Connecting the Past and Present

Can the transition from the 1920s to the 1930s and from the 1980s to the 1930s be seen as parallel epochs in the American Century? Especially after the stock market crash of 1988, there was much debate about this matter. Critics of these comparisons may be accurate in finding correlations between the 1920s and the 1960s, thus arguing against comparisons of the '20s and '80s, but ultimately their arguments are academic. In popular perceptions each of the decades assumes a designation: the Roaring Twenties; the Depression; World War II; suburban conformity in the '50s; the counter-culture and political upheaval of the '60s; the Me Decade; Yuppies in the '80s. The two decades of economic prosperity and social excess punctuated by a stock market crash are symbolically linked, and since the Nineties have not yet taken on an identity the Thirties offer an easily grasped means of explanation. Alt.country acts as a form of cultural shorthand in which audience and artist examine the current landscape using lyrical and musical imagery from a half-century earlier.


 The 1920s

 

The prosperity and optimism of the 1920s followed the brutal and disillusioning world war and the embarrassment of the peace treaty afterwards. The economy experienced a recession in 1922 when the government ended the war boom contracts; however, the nation recovered quickly. Over the next seven years, unemployment fell as low as 3%, the GNP boomed, and prices remained constant. Presidents Harding and Coolidge were decidedly pro-business, and Harding's hands-off approach, leaving many decisions to his appointees, seems to invite comparisons to Reagan's tenure. President Coolidge and the Republicans reversed the trend of the federal government's intervention with big business via anti-trust laws, and corporate America benefited; they also provided tax cuts for the wealthy. The Supreme Court overturned Progressive anti-business legislation, but the range of consumer goods multiplied as American homes were increasingly electrified. The urban American social landscape was represented by images of the Jazz Age and flappers- exotic music, beautiful people, bacchanalia unending. To meet this demand, the mobs grew powerful supplying illegal liquor. Even the middle class indulged in the stock market and consumption of entertainment, automobiles (Auto ownership grew from 8 to 23 million during the twenties), etc. The twenties also experienced a revival of conservatism in the form of prohibition, religious fundamentalism, and anti-radicalism.

 

California 1938, Dorothea Lange
There were, however, indications of what was to come too; several industries declined during the decade, workers lost jobs as manufacturing was automated, and farmers remained in a constant state of near-crisis. Beneath the revelry, the economy was preparing to give out, and then the stock market crashed. Families were dispossessed of their homes, unemployment rose, etc. The Great Depression was not the worst depression in American history; however, FDR's relief programs and the popular media provided a set of icons that were striking in their intensity and even more so when contrasted with the vibrant images of the Jazz Age. Whether John Steinbeck and Walker Evans provide an accurate reflection of that time or not, these are the images that evoke that era, images that ennobled the common man, the out of work, the Okies and implicitly denigrate the power-brokers whose recklessness sparked the Depression.

 


The 1980s

Ronald Reagan was elected to office following the humiliations of a hostage crisis, a lost war, and a president forced to resign in disgrace, but he effectively terminated the American malaise. Reagan too tried to turn back two decades of federal welfare, EPA legislation against big business, etc. in enacting the "trickle down theory." Again the social landscape shimmered filled with coked-up yuppies, gleaming new BMWs, disco and New Wave music. Again gangs stepped up to supply the recreational needs of the new upper class, while the nation renewed a conservative spirit. The last years of the Reagan era also ended with a stock market crash, but its effects did not debilitate the national economy. The economy, in fact, is still strong a decade later, but the end of the '80s marked a realization of a moral bankruptcy. The S&L scandal, junk bonds and insider trading, hostile takeovers all were evidence of greed and unethical acquisitions. While the top 10% of Americans got even richer, the poor got even poorer. And the resulting effects on corporate America are not promising for those who entered a financial independency in its aftermath. Factories have been shipped overseas, and ever increasing downsizing and temporary employment abolished notions of job security for white collar workers.


Generational Theory in Times of Crisis

Tupelo, Mississippi 1936, Walker Evans
Whiskeytown: Advertisement from No Depression, 1998

 

William Strauss and Neil Howe's generational theory represents history as a cycle of generational types, "civics," "adaptives," "idealists," and "reactives." The types currently represented are Civics born 1901-1924 and 1982+, Adaptives born 1925-1942, Idealists born 1943-1960, and Reactives born 1883-1900 and 1961-1981. Each type manifests a series of traits based on their interactions with the other living generations and their participation in spiritual awakenings and secular crises. Civics and Idealists are dominant groups, participating in secular or spiritual revivals, respectively, while the Adaptives and Reactives are recessive, born into these periods of upheaval. Generations obviously interact with all the other living generations, reacting against those immediately before them and responding sympathetically to those that share similar traits. The current generation, Generation X or whatever it may be labeled, is Reactive, coming of age in the fervor of Idealists; they have created positive identifications between themselves and the most recent Adaptive and Reactive generations.

The challenges and the grim fortunes projected onto this group, Generation X, are not unprecedented even in the twentieth century. The last generation to face both the negative labels and grin economic outlook was the Lost Generation, another Reactive group. As Howe and Strauss explain, the "Gay Nineties," into which the Lost were born, share a sense of the "spiritual and ideological upheaval" that the late '60s and '70s wrought. The Lost Generation also lived through a violent youth (the murder rate increased 700% between 1900-20), often of their own making, while the economy grew and then gave out as they reached mid-life. The Lost Generation participated in the prosperity of the twenties but were also most impacted by the Depression; the next recessive generation (b. 1925-1942), dubbed the Silent by Howe and Strauss, were also impacted by the Depression as they were born amidst this period of uncertainty. These Adaptive Silents are the grandparents of the current generation, and the new generation have developed a bond with this group who seem to be a calm antidote to the excesses of the Baby Boom generation. Howe and Strauss's theory captures a much wider scope on this phenomena, but this summary helps demystify why educated twenty-somethings now are nostalgic for the iconography of the Depression.