WHEN a public-relations firm in New York, Trimedia/Nycom Inc., held its annual holiday party last month, guests were invited to enter an unusual contest: Coin a phrase to describe the 1990s. From more than 100 entries, executives selected "the Payback Decade" as the winner. "The Reality Decade" placed second, and "Decade of Despair" came in third.
"Name That Decade" has become a favorite American pastime, as if any 10-year span that remains unlabeled doesn't quite exist. So far the fledgling '90s have escaped any established designation, with trend-watchers agreeing only that the '90s are definitely not the '80s redux.
Now Maria De Paul's winning phrase could change that. Even if "the Payback Decade" doesn't prove to be the definitive description, it aptly sums up, at least for now, the prevailing mood among many Americans. The Age of Greed has produced an Age of Need - a gigantic IOU from the '80s that is coming due in the '90s in a variety of ways.
Part of the debt is economic, beginning with the S&L bailout. And whatever Ross Perot did or did not accomplish in his presidential campaign, he made everyone aware that the federal budget deficit must become a priority, starting now.
Not all the red ink in the '90s involves money. What is environmentalism but a sense of paying back to the earth what has been plundered from it, from the rain forest to the ozone layer?
Political priorities, too, are focusing with new urgency on society's debts to its own. This becomes evident in such diverse areas as the current emphasis on health care and on what is owed battered women and abused children. Perhaps the greatest repayment of all, in fact, must go to children, who have been shortchanged in everything from education to moral leadership to time with their parents.
For their part, increasing numbers of parents now feel they must pay back schools by becoming more actively involved. At the same time, parents know that more time with children will depend on the willingness of business leaders to acknowledge workers' family responsibilities by offering parental leave and flexible schedules - a payback of sorts for employees' loyalty and for all the times workers put jobs ahead of families. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which President-elect Clinton has promised to sign, could serve as an encouraging example.
As further evidence that the '90s might well be the Payback Decade, black academics, among them Henry Louis Gates and Glenn Loury, gathered last month at Harvard University to wrestle with ideas about what successful blacks can do to pay back those left in the inner city. Although they failed to reach a consensus about what must be done, the forum, entitled "The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack," raised important questions that go beyond a particular group or locale. As Cornel West, a professor of religion at Princeton University, told the audience, "We are morally obligated, with our privilege and access, to help the suffering of black people."
Even privilege and access cannot insulate the haves from certain problems facing the have-nots. As crimes such as carjacking and drive-by shootings continue to spread from urban neighborhoods to the once-safe suburbs, restoring safety and peace of mind - perhaps the ultimate payback - becomes everyone's challenge in the '90s.
Less is not always more, as any unemployed worker can attest. But to nominate the '90s the Decade of Despair, as the third-place winner in the New York contest did, is to miss the sense of energy and purpose behind the new impulse to pay back.
Labeling decades can be a trivia game. It would be simplistic to say that the '80s Age of Me has been succeeded by the '90s Age of We, to the triumphant blast of trumpets on the sound track.
But the rhetoric at least is changing, from competition to cooperation, from greed to a sense of conscience. The ethic of sharing is as old an American tradition as the individualistic drive to acquire. Often, the two alternate in cycles. Yet if the '90s mark a genuine turning toward a more humane America, who knows? The cycle might carry on into the 21st century and become something more permanent.