September 12, 2011

Moving back and forth between eras of the past 100 years

What makes one zeitgeist different from another is mostly due to where each society was in the violence cycle. Was the violence rate at its peak, falling halfway to the nadir, etc.? So from a bird's-eye view, a snapshot of the nation during two peaks (or other matched points) will look similar.

Then we can use the length between peaks to tell us how far back we should look to find a zeitgeist similar to our own. Or if we are reading about some hazy era farther back, how far forward should we look to find a more familiar setting. In America the early 20th-C. homicide wave peaked in 1933, while the recent wave peaked in 1992, or roughly 60 years apart. Thus, subtract 60 from a recent year to go back, or add 60 to an earlier year to go forward.

All Americans, including the educated, are mostly blind to our history before 1950 -- I mean a sense of the broad zeitgeist. So let's say you want a rough picture of what the Roaring 1920s were like. Adding 60, we get the Go-Go 1980s. How about the 1900s? Add 60 to get the 1960s, the second Progressive Era. Like the 1970s, which are split between the counter-cultural first half and the New Wave second half, so were the 1910s divided into an earlier half still in the earnest 1900's and a later half that marked the start of the Jazz Age. Each of those comparisons would require a post to flesh out how similar they were, but they were.

Where does that put us now? Back in the 1950s. Like I said, the similarities are only bird's-eye level. Separate from the violence cycle, the national eminence cycle also influences the zeitgeist. In the '50s, we were near our peak for national eminence but in a trough for crime rates. Now we're in another trough for crime rates, but declining in eminence.

What most people remember fondly about the 1950s was related to our national eminence, like feeling part a single great country. They forget the parts that reflected its insulation from the threat of violence, such as living isolated or connected only shallowly to our neighbors in real life, and having faith in a managerial technocracy to fix whatever harms may come our way. Now we've returned to that way of life, only without the patriotism to provide a back-up source of community-feeling.

We can also apply this to move from one generation to its counterpart. The Silent Generation was born between 1925 and 1945, and their modern-day relatives are of course the Millennials, born around 1985 and after. If Generation X was born between 1965 and later '70s, then that makes their ancestors the carefree and apolitical Flaming Youth born from 1905 (like Clara Bow) through the later 1910s.

So looking only at the influence your social and cultural milieu have on your development, and sticking with the contemporary West, you're more likely to turn out like your grandparents than your mother and father.


  1. Connecting this with the previous post, it seems interesting that Pearl Harbor was almost exactly 60 years before 9/11.

  2. Jonathan Monroe9/27/11, 1:11 PM

    Have you read the work by Strauss and Howe on American generations? They end up with a 4-generation cycle (approximately 80 years) as opposed to your 60 years.

    The obvious comparison is then between the 1929 financial crash and the 2008 financial crash. The 60's (a social phenomenon that largely happened in the calendar decade of the 1970's) correspond the the Third Great Awakening, the 80's the the Gilded Age, and the present to the Great Depression.

    Strauss and Howe see the Flaming Youth as the first wave of the GI generation, and argue that their lives were defined by Depression and War, so what they got up to before 1929 doesn't count.


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