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The 1920s Roared After a Pandemic, and the 2020s Will Try

The modern economy sprang to life in the Jazz Age, but today’s secular stagnation will be tough to overcome.
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Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images; Tik Tok source: Kortney Waschuk and Teneal Dutrisac

The day was cold and windy. Standing outside the Capitol, the just-sworn-in president called for “a new unity of spirit and purpose” to bind together a nation that had been wracked by a pandemic and high unemployment. His predecessor wasn’t on stage. The inauguration of Warren G. Harding on March 4, 1921, marked the inauspicious, unofficial start of an historic decade. The somber mood gave no hint that America was about to go on a tear.

The Roaring Twenties saw widespread adoption of the assembly line, the automobile, radio, motion pictures, indoor plumbing, and labor-saving electric appliances. Consumerism and mass culture took shape. It was the decade of art deco and jazz, Coco Chanel and Walt Disney, The Great Gatsby and the Harlem Renaissance. It was “the first truly modern decade,” says retired Marquette University economic historian Gene Smiley.