Why did decades stop having personalities?


I saw this quote today and it made me think.

The 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s seem to have all separate, unique personalities, but these last 18 years seem to just be one big chunk of time that has no significant meaning.

Personally, I think decade “personalities” reach back all the way to at least the 1920s.  Although I have no real point of reference for chunks of time earlier than that,  I suspect the growth of mass popular culture (movies, radio, mass produced clothing, magazines, etc.) due to the advance of technology during the early to mid-20th century had a lot to do with the decades developing their own unique “feel.”

It wasn’t just music, entertainment and fashion that defined decades from each other; decades even had their own unique fonts.  You can pretty much tell the vintage of a magazine or paperback book heading or a movie poster by its font.  Colors (and color combinations) and patterns are also telling:  1940s: dark jewel colors; 1950s: aqua and pastels, gingham and boomerang patterns; 1960s: DayGlo colors, paisley, and psychedelic patterns; 1970s: earth colors (specifically, all shades of brown, harvest gold, avocado, and rust); 1980s: mismatched DayGlo colors and clashing abstract patterns, and of course, mauve and hunter green (for home decor); 1990s: the “distressed” look for furniture,  plain white walls, black clothing, tiny floral prints on black backgrounds, heather gray, brown, and lots of plaid flannel.  The 2010s do seem to be defined by the popular “lattice” and oversize houndstooth patterns you find on everything from throw pillows to blankets,  but I can’t think of much else that defines it, other than political statements like MAGA caps or pink pussy hats.

The decades as we think of them don’t generally (or ever) start on January 1 of a new decade.  They could start early, or it could take several years for the next decade to really get underway.  It also isn’t until some years after it began that we actually notice that things changed (that’s why the decade you’re currently in doesn’t seem to have its own personality).

For example, the “sixties” didn’t start until about 1964, with the rise of the Beatles (or possibly, in late 1963, with the assassination of JFK); the “seventies” didn’t begin until sometime in 1974, when early Disco/Philly sound emerged out of earlier funk and R&B; and bell bottoms, Earth shoes and sandals, long straight center parted hair, and long peasant dresses (all more associated with the sixties) suddenly gave way to platform shoes, polyester leisure suits, and sexy Lycra  “disco dresses” in jewel colors.    But it wasn’t until the end of the ’70s, or even the early ’80s, that we realized exactly when the “seventies” started and the “sixties” ended.

The “eighties” started more or less on time (or even early), because disco and its culture had a short run and was replaced with New Wave and power pop music as early as 1978 or 1979.  The eighties ran until the fall of 1991.  The rise of Nirvana and other grunge bands from Seattle commenced the nineties.  Overnight, Generation X was cool and Boomers were just old.  I remember the switch to the nineties well, since I gave birth to my son the very same month “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released, and I remember telling my husband on first seeing the video on MTV, “That song is going to change everything.”  I have no idea how I knew that.

But what happened since the new millennium began?  Why, almost two decades after the year 2000 began, does that decade still seem to have no personality of its own? Why does there seem to be no clear cut off between the late ’90s, the 2000s and 2010s?

Obviously, we are far enough into the 21st century that at least its first decade’s personality would have emerged some time ago.  So it’s not because we haven’t waited long enough.  Now, that could be the case for the 2010s (which we are still in but not for much longer) but not for the 00’s.  But I suspect the reason is something else entirely.

Since 9/11, there’s been a change in the national zeitgeist, a darkening of the overall mood.   People are more suspicious of each other and of the government, and the overall mood is one of distrust and dread.   That distrust and dread, sparked by 9/11, is what led to Trump and the rise of hatred and nationalism, and the disintegration of American democracy.   Pop culture — music, fashion, movies, art, and youth movements — all the things that have traditionally defined the decades take a secondary role to survival itself.   A society that is not thriving doesn’t really care about frivolities, pop culture, and being entertained.  During dark times, people tend not to create a new culture; instead they draw from the past and become nostalgic for happier, more stable and prosperous times.

There’s another reason for the lack of definition of recent decades, one which may be even more important than the darker national zeitgeist.   Technology has continued to advance, to the point that every person can customize their own entertainment.   Up until the 1990s, people tended to listen to the same songs on the radio, watch the same music videos, and shop at almost identical malls scattered across the country.  A mall in Miami was pretty much the same as a mall in Minnesota.  There weren’t 1000 different cable channels.  People bought physical records or CDs because of what they heard on the radio.  In general, there was less choice in entertainment (though many believe the quality was much better).   There was no internet or social media to influence individual opinion or create tiny niche cultures, the way we have today.   Now anyone can start a Youtube channel, anyone can create their own music video or short film and get their own small group of fans or followers.  Anyone can start a blog and sometimes gain a modicum of internet fame from doing so.   Your friend may listen to a band, watch a movie, or be a fan of a comedy series you have never heard of because they have only a tiny niche following on Youtube or Vimeo.   There’s also the isolating nature of today’s entertainment.   People watch videos and listen to music on their phones or iPods instead of turning on the radio for all their friends to enjoy.

And of course, many of us, overwhelmed by too many choices and not enough quality, escape into the past for our entertainment, indulging our need for nostalgia.   The unifying sense of solidarity people once experienced through enjoying a common zeitgeist is almost completely gone.  Now it’s everyone for themselves.   The disintegration of that kind of solidarity may actually have something to do with why Americans stopped caring about each other.


16 thoughts on “Why did decades stop having personalities?

  1. Another factor is, I think, the social, economic, and emotional whiplash of the crash from the mania of the housing bubble into the depression of the Great Recession, another blow to a sense of national confidence and collective “big tent” identity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I see the decades by their politics too. The 60’s were the decade of the Vietnam war and the Weather Underground, mass protests, the women’s movement and hippies. The 70’s were the decade hippies moved to the land and Reagan became president. I identify the 80’s with shoulder pads, Duran Duran as well as the punk movement. It was a very cynical decade. The hippies were idealistic and focused on love. The punks were the corrective to all that pie-in-the-sky idealism and focused on the dark side. Remember the Dead Kennedys song, “California Uber Alles?” Then, in the middle of panning politicians like Brown, Reagan came along. The Dead Kennedys reacted by writing another song to replace “California Uber Alles” but it never had the same kick. Life was darker than the punk vision. I associate the 90’s with the dot.com movement and the me-focused yuppies. I can’t think of much to say about 00-10 except 9/11. The present decade is dominated by identity politics more strongly than any previous decades. The transgender movement seems more radical than most people realize yet. Have you noticed how powerful this movement is and how quickly that power manifested? Schools are doing things like no longer calling pupils “boys” or “girls.” Yes, the Resistance is a big part of this decade. Those pussy hats were/are really something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good comments, but Reagan actually became president in 1981 (and was elected in 1980)

      The transgender movement definitely is a thing these days, isn’t it?


  3. Everyone was so exhausted by the 20C that they faceplanted into the 21C and have been semi-passed out on social media ever since. Globalism makes everything look the same everywhere all the time.

    I’m enjoying your blog, it’s really honest, detailed and helpful. I am an ACON and likely as not spectrum autistic (and poor). I have gotten a lot out of reading your older posts, like from 2014…..2014? Who can remember back that far? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In terms of style, the main thing that stands out for me in this new century is tight clothes. This is seen in both men and women for those who are both skinny and not. That was a clear change from the loose and comfortable fit of the 90s. Also, in recent years, I’ve noticed an increase of brightly colored shoes. But I’ve also noticed a lot of retro throwbacks to the 80s and 90s, such as flannel shirts and jean jackets.

    The patterns clothing and furniture tends to be simpler these days. There definitely is none of the in-your-face, sometimes outright gaudy, patterns of some past decades. For example, wallpaper with complex designs or mural-like pictures used to be fairly common, but I haven’t seen that kind of thing in a long time. Walls, these days, are mostly plain white or beige with maybe a mild accent wall. Also, younger people don’t seem to decorate their houses as much with family photographs and family heirlooms. Instead, it is the age of no then-descript bland modernism of Ikea.

    Maybe more than anything, the past decades have seen the rise of the metrosexual and hipster style, specifically for me. Also, facial hair is suddenly everywhere, not so much for women, though. There is also an increasing casualness of attire. I’ve noticed that in jobs I’ve worked, as uniforms have become less common over the decades. Postal Service workers often aren’t even identifiable any more. Combined with this, there has been a major uptick in piercing and tatoos, going along with a more casual attitude about personal choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your input on this. I’ll have to look around and see if I can find differences that make this age stand out. I have noticed home decor being simpler, kind of an updated Midcentury Modern look, which I like, only with a lot more white and light.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There were some errors in my comment. It should have read: “Instead, it is the age of non-descript bland modernism of Ikea.” And: “Maybe more than anything, the past decades have seen the rise of the metrosexual and hipster style, specifically for men.”

      There are various things about the almost two decades of the new century. Ripped jeans are also popular again. It’s funny because my mother makes the same comments now that she made when ripped jeans were first popular when I was younger.

      There is another observation that I’m not sure how fits in here. A few years back, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. I noticed many, maybe most, of his toys were basically the same as what I knew as a child: Legos, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, etc. I’m not sure why that is, other than the GenXers who grew up with those toys are now the parents and toymakers.

      Even in movies and tv shows, there are a lot of remakes. That isn’t to say there isn’t also plenty of original stuff as well. Instead of remakes, when I was a kid, it was reruns. In many cases, I watched the exact same shows my parents watched when they were younger.

      This made for a cultural connection. There is more cultural amnesia now. The distance between generations feels greater. This likely relates to the breakdown of small communities as small towns died and ethnic enclaves disappeared, corresponding with the decrease of multi-generational households and neighborhood schools, churches, etc.

      On a different note, these past decades did see a large influx of immigrants. We have greater diversity right now than has been seen in a while. Brown people are increasingly allowed to host their own shows, a pattern first clearly seen in the 90s. The entire country is heading for minority-majority status, and actually the youngest generation is already minority-majority.

      All of that adds up to a particular public mood. I’m sure these last decades will be seen as having personalities like any other. The aughts were a dark and dire time of the 2000 stolen election, 9/11 terrorist attack committed by Saudi citizens (one of our allied countries), the second Iraq War based on a lie, and the 2008 Recession. The decade we are now in will probably be remembered for the Obama and Trump administrations, two stark and twinned visions of rhetoric: neoliberal progressivism and neocon reaction.

      In the frame of Strauss and Howe’s generations theory, we are in the fourth turning. We are experiencing the crisis period that comes about every 80 years, that is to say every 4 generations. The reason why this cycle happens is because that is about how long public memory lasts before the generation that remembered the last crisis grows old, retires, and dies. As Steven Bannon said, it will be as exciting as the 1930s.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Interesting comments, David. Indeed we are in the fourth turning, and we seem to be at the peak of the crisis. I do see signs of the first turning to come, but can’t yet tell whether it will be a hellish Gilded Age type of first turning with a feudal economy or even a dictatorship (if Republicans win) or something better than we’ve ever had before that includes Medicare for All (if the Trump regime goes down and Democrats take control). At this point, the country is malleable and anything could happen. It’s frightening and exciting too.

        I’ve been a fan of S&H theory since they wrote their book “The Fourth Turning” in 1997 (and I don’t give a damn that Steve Bannon is also a fan of it). I also read “Generations.” I think it’s a valid theory, not at all like astrology, as some have compared it to, because it’s based on actual historical cycles and it does seem to fit. I absolutely agree with you that the passing of the GI generation (who remembered Hitler and Naziism and fought for our freedom) has created a gap in which not enough people remember those times and now we are in danger of repeating them. We are also lacking the peacemaking and diplomatic skills of the Silent Generation (who have mostly retired from public life). What we are seeing is Boomer zealotry (both religious and political) in full bloom (assisted by cold Xer pragmatism). But unlike previous turnings, we seem to be deliberately trying to stifle the upcoming generation (millennials) and that is not a good thing. I still think they will prevail.

        I wonder if I know you from the Facebook group or from the old forums. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


        • I don’t pretend to know the future. But I strongly suspect this time around will be different and not in a good way. The problems we now face are forming a crisis like no other. Some problems have been developing over decades (e.g., decline of democracy) while others have been developing over a much longer period (e.g., climate change).

          I don’t see partisan politics doing much good at this point, no matter who is in power. There simply isn’t the political will or maybe even the public demand to take these problems seriously, not to the degree that is necessary to avoid disaster. Besides, as far as I can tell, the US has essentially been a banana republic for a while now, long before Trump came to power, a banana republic at least at the federal level and increasingly at the local level as big money and dark money takes over everything. The neoliberal corporatism (soft fascism) of a Democrat like Jeff Bezos worries me as much as the old school authoritarianism of the other side, and I might note how easily corporatism becomes fascism as happened in the past.


          US democracy has been downgraded in recent years. But I saw the first undeniable sign of overt democratic decline with the stolen election of 2000. When studied, it was shown that if a full recount had been done Bush would have lost Florida and so would have lost the election. Instead, Bush was hand selected and placed into power by the Supreme Court, contrary not only to democracy but to the Constitution itself. Yet most Democrats blamed Nader, even though Nader had nothing to do with that defeat. Democrats lost more registered Democrats in Florida to Bush than to Nader, and even then Democrats still technically won Florida, but they didn’t have the moral courage to fight in defense of democracy nor maybe did they even possess the most basic awareness to realize what was at stake — assuming it wasn’t mere cynicism, be that of apathy and indifference or conniving realpolitik or both.


          As for a strong left-wing in the US, such a thing doesn’t exist these days. It was largely destroyed and dismantled through COINTELPRO decades ago. This was beyond government spying, infiltration and agent provocateurs, in that the government went so far as trying to blackmail Martin Luther King jr into committing suicide. The government also forged letters to create paranoia and get Black Panthers to turn against each other. That was at a time when the Black Panthers were among the greatest threats in the country, not because of violence but because of solidarity. At one point, even parts of the Klan had reached across the racial divide for common cause.


          Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power
          by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy
          Kindle Locations 149-154

          “We organized a meeting of Movement organizers, including members of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), for the Patriots delegation. At the time, the New Orleans chapters of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) and the RNA were working together supporting a strike by pulp mill workers in Laurel, Mississippi, not far outside New Orleans. Virginia Collins , the local RNA leader and one of the organization’s founders, told the Patriots about the white and Black workers who had been enemies before the strike but were now working together. She shared that the local Klan actually provided security for the SCEF and RNA organizers when they came to hold meetings, and that sometimes they met in the Black Baptist church, sometimes in the white Baptist church.”

          Fred Hampton, an inspiring leader of the Black Panthers, was drugged by a police informant and then shot while asleep in his bed by the police. It was as blatant as government assassination gets. Before his murder, he was creating connections between multiple groups, from feminists to Native Americans. He also reached out to poor whites who shared the same neighborhoods with poor blacks. The reason for this is that he understood only a highly organized and powerful political left would be able to fight violent oppression, but he maybe underestimated how far the government would be willing to go to destroy the aspiring left-wing. Still, while he was alive, he inspired many people.

          Kindle Locations 262-266

          “The Young Patriots’ own chairman, William Fesperman, even let some heartfelt gratitude show in between jibes about the “pig power structure” when he explained how the Patriots came to be at the conference: “Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes and I felt for a long time [that poor whites] was forgotten … that nobody saw us. Until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us and we said let’s put that theory into practice.” Summing up why they had all come to Oakland, he added, “We want to stand by our brothers, our brothers, dig?””

          All of that was going on under both Republican and Democratic administrations. There hasn’t been a Democratic president on good terms with the left-wing in generations. As I said, this has been developing for a while. Our present situation has the mood of Germany after the 1918 revolution when liberals refused to take the situation seriously by offering strong responses and instead attacked and disempowered the political left. See William A. Pelz’s A People’s History of the German Revolution, 1918-1919. That set the stage for the right-wing takeover, that is to say the reactionary backlash came first from the establishment ‘liberals’ before it came from the right-wing authoritarians, an old pattern that has been seen many times before and since. If humans ever learned from their mistakes, there would be no generational cycles that repeat endlessly.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Wow. This is a very depressing and pessimistic take on our future. I certainly hope you’re wrong about this. I don’t worry about myself and my future that much since I’m no longer young, but I hate to think of my kids and their kids having to live in such a society.

            I agree with you about the Bush election. That was the beginning of the obvious fascism (which had actually been working behind the scenes since at least the late 1970s with the rise of the religious right, etc.)

            But I think the nail in the coffin (well before Trump) was the disastrous Citizens United decision. There was no turning back then.

            Again, thanks for your comments. Sorry they went into moderation but whenever there’s more than two links, comments automatically go into moderation (this is to prevent spam). I am following your blog now, by the way.

            Liked by 1 person

          • WOW! You’ve just nailed it. This summery states just why I am so cynical today. I remember when the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee was trying to warn people about COINTELPRO. Bravo to you for calling the 2000 election exactly what it was. A coop by the Supreme Court with nothing but weak resistance. Today, on the Left, we do have The Resistance which looks more serious than the water-weak response to the coop of 2000. But I notice a lot of Leftists have expressed so much distain for the Democrats, they are talking like Republicans and uttering such mean-spirited absurdities as “crooked Hillary.”
            I agree that the mood of this country is eerily reminiscent to the mood in the Weimar Republic and early Third Reich.

            Liked by 2 people

        • I forgot to respond to the last part of your comment. I don’t think we ever came across each other in the old generations forums. I used to lurk on threads, but I don’t recall ever posting.

          I had read Strauss and Howe’s early work maybe back around when it was first published. My interest was re-ignited around the late Bush era. That was when I was lurking about. It was also a little after that when I came across Steven Bannon’s documentary about generations theory. Long before most had heard of him and long before anyone suspected Trump’s campaign, Bannon was already articulating the rhetoric that would win the presidency.

          And about your last comment, I don’t how pessimistic I really am. I’m not naturally pessimistic, as I was raised in a positive-thinking church. I’m only cynical in the way that, if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a failed idealist. But I must admit I’ve never given up easily on idealism, no mater how jaded I get. Times like these threaten us with nightmares that might come, but one can also sense the revolutionary promise on the air. Either way, the world will never be the same again.

          Take that as you will. I do feel sorry for the young generations. They are forced into a situation where they will have to attempt to accomplish what recent generations before them failed to even try. Not that I doubt they will be innovative in taking on these problems. Then again, even the fascists were innovative back in the day with their own visions of progress and betterment. Before the gas chambers and attack on neighboring countries, Hitler and the Nazis helped rebuild the German economy and infrastructure, and for a while life was wonderful for most Germans.

          It’s a devil’s bargain and many might be willing to do it all over again. The motivation for drastic measures is greater now than it was then. But it is under such circumstances that revolutions happen as well. Occasionally, humans collectively do the right thing and when that happens it can be amazing the changes that are wrought.


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