It was fast cars, parties and dancing ‘til dawn, there were bright young things, flappers and jazz. The 1920s have an allure of life lived at full speed; of glamour, giddy joy and sexual liberation.
It was a time to celebrate being alive, because if you were still breathing in the Summer of 1920, you had just survived six years of one of the greatest human death tolls the world has ever seen. Not only had World War One killed 20 million, but the Spanish Flu that followed took anywhere between 50 to 100 million lives worldwide. If you hadn’t been burnt or buried yet, you were one of the lucky ones, you felt immortal and after years of restrictions and fear it was time to party.
The optimistic meme du jour is that we now sit on the cusp of another roaring twenties, following the deaths and restrictions of Covid. When this all ends we will party, enjoy life and appreciate freedom like never before and all this will kickstart the economy, hailing another golden age.
Unfortunately, some massive assumptions are being made. The first is that Covid will somehow just stop and not keep mutating, and secondly, that there are social, cultural and economic similarities to a century ago.
To begin with, the 1920s only really roared for the One Percenters. Both the partying and the cultural explosion of that decade was almost entirely within the domain of the wealthy and those sponsored by them; there are relatively few accounts of what it was like to be working class, though we can probably assume that it was what it’s always like: bloody awful. We know Western economies were devastated, but with German war reparations and then the US Dawes Plan the tax aftershock was buffered; so if the age didn’t exactly roar for the majority, it did begin to purr.
Today, unless China admits culpability, there will be no bail-out this time. Brexit and Covid have cost us billions which will only be recouped from one source: our own pockets.
WWI took the lives of mainly young people whilst the Spanish Flu often took the fittest, so in the 1920s the depleted workforce meant competition for staff increased; workers could expect better pay and conditions than ever before.
In comparison, Covid has mostly killed retirees or those approaching the end of their working lives, which means pension pots will be healthy and some will get to shift up the career ladder early, but the general workforce will be less affected this time. That said, Brexit has seen a drop in EU workers so possibly we too will see less people chasing more jobs than pre-Brovid. Even so, through these crises almost 700,000 more people in the UK, including 120,000 children, have been plunged into poverty.
In the 1920s literacy rates in the population were high. The second generation to benefit from the 1880-90 Education Acts (mandating compulsory and free primary education) could pursue more white-collar careers doing less manual or menial work (Downton style). Mechanisation leapt ahead through war manufacturing, so tractors and farm machinery became better and more affordable and farm workers less essential. Rural communities withered while cities burgeoned. Night clubs filled as village fetes failed.
Fast forward to 2021, and white-collar City work is dying. The financial markets are migrating to the EU whilst the new East India-style companies, the Too-Big-To-Tax mega online corporations, employ armies of coders and data analysts unfettered by geography. Meanwhile our 21st century literacy threshold has been reduced to 140 characters, as our education system demonstrates an abject failure to imbue critical thinking in 52% of the population. There is a new diaspora of lockdown survivors and zoom workers, no longer willing to be cooped up to compete in an imagined rat race, heading out to the country again. This time the roaring will be in Parish councils as village parking spots become the hot potato of 2020s Britain.
Not just wealth but health, in each era, differs dramatically. Spanish Flu left survivors feeling invulnerable. Conversely Covid survivors, even those with mild symptoms, may see a raft of conditions emerging and persisting. The auto-immune system has been attacked and numerous life-long disorders could be triggered.
In the 1920s healthcare was private, and if the Government continues to undermine the NHS, it will be again sometime in the 2020s. Penicillin was only discovered in 1928 so mortality from illnesses was relatively high. Now, growing up in a welfare state, we assume that everyone has access to healthcare, but the NHS is so poorly managed and so badly funded it will increasingly find itself having to prioritise some patients over others, until dissatisfaction ushers in a new insurance-based private healthcare system. Then, if you’re poor and get a debilitating condition, you can expect to suffer it for the rest of your life. So possibly, roaring in pain may be one similarity between both eras.
In the 1920s equality was woeful. Until 1928 women had to be over 30 to vote, and could only do so if they owned property or were graduates, while any man over 21 was eligible. A hundred years later women can vote but struggle to break glass ceilings. Financial inequality, the difference between the very poorest and the very richest, is worse today than in the 1920s.
So yes! The twenties can expect some roaring. For most of us it will be in agony or disbelief, anger, fury or despair. There’ll be roaring at the inequality, the misgovernance, the cronyism, the corruption, the spin and the wrecking of our best public institutions: the BBC and NHS.
And as we roar, unheard, a glamorous tiny group of ultra-rich dim young things will keep partying like there’s no tomorrow, high on life and class A drugs; they never stopped roaring around. The “rich kids of Instagram”, the louche offspring of billionaires, zooming about in private jets and fast cars, always somewhere between the Caribbean and the Maldives. They haven’t been slowed down one jot by Covid. Their parents are feted donors to the parties in power and they do, and come and go, as they please. They are recorded on social media rather than by their pet authors like Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell, their revolution is technological rather than cultural, but they’re roaring around the planet just as Waugh’s characters roared around England. “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else (…) all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies.”
This article first appeared in print in