Depending on whose definition you use, in less than two weeks, we’ll either begin the last year of the decade or actually end it. Perhaps it’s indicative of the uncertainty of our times that we haven’t yet named it. We can listen to ’80s music and rehash ’90s politics but what numerical term should we attach to cultural events that occurred in the early years of this century?
Lost in all the talk, technobabble and apocalyptic hyperbole about the new millennium has been a poor, neglected, nameless decade. With all our bold efforts to build a bridge to the 21st century, we forgot to establish so much as a modest footpath to its first set of years.
Of all the frames of reference, it’s really the look and feel of the decade that defines the time. The year is too ephemeral, better suited for eclectic Top 10 lists; the century is too long, more the province of historians. Whether one has actually lived it or experienced it only through media, we tend to look back at a decade and assign it certain abstract and tangible attributes. The ’50s were defined by conformity. The ’60s rocked with rebellion. The ’70s showed us bad hairstyles and horrible clothes. The ’80s were all about materialism. The ’90s will always be known with a wink and a nod by their irony and the (mostly) pseudometaphysical meaninglessness of “Seinfeld.”
Although the decade is ending soon, we actually have some room to maneuver. Most decades don’t actually begin until a few years after their nominal start. They also tend to cascade on a few years after the actual finish. A song or film from 1972 is more likely to be thought of in our mind’s eye as part of the ’60s. The ’70s didn’t really start until the close of the Vietnam War. The ’80s strutted in with the Reagan Era in 1981 and ended when Bush the Elder shuffled out of office. The ’90s coincided with Bill Clinton’s rise to the White House in 1993. It was an era filled with promise that ultimately dissolved in a churning stream of cultural warfare and political spin. The current decade began not with the millennium but with 9/11 and – for better or worse – our response to that horrific event.
We’re not the first ones to have this problem. Citizens of the previous century referred to their first decade as the “Aughties” or the “Aughts.” But that sounds much too retro for our millennial times. The “Ohs” are too trivial and the “Double Ohs” too trivial by half. We could call this decade the “Zeros,” but times are unsettling enough without saddling them with such a nihilistic label. The “Naughties” is an embarrassingly awkward insult to everyone.
Since this is a new millennium, maybe we need to think in completely different terms. After the baby boomers dominated so much of American culture, social observers and demographers didn’t know what to expect from the next generation. It was the writer Douglas Coupland who borrowed a term from Madison Avenue by labeling them Generation X, as in the generic “Brand X” which, deserved or not, always seemed to compare unfavorably to whatever premier product they were selling.
It’s a happy coincidence that Gen-Z has come of age during the “Zeroes.” We could call this decade “the Zs,” which could stand for both the generation and the times. Of course, “the Zs” is a little bit of a tongue twister, sounding too much like “disease.” But if we show a little international cooperation (something we all certainly could use) and give it the Euro-English pronunciation of “the Zeds,” it flows quite nicely. Writing it as it’s pronounced will eliminate any confusion.
“The Zeds” avoids the triviality of some of the other possible terms while still possessing the potential of the unknown. It also carries a certain altlike cachet that the other terms lack. Naming the decade may leave a little less uncertainty to our times. To steal a phrase from one evangelical minister, “If you can name it, you can claim it and frame it.” Whichever term does finally win, it will likely only come after some type of cultural showdown. But maybe in retrospect that’s just what we’ll say “the Zeds” were all about.
Brian Fox is a freelancer writer living in Brookline, Mass.