The 1920s roared after a pandemic. Will the 2020s?

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. All of this happened after the Spanish flu (the 1918 influenza pandemic) that infected nearly a third of the global population in four successive waves. Estimates of deaths range from 17 million to as high as 100 million people.

Once the coronavirus pandemic passes, will the 2020s roar the way the 1920s did?

At the request of Bloomberg Businessweek, Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, assembled figures on labor productivity for the entire economy from 1893 through 2019, clustering the data into roughly equal spans that begin and end at high points in the business cycle. The data up to 1948 come from a book he wrote, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. For the rest he relied on government figures.

The data compiled by Gordon demonstrate that productivity growth jumped in 1920 and remained high for a half-century before slumping after 1973. “While it is likely that productivity growth will revive somewhat in the 2020s from the dismal record of the 2010s,” Gordon wrote in an email, “there is no chance of sustained decade-long growth that matches the achievement of the 1920s.”

One important reason is that the 1920s roared because technologies that had been nurtured for several decades were finally ready for mass deployment. For the average American, life changed more from 1920 to 1929 than it’s likely to change from 2020 to 2029.

Electrification gave us refrigerators (instead of ice boxes), washing machines (instead of washboards and hand-cranked wringers), and radio (instead of your sister at the piano). With electrification, factories no longer had to rely on power from a single engine that was connected to machines via noisy, inefficient belts and pulleys.

The internal combustion engine came into its own in the 1920s, powering cars, trucks, farm equipment, and airplanes. The number of registered drivers almost tripled during the decade. The automobile’s rise sparked investment in roads and suburbs as well as production of rubber, steel, glass, and oil.

It’s a fascinating look at whether history is likely to repeat itself.

The 1920s roared after a pandemic

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