Robert Gordon calls the 20th century the “Special Century” — a period of unparalleled growth and prosperity ground to a halt around 1970. Since then, it hasn’t quite been downhill, more a kind of flat-lining, marked by a steadily declining living quality of life, growing inequality and ever more precarious working conditions, none of which, Gordon warns, is about to change for the better soon — if ever.
He says the ordinary lot of the average Joe in the Western world changed relatively little from Roman times to about 1750, unless you were born into a tiny elite. Life for the multitude was a relentless struggle for survival, spent either in the filthy city or hacking away at the soil in the countryside. Either way, it involved eating a constipating diet and hurrying towards an early grave or — worse — a slow death in the workhouse.
From 1750 onwards, however, a series of inventions made for incremental change and, circa 1870, everything took off in a kind of big bang. Electric lights, railways, street cars, motor cars, canned food, frozen food, washing machines, radios, fridges, telephones, the cinema, regular post — these and other novelties did not just change life for the average person but revolutionised it.
The point about the series of inventions from the 1870s onwards, the author writes, is the speed at which almost everyone benefited from them. First, there were a few miles of railway, then America was covered in them. It was same with the fridge, the radio and the car. According to Gordon, the aggregate effect of these changes was that American society was suddenly “networked”, as T-Fords, radios and lights ended the former isolation of even the most remote communities. Work ceased to be relentless and for the most part became merely repetitive.
Women&’s lives were transformed most of all. To be married — unless you were rich — before 1870, he writes, was tantamount to as prison sentence; the whole week was taken up from dawn to dusk in washing, sewing, scrubbing, cooking. By 1940, the average American housewife lived in a single-family dwelling, shoved the washing in a machine to deal with, and sped off in the family car to do the shopping. Diet changed drastically, for the better, as cans, packets and fridges enabled women to store a huge variety of food.
Then the good times came to an end. The tap of transforming inventions ceased to flow, with the exception of the internet, which Gordon says has been a lot less transformative than, say, electric lighting. Alongside that drying-up of inventions, other negative phenomena have reappeared. The Special Century was an age of “wage compression”, Gordon writes, when the poor got less poor, the number of middle earners exploded and the rich got relatively poorer, as governments learned to tax them more efficiently. Since 1970, all those gains have been lost, with the rich shooting away from the rest of us in terms of income and stable middle earners declining massively in number.
This is a tremendous, sobering piece of research, which does a lot to explain the febrile, nervous state of modern Western democracies. We live in the shadow of a century of growth — and are tormented by a feeling of loss. Like a dying sun, we can still feel the warmth but it gets weaker and more distant from us each year. Now only the rich can look forward to the future with confidence and joy. Pity the person born in 1970 who makes it all the way to 2060. Gordon does not dignify the century that started in 1970 with its own name, but it clearly will not be “special” in any good sense.