With the arrival of 2020, a new decade begins, making the 1920s or “Roaring Twenties” — that wild, racy age of extravagant parties and jazz — seem distant than ever. When thinking of this era, flappers and the novel The Great Gatsby are some iconic things that may instantly come to mind; evoking an air of decadence or even madness to some degree. Though the times have rapidly changed since then, the Roaring Twenties offers valuable insight into future lifestyles and even parallels today in certain aspects.
A time of great prosperity in America, the Roaring Twenties culminated thanks to an economic boom, as improved technology allowed the creation of cheaper, mass-produced products and increased employment. America already stood as an industrial hotspot for its innovative technology, blessed with natural resources such as timber, iron, coal, minerals, oil, and land. Following WW1 and the advent of cheaper, varied goods, a consumer boom ensued. With increased wealth, people sought better lifestyles — hence the many images and illustrations of people in luxurious settings, often paired with brand products. This is especially captured in the stylish paintings by J. C. Leyendecker, one of the most prominent illustrators in the age and defined an era of fashion in the early 20th Century. His paintings portray elegant, young men and women in opulent attire and are set in equally fancy backgrounds. Freed from wartime duties and economic hardships, Americans were able to spend more frivolously.
Especially after WWI, people looked forward to brighter, relaxed times and thus welcomed these changes. A cultural flowering took place, involving dramatic shifts in the arts, fashion, and norms. In music, for instance, jazz established itself as the sound of the era; thanks to the phonograph and radio, it became widely accessible and gave way to famous artists. Its mixture of unique sounds and rhythms captivated young audiences and reflected the fast-paced movement of the 1920s, thereby giving the period its other name: the Jazz Age. Old, conservative values were shed as youths liberated themselves by embracing radically different, often racy clothing as well as adopting more carefree attitudes. Young women known as Flappers embodied this new type of woman, characterized by their distinctive looks and lifestyles; sporting short-length dresses and hair bobs, they pushed barriers in economic, political and sexual freedom. Alcohol too became heavily associated with the culture as speakeasies, in tandem with the popularity of jazz and clubs, illegally offered alcohol. In short, the Roaring Twenties was a tumultuous, decadent time fraught with energy and rapid changes.
But this time of wonder fell to stagnancy as the Great Depression rolled in, incited by the stock market crash driven to over-confident excess by people who saw an opportunity to get rich quick. With poor economic insight into the future, citizens heavily invested in the stock market and caused prices to skyrocket. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the symbolic figure of the time and author of novels such as The Great Gatsby, summarizes the glamorous and simultaneously foolish nature of the period with this quote: “It was an age of art, it was an age of excess.” After overcoming a war and reveling in much frivolity, the people once again found themselves in misery.
It can be said that our current times are not too different, given the global economic stagnancy. Even the IMF has become steadily more pessimistic about the health of the global economy since 2017. This may be not so surprising, considering both the amount and severity of international relations around the world, particularly the nagging trade war between the US and China. On top of seemingly never-ending economic woes, sociopolitical and environmental problems continue to pile up: accelerating climate change, anti-government protests, rise of the alt-right…it is not difficult to feel as if the world is plagued with tensions all over. The young generation, or millennials, reflect these hard times. Numerous millennials face financial difficulties, usually from high education costs. With lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth, they are often seen as broke; millennials themselves daily make jokes (or memes) of their deplorable economic conditions. Up to this point, they seem contrasting to the youth of the 1920s. In reality, though, the Roaring Twenties did not equally benefit everyone. In spite of the popular impression that ordinary Americans lived in extravagance, more than 60 percent of Americans lived just below the poverty line — the joy was savored by a mostly white, upper-class demographic. Just as the Roaring Twenties crashed to sordid times, the contemporary global market witnessed recessions such as the Asian Financial Crisis (1997), which caused countries like Korea, where residents had the incomes to enjoy comfortable, “Western” lifestyles, to struggle for survival.
Across the globe, many struggling, anxious youths hope for better times or simply peace; much needed today with widespread tensions and conflicts involving various social groups. But still, there have been positives in the past decade that mirror the advances of the Roaring Twenties. There was the viral #MeToo movement, where women in various countries protested against sexual harassment in solidarity – raising their voices and pushing for reforms. In a similar note with the aforesaid flappers, women are defying gender norms. Along with women, LGBTQ rights are gaining traction in spite of setbacks as a growing number of governments around the world are considering whether to grant legal recognition to same-sex marriages. However, in contrast to their older counterparts, the youths today show signs of deeper consideration for societal problems and importantly, less frivolity. Studies show millennials tend to value experiences over money, indicating a clear divide from older generations. Incredibly, 74% of Americans prioritize experiences over products.
Unlike the hedonistic, consuming youth of the old 20s, the youth of the new 20s appear to be engaging in joys that are not limited to material things. Hopefully, the new 20s would usher in a kind of prosperity that is not necessarily related to money, but overall happiness and peace — or perhaps, a new kind of “swing.”