It's the decade of . . . what?

HERE it is, June 1985. The decade is half over -- with six months thrown in for good measure -- and nobody has come up with a good label for the '80s. It used to be that every decade got neatly classified and tagged before it was properly started. A really superior decade even had an extra name, just in case -- like the Lost Generation or Jazz Decade.

Of course, if you go back in history, when change moved more slowly, you label by the age. You have the Age of Faith -- that went on for centuries -- to be followed by the Age of Reason (a little briefer). Still, an age had to last for at least a century or it didn't count.

But then, in the 20th century, life really began humming, and it was stretching any label to pretend that a coherence in political ideology, social attitudes, and taste could last for even a decade. By midcentury, we were ready to call every decade the Decade of Change and get it over with. Until, that is, we arrived at the '70s.

After the Up-Against-the-Wall-Woodstock '60s -- another decade with names to spare -- expectation, or dread, ran high for the '70s. The last thing anybody dreamed would happen was . . . nothing. A character in an Ann Beattie novel seemed to sum up the vacuum of the '70s: ``Everybody's so pathetic. What is it? Is it just the end of the '60s?''

Well, history has its periods of transition -- some people even called the '70s the Decade of Transition. Something as volatile as the '60s had to be registered, absorbed. But just wait until the '80s!

So here it is, 1985-and-a-half, and we're still waiting, aren't we?

Some desperate people are calling the '80s the Decade of Transition -- again!

What a blow to our pride as a frenzied, futuristic folk, living in the Jet Age and the Space Age -- except that those labels were taken, along with the Nuclear Age, way before the '80s were born.

We could call the '80s the Age of Anxiety -- people do get anxious in the Jet-Space-Nuclear Age, especially when they can't think of a name for it. But the Age of Anxiety has already been claimed too -- that's what W. H. Auden called the '40s.

Once we might have assumed we would call the '80s the Decade of the Computer. But that was before Time magazine jinxed everything by calling the computer the ``Man of the Year,'' and the industry sort of fell apart.

It's demeaning to review the candidates that might crystallize the '80s so far. Does anybody really want to call it the Decade of the Yuppies? The Age of Trivial Pursuit may boast a certain aptness, but it's the kind of aptness that makes you want to cry.

The one passion of the '80s seems to be a longing to understand the passion of the '60s. We want to understand Vietnam -- what it felt like, what we felt like. We want to understand Beatlemania, and we won't let all those superannuated rock stars like Mick Jagger and the Beach Boys jiggle off to a decent retirement because -- who knows? -- they might be The Clue.

A lot of our retrospection is no more profound than ``Rambo'' or that new biography of Elvis -- this time featuring his mother. But even if we were more reflective, would we be satisfied to call this the Decade of Retread? What would we have thought of the '60s if those years had concentrated on a 20-year replay -- World War II and Benny Goodman?

A paradox lies at the heart of the '80s. Despite a certain firmness of posture -- suggesting the repeal of permissiveness in the family, in social welfare programs, in international relations -- the '80s keep getting vaguer and vaguer.

Labeling a decade is a media game -- a little silly, and often recklessly unjust to 10 years of history. But what does it say when the players, ready to pronounce almost any frivolous title, are stumped for the second decade in a row? Is our style, our imprint on events, so faint, so indecisive?

It's not as if the events aren't there. The '80s, as we keep telling ourselves, have been years of unprecedented challenge and unmatchable opportunity. It is our responses that seem too indifferent or confused to deserve a name.

After all, this could be the Decade of Peacemaking -- not as exciting perhaps as being the Jazz or Woodstock Decade, but wouldn't we settle for the lovely clich'e if only we saw a few more olive branches among the stockpiles!

Perhaps we can find some hope in our refusal to honor, even with a journalistic catch-phrase, a decade that hasn't for better or for worse, delivered on its identity -- a decade that just won't come across. In the meantime, we have four-and-a-half years left for the search. On with the No-Name Decade! A Wednesday and Friday column

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