Roaring Twenties Revisited
Party Like It's 2024
Photo by Becky Fantham on Unsplash
Nicholas Christakis is predicting that there will be a return to the ‘Roaring Twenties’, but not until 2024.
The original good times rolled after the First World War and a very nasty flu outbreak in 1918/19. During that pandemic, over 50 million died worldwide, 228,000 in the UK. After all this turmoil and death, people wanted to cut loose and forget.
The decadent times that followed are famously depicted by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby (2013, Leonardo DiCaprio, is the latest film). It was a decade of prosperity and overindulgence, jazz bands, bathtub gin, bootleggers and flappers in the US.
Christakis, a Yale Professor forecasts change in his latest book, ‘Apollo’s Arrow, The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live’. He grew up with Greek myths and all powerful gods like Apollo, armed with arrows of plague to punish mere mortals.
What happens in an epidemic?
During epidemics, he points out that we tend to become more risk averse. We start to save money and are more likely to become more introspective and look for life’s meaning. More of us find god. We drink less!
“This way we’re living right now seems so alien and unnatural, but what’s important to understand is that plagues are not new to our species, they’re just new to us,” comments Christakis.
Once it’s over, the amount of social interaction dramatically increases. People want to enjoy life again - parties, musical and sporting events are everywhere. We’re looking for opportunities to spend money. But it won’t properly happen until the vaccine has been distributed worldwide which is at least 12 months away. There is also the on-going socioeconomic devastation created by Covid, the recession which has been all but forgotten because of government intervention with unprecedented financial stimulus. He estimates it will take two years before the recovery finally begins to take hold.
Christakis is not alone in his post-pandemic view. Technological optimism is high. One significant difference between this pandemic and anything previously has been the ability for humankind to successfully invent vaccines to contain this threat in under a year. It was not uncommon for vaccine development to take 10 years previously because the process and decision making is complex. With most face to face meetings no longer possible, everyone has had to use video conferencing tech. It’s proved to be incredibly efficient and successful. In the old world order, decision making took longer. Even a 30 minute meeting in the same part of town took at least an hour. What if 5 people from different parts of the globe needed to meet to discuss vaccine development?
Adversity has been good because it has forced societies to advance. Humans don’t like change until there’s a crisis, at which point we switch into survival mode and become far more risk tolerant. It’s why vaccine invention and production has accelerated so fast. Why the legal profession suddenly finds it perfectly reasonable for us to sign documents online and grandparents get comfortable with FaceTime.
Science continues to empower medicine, from gene editing, treating disease or growing meat in a lab. Artificial intelligence is beginning to deliver results. Alphabet’s (Google) DeepMind has solved a 50-year old biology conundrum being able to predict the shape of proteins to within the width of one atom. The benefits in designing drugs and understanding disease will be significant as a result. Since October, a lot of processing power has been used in Phoenix, Arizona to ferry people around in driverless taxis. Significant falls in the cost of green energy mean there is growing government confidence that their investment in renewables is going to pay off.
Tech investment is booming
In a nutshell governments are keener than ever to give cash to scientists. The British government is following Dominic Cummings’ advice with an £800m, ‘high-risk, high reward’ science project to mirror a similar set-up in the US. It’s part of the grand scheme to boost Britain’s competitive edge.
For unbridled tech optimism, look no further than the stock market and the Nasdaq in particular. The top 10 stocks in this market index include Apple, Amazon and Tesla. At times in the last few months, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has been the world’s richest man. It’s either his scintillating personality or the lead his company is thought to have taken in battery technology?
What Ho, Jeeves!
For the ‘Bright Young Things’ from the wealthier classes in the UK, life in the 1920s couldn’t have been better. They’d all missed the ‘Great War’, being too young to fight. Perhaps they had a sense of guilt or felt the need to live life to the full after so many young had died on the battlefields. P.G. Wodehouse politely poked fun at their antics as well as revealing much of the detail of those halcyon days.
Is history really repeating itself?
There’s something rather neat about history repeating, it makes for a good story. Like fitting the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle - it all clicks together nicely - now it’s time for tea. Two different pandemics, much adversity, far too many deaths and the ingenuity and resilience of human nature bouncing back to life. It’s just the same isn’t it? Let’s take a quick look at a different history to the one portrayed by Wodehouse.
If you were a member of the working class in the 1920’s, life could have been a lot better. In cities like Liverpool and Manchester, people were living in poverty. Big families made do in crowded 2 up 2 down terraces. Disease was rife with Tuberculosis and Polio claiming the lives of too many young children. In the summertime, homes had to be regularly de-loused.
The re-introduction of the gold standard in 1925 kept interest rates high and made UK exports expensive. Unemployment rose to over 2 million, 70% of the working population in places, which led to the ‘Great Strike’ of 1926.
The Wall Street crash in 1929 rounded off the decade. It signalled the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the rise of fascism in Germany.
It’s only a myth
All the history is true. The myth is that with the alignment of the planets, we’re about to relive the 1920s in a new golden era.
Christakis’ predictions are also likely to come true. There should be a wonderful, exuberant, explosion of life and fun and friendship and love. After all, we deserve it. When will the good times roll? Who knows? That’s in the hands of the gods and which side of the tracks you’re from.