People have long used decades to frame the past. Think of how potent “the 60s” has been. But the artificiality of the exercise means that the more you look at a decade, the more complicated it seems. A decade is experienced in an infinity of ways. It is made up of fragments. It blurs at the edges with other decades. Ghosts of previous ones live on within it, and premonitions of those to come gradually infiltrate it.
How will we remember the last 10 years? Above all, as a time of crises. During the 2010s, there have been crises of democracy and the economy; of the climate and poverty; of international relations and national identity; of privacy and technology. There were crises at the start of the decade, and there are crises now. Some of them are the same crises, unsolved. Others are like nothing we have experienced before. Some of them are welcome: old hierarchies collapsing. Others are catastrophes.
All these crises, so close together, have made the 2010s seem much longer than the two previous decades. Sometimes, a single day’s events – a Brexit showdown, a Donald Trump meltdown – have felt more dramatic, and more exhausting to follow, than entire years did during the 1990s and 2000s. In Britain – supposedly one of the world’s most stable, gradualist democracies – politics since 2010 has often been manic. Parties have hastily changed their leaders and policies; sometimes their entire guiding philosophies. Last week’s general election was the fourth of the decade; the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s had two apiece.
The sheer turmoil of the 2010s has sometimes made what came before seem distant and utterly different. “The changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing,” wrote the American social critic Rebecca Solnit in 2016. The world of the 2000s, she concluded, “has been swept away”. In place of centrist politicians and steady economic growth, the 2010s have brought shocks, revolts and extremists. Hung parliaments; rightwing populists in power; physical attacks on politicians; Russian influence on western elections; elderly leftists galvanising young Britons and Americans; rich, rightwing leaders in both countries captivating working-class voters – scenarios close to unimaginable a decade ago have become familiar, almost expected. And yet beneath this surface frenzy, politics has, in many ways, been stagnant. Throughout Trump’s presidency, his approval ratings have been terrible, but unusually stable. Three-and-a-half years after the referendum, Britain remains almost evenly divided over EU membership. Despite governing disastrously for much of the decade, the Conservatives are still in power.
In the 2010s, it has often felt as if everything is up for grabs – from the future of capitalism to the future of the planet – and yet nothing has been decided. Between the decade’s sense of stasis and sense of possibility, an enormous tension has built up. It is still awaiting release. In 2010, a few days after that year’s election had, to widespread surprise, produced the decade’s first hung parliament, the philosopher John Gray told me: “Britain will spend something like a decade inching to some sort of new economic and political settlement.” Gray is often seen as a professional pessimist, but this time he was too optimistic.
While the decade’s Conservative ascendancy has gone on and on, extraordinary crises have spread through British society. During the 2010s, the average life expectancy, which had been growing almost continuously for a century, stopped rising. The average wage rose more slowly than in any decade since the Napoleonic wars. A million more children with working parents entered poverty. The number of people sleeping rough more than doubled. One of the archetypal British public spaces of the 2000s was St Pancras station in London: once tatty, now renovated, with smart new shops, bustling food outlets and trains to the continent – a confident intertwining of private prosperity and state spending. Since 2010, its restored Victorian alcoves have filled up with people living in sleeping bags and tents.
Beyond the grim new Britain created by a decade of Conservative austerity looms the even bleaker world being created by the climate emergency. Perhaps the most frightening of this year’s many apocalyptic books is The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Its chapter titles read: Heat Death. Hunger. Drowning. Dying Oceans. Unbreathable Air. Wildfire. Plagues. Economic Collapse. Climate Conflict. It’s intended to be a forecast of the planet’s near future that will shock readers out of their complacency. But during the 2010s almost all the disasters that the book names have already started to happen. Global capitalism has largely carried on regardless. For many people in Britain and beyond, the 2010s have been a bad time, with the promise of much worse to come.
How do you live through such a decade? In Britain, it is a question that people haven’t had to ask for almost half a century – not since the 1970s, until now the most infamous decade in our modern history. Like the 2010s, it had four elections, a referendum about our relationship with Europe, fears for the environment, a rising threat of political violence, and a pervasive sense of foreboding. In 1978 the social commentator Peter York wrote: “The real keynotes of the 70s are fragmentation … fantasy and paranoia – impossible new situations.” A few months ago, in This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, the climate activist Dougald Hine summed up the 2010s in similar terms: “These are times in which impossible things happen”.
Yet in some ways the 2010s have been more frightening than the 70s. Then, the fear was felt more by the elite – politicians, businessmen – than by ordinary people, who were still enjoying the last of postwar Britain’s relative egalitarianism and social stability. Nowadays, the fear is almost universal. The creation of social media networks over the last decade and a half, starting with Twitter in 2006, and the conversion of traditional media into non-stop news services, have made awful events seem relentless and impossible to ignore. We have become perpetually anxious.
And there seems ever more to be anxious about. The divide in Britain over Europe has become much more bitter. Advocates of undemocratic solutions to Britain’s problems, such as suspending parliament, have moved from the fringes of politics, where they plotted in vain during the 1970s, straight into 10 Downing Street. Meanwhile, the awareness that much of modern life – air travel, car travel, eating meat, shopping, using plastics – has malign consequences has grown from a minority preoccupation in the 1970s into an everyday topic. Sometimes in the 2010s, it has felt as if the whole world we have made, from the tiniest exhaust particle to the most sprawling conurbation, is toxic. Our language has become precautionary and jittery: “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”. Viewed from the 2010s, the fraught 1970s can look like an age of innocence.
During the mid-2010s, and especially in 2016, the year of Trump’s election and the vote for Brexit, there was a persistent online craze for declaring particular years in the 2010s “the worst ever”. Exaggeration is a wearyingly familiar online mode, and some of the evidence cited was quite narrow and subjective, such as the premature deaths in 2016 of Prince, David Bowie and Carrie Fisher. But the craze spread because it struck a chord. The 2010s have often felt cursed.
Yet also during the decade a more scientific group of writers, including the famous psychologist Steven Pinker, started to argue the opposite. Sometimes called “the New Optimists”, they claimed that life around the world in the early 21st century was, in fact, as good as it has ever been – in terms of health, wealth, amenities and the prevalence of peace. Many of the upward graphs they presented were convincing, as far as they went, but that was usually only up to 2015 – just before the point at which pessimists usually say the 2010s took a turn for the worse. And when the graphs did go beyond 2015, they were not always reassuring. The number of people living in democracies was falling; the number of people killed in wars and terrorist incidents was rising. As one of the New Optimists’ favourite sources, the website Our World in Data, had to admit this year: “In some aspects the data suggests the world is getting worse.”
It could be a blip. The 2010s could be just a pause in humanity’s erratic upward progress. But there are signs that even Our World in Data doesn’t completely believe that. “Our world today,” it says, “is neither just nor sustainable.” Over the last 10 years, even some of humanity’s cheerleaders have started to lose faith.
Yet to characterise the 2010s as one long crisis is too simple and bleak. A decade usually contains different phases. In Britain, the 2010s can be divided roughly into three. First, from 2010 to 2012, there was a period of turbulence and bewilderment, as the economy, voters and politicians struggled to absorb the shocks from the financial crisis of the late 2000s – and to accept that the prosperity and relative stability of the previous two decades might be over.
Gordon Brown’s ponderous New Labour government fell. David Cameron’s more supple, and shameless, coalition of Conservatives and Lib Dems replaced it. Having gone along with Labour’s fairly expansive approach to public spending for years in opposition, during the 2010 election the Conservatives attacked it as reckless and unaffordable. They claimed that Britain was facing a huge government debt crisis, citing a superficially similar but much deeper one that was already bringing chaos to Greece. It was a form of political message – the warning of a systemic collapse – that had been popular in the 1970s and had then fallen gradually into disuse; but it would become a standard practice for all parties as the 2010s went on.
Once in government, the Conservatives imposed austerity. At first, the word had an unfamiliar, retro ring, redolent of the 1930s, the last time a British government had carried out cuts on the scale Cameron intended. In response to the return of hard times, another bit of language from the 1930s became ubiquitous in the early 2010s, printed on mugs, posters and tea towels: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. But many Britons did not. During 2010 and 2011 there were protests and riots across the country – not on a Greek scale, yet large and sustained enough to spook many commentators. At the end of 2011, with an economic slowdown largely caused by austerity also underway, the latest edition of the Economist newspaper’s annual compendium of predictions, The World in 2012, replaced its usual capitalist cheerleading with warnings about an economic “great stagnation” and further “mayhem on the streets” of the west. “The world won’t end in 2012,” predicted the magazine. “But at times it will feel as if it is about to.”
For some less establishment voices, the turbulence was promising rather than threatening. In 2010, after taking part in large, fierce protests against the education cuts, the political and cultural writer Mark Fisher declared: “Conservatives’ We’ve broken out of the end of history. What’s certain is that the old world is disintegrating, and soon it will not be possible to even pretend that we can return to it.” Yet all these prophecies were slightly premature. From 2012 to 2015, there was a lull – the decade’s second phase. The economy recovered. The 2012 London Olympics distracted people and cheered them up. The same year, Barack Obama was re-elected as US president: there still seemed to be a future for charismatic centrist leaders. Even the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which for a long time promised to rupture the status quo, ended in a vote for stability.
Austerity also proved less politically explosive during the mid-2010s than its critics hoped and some of its advocates feared. The fact that the cuts were cumulative, and so ubiquitous, made austerity hard to organise against – or even think clearly about in the round. The cuts proved numbing as much as enraging. At the same time, the increases in public spending during the previous decade meant that some state services were well enough equipped by 2010 to absorb the cuts without obvious immediate damage. In 2017, the chief finance officer of a London hospital trust told me that its medical outcomes had only started deteriorating once the cuts had been underway for half a decade. In much of Britain, austerity took a long time to be fully felt.
The Conservatives won a majority at the 2015 election before that could happen. A jubilant Cameron told his party conference soon afterwards: “I really believe we’re on the brink of something special … We can make this era – these 2010s – a defining decade for our country … one which people will look back on and say: ‘That’s the time when the tide turned.’”
In 2015, many in the political and business elite, untouched by austerity themselves, still believed that the troubled late 2000s and early 2010s had been an aberration, and that the good times had now resumed. For many other people, there was a more tentative hope: that the great unravelling that had begun with the financial crisis could be kept at bay or ignored, at least for a while. You can sense this escapist feeling, still, especially in wealthier parts of Britain, in the queues outside shops with hot new products, in all the heaving, deafening new restaurants. For a lot of people, at least some of the time, the lull of the mid-2010s goes on.
Yet since 2015, ever more potent forces have been gathering to disrupt it. The third phase of the 2010s – the phase we’re in now – has been more unpredictable, unsettling, and sometimes thrilling, than even the aftermath of the financial crisis. The capture of the Labour party in 2015 by Jeremy Corbyn and the left; the 2016 Brexit vote, and election of Trump; the shock 2017 British election result and hung parliament, the revival of the far right in Britain, the US and across Europe – even the fact that this list is so predictable tells us how much political upheaval has become normalised. During the early 2010s, it was hard to say with confidence what Britain would be like – politically, economically, socially, or in overall mood – from one year to the next. Nowadays, it’s hard to look a month ahead.
One way to cope with chaos is to accept it. Over the last couple of years, a short, bland sentence has become ubiquitous in British conversations, from interviews with Premier League footballers to soliloquies from Love Island contestants: “It is what it is.”
Usually, it means: “I’m learning to live with something negative” – a personal setback, a wider injustice, difficult circumstances. It’s a mantra for an age of diminishing expectations, when many people no longer assume – unlike their postwar predecessors – that they will become richer than their parents, and live in an ever more sophisticated or just society, on an ever more hospitable planet. When people say “It is what it is”, they are rarely challenged. Instead, they are usually heard in respectful silence. In a difficult world, fatalism and stoicism are useful qualities.
Another coping mechanism is escape. Possibly the most revealing leisure activity of the 2010s is shutting yourself away with a TV series: typically a drama set in another country or another era, with an addictive, slowly resolved plot, many characters, elaborate settings, and enough episodes to allow for watching in binges. In an age of squeezed incomes, TV dramas are worlds you can explore on the cheap.
But pricier forms of escapism have been in demand, too. Theatre productions promise to be “immersive” – one of the decade’s favourite promotional terms – by placing you inside the spectacle, sometimes for extended durations. Sales of expensive, fuel-guzzling SUVs, often with tinted windows, grew rapidly across the world during the 2010s: drivers increasingly want to be raised above and sealed off from the street. Meanwhile, upmarket restaurants, such as the Chiltern Firehouse in London, a former fire station which reopened as a luxurious, enclosed compound in 2013, feel more and more like stage sets: so completely designed and choreographed that the world outside temporarily disappears. Even the great winners of the 2010s – the 1% – sometimes want to forget.
During the decade, it became cooler than usual in Britain to eat comforting things: bread, cakes, pies, even grilled cheese sandwiches. The Great British Bake Off, first broadcast in 2010, made cooking with lots of carbs and sugar respectable again. Meanwhile, more and more restaurants and cafes started offering a meal designed to obliterate the day: the boozy bottomless brunch. Alcohol, starch and fat – these are the tastes, perhaps, of a society that wants to procrastinate, to not think about the future too much.
Clothes have become more cocooning: enormous puffer jackets, scarves the size of small blankets, fleeces and woolly hats. In the 2000s, clothes and silhouettes were leaner and more formal – tight suits, skinny trousers – as if people expected to seize exciting new opportunities, or at least to work in offices. In the 2010s, social mobility has stalled, and many of the jobs being created – and often taken by middle-class graduates – involve zero-hours contracts and outdoor work. Baggy, warm, informal clothes are for people who expect either to be hanging around at home, waiting to hear that their labour is required, or to be hauling parcels and takeaway orders, out in the cold.
Perhaps the human silhouette that most embodies the 2010s is that of the thousands of cyclists working for the food delivery service Deliveroo, which was founded in London in 2013 and now operates in dozens of cities across Europe and beyond. The huge insulated containers the riders carry on their backs, like uglier, unprotective snail shells, seem to say: Work is a burden you must accept, however much of your dignity it takes away.
In a working world that requires quick switches between inactivity and activity, that values powers of endurance, caffeine is a vital drug. In many British town and city centres during the 2010s, otherwise emptied out by online commerce, cafes proliferated, replacing shops and pubs as the busiest indoor spaces. Many of these cafes are full of people silently working, rather than socialising, or dosing themselves with double espressos so they can go and work somewhere else.
Another way to cope with the 2010s has been to work obsessively on yourself. From the 1950s to the 1990s, being young in the west was often associated with lounging around, or rebelling, or living for the moment. But in the 2010s being young often means relentlessly working and studying, polishing your public persona, and keeping fit. The massively popular Hunger Games novels and films, about young people being forced to compete to the death with each other by a cruel, middle-aged elite, came out between 2008 and 2015. Intended as dystopian science fiction, they quickly began to seem like more like satire, or even social realism.
“The worse things get”, writes the American essayist Jia Tolentino, “the more a person is compelled to optimise [themselves].” This can be presentational: a carefully maintained Instagram feed (the app was released in 2010). Or it can be physical. Yoga, marathons, triathlons – it’s not hard to see their renewed popularity over the last decade as an effort by people, conscious or otherwise, to hone themselves for a tougher world.
New consumer devices for collecting personal data, such as the Fitbit Tracker, which first went on sale in 2010, mean that this self-optimisation can be measured, and compared with the efforts of others, as never before. This process has created a new hierarchy, particularly within the American middle class, but increasingly in its European counterpart, too, which privileges the leanest people, the most punishing exercise classes, the most body-conscious brands of workout clothes. Only in a decade so concerned with self-improvement and self-presentation could “athleisure” become a fashion category, and toned arms become such a potent status symbol for people who never need to do manual work.
And finally, the harsher world of the 2010s has also prompted many people to undergo a more private, less visible toughening – one they may not even acknowledge to themselves. They have got used to walking past the decade’s casualties in the street, and not giving them much thought. In the 2010s, as in Victorian times, if you want an untroubled mind, it doesn’t pay to look at the world around you too hard.
Other reactions to the turmoil of the last 10 years have been less individualistic. One person’s crisis can be another’s opportunity, and the difficulties since 2010 of so many previously dominant value systems – capitalism, centrism, traditional conservatism, white male supremacy – have opened up space for new political movements, at a rate not seen since the 1960s.
Some of these movements, such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, are revolts against age-old injustices, largely made possible, and then accelerated and amplified, by the new digital networks. Others, such as Extinction Rebellion and Corbynism, have been reactions to glaring inadequacies in modern mainstream politics: its inability, or unwillingness, to address the climate emergency; or to create an economy and society that works for the majority.
Other, more rightwing insurrections, such as the campaign for Brexit, have been partly driven by nostalgia: a yearning to go back to the slower, simpler Britain that supposedly existed before today’s globalised, unsettled country. And yet – in a disorientating twist typical of our times – the Brexit movement also has a ruthlessly modernising side. Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of its most prominent figures, may dress like an Edwardian patriarch, but he is the co-founder of an international investment fund, and the beneficiary and advocate of an ever more footloose, disruptive capitalism.
One thing all the new movements of the 2010s have in common is that they have already changed how millions of people think, both inside the movements and outside them. Another is that we don’t know, yet, how permanent and influential that change will be. #MeToo could turn out to be one of many heavily resisted campaigns in feminism’s long struggle – or it could transform, for good, how women and men relate to each other, and how women think about themselves. The Brexit movement could be a passing nationalist surge – or a force that revives the Tory party for the long term.
Most of these movements have an impatient, millenarian quality – an expectation that momentous change is close at hand. This is a huge shift away from the politics of the 1990s and 2000s, when western politicians such as Brown sought to reshape society through modest, incremental reforms, such as making school class sizes smaller. In the end, grand schemes such as Brexit may disappoint – or worse. But the 2010s have reacquainted voters with the idea that politics can be about big promises and fundamental choices.
More quietly, the 2010s have also brought a renewed realisation that culture is political – after decades when most creative people and cultural critics avoided that conclusion. Literary and art prizes now regularly go to people whose work is overtly political, such as Margaret Atwood, or more subtly so, such as the architecture collective Assemble, who won the Turner prize in 2015 for helping to rebuild a rundown part of Liverpool.
In recent years, such competitions have begun to be scrutinised for their sensitivity to questions of race, class and gender. Although prizes are inherently elitist, they are now also increasingly expected to promote greater equality in society as a whole. It is a contradiction characteristic of the decade’s politics, where a greater awareness of the injustices suffered by many social groups, and sometimes a greater willingness to redress them, co-exists with an intensifying individualism – with a growing preference for letting people self-identify and respecting each person’s particular life experience. Whether these collectivist and individualist tendencies can co-exist in the long term is a question that the decade has not resolved.
What is more, the reawakening of politics since 2010 has only been partial. In the decade’s four British general elections, the turnouts have been 65%, 66%, 69% and 67% – only a modest improvement on the apathetic turnouts of the 2000s, and well below the 20th-century average. Even the supposedly critical Brexit referendum was devalued, to a degree, by the non-participation of more than a quarter of the electorate. The indifference of many potential remain voters – turnout in some Europhile areas of London was lower than in general elections – was as much responsible for the final result as the commitment of many leavers.
In 2012, Mark Fisher said that Britain was suffering from “depression economics and boomtime politics”: the disengagement prompted by the relatively comfortable 1990s and 2000s was lingering on, despite the reopening of so many economic issues by the financial crisis. Seven years later, apathy remains a habit for many Britons. Politics may have become much more vibrant, ambitious, and relevant over the past decade, but they haven’t noticed. Or, worse still, they don’t like it.
In many areas of our lives, the 2010s have been less transformative than we often think. In 2011, the music critic Simon Reynolds published Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, a book about the power of nostalgia in the early 21st century that still resonates today. He argued that digital technology, far from enabling more creativity, had actually made it both harder and less essential for artists. Instead of coming up with new ideas, they could now roam the internet’s infinite archives, and build careers out of clever hybrids and pastiches of previous forms.
Since Reynolds’ book came out, the mounting crises of the 2010s have made the avoidance of the present in favour of the past even more appealing. Pop culture from the 1990s, in particular, such as the cosy TV series Friends, has become hugely popular again. In our often backward-looking society, “Time itself seem[s] to become sluggish,” wrote Reynolds, “like a river that starts to meander”.
In the 1970s, a similar feeling of cultural time slowing down – just as political events were speeding up – spread through western culture, from pop music to fashion, architecture to academia. The confident, future-orientated mindset of mid-20th-century modernism was gradually replaced by the doubting one of postmodernism, which questioned, as many people do now, whether progress and truth were possible at all. And even in politics, for all the decade’s dramas, the 70s actually resolved little. Most of the decisive changes to Britain and the US during the late 20th century didn’t come until afterwards, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s seminal 1980s governments.
A similar dynamic may be at work now. Brexit has yet to happen. Global capitalism has yet to alter course, as growth slows and inequality grows. Trump’s presidency has yet to be judged by the electorate. Britain has yet to experience Boris Johnson’s equally risky brand of populism as a form of government, in any significant sense, rather than as simply a crude but effective new way of winning elections.
A radical government of the left, while appealing to an increasing number of young voters, remains a more theoretical prospect still. The climate crisis is probably only just beginning. Digital technology has only just started to change us. And many of the people involved in all the political activism of the last 10 years are just beginning their careers as voters, as possible politicians.
If you think the 2010s, our age of crises, have seen too much upheaveal – or if you think things haven’t been shaken up enough – just wait.