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Marking the Years

What defines a period in time?…

In the preface to Christopher Isherwood’s ‘The Sixties’ the late Christopher Hitchens writes:

“Why and when did we cease as a culture to divide time into reigns or epochs (”Colonial”, “Georgian” and so forth) and begin to do so by decades? Very few decades really possess an identity, let alone an identity that “fits” the precise ten- year interlude”

This made me consider the decades that I have known and the point Hitchens was making. We often talk about specific decades and “how different it was back then” and indeed I have done the same but I wonder exactly how it is that we view one decade from another?

I was a teenager in the early eighties, enjoying my formative years from ‘84 onwards. How then is it truly possible to make a comparison now that I am in my forties? I felt for a long time that there was a change, culturally from the eighties into the nineties but was that nothing more than me maturing and viewing matters in a different light?

If you can truly separate the decades though would the sixties be the most stand out decade since the Second World War? Did that ‘define us’ more than any other? Hitchens cites the thirties and the sixties as the true stand out decades of the last century and that would be difficult to argue against.

Will we I wonder, ever view recent decades in a similar light? Do you have any faith in future ones being as exceptional in as many ways as those which Hitchens highlights? Does age make a significant difference to one’s outlook? I think it does. I thought the seventies was a brilliant decade but then I wasn’t my parents wondering if the power would stay on at night or the car start in the morning or their bin get emptied.
One final point and question, did any of you really notice the transition from 2010? Will the ‘noughties’ only be truly remembered for religious extremism and violence? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you (if indeed you do) mark/separate the decades in which you have lived.

Thank you.


  1. Rod says:

    I think defining a period is based on time. We use decades to define times within our life span and then further back we lump it all together as Victorian or Medieval etc.

    The greater the time span the less need to be precise. We can tell a subtle difference between the 80s and 90s but the Georgian change to Victorian need not be so precise, nor was it because did Victorians all agree on a set date to stop wearing Georgian clothing or building Georgian houses?

    Perhaps history will subsequently report that we’ve lived most of our lives in the second Elizabethan period.

    As to defining times in the last century I too would go for the 1930s (early and wartime) and the 1960s.
    Good idea for an article.

    June 21, 2014 @ 7:50 am

  2. v says:

    An interesting concept. We can only define the eras in retrospect. For example…

    I did 3 World war 1 workshops to 8 year olds last Monday ( yeh me and 90 kids ) , and I stood there at the start and told them that the First World War wasn’t called that at the time. It was called a “Balkan War ” at the start and the” Great War ” just afterwards. I gave them two minutes to chat about why. I was genuinely surprised when they came up with the idea that at that time they didn’t know it was going to be only the FIRST of all World Wars so couldn’t be called the First.

    Defining decades in the 20th C for me would be the 1911 - to 1920. and 1921 to 1930. There was a massive change in society and the class system.

    Women had had to do war work and so astonished were the government at how capable women were, that working class men got the vote in 1918 and women and working class men were able to vote on equal terms for the first time in 1928.

    Thankfully, the forelock tugging attitude to the upper class stopped they who had hitherto been seen as intelligent and almighty. And weren’t.

    Technology was advancing at a rapid pace; cars, phones, cinema, photography, printing.

    Cinema ; There was less violence and street gangs than previously because youngsters were going to cinemas.

    I think these two decades together give more substantial definition to whom we are today than any others in the twentieth century because of the massive and defining changes that occurred in society.

    June 21, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  3. miles says:

    Great comment thank you, very interesting point you make. I wonder if at the time of women getting the vote the majority realised the scale of the achievement or did it only really sink in later? The same I suppose for the advances in technology but saying that I do recall the first CD and first mobile I used and thought it a real game changer.

    June 21, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

  4. miles says:

    I would agree with that, it’s easy to put era’s into boxes as time goes on, less easy to be precise about it. Perhaps we expect too much from ten year periods, it’s worth remembering that most technological advances probably began in the previous decade.

    June 21, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

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