“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” — Adam Smith
Decadal periodization of history is always a highly questionable exercise. When Americans say “the 60s”, they generally mean hippies, the Vietnam War, rapid economic growth, the moon landing, the sexual revolution, Black power, and so on. But much of that happened in the latter half of the decade; politically, economically, and culturally, the first half of the 60s looked a lot more like what we think of as “the 50s”. So the boundaries of events don’t line up neatly with 10-year intervals. On top of that, of course, there’s not really one unified national experience; plenty of young Americans in 1968 never tried drugs or free love, and supported the Vietnam War, and wore a suit to work at their corporate job like it was still the 50s, and we sort of wrote those people out of our national story (until they the 80s rolled around and they voted Reagan into office).
That said, I think it helps to tell these sorts of stories about our country, for a couple reasons. First, they help bind us together as a nation, by giving us a common mythology about our collective past that helps us coordinate our response to the challenges of the present. Second, they serve as simple mental models that allow us to quickly encapsulate key features of the real changes that have occurred in our economy and culture. (And third, they’re just plain fun!)
I’d like America to have a collective narrative about the decade of the 2000s. Not just because that’s the decade when I was a young adult, but because I think it forms an interesting sort of lacuna in our national story. I don’t have evidence to back this up, but it seems like we Americans have a very cohesive idea of “the 90s”, and we’re starting to get an idea of “the 2010s”, but the years between those are just kind of a jumble.
Part of the reason for that is that the decade is split down the middle along two very clear lines. The housing crash and Great Recession turned good times into bad times, and the election of Obama turned a Republican era into a Democratic one. It really makes sense to talk about 2000-2007 and 2008-2012 as two distinct eras, making up two halves of a “long 2010s”.
Another reason, probably, is that the 2000s was the age of the early internet, when culture had gone online but “online” hadn’t yet been consolidated by a few big social media platforms. The fragmentation of everyone finding their own corner of the Web might have hampered a sense of mass culture.
But looking back on the 2000s, I do see two important throughlines that unite the decade. I wonder if we can weave them into a single unified story that helps make the period make more sense in retrospect.
A decade of disasters
They say you’re supposed to think the golden age of civilization happened when you were in your 20s. Well, I was in my 20s in the 2000s, and it was not a golden age. The 90s, when I was a mopey escapist teenager, were the golden age; the 2000s, when I was going out four nights a week and exploring the world and finding myself, were a decade of unmitigated disasters for my country. One after another they came, and it seemed like the U.S. just couldn’t catch a break.
The first disaster was the disputed Bush v. Gore election, whose outcome was basically decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. I’m actually kind of ambivalent about what SCOTUS should have done (a position that pleases absolutely no one), but I think it’s undeniable that the experience of having a presidential election seemingly decided by a 1-vote court majority was scarring and embittering for people on both sides. It coincides with a jump in some measures of partisan polarization:
And worse, it left a strong residue of distrust in U.S. elections — Democrats freaked out over Diebold voting machines in 2004 and some even denied the legitimacy of the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018, but the apotheosis of election denialism came in the form of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Trump seemed to simply assume that a repeat of Bush v. Gore was possible, and that because conservative justices had a majority on the court, that he would win such a confrontation.
The next disaster, of course, was 9/11. I don’t have much more to say about that than has already been said.
The third big disaster was the Iraq War; this one was entirely self-inflicted, driven by the interventionist hubris that had grown among the U.S. foreign policy and defense establishment since the victory in the Cold War. It was a disaster along multiple dimensions. U.S. leaders stretched the bounds of credibility in making their case for the war (where are those WMDs, again?), which probably contributed to the collapse of trust in government during the Bush years. Our go-it-alone strategy, rejecting the opposition of key allies in favor of a “coalition of the willing”, caused international opinions of the U.S. to plummet and tarnishing the brand of democracy itself. The pointless war weakened U.S. power as well, causing us to focus on counterinsurgency for a decade instead of on advanced technology that could keep our military ahead of China’s.
But worst of all, the invasion itself flagrantly violated the norm of fixed international borders that the U.S. had promoted since the end of World War 2. As nasty as Saddam Hussein’s regime was, it had not attacked the U.S. Invading without provocation opened the door to a new world where powerful countries could do what they wanted to weaker ones without restraint. Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is worse than the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq in a multitude of ways, there is a direct throughline from the latter to the former.
The fourth disaster was Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated the incompetence of the U.S. government and probably decreased trust in institutions.
And of course the fifth great disaster was the housing crash, the financial crisis, and the Great Recession that followed. Middle-class and working-class wealth, which had largely kept pace with the wealth of the rich in percentage terms since WW2 thanks to housing price appreciation, suddenly crashed.
Unemployment and underemployment soared, and lingered for years. And beyond the devastation of the U.S. economy itself, the crash discredited the free-market model in the eyes of many countries around the world, further reducing U.S. soft power. Of course, this was also largely a self-inflicted disaster — financial deregulation, especially the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, allowed financiers to create and hold the toxic assets that eventually ran the banking system off a cliff.
Those were the five great disasters of the 2000s that everyone remembers. But there were also a couple of what I call “slow disasters” — underlying trends in the 2000s that had a transformative and negative effect on the U.S. economy.
The first of these was the productivity slowdown. In the 90s, after a long slump, U.S. productivity growth accelerated to something approximating its postwar glory. That boom, driven largely by IT-related industries and the computer and internet revolutions, continued into the early 2000s. But then around 2005, that boom petered out, and total factor productivity returned to the slower growth rates of the 70s:
Productivity growth is the ultimate economic font from which all good things flow. It transforms the world from a zero-sum game into a positive-sum game, increasing the benefit to cooperating rather than fighting. Without it, no matter how much redistribution you do, the incomes of the poor and middle class eventually stagnate.
Meanwhile, at the same time, the U.S. labor force was being hit hard by the China Shock — the sudden, overwhelming entry of China into the global economy after its accession to the WTO in 2001. This accelerated global growth and pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty, which is obviously good. But for much of the U.S. manufacturing workforce, Chinese competition was a localized disaster — millions lost their good jobs and never got ones that were as good. The Midwest and South were especially hard-hit. Overall, the China Shock partially deindustrialized the United States — manufacturing employment, which had held roughly constant in total terms for decades, fell off a cliff in the 2000s, while overall manufacturing output went into a long-term stagnation from which it has yet to emerge:
Put all of these events together — the 2000 election, 9/11, the China Shock, the Iraq War, the productivity slowdown, Hurricane Katrina, the housing crash, the financial crisis, and the Great Recession — and you have quite a decade of disasters. Not quite a Crisis of the Third Century, but enough to send America reeling into a long drunken stagger.
The unifying theme of all of these calamities was that the U.S. was reverting to the mean after the successes of the late 20th century. In our arrogance and our complacency we squandered what previous generations had fought so hard to achieve — moral leadership and soft power, an economy that worked for the majority of its participants, state capacity, political stability, and military power as well. This set the U.S. firmly on a path toward the unrest of the 2010s and the new Cold War of the 2020s.
A decade of tranquility
And yet despite all those disasters, the 2000s were something of a golden time for much of American society and culture. I decided to write this post when I was writing about the surge of teenage unhappiness in the 2010s; what really jumped out at me was how comparatively happy young people had been in the decade prior. For example, here’s a graph showing that the 2000s saw a big dip in teenage loneliness:
And here’s a figure of data from the General Social Survey showing a peak in overall happiness in the 2000s:
Teen suicide, too, fell dramatically in the late 90s and stayed at a low point throughout most of the 2000s (though it began to rise a bit after the Great Recession hit).
What made young Americans so happy, even as the country was being hit by shock after shock? I’m not sure, but I have a few hypotheses.
First, the 2000s were an almost uniquely peaceful time. Violence peaked in the early 90s and then went into rapid decline; by 2010, it had sunk to rates not seen since the 1950s. Only in 2015 did it start to rise again.
Domestic violence reached a low point as well. Of course there were wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, but unlike Vietnam, these were fought with small, professional militaries and casualties were low; most people were not directly touched by the violence.
Kids themselves were also engaging in healthier behavior. Teen drug use, including alcohol and cigarettes as well as hard drugs, sank to a low level during the 2000s. Teen pregnancy continued its multi-decade drop, even though teen sexuality hadn’t yet begun its 2010s decline, suggesting more responsible use of birth control.
The end of mass lead poisoning probably didn’t hurt, either.
And although the evidence for this is very patchy, I personally suspect that the pre-social media internet had something to do with this as well. The pre-social-media internet was a fragmented place; you could easily find people who shared your interests and outlook. Online wasn’t a replacement for offline life, it was an adjunct to it; if you wanted a break from the stress of in-person interaction, you could go hang out in virtual space with your online friends, or just look at silly pictures of cats. Then when you were ready you could go back to the physical world, and enjoy it for what it was. (You can still look at silly cat pictures now, of course, but the Discourse is always right there, just a click away, threatening to suck you in.)
Personally speaking, I could tell that the kids who came 7 or 10 years after me — the younger Millennials — were a healthier bunch. Their whole culture just seemed softer and gentler, based around webcomics and goofy memes and silly pop music instead of grunge and gangster rap and meth. When I was a grad student in the late 2000s, the undergrads seemed so chilled out and well-adjusted they were almost like a different species. I’ll always think of the webcomic A Softer World as being typical of that time period (even though the people who wrote it were a bit older); it seemed to capture the gentleness and calmness of the era.
And of course that positivity filtered into youth politics. Obama’s 2008 slogan “Hope and Change” wasn’t just hackneyed lip service; it really captured the optimism of the period. The two main political causes of the time were the anti-Iraq-war movement and gay rights — in other words, peace and love. In the 60s and 70s, the hippie era coincided with the era of leftist rage and rightist reaction; this time around, we got the former a decade before the latter. The Web was a sort of Woodstock, I suppose.
Perhaps all this tranquility was simply a delayed effect of the positive trends of the 90s. Maybe it was never meant to last, and the social strife of the 2010s was the inevitable reaction to the disasters of the previous decade. And perhaps, as I suspect, the shift from a fragmented internet to a phone-based social media landscape dominated by 3 or 4 big platforms took the gentle kids of the 2000s and forced them to suddenly share a space with people who hated everything they stood for.
In other words, I think of the 2000s as the Pause Decade. Young Americans got to pretend it was still the 90s, sitting in their rooms and enjoying the the fruits of the peaceful and still-prosperous world created by the nation’s successes in the late 20th century. But our leaders in politics and business paused when they shouldn’t have paused — complacent in their belief that the 90s were some kind of permanent structural condition, they failed to foresee emerging threats, and they often responded badly.
Fortunately, though, our nation survived the disasters of the 2000s with our political and economic system largely intact. And we learned our lessons, too, at least in some ways. In the 2020s, we stopped being a bully on the world stage and went back to helping other countries to resist bullying. We responded to a natural disaster and a major economic shock with a bold surge of government assistance and a highly competent push for vaccination. We are no longer allowing China to simply steal and subsidize its way to industrial dominance uncontested, and we no longer think finance can be an adequate substitute for high technology. And more Americans — yes, including many Republicans — are standing up for the integrity of the electoral system, instead of sowing partisan distrust about election outcomes.
The 2000s were a pause, but they weren’t wasted. We learned. We adapted. We will make the world safe for peace and love again.
OK, I have a theory about why we never settled on a common cultural definition of the 2000s. It might seem like a silly theory, but I think it actually makes sense.
It's about the name.
Humans like to name and categorize things. Even things that only vaguely belong in the same category (like the early 60s and the late 60s). It's crude, but it gives the world a sense of order to us.
But we never decided on a common name for the first decade of this century! We call it "the 2000s", "the 00s", "the Aughts", and a few other things. But there's no simple name that everyone can agree on. And without a common name, it's really hard to enforce the fiction that it all belongs under the same category.
So as a result, we never started thinking of the years from 2000 and 2009 as a common cultural unit like we did for 1960-1969 or 1980-1989.
Again, I know this seems dumb and superficial, but I think it really matters, because (as you point out) the very concept of a cohesive "decade" is a fiction in the first place. The only thing that gives it any commonality is the name.
“In other words, I think of the 2000s as the Pause Decade. Young Americans got to pretend it was still the 90s, sitting in their rooms and enjoying the the fruits of the peaceful and still-prosperous world created by the nation’s successes in the late 20th century.”