During a recent revision session I ended up digressing (as I am prone to do) and we somehow ended up discussing what makes an era of history. The study of history tends to sectionalise periods of time: we focus on the Tudor dynasty or the interwar period, with each of these periods having distinct themes. However, there doesn’t seem to be any real condition for what makes an era or an age. Historians provide the basis for an era and if accepted by the wider community it becomes the default position. Of course, some eras are simple enough, especially if we use the reign of a monarch, such as the Elizabethan age of the 16th century, while other periods are defined by a specific thesis, such as Marwick’s so-called “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s.
The actual definition of era is as follows:
‘a long and distinct period of history’.
This specific definition links well with the idea of Tudor history: the Tudor dynasty stretched from 1485 to 1603, and therefore marks both a ‘long’ period of history (more than a century) as well as something that is ‘distinct’. However, I would argue that an era does not necessarily need to be a ‘long’ period; even the word ‘long’ itself can be debated in terms of what length of time constitutes this. A century? Half-a-century? Or perhaps even longer than this: a thousand years?
There is a slightly differing definition which is more useful:
‘a period of time of which particular events or stages of development are typical’.
This, then, removes the use of ‘long’ to instead focus on something that is more specific to a period of time. So, an era could be a century (as with the Tudor dynasty) or something closer to a decade (such as the “Swinging Sixties”).
All of this sets the basis for my own argument that we – western society – have just lived through a specific era.
All of this sets the basis for my own argument that western society has just lived through a specific era, stretching from 2001 to 2020. My evidence for this includes:
- The 9/11 attack in 2001 provides the start of a new period of global relations, particularly in terms of the “War on Terror” waged from the early 2000s onward.
- Such a period was distinct to earlier foreign policy influences, such as the Cold War in the post-1945 period.
- Furthermore, the “War on Terror” had an impact of domestic politics in countries such as the UK and the USA: leading to more polarised positions.
- Also, there were many new debates surrounding the issue of personal freedom, particularly in light of rights being subverted in the fight against terror suspects (as shown in the various legal battles in courts in the UK and the USA).
2001, then, makes a firm starting point. There was a division to what had come before in the 1990s, which has set the scene – in terms of global relations – over the past couple of decades. My given end point is 2020, which is due to the impact of the coronavirus global pandemic; Covid has undoubtedly changed the world in terms of the economy and politics (although I do realise my own cheeky hypocrisy when in my very last post I argued that society would attempt to fight for a return to normalcy in reaction to Covid!).
The past two decades also shows some distinctive developments that make it different to previous decades in the 20th century. These include:
- Rise of partisan politics: this is clearly seen in the UK and the USA, with heated and divided positions between political parties.
- Rise of political populism: Trumpism is the USA is a strong example.
- I believe the above has been prompted – and aided – by the rise in importance of social media; social media is another clear change only experienced in the past two decades which has transformed (for better or worse) how humans interact with one another.
Of course, developments such as social media have come about due to the advancements in technology; smart-phones have become common-place, whereas in the year 2000 they were a rarity. One could argue that these tech advances did not simply happen in 2001 onward; there is the argument that the “digital revolution” has been in place since the 1990s, and that we have not seen the end of it yet. However, the past two decades have seen something distinct in terms of how we engage with this technology.
So, there are my thoughts on a possible era that has just passed. I wish I had a good title to give it, but what could we call it? The Social Media Age? Perhaps not, it is not catchy enough. I envy historian Eric Hobsbawm who titled his 20th century book (which ranged from 1914 to 1991) “the short twentieth century”; a very nice and suitable title. However, having spent my life reading about other eras and ages it is comforting to think that I myself have actually lived through history (which is telling of my own age, I suppose). So, how about another suggestion for a title for this era: the Age of Dave!
I came across this post, enjoyed it and and it got me thinking! An era / age is defined according to what matters to us – ie it is defined in relation to ourselves. Maybe the boundary of one historical era and the next can *only* be discerned (/invented) by those in the future who will have before and after to compare it to… and who will be motivated by their own (perhaps very different) concerns – ?
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Great points. Individually we are able to use hindsight to section off periods of our own personal histories, with the significance of those time periods only becoming apparent with the passing of time. I’ve become quite interested in how historians section off time periods and then popularise invented terms to try to neatly contain them.
So is history an artificial construct? … no more so than anything else I guess! I would be interested to read a post on the popularisation of time periods / names if you have one in the works
I am in the camp that history is something created by people. Of course, the evidence itself is utilised in order for historians to get an understanding of what happened in the past, but historians also select the evidence, create a structure in terms of how the history is to be presented (chapters, use of terms, creation of periods of time, etc), and also include their own interpretations as to what really happened in the past.
There are some schools of thought (such as a post-modernist approach) that claims that all of history is fiction due to the “creative” role of the historian. However, I wouldn’t go that far. I believe that the past actually happened, but that re-creating/re-telling it is filled with lots of inconsistencies and problems.
But yes, I really like the idea of how periods of history got their names! I have written a note to look into this in the near future. Thanks for the idea.