We interrupt blogging about something that matters to take a gander at this neat poll from the Economist about what decade you’d most like to go back to, broken out in the graph above by age cohort and political affiliation.
Matt Yglesias, age 32, is dismayed that more old-timers don’t long for the decade of his youth, instead preferring their own:
The Onion memorably commemorated the turn of the millenium with the slogan “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is over”. In terms of growth rates, the 1990s were much better than the 1980s or the 2000s and saw the only sustained wage growth we’ve seen in decades. Compared to the 1950s or 1960s the rates aren’t nearly as impressive, but the level of prosperity achieved in 1999 is far above 1959 levels. In the 1990s, the worst that would happen to a cash-strapped low-wage worker is they’d have to take on extra shifts to make more money. No years-long spells of joblessness and despair. It was the best of times and it was also the best of times. Political debate was dominated by a dumb sex scandal rather than finger pointing over disastrous wars, financial crises, and mass unemployment. Admittedly, a lot of men were wearing unattractive ill-fitting suits but beyond that it was a great time for everyone.
Right – because the point of the question obvious was, which decade had the absolute highest standard of living. That’s certainly what drives my nostalgic yearnings. According to this way of thinking, the least-popular decade should always be the one furthest in the past, with rare exceptions like the 1930s. After all, things are getting better, on average, all the time.
In reality, as you’d expect every age cohort’s first preference is to return to their own youth. The 65+ set wants to return to the 1950s, with second preference for the 1960s; the 45-64 cohort to the 1980s, with second preference a close call between the 1970s and the 1950s (the latter probably “remembered” through rampant ’80s-era nostalgia). It’s one part longing for the familiar and one part longing for the sense of possibility and the feeling of vigor that had to do not so much with the era but with their own age at the time.
The two most interesting facts, to me, are the rising prestige of the 1920s over the course of generations, and the sharp political and generational divisions over memories of the 1990s. The generation that is most positive about the 1920s is the 18-29 set. That’s their favorite decade – tied with the 1990s. I don’t recall a lot of ’20s nostalgia in the ’90s; did I miss it? The ’20s were a fantastic decade artistically – great music, poetry, architecture – and also a decade of great artistic ferment. But how many people who answer a this kind of poll know their cultural history that well? Is it possible that the ’20s have assimilated to themselves much of the cultural product of the pre-World War II America?
That might explain why those who have a better grasp of the actual historical divisions are less-enthusiastic about the period. The next most positive cohort is the 30-44 set, a group that would prefer to live in any era that contained a television (they have broadly positive views of the ’50s through ’90s, without too much variation decade to decade), but if they had to live before mid-century would distinctly prefer the ’20s to any other decade. And by the time you get to the 65+ set – a group which still contains very few individuals who were actually alive in the ’20s – the decade is distinctly disfavored, ranking below every other except the ’10s (WWI), the ’30s (the Great Depression) and the ’90s (umm . . .).
Which brings us to that ’90s division. Republicans and Democrats largely agree about the decades before the 1980s. Democrats actually like the Republican-dominated 1920s better than Republicans do, and Republicans slightly prefer the Kennedy-Johnson ’60s over Democratic views of that decade, but from the 1900s through the 1970s, memories move roughly in tandem. Then, in the 1980s, there’s a split, as Republicans prefer the ’80s somewhat over the ’70s, while Democrats feel the opposite. And then, with the ’90s, there’s a huge disparity, with Democrats preferring them slightly over the ’80s, and roughly in-line with the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, while Republicans loathe the ’90s only slightly less than they do the ’30s or the ’10s.
This political gap is mirrored in a generation gap. For the 65+ set, everything’s been downhill since the Eisenhower years – the ’60s were worse than the ’50s, the ’70s worse than the ’60s, the ’80s slightly worse than the ’70s, and the ’90s worse than the ’80s. That may not be the way Matt Yglesias sees the world, but it’s a coherent account of reality: along a number of axes, there’s been a lot of social change since the 1950s, and if you don’t like those axes of change then you would logically perceive the world as just getting worse and worse, notwithstanding a rising stock market and the invention of the iPhone.
But for the 45-64 age cohort, American history looks very different. There was a dip from the ’50s to the ’60s, but then the ’70s were better than the ’60s, the ’80s were better than the ’70s – indeed, better than things had ever been. And then America fell off a cliff, with the ’90s ranked only just above – again – the ’30s and the ’10s. The views of the 18-29 cohort are a perfect mirror image of this picture. Contradicting their parents point for point, they prefer the ’60s to the ’50s, rank the ’70s and ’80s nearly as low as the Depression-era ’30s, and then, in the ’90s, it’s morning in America – their favorite decade, tied with the ’20s.
Since the 45-64 cohort is much more Republican, and the 18-29 cohort much more Democratic, than the country as a whole, to a considerable extent the political divide and the generational divide are measuring the same gap. Once upon a time, “the ’60s” played that function – a decade that Republicans blamed for everything bad and Democrats saw as a brief shining moment of Camelot, and a decade that gave birth to the term “generation gap” in politics. Now, as tragedy repeats itself as farce, it appears the ’60s gap has been replaced by a violent disagreement about the, in retrospect, thoroughly boring ’90s.