Every decade eventually succumbs to a tidy political and cultural shorthand. Quick, picture the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s. The societal struggles of the time spring to mind, straightforward and clear. Like it or not, so do the fashions and hairstyles.
In the waning days of 2019, amid abundant reflections on the decade in news, arts and sports, the 2010s still look fuzzy. We remember too much that competes for attention. Forgetting hasn’t yet sharpened our view. It’s not yet time to consign Donald Trump, climate change, immigration or gun violence to the ’10s — they might yet crest in the ’20s.
While the dividing lines of a decade blur during the living of it, change over a mere 10 years can be profound. In 2009, the smartphone had not yet changed everything. Barack Obama was president, Oprah Winfrey hosted a talk show in Chicago and the Cubs were a century into a World Series drought with no end in sight. Richard M. Daley was mayor of Chicago, and Rod Blagojevich was a free man. People hailed cabs on the street. Next-day delivery was for urgent business.
The decade to come will likely complete its own cycle of dramatic change in the ways we work, shop and drive. For openers, the year ahead will bring a presidential election, a U.S. census, a Summer Olympics.
Completing a year ending in 9, people are poised for the reset of a stopwatch back at zero, undeterred by the hands raised in the back of the room by the U.S. Naval Observatory and other calendar sticklers. Because there is no year zero between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D., they inconveniently point out, the first year of a new decade ends in 1. Thus 2021 will begin the new decade, just as 2001 began the new millennium.
Whichever side you take on that — we plan to start counting the ’20s on Jan. 1, 2020 — it’s events, not math, that define decades. The aughts feel like they began on 9/11. Many issues the nation confronted in the ’10s grew from the financial crisis of 2008.
Taking these moments to reflect on blockbuster headlines or hipster beards or skinny jeans not only imprints what was important, but also the opposite: It reminds us that not everything that shouts loudly for a moment holds lasting sway. Society reviews, incorporates, learns and leaves behind even events that seem shattering at the time, to make room for the new. Later, sometimes much later, it looks back and wrestles again with what it all signified.
If news is the first draft of history, the turning of a decade is something in between. What this decade wrought will be most clear when it’s time for “The 2010s are back!” retro nights, complete with blocky rectangular eyeglasses, perfect for the necessary hindsight.