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Loser Teens

In keeping with the adage that history does not repeat but rhymes, the decade from 2010 to 2020 ushered in a new age of disorder and distrust, just as the 1810s and 1910s did. Each era shows how unmet promises and unrealized hopes inevitably lead to disillusion and cynicism.

PRINCETON – We are at the end of a decade that has no name. The 2010s cannot really talk about itself, and this confusion is only partly born of semantics. While the term “noughties” was applied to the first decade of the twenty-first century, few would be comfortable calling this past decade the “teenies.” A century ago, there was no need to worry about such categorization: the 1910s were simply the era of the Great War.

But our semantic uncertainty also reflects a deeper problem about analysis and truth. As human civilization seeks meaning in its decimally ordered notion of time, language offers labels to capture each generation’s mood. In retrospect, the “twenties,” “thirties,” “forties,” “fifties,” “sixties,” “seventies,” “eighties,” and “nineties” all evoke powerful associations. The “sixties” immediately calls to mind optimism, youth revolt, the promise of an incipient globalization, and the idea of “one world.” One lesson, then, is that for a decade to have a distinct spirit, it must coincide with a reality that can be clearly and truthfully described.

Oddly, the 1960s strongly paralleled the 1860s. From Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, each decade gave rise to transformational music. And the transoceanic steamship would prove to be as revolutionary as the passenger jet a century later. In the case of the United States, each period had a bloody conflict – the Civil War and Vietnam – that would redefine the national ideal. Even the mundane history of monetary politics contains striking parallels. Under Emperor Napoleon III and again under President Charles de Gaulle, France was pushing for the creation of a European currency to reorder monetary relations globally.

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