In November 2019 I wrote a post where I looked back at the “Roaring 20s” and wondered what the 2020s would be like.
Shortly after that, a novel virus began spreading in Wuhan, China, and the world hasn’t been the same since.
Over the past year I’ve seen several people saying that now they understand why the 1920s were filled with such exuberance and whimsy. People had to deal with World War I (1914-1918) and then with the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1920). By the time all that was over they were ready to party.
Many people are making similar plans for when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Only they’re not waiting for the pandemic to be over.
Season 2 of the Roaring 20s is starting now, for better or for worse.
The economy is booming
Yes, the stock market is at record levels, but it’s more than that. The real economy is booming too – so much so that inflation is now a concern. Here’s an article from The Wall Street Journal and another from the centrist think tank The Brookings Institution. (TL;DR – this should be a short-term thing, not a repeat of the 1970s. I agree.)
I’m seeing this in my paying job. Prices for copper, steel, and aluminum are way up, because demand is exceeding supply. Microprocessors are in very short supply, in part because of increased demand for electronics during the pandemic and in part due to Covid-related complication in supply chains. My employer’s backlog of customer orders is at record levels – we can’t build enough products fast enough to satisfy the market.
If you didn’t lose your job in the lockdown, you’re probably in better financial shape than you were a year ago. Here’s an article from CNN that begins “consumers around the world have amassed an extra $5.4 trillion in savings since the coronavirus pandemic began, setting the stage for a spending boom that could power a strong uplift in economic growth this year.”
The boom is not helping everyone. Those on the margins are always the first to be let go and the last to be rehired. Many jobs lost in the lockdown are never coming back. The travel and hospitality industries are recovering, but won’t be back to normal for months if not years. Live entertainment is still pretty much dead.
But many people do have money and they’re ready to spend it.
The first Roaring 20s were great boom time… followed, of course, by the worst bust in modern history. Things are different this time, but how different? We will see…
People are ready to party
I’m seeing lots of post-vaccination social media posts about plans for parties and such. Here’s another CNN article, this one on how Las Vegas is getting ready to be better than ever: “there’s not only pent-up demand for travel, there’s pent-up demand for the unrivaled Vegas experience … we anticipate visitation to Vegas growing stronger with each passing month.”
Travel is my one extravagance. I spent a small fraction of what I normally spend on travel last year – my “big vacation” was driving around Texas. Prices were cheap. Cathy and I are now fully vaccinated – we’ve booked one big fly-away trip (still domestic, though) and one long weekend trip for this summer. Hotel and airline prices are pretty much back to pre-Covid levels, while rental cars are astronomical, if you can find one.
In Texas, restaurants and bars were allowed to open to capacity beginning March 10. Looking at the parking lots, they seem to be doing well. I’m still socializing with the same “pod” we formed last year. Vaccinated or not I’m still leery of being in indoor spaces with people I don’t know. Clearly, many others aren’t.
Will we see the kind of fun fashion and lively music we saw in the 1920s? It’s too early to say, but I’m betting we will. People are ready for something more than Spotify and sweatpants.
What’s true in the U.S. isn’t true of the rest of the world
The commodities shortages are a world-wide thing, but the rest of the sources I’ve cited are all American. Some parts of the world are still in full lockdown, while others are only partially open.
Further, the pandemic is in different stages in different places. As I write this, California and Texas are doing fairly well. Michigan is not. The UK is doing well – Canada is not. New Zealand has all but eliminated Covid, but they were helped by their remote location, and by their willingness to quarantine the islands. India is having a horrible second wave.
Vaccine rollout is just beginning. Rich countries – especially the US – are putting themselves first. It will be a very long time – if ever – before vaccines are widely available in poorer countries. And in some places, Covid is just one more complication in a daily struggle to survive.
So you may not be seeing the beginning of the Roaring 20s where you are. It may be weeks, or months, or perhaps years away from starting.
But it’s coming.
Yes, it’s too early
The problem with getting the party started is that we’re still in a pandemic. Numbers are better in many places and those numbers justify some – perhaps many – reopenings. They do not justify abandoning all precautions.
And let’s face it – too many people have spent the last year denying that Covid is real, or arguing that it’s no big deal. Or arguing that there’s nothing we can do about it so we should just live our lives and whoever dies, dies.
Even among those of us who have taken it seriously, Covid fatigue is real. That’s no excuse to drop the ball just before we get to the goal line.
It doesn’t matter. The US is not going back into lockdown no matter how bad things get. As bad as things are in Michigan, the governor is only calling for “voluntary measures.” Of course she is – there was a plot to kidnap and murder her over previous restrictions, and armed terrorists invaded the state capitol. The terrorists won.
For better or for worse, the Roaring 20s are starting and they’re not going to stop until they’re done.
The Roaring 20s weren’t all party
The 1920s were a great time if you were young, white, and rich. If you weren’t, they weren’t so great.
The first 20s were the height of the KKK. Many of the Confederate statues we’re arguing about today were erected during this period, as a way of reminding Black folks who was in charge. Derek Chauvin was convicted for murdering George Floyd but it took 8 minutes and 46 seconds of video to do it, and many people in this country would have voted to acquit anyway. Numerous states are attempting to disenfranchise poor voters, a disproportionate number of whom are Black.
The 1920s brought Mussolini to power and gave Hitler his start. I trust no one thinks that just because Donald Trump is no longer in office the current fascist threat in the US is over. There are plenty more authoritarian nationalists doing their best to win his endorsement and the support of his base.
And nationalism and authoritarianism are not just a US problem. We’re seeing it around the world – most of them voted into power in free elections.
Covid concerns notwithstanding, the boom and party aspects of the Roaring 20s are a good thing. The racist and fascist aspects are not.
It appears that once again we’re getting both.
Another Black Tuesday is unlikely, but not impossible
The first Roaring 20s came to an end on October 29, 1929 – “Black Tuesday.” The stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.
The stock market crashed at the beginning of Covid. But it came back very quickly, because there was real wealth backing it that didn’t disappear, and because even a do-nothing Republican administration realized that something had to be done.
Was it enough? Mostly no. Did it favor the very wealthy and leave the poor to fend for themselves? Mostly yes. Did it prevent even greater harm across the board? Yes.
Regardless of what happens with Covid, another crash is unlikely. That said, market corrections will happen. The overpriced housing market is a dangerous situation. The voter suppression, anti-trans, and anti-reproductive rights bills in many state legislatures are extremely dangerous.
And I don’t even want to think about what will happen if the MAGA crowd finds its way back into power.
Nothing lasts forever. Not the bad times of the past few years, and not the good times (relatively speaking) that are starting now.
History rhymes – but poems can be rewritten
A quote often misattributed to Mark Twain says “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The 2020s are starting out rhyming very closely with the 1920s.
This time, though, we’ve seen the movie before. We know what was good about the Roaring 20s and we can copy that to our hearts’ content. We know what went wrong, so we know what to avoid. We know who was excluded last time – we can make sure everyone is included this time. We know who the bad guys were – we know who to actively oppose this time.
It just takes people willing to rewrite the rhymes in a better direction.
However loud they roar, the 2020s won’t last forever… and I’m not talking about the calendar. But we can enjoy our own Roaring 20s. And if we’re mindful, Season 2 will have a much softer ending than Season 1.
But I’m going to spend a little more time working on my costumes. I’m not ready to hit the jazz clubs just yet.