The Roaring Twenties, Revisited

It was the golden age of America, a time when wealth grew rapidly and the rich became richer. It created the largest wave of prosperity the world had ever seen, a flowing current of money, innovation, and change. And whether good or bad, right or wrong, the Roaring Twenties are still heralded as one of the most influential decades in our nation’s history.

Soon it will be 2020 — the beginning, perhaps, of our own definitive decade. As we move into this new time, it may be beneficial to reminisce on the past. A brief snapshot of the 1920’s shows some interesting life lessons, bearing an uncanny resemblance in its parallels to modern America. It is through this retrospective lens that we can begin to see our own culture in a different light.

But first, a brief travel in time, moving all the way back to 1919.

The country had just endured both the Great War and influenza epidemic. It was wounded, scarred, but not yet broken. Brimming with hope and optimism, Americans began to gaze toward the future. Families began to move from the countryside to urban areas, causing an unprecedented urban expansion. For the first time in the nation’s history, more citizens lived in cities than in rural areas.

The growth in cities created a reliance on technology, creating an innovation boom. Electricity! Telephones! Radios! Washing Machines! Talking Pictures! Automobiles! Each day seemed to sprout another idea, another product, another thing to buy. And buy they did — Americans consumed more than ever before, relying on the assembly line to satisfy every need. Estimates show that the economy grew 42% (no, that’s not a typo) in the 1920s, while the stock market increased by a yearly average of 12%. Farming, on the other hand, fell to 12.4% of the economic production.

Citizens spent their money in a frenzy, stimulating an already-booming economy. The products they bought (like the washing machine) saved them time and effort, allowing chances to relax. This created a culture of luxury, something that many Americans had never experienced before. And with the luxury came the “Jazz Age,” the most famous part of the Roaring Twenties.

It was the first major shift in American culture. Flappers — young, independent women — had just gained the right to vote. They pushed for equality, moving into jobs that had earlier been reserved for men. The men, for their part, yearned to forget the woes of war and dance. Jazz was born in dance halls around the country, the tunes spreading on phonograph records and selling rapidly in each city.

Music wasn’t the only revolutionary change. Baseball, the new American pastime, was played by every young boy in the city sandlots. Radio shows drew audiences in, and silent pictures thrilled cinema-goers. Americans enjoyed socialization and parties, no longer worrying about working to sustain themselves. They drank alcohol at a high (and possibly alarming) rate, even after the installation of a prohibition against drinking. It was, in the bluntest of words, a fine time for everyone involved.

One hundred years later, we can picture the Roaring Twenties without any difficulty. The scenes of luxury and wealth were immortalized in film and by many authors, one being F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps the greatest writer of his time, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby offers a curtailed glimpse into the Roaring Twenties. It’s difficult to describe the impact The Great Gatsby has had on our imaginations; it may not be a stretch to say that it has distinctly altered our view of the decade.

And a century later, what is that view?

The resemblances between 1920 and the years leading to 2020 are strong. Like the Americans of the Roaring Twenties, we have created a strong economy partly through our spending habits. There are other factors in play, but it cannot be denied that we are a nation of consumption. We love watching games, playing games, analyzing games, and betting on games. In fact, a 2018 report from MarketWatch estimated the U.S. betting industry to be roughly $67 billion each year. The U.S. entertainment industry, for that matter, is expected to exceed $700 billion by 2020. We enjoy luxury, entertainment, parties, and socialization. And like the men and women of the Roaring Twenties, we are objectively better off than we have ever been before.

It seems like we’re too big to fail, too strong to fall, too large to crash. We’re riding that same wave of prosperity, the flowing tide of money, innovation, and change.

It is easy to see how the Roaring Twenties ended. Over-consumption, over-spending, over-production, a weakness in the market, an over-extension of resources — it created a domino effect that, coupled with a sudden stock market crash, led to the Great Depression. Few people saw it coming. And yet, perhaps it was more recognizable than we think.

A quick look back at F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, four years before the Great Depression. Gatsby’s book focuses on wealth and luxury, but a deeper tone examines the greed and downfall of the main character, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby wanted too much, and his greed leads to a tragic death.

Fitzgerald was no economist. But perhaps he saw something that others did not see, something that we still do not fully understand. When we want too much, when we lose perspective, when we deem ourselves too big to fail — that’s when the greatest downfall awaits.

In the last paragraph of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald captures this sentiment beautifully.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we run faster, stretch out our arms farther….and one fine morning — — ”

The eternal optimism of our country is a powerful tool. When stable, it guides us to prosperity. When mishandled, it hides the weaknesses within our nation. It is the same story that has been told generation after generation, the same reminder to check our own ambitions. But we often fail; we are swallowed under that wave of prosperity, dashed down to reality again.

Fitzgerald had it right. And like Gatsby, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.”

© Aaron Schnoor 2019

Occasional Writer, Full-Time Student at Campbell University, and Editor of Exploring Economics

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