People react so emotionally to politics, I have decided to assess the decade just past by considering something less partisan but no less illuminating: culture.
Start with the music I have been listening to over the last few weeks. Every December I buy the albums that appear on the various “best of” lists. This year my pile of compact discs is mostly music recorded by women — Billie Eilish, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Jenny Lewis, FKA Twigs and others. This was much less the case 10 years ago.
That brings me to what I see as the No. 1. trend of the decade: the increasing influence of women.
Consider the 10 bestselling books of the decade. All have female protagonists, and the top seven are authored by women. (“Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels take the top three spots, with three others having the word “Girl” in the title.)
On television, last week my wife and I watched a few episodes of HBO’s “The Watchmen” — the talk of many of our friends — and so far the main protagonist is a black woman. The last movie I saw was “The Rise of Skywalker,” and the hero and savior is a woman.
I should point out that I very much like these albums, books and movies. I should also point out that I encountered all this culture without seeking out female protagonists or creators.
“The Rise of Skywalker,” which is still likely to be one of the year’s big movies, reflects some other cultural trends as well. Disney is still with us, stronger than ever, and the film is installment No. 9 in the “Star Wars” saga, which has a new TV spinoff, “The Mandalorian.” The continuing prominence of these shows reflects a certain exhaustion of creativity in Hollywood.
Too many of the top movies these days are tent-pole franchises, pulled from comic books or graphic novels or TV shows. In contrast, “The Godfather” series stopped at three installments and I can’t imagine Alfred Hitchcock would ever have done a ninth take on “Rear Window.” But today the sequel and the franchise reign, reflecting how hard it is to grab public attention at a time when there never has been so much choice.
Earlier this month I went to a basketball game, the New York Knicks against the Atlanta Hawks in Madison Square Garden. It was fun, but by the end of the first half the Knicks (one of the weakest teams in the league) had scored 77 points, which might have been enough to win 20 years ago. For better or worse, there were plenty of three-point shots, yet few dramatic backdowns or isolation plays.
Like many other parts of American life, professional sports went on a data binge in the 2010s. In the NBA, the numbers showed that teams would have a better chance of winning of they took more three-points shots. In baseball, hitters now swing for home runs much more, sacrifice bunts are rare, and managers put in a new relief pitcher whenever the data call for it. This last development slows down the game so much that many people, myself included, have stopped watching.
The teens have been called “the decade when numbers broke sports.” I tend to see the rise of analytics in a more positive light, as (among other things) they make it more fun to follow sports on the internet. Nonetheless, the numbers can be manipulated and gamed, as they often are in politics and social media.
What about social media, a cultural bellwether if there ever was one? I recently came across this tweet, from October. It has more likes, 1.1 million, than any I’ve seen all year:
I saw a guy at Starbucks today.
He just sat there.
Like a Psychopath.
8:55 AM • Oct 18, 2019
Which brings me to the second most important trend of the last decade — namely, how much time we spend staring at screens, most of all on our mobile devices. They simply convey more interesting narratives than most of the other spaces in our lives.
Of course there were other hugely consequential trends. The persistence of low interest rates, for example, which made a lot of political choices far easier. And there is the unheralded improvement in public health around the world.
But the two biggest cultural influences of the last 10 years are clear: women and screens. For me, that adds up to a pretty thrilling decade.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”