Growing up, as the 80s turned into the 90s, and I dreamed of the future presented in “Towards 2000”, there was one critical question I had that no-one seemed capable of, or indeed interested in, answering: “What will we call the years from 2000 to 2009”?

In the 80s, we talked about being in the 80s. In the 90s, we talked about moving technology into the 90s. We talked about the 70s as being comically out of date. Older people expressed nostaliga for the 60s as a beautiful but naive period of change, replacing the period of stifling conformity that was the 50s. The 40s, 30s, and 20s were mentioned less frequently. Before that, there was only “the turn of the century”.

And one other outlier. In the Goon Show, a radio show made in the 50s, which my mother would borrow on cassette from the library and play in the car, the elderly couple Crun and Minnie would reminisce about “the naughty 90s”. And so in the 80s I wondered, do these same names get recycled every century? More importantly, what would we call the years from 2000 to 2009?

As someone born in the 70s, who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the actual answer turned out to be shocking. We didn’t call them anything. People proposed names, such as “the noughties”, but they didn’t stick.

It turns out, decade names aren’t describing a real phenomenon. Nothing especially transformative happened in 1980, or 1990. The universal linguistic adoption was just an accessible shorthand. As soon as it became less accessible, people stopped organising their thoughts that way. 2010 simply didn’t strike people as being a new decade. As a child of the 80s I find this amazing.

But people still instinctively want to organise their thoughts by temporal buckets. Without decade names, another linguistic phenomenon took its place: generation names. Specifically, people started talking about “millenials”. Bear in mind, they only started doing this well into the 2000s. I’m not making this up: no doubt you can find references far back into the 90s, but it wasn’t a common way to refer to cohorts.

Once people started organising their thoughts around the concept of a generation called “millenials”, everyone else had to be retconned in. And so suddenly I was told that I’m “Generation X”, and the people before me were “Boomers”.

“Generation X” wasn’t just made up. Indeed that name was quite a media sensation back in the 90s. The basic idea came from Douglas Copeland, but he was actually using it to describe what are now called Boomers. The media of the 90s silently repurposed the term as a label for “kids these days”.

You see, in the 90s, kids like myself were unique in the whole history of mankind. Unlike previous generations of teenagers, we weren’t really interested in working or studying hard. We didn’t see ourselves laying down the foundations of a long-term career. We felt that the pressures of education, work, family, and social conformity were not merely unfair, but hopelessly outmoded. Where teenagers from earlier eras took their cues from the elders in their lives, we instead looked inside our own emotional life for what was important. We wore our failings as badges of pride, rather than hiding behind shame. All of this was so unprecedented, it was literally indescribable. The English language didn’t even have a word for a generation so shiftless, unreliable, and unambitious. Hence, “Generation X”.

Yeah, that’s right. The idea of “Generation X” was utter bollocks. The exact same bullshit people have been saying about “kids these days” for literally millenia. And all of us who were actually in it, understood that perfectly. Anyone who thinks “Generation X” is anything other than a stupid ironic joke, is completely missing the point. That was never our identity. Our actual identity was 70s, 80s, 90s.

The problem, as with so many other problems, is Millenials. The best definition of “Millenial” is, someone who grew up without decade names. These people’s mental architecture doesn’t have the pre-fabricated buckets for older generations that I grew up with. They’ve heard “the 70s” and “the 80s”, but it doesn’t resonate the way it does for my generation. They needed to build a new mental architecture. So “generation X” was co-opted, stripped of all its rich irony, as an opaque bucket name. And now, this is the framework that dominates observation about our collective lived history. Boomers, GenXers, Millenials, GenY, Zoomers.

But wait. As I type this, it’s the 20s. I kinda expected us to switch back to decade names by now.

I realise now that this isn’t going to happen nearly so quickly. Decade names are mostly used retrospectively, and comparatively. You really want to say that during the X0s one thing was true, but during the Y0s something different was true. There’s nothing to compare the 20s to, and as such it loses its identity. For now, it’s still more resonant to compare Millenials to GenXers.

And so here is my model for the prevalence of decade names, regardless of century. They do not suddenly spring into existence starting with the 20s. Rather they will become a phenomenon during the 30s. Not immediately either. Usage will only gradually rise over decades, as people have more and more cause to compare previous decades by name. The peak will come during the 60s, when most commentators will have come of age during the periods being described. There will then be a plateau through the 90s, followed by a sudden crash at the turn of the century.

Graph with year modulo 100 on the horizontal axis.  The curve drops sharply at zero and hits a minimum around ten.  It then rises gradually to a plateau around 60, where it stays until the end at 100.

It is likely that I will get to watch most of this phenomenon in real time.

Meanwhile, I find it interesting that this phenomenon (meta-phenomenon?) receives fairly little comment. The meaninglessness of generation names is a meme, that people have been complaining about “kids these days” since forever. But no-one marks the passing of decade names. One peculiarity of culture is that most of it is done by people who never notice that they’re doing it. I think this is a good example.

3 thoughts on “Decades

  1. Tangentially related, I was amused at how long I heard and read “last century” referring to events in the 1800’s. At least 15 years on, but I think I still see the occasional one, as we’re 20% of the way though the 21st century

  2. Experiencing the same perplexity, back in August of 2023 I posited a question to my Facebook friends: “Today’s random question for you all:
    If I were to say to you in conversation TODAY, that something happened “at the turn of the century”, what period (year range) do you immediately think I’m referring to?
    For the moment, just answer with a range, without an explanation why.”
    I received about 20 answers, and of those, only 2 said “1990-2010ish”. The rest were still firmly in the “1890-1910ish” camp.

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