Forecasters and analysts are predicting an era of high global economic growth, given the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, rapid shifts in artificial intelligence technology, more affordable renewable energy and continued remote working. The coming period, due to these positive projections, is already being referred to as the ‘new Roaring Twenties’, after the third decade of the 20th century.
The comparison is intended as inspirational. After 2020 was disrupted by the pandemic, the label is there to give people around the world hope that better times are just around the corner.
The 1920s conjure up nostalgia – due to the decade's Hollywood-crafted reputation, and the emergence of the motor car, the popularity of jazz and a stock market bubble, which generated huge amounts of paper wealth, which all helped spark a social, cultural and economic boom.
But as some might remember, that decade ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression of the '30s. From history we know enough to be wary and not let the good times go to waste.
My apologies though to headline writers everywhere but there is very little chance, however, of a repeat of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, neither in terms of the positive nor the negative sides of that decade.
As we enter 2021, we must not hold such a narrow view, to even attempt to use the example of the 1920s in today’s context. It is far too American-centric an experience to be summoned anyway. It does a disservice to the globalised and interconnected world we live in.
If we revisit the world of the 1920s, we find that they were not quite so fun years for the Germans of the Weimar Republic, with its hyperinflation and politically extreme landscape that spawned the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Nor were they particularly celebratory times for the populations of what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as they struggled under the yolk of the British Empire. Colonialism was a significant feature of the world map 100 years ago. The Arabs of the 1920s were grappling with a fledgling and imperfect independence, while still under the influence of foreign nations.
While things are still far from ideal in the Middle East, it is unlikely that invoking the ‘Roaring Twenties' will inspire people living in this region today. Our attitudes to fairness have evolved too. In 2021, there will be little tolerance to look past the vast inequalities of the 1920s. The experiences of even just the past decade have been raw, given the damage wrought by a widening wealth gap, accelerated by the increasing presence of technology in our homes and our workplaces. Diversity is also far more important than it was 10 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. We will only think of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and see racism everywhere.
That is not to say that I do not sympathise with the sentiment behind those forecasting a sharp upward trajectory for the world – 2020 has been incredibly challenging thanks to the coronavirus and it is natural to want to look ahead with optimism. We should, however, resist overly-simplistic attempts to generate that much-needed excitement.
If the global public health crisis this year has taught us anything, it is that very few nations or cultures can realistically consider themselves apart, or disconnected from the rest of the world. The universal experience of 2020 – a grim one, no doubt – proves that the links between countries are both our strength and our weakness. The latter was illustrated by how quickly the virus spread and the former by how we are increasingly working together to find a resolution.
Vaccine development, distribution and logistics, for example, are proving to be co-operative endeavours, as a matter of necessity. That is refreshing and potentially the start of rebuilding much-eroded common ground. It is a fragile time for this early rapprochement after so much divisiveness and confrontation in recent years.
That is why the language and messaging we use is critical, as we look ahead to what could be a far happier period for the world after the disaster of Covid-19. We should be ever mindful of what may divide and what can unite. Whatever the label future generations end up using to describe the next decade, it will be a reflection of how we behave now and not how people behaved a century ago.
Let us then draw a line under the discussion of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. It may deprive us of a catchy headline or two but ultimately it will focus our perspectives for the better times hopefully to come.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National