This has been bothering me for more than ten years now, and at this point I'm practically in crisis about it.
What in the world are we going to call the decade that just ended?
For ten years, radio stations have been playing "the music of the eighties, nineties, and today." But now, it's 2010, and "today" is "the teens." So what do we call yesterday?
I remember reading an article in the mid-nineties in which cultural anthropologists or linguists or whoever it is who's paid to think about this sort of thing were speculating that by the late nineties, we, as a culture, would arrive at a generally agreed-upon moniker for the decade to come. I waited patiently for the cultural clouds to gather, then watched as we all rallied around the term "Y2K," focusing our energy on a particular year and not the entire decade. Because if I asked you now what you were doing in Y2K, you would probably let me know what was going on in your life in 2000, but it wouldn't occur to you to mention 2004, right?
Since I have been obsessing about this for more than a decade, I've asked nearly everyone I know for their thoughts on the matter. Most people don't seem as concerned about it as I am. People shrug and say things like "I'm just going to call it 'the aughts," or "I'm just going to call it the ohs." But that isn't the point, is it? It doesn't really matter what YOU call it, or what I call it. What matters is what WE call it. And, the point is, WE don't really call it anything.
Sure, we call it lots of things. SiriusXM radio has a station called "Pop 2k." Jerry Seinfeld did a bit on Jay Leno where he referred to the decade as the "double-ohs." And, yes, we all know what those things mean when we hear them. But there is not an instant recognition, a connected knowing, a shared cultural resonance associated with those terms. And we are a culture that creates itself through shared cultural resonance.
I think of this example:
On September 11, 2001, my colleagues and I, like most of the rest of the country, felt like we should be doing something, though there was very little that we could do. For some reason, what we decided to do was run a roster of all of the students whose homes were in and around New York City or Washington, D.C., as we hypothesized that these might be the students most directly affected by the tragedy and most in need of support. Later that day, I was putting my printed roster in a file folder, assuming that there would be other pieces of paper that would eventually join it. I sat and stared at the folder, wondering how to label it. I knew that eventually this day would have a name - some culturally agreed-upon title that would instantly bring to mind the emotion and the import it had for everyone who had lived through it. I just didn't know what that name would be.
It only took a couple of weeks, I think, for the name to emerge: September 11th. 9/11. If I walked up to you on the street today and asked "Where were you on 9/11?," you wouldn't wonder if I meant 9/11/09 or 9/11/06. You would know instantly that I meant "Where were you on 9/11/01 when you heard that the planes hit the towers?"
And the thing is, it didn't have to be called 9/11. It might have been called Terror Tuesday or The Airplane Attacks. We all know that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, but we don't call that day "December 7th." We call it "Pearl Harbor."
Because "Pearl Harbor" has cultural resonance for us.
And that's why I'm in such a quandary about the past decade's lack of a cultural identity. I don't know about you, but it was an important decade in my life. It was a hard decade, a hard fought decade, a hard won decade. I need it to matter. I need it to have resonance.
I need it to have a name.