today, close together, prosperity and depression,” wrote author and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois in 1926.
It’s not hard to spot many of the same issues today: racial injustice, economic inequality, convulsive technological change. Warren G. Harding’s 1921 campaign slogan – “a return to normal” – sounds very familiar and even appealing to those who have made it with the “new normal”.
Wall Street predictions vary, of course. The United Nations last month raised its global economic forecast to 5.4% growth in 2021. While many analysts predict an acceleration in the months and years ahead, Tina Fordham, partner and head of global political strategy at Avonhurst, sees a post-lockdown period that will feel like “The Great Gatsby” to few.
“For many, it could be more like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ unless steps are taken to address inequalities – which have accelerated during the pandemic – and the gaps in the social safety net,” concluded Fordham.
Is it even right to associate the 1920s with the 1918 flu? For John M. Barry, author of the defining story “The Great Influenza,” this is a wrong association. The so-called Spanish flu was far more contagious and deadly. It killed more than 50 million and approximately 675,000 Americans worldwide – more than ten times the number of World War I casualties for the United States
“People seem to think we just jumped into the Roaring Twenties,” says Barry. “But first we saw 1919, one of the most chaotic and violent years in American history. Then you had a severe recession in 1920, 1921. Hopefully the consequences will be very different this time. “
People also experienced the 1918 flu differently. Lockdowns then never lasted more than a few weeks. The social upswing that followed in the 20s? Most historians attribute this to the post-war period.
“The Roaring Twenties, that was the lost generation,” says Barry, who is writing a book about the COVID-19 pandemic. “There was a sense of fatalism, boredom and disillusionment with the world, which I think is much more closely related to the war.”
Lucy Moore, author of Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties, links WWI to the 1918 flu by punishing both young Americans. The 1920s, says Moore, were driven by disaffected, emancipated youth.
“The young sacrificed a lot for the older generation during this pandemic,” says Moore. “You felt that after the war and after the Spanish flu. The war consisted of young people being sent to their deaths by an older generation whose trust they had learned to trust but then felt very disappointed. “
Whether the same reaction will happen after this pandemic is something to watch out for. The crisis is far from over, warns Christakis. “We don’t want to sink the ball at the 5-yard line,” he says. But as the story progresses, Christakis sees a pattern that is common when the disaster persists. Plagues are followed by boom times. After the Black Death came the erosion of feudalism.
“The Roaring Twenties are just a metaphor,” says Christakis. “There is grief in the streets during times of plague, so people will be rightly relieved when this period of loss is behind us.”