There’s a theory of human psychology that holds that the time you enter maturity becomes fixed in your mind as a civilizational peak — with everything since a falling-off that conveniently matches your own stagger toward the grave. Thus it doesn’t matter if you came of age in the Great Depression or some other nadir; because you were 18 then, it must have been a golden age.
Some of us are lucky, though: Our solipsism actually matches the wave function of history, and the moment we entered adulthood really was a peak. That’s the case for my cohort, for Americans born around 1980. Whether you choose to call us “Xennials” or “Generation Catalano” (after the heartthrob on “My So-Called Life,” our first teen show), the important thing is that we became legal adults at the end of the 1990s, and bliss it was in that time to be alive.
Not that we knew it then, of course, because no punk 18-year-old knows anything. But I’ve been thinking about how good we had it lately because we’re 20 years out from 1999, and the cultural press is thick with reminders that it was a pop-culture annus mirabilis — from the premiere of “The Sopranos” that defined a golden age of television, to the yearlong cascade of brilliant movies (The Ringer recently wrote up a Top 50 films list for ’99; in 2019 it was a struggle to write up a top 10) from a Hollywood not yet captive to the superhero era.
Widen the aperture a little, so that the “Xennial” cultural era covers 1995 to 2005, and you get everything from the perfection of the sitcom (late “Seinfeld,” season one of “Friends,” the silver age of “The Simpsons,” “Arrested Development”) to the peak of HBO (when “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood” and “Sex and the City” were all airing). Oh, and those were also the days when George R.R. Martin could publish three “Game of Thrones” novels in five years, inventing all the good parts of the TV show’s plot in an end-of-millennium rush.
De gustibus non est disputandum, and if you prefer a zillion algorithmically-generated Netflix shows and endless Marvel sequels to “The Matrix” and “The Sopranos,” then God bless you. But cold hard economic data also suggest that ours was a uniquely blessed coming-of-age: a time of low unemployment, surging productivity, strong working-class wage growth — and all without a huge overhang of public and private debt.
In March, a Time magazine writer, Charlotte Alter, attracted some conservative sneers on Twitter for explaining the youthful vogue for socialism by arguing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s generation had a coming-of-age “defined by financial crisis, debt & climate change … No wonder she and her peers are moving left.”
The sneerers argued that the Ocasio-Cortezans exaggerate the burdens borne by twentysomethings, which is fair — this is still a rich country whose young people are relatively privileged.
But as a statement about generational experiences, Alter was basically right. If you were born around 1980, you grew up in a space happily between — between eras of existential threat (Cold War/War on Terror, or Cold War/climate change), between foreign policy debacles (Vietnam/Iraq), between epidemics (crack and AIDS/opioids and suicide), and between two different periods of economic stagnation (the ’70s and early Aughts). If you were born later, you experienced slow growth followed by financial crisis followed by a recovery that’s only lately returned us to the median-income and unemployment stats of … 1999.
And even with under-4 percent unemployment, the differences between our economy and 1999’s are notable: Our current expansion features lower workforce participation rates and weaker productivity growth, a fertility collapse instead of the modest 1990s baby boom … plus it’s all floated by deficits that seem necessary but aren’t a sign of deep economic health.
But perhaps the best way to understand the lost world of 20 years ago is that it was the just-enough-internet era. There was just enough internet to boost economic productivity (the Facebook-Amazon era has not had a similar effect), just enough to encourage subcultural ferment, just enough to challenge cultural gatekeepers and give lonely teenagers succor. It was the early blogosphere instead of Twitter mobs, serendipity instead of ruthless curation, geek culture as an insurgency rather than a corporate establishment, online as an escape for eccentrics rather than an addictive dystopia for everyone.
Still, we should have seen the bad days coming. The filmmakers of 1999 did, as Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker noted when The Ringer’s Top-100 list came out. “Election,” “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Office Space,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” even (God help us) “The Phantom Menace” … it’s all there, everything that followed, class anxiety and workplace alienation, end-of-history discontents and internet-fueled hoaxes, disputed elections and virtual-reality prisons, plus a tottering republic waiting for its Palpatine.
We should have listened. Instead, we took that stupid red pill from “The Matrix,” and now we’ll never find our way back up.