How will history remember the decade of nationalism, navel-gazing and nihilism? Oliver Bennett offers some insights at the half-way stage
five years ago, the Nineties were forecast to become a soft, warm era: a time for caring and sharing, cocooning and being gentle, nurturing and spiritual. Avarice, pride and double breasted suits would be a thing of the past; navel contemplation would replace junk bond speculation and everything would be jolly cosy.

Sad to say, this pre-emptive strike on the Zeitgeist turned out to be as misguided as the room-sweeping robots beloved of the pre-war generation. In the event, we work harder, have less faith and are more nihilistic, pessimistic and downright anxious than before. We are introspective and solipsistic, wrapped up in ourselves, with religion a Band Aid solution and counselling our confessional.

Each decade is assigned a character in retrospect. The Sixties were blissful, world-changing fun; the Seventies were tasteless, the epoch of schlock; while the Eighties were the years of the greed gravy train. Such decadism, as it has been termed, may not be date specific, but instead related to events, appearances, defining moments. The Sixties, for instance, may have started with the Beatles' ascendant in 1963 and ended in Altamont; the Seventies is seen as the Three Day Week, Gary Glitter and flares; the Eighties began with Thatcher's election in 1979 and ended with the Stock Market crash in 1987. Decadism is riven with lost years and errors of convenience and yet it remains difficult to resist. It is the filing cabinet of recent history.

It has often been said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there. Perhaps the Nineties will be a decade that many will try to forget, but for now there are elements that appear to capture the essence of the times.


Times are hard and workforces have been downsized and sub-contracted, employment is now a perpetual buyer's market. The average British worker works almost four hours a week longer than the average French or German worker. The grim hot-desk-shuffle is taking its toll. Austin Knight, a recruitment firm which surveyed 22 major companies in late 1995, found epidemic levels of overwork. "Our survey clearly shows that the promise of shorter hours and family-friendly work practises has failed to materialise and the economy is suffering as a result," says Austin Knight's Anne Riley. "Without a radical rethink, leisure time will be further eroded as we try to dig ourselves out of a hole." Forsooth, for as the old business saying goes: Graveyards are full of indispensable people.


Hippies were derided as silly Utopians in the late Seventies and despised in the glossy Eighties. But lo, back they came in the Nineties, with a whole new anti-authoritarian baggage of environmental, technological and global consciousness. They were christened the Zippies by one of the old school, Fraser Clark, who now runs the club Parallel YOUniversity in London, and the word has just entered the Longmans Dictionary of New Words.

"Everything the hippies began is coming through in the Nineties," says Clark. "It's a global culture, and it's basically about trying to harmonise the two brain hemispheres: the intuitive and the logical." Inspired by Gaia, the green creed which asserts that the earth is a living being, the Zippies are fond of both raving and protest, particularly against roads and cars. However, they generally prefer their demonstrations to be 'fluffy' rather than 'spiky': that is, friendly and peacenik rather than confrontational and party political. Less starry-eyed than their Sixties antecedents, they are practical: at once cosmic yet earth-bound. "Nationalism is out of date because we live or die with the planet," says Clark, who asserts that this counter culture resurgence "terrifies people in authority". He also offers a 1996 style tip for zippy chaps: the return of the Sergeant Pepper droopy moustache.


The fitness cult of the Eighties has transmuted into a huge self-improvement industry. Over 60 per cent of adults now take some kind of exercise and more bodies become temples daily. There are now mental and quasi-spiritual components to this aspirational culture: we do not just want perfect glutes, we want immortality as well. "It's the cult of the individual," says Sharon Walker, editor of Health and Fitness magazine. "Exercise is now part of mental life: positive thinking and self development books are very important. People are looking for more out of exercise than mere sweat, and perhaps it is replacing religion."

Some link the body-consciousness to the rise of preventative medicine and further, the erosion of public health standards. Meanwhile, the Government has recently toned down its fitness guidelines from three sweats a week to incidental activity like gardening. Perhaps the next trend will be to acquire self-hood while walking the dog.


Fed by apocalyptic Christianity, this has sprouted into a generalized notion that the approaching millennium will herald huge changes, the bummer of which is that a lot of us will have to go, whether by war, pestilence or ecological catastrophe. This sense of impending something-or-other has led to the furious spiritual questing of the new age - the discovery of mega-viruses such as Ebola fuel this portentous fantasy.

Happily, not everyone buys into Apocalypse Soon. "The millennium is an arbitrary date which has no real significance, and many theologians now accept this," says Robert Ashby of the Humanist Society, who adds that the archives show that the Saxons had a bit of count down fever as the year 1000 approached. "Unfortunately, I suspect we're going to get this rise of melodramatic fundamentalism as the new millennium approaches, with religious people banging drums and recruiting young people."


Whether because of wild hormones, falling testosterone levels or oestrogen rampaging through the water supply, the babe is out there: spirited, sexual and proud. Casting off the puritanism of the old feminism and responding in kind to the neo-lads, the babes, it is alleged, propose a charged up, self centred declaration of femininity. "These girls have grown up in an age of unprecedented sexual frankness," says Marie O'Riordan, editor of the best selling teenage magazine More! "They view the sexual equally, but unlike the Seventies women, who were preached at by magazines like Cosmopolitan as to how to keep their men happy, these girls expect their men to keep them satisfied and they like images that celebrate women's sex appeal."

However, the feminist writer and IoS columnist Joan Smith disagrees with the babe notion, and believes the key issue is that female visibility has led to male insecurity. "Feminist goals that were considered radical in the Sixties have entered the mainstream and as women have joined public life from private life, it has created an imbalance which has left men in crisis."


Without any proper rites of passage into adulthood and with personal effects such as children, homes and jobs staved off for as long as possible, one's youth can last until further notice. Rock 'n' roll, the property of adolescence for so long, is now a nostalgic diversion for the archivally minded middle aged, while rave culture with its formless dancing and asexual etiquette is nothing if not a huge gangster-controlled playpen, in which dance drugs are called 'disco biscuits' and lemonade is alcoholic. Perpetual adolescence - informally attired, developmentally-arrested and blithely irresponsible - seems to be the ideal state for young to middling adults.

The generation raised during the heady rock 'n' roll years is now running the show: the likes of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and playpower industrialist Richard Branson, short on gravitas, long on open-necked accessibility. Robert "Iron John" Bly thinks the young generation of fatherless males lacks the significant mentor who will introduce them to adulthood; meanwhile, new agers are constantly searching for their inner child. The message seems to be: if youth truly is wasted on the young, why not hang on to it as long as possible?


Britpop, Brit-pack artists, new Brit cinema: not since the hallowed days of the mid-Sixties, with Carnaby Street, the Beatles, the Royal College of Art and "I'm Backing Britain", have we promoted the Brit brand quite so confidently. Some, however, see retrogressive nationalism in this and the question remains: does the rest of the world care?

Phil Savage, of PR consultancy Savage and Best, which has been at the heart of Britpop, remains ambiguous about it. "Britpop is definitely retrogressive, and though Britain is an A&R stamping ground, sales haven't improved overseas," he says. "However it seems as if the British are buying more British made music and the fanzine culture here is huge, at a level similar to the punk years. Britpop is a triumph of PR and good things have come out of it, but the more a term like Britpop gets used, with its cute nationalism, the more Britain gets seen as a minor fairground attraction."


A contemporary buzz-word, interconnectedness gives the lie to a growing condition of the Nineties: that of being simultaneously in touch and alone. "Using the Internet, you get tremendous intimacy in one sense, but it also creates an extraordinary isolation as you know very little about the person with whom you are communicating," says Nicholas Saunders, author of Ecstasy And the Dance Culture (pounds 9.99). "This is coincident with the rise of worldwide culture, where people identify with each other not because they are geographically close but because they share interests across national boundaries, whether it be rave culture, the eco-movement or the business community. Some Americans use the term morphic resonance for the force field of communal energy that you can tap into, which is an almost psychic notion."