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Like the 1920s, the 2020s will be an age of anxiety Below the surface, the first 'modern decade' was an era of increasing worry about the future

The 1920s was an era of partying and leisure... but also creeping anxiety (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The 1920s was an era of partying and leisure... but also creeping anxiety (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

January 9, 2020   6 mins

The image of the 1920s in popular imagination is a world liberated from war, a world in which jazz and modern art, girls with short skirts and bobbed hair, cars and planes, all contributed to a new sense of progress and experiment — a new age, which still influences the world we live in today.

This sense that the 1920s represented something positive and culturally adventurous after the ardour of a decade of crisis and war is real enough. Among artists, writers, musicians and scientists there was a self-conscious willingness to embrace new ideas and to transcend the conservative world of pre-1914; among the wider public, if they could afford it, the 1920s did open up the prospect of motor transport, international travel by the (still dangerous) new air routes, owning a radio or a gramophone.

For the younger generation, those who were too young to serve in or work for the war effort, it was important to place a distance between them and the damaged generation of 1914. Talk of war was not encouraged. Veterans crippled physically or psychologically, or both, were shunned as a reminder of the grim ordeal now over.

The material life of the 1920s was also transformed by the advent of a real consumer revolution and the modern media. In 1922 the BBC was established and within a decade the density of radio ownership in Britain was the highest in Europe. The cinema was everywhere and American films introduced the British public to a new kind of consumerism. Where high fashion had been the preserve of the upper and upper-middle classes before 1914, cheaper imitations were widely available in the 1920s.

The ideal of leisure, completely familiar to our contemporary world, became a possibility for millions for the first time, whether driving in the new cheap motor-cars pioneered by William Morris, Herbert Austin or the American Henry Ford (only the last has survived), or holidaying in British seaside resorts, or taking part in popular sports such as golf or tennis. Lifestyle — again a familiar 21st century concept — made its debut in the 1920s among those with enough money to indulge their taste.

The positive was in evidence not only at home but also abroad. Enshrined in the post-war settlement in 1919 was a commitment to a League of Nations which was supposed to establish “collective security” as a global system to prevent further warfare. The League was never severely tested in the 1920s and British people flocked to join the League of Nations Union established in 1918 in order to educate the public in the virtues of co-operation and collective action. By 1927, there were more than 600,000 members.

The post-war settlement also granted the British and French Empires control of former Turkish areas in the Middle East, and German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. These were supposed to be mandates held on behalf of the League, but they quickly came to be regarded as part of the Empire. For schoolchildren in the 1920s, the map of the world was filled with pink or red (both colours were used even for areas such as the Sudan or Iraq, which were not formally British possessions) to indicate the vast global extent of the Empire.

Empire Day became an important event in the public calendar reminding people that in the 1920s Britain was the global superpower. In 1924-5 a great Empire Exhibition was held at the Wembley stadium (finally demolished in 2003) which attracted 27 million visitors intent on enjoying the spectacle of British imperial grandeur.

Alongside the hopes for a new age, there nevertheless existed a darker side. Britain was a class society in which the bulk of the population lived on low wages and little welfare. After the wartime boom in production and employment, declining output and unemployment characterised much of industrial Britain. The slow revival of trade and falling prices put pressure on employers to cut wages and for nine days in May 1926 British society was confronted with the first General Strike of workers organised by the Trade Union Congress to demand better pay and conditions for coal miners.

There were widespread fears among the better off and in the government of a radical, even revolutionary movement inspired by the example of the communist October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The strike was broken, but the shadow of revolutionary threat, though never a real one, fuelled uncertainties about the future of Britain’s free enterprise, capitalist system.

In 1929, that system was subjected to its severest test with the onset of the world recession that lasted down to 1932. Although much has been made of the recent global economic crisis in 2007-9, it was modest by comparison with the collapse of trade, falling prices and wages, and mass unemployment ushered in at the end of the 1920s. Britain in 1929 was one of the richest states in the world, but the economy bore no relation to the wealth of today’s economy, and its general availability of welfare.

In the late 1920s, there was no welfare state; people were helped by charities, supported each other in family networks, or relied on meagre handouts for the old and unemployed. It is difficult to imagine today, despite regular complaints that the current welfare system is unjust and inadequate, the degree of sheer economic insecurity and poverty faced by millions of Britain’s labouring classes in that decade.

Fear of the overthrow of capitalism was chiefly a middle-class concern. So, too, was anxiety about the “race”, which had much to do with differences between Britain’s social classes. In the 1920s there emerged a significant “eugenics” movement and the eugenists, both scientists and a broader, informed public worried that the rapid growth of an underclass of deprived and poorly educated Britons would lead to a decline in the genetic quality of the race. Statistics were misused to demonstrate that in 30 or 50 years’ time, the population would be swamped by humans of inferior physical and mental qualities; the middle-classes, those deemed to be genetically valuable, had too few children to compensate for the wider degeneration of the population.

Eugenists argued in favour of sterilisation of the “unfit”, either voluntary or compulsory. A bill presented to Parliament in the early 1930s to allow sterilisation was defeated, but ideas about the “fit” and “unfit” members of the community, now seen as a Nazi policy, had roots in British racial anxieties as well. Marie Stopes, pioneer of birth control in the early 1920s, and often presented as a model for the new progressive age, actually favoured control in order to prevent births that she regarded as a threat to the future of an imperial race.

Popular fears also arose from the prospect of any future war. Despite the confidence of middle-class liberals that the League would somehow guarantee a secure global future, there was also a more pessimistic view that war was built into the great power system or even human nature itself. The pacifist movement that emerged in Britain in the 1920s was small in number but vocal.

The No More War Movement, founded in 1922, campaigned against militarism and the glorification of war; a National Peace Council was set up a year later as an umbrella organisation for all the small and local peace organisations; the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915, had branches across the country. Among the many anxieties about future war, none was as important as fear of aerial bombing. First experienced when German aircraft attacked British towns in 1917-18, bombing was seen as a direct threat to ordinary civilians who were defenceless in the face of high explosive, gas or incendiary bombs.

The effects of bombing were greatly exaggerated, but the common assumption that bombing might usher in an apocalyptic end to British society, or even Western civilisation as a whole, became embedded in popular views of future war. The absence of any serious international crisis in the 1920s did not damp down the pessimism. Indeed, the optimistic view of the present and the future as an age of progress and peace made the possibility of a descent again into world war all the more horrifying. The tension between the enjoyment of current stability and the prospect of a less stable future gave to the 1920s a bittersweet flavour.

Much the same might be said of the coming 2020s. Although in Britain and the rest of Europe people are healthier, better off and more secure than they have ever been, that very safety creates its opposite, fear of what might happen if the security is challenged.

For Britain, the next decade has become a source of real anxiety. For all the enthusiasm for leaving the European Union, Britain will be sailing into uncharted waters economically, socially and internationally. The sustained consumerism of the past decades makes it difficult to imagine a world in which everyone has to consume less, but it may well happen; British society is now deeply divided over many issues where it was not a decade ago; terrorism has been held in check, but it is always there as a possibility; environmental damage is a constant background noise but one that will become more insistent as the decade goes on. And war? No historian looking at the overconfidence of the 1920s that war was past history would dare to predict what might happen in ten years’ time.

The history of the next decade will not be the same as the 1920s, but it is likely to display a similar tension between hopeful expectation and hidden anxiety as a century ago.

Richard Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter.

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