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"The nineties" - an empty metaphor waiting to be filled.

"THESE ARE THE NINETIES" people will say, as if they're saying something meaningful. The phrase "the Nineties" creeps into conversations in odd moments, vanishing as quickly as it appeared. Ads, of course, sell us the styles of "the Nineties." Consultants are ready to prime us for the job market of the "the Nineties." We are told that education will have to change in "the Nineties."

But what does "the Nineties" really mean? As of this writing, in early 1993, we have to be honest and say we don't really know.

"The Nineties" is a metaphor, a phrase standing for a decade; but more than that, a mood, a characteristic set of attitudes, some important events. But "the Nineties" have not really crystallized yet, here in early 1993, and the decade is almost a third gone. We have here an empty metaphor, a container waiting to be filled.

"The Nineties" sounds like a plausible concept, I think, largely because of the success of the metaphor "the Sixties." We all know about "the Sixties": the love generation, the Beatles, the anti-war protests, long hair, marijuana and LSD, blue jeans, Civil Rights, Black Power, urban riots, and moonwalks.

Actually, it took "the Sixties" a while to get going, and they continued into the 1970s. The "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King was given in 1963, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley occurred in 1964. The Beatles arrived in New York 1964, but it wasn't until 1967 that the "Summer of Love" became a "happening," to the tunes of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The Kent State shootings took place in 1970. Some of the biggest anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations occurred after that. It wasn't until 1973 that the Vietnam War ended and the draft was suspended -- announced on the same day, I recall.

Since that time, "the Sixties" have been packaged and sold to younger generations as rock 'n' roll oldies, funny fashions, and peace slogans. I recall hearing some college students in the late 80s talking about a "Sixties Party" they had been to: everyone wore tie-dyed tee shirts and flashed the "V" sign and said "peace" to each other. This was "the Sixties" to them. Gone was the sense of critique of the culture, the protest against foreign entanglements, the notion of the culpability of big corporations for planetary war and ecological destruction, the visibility of the "military-industrial complex."

"The Sixties" may return, however. Some bold prophets of "the Nineties" are predicting that the social protests in this decade will outdo "the Sixties" as they take environmental and world peace issues as their focus. Is this just wishful thinking on their part? Are they merely projecting their fantasies into the empty metaphor, trying to give it form? Stay tuned.

Once "the Sixties" had happened, it was easy to see that there had been a "Fifties" as well, a period of conformity, optimism, big cars and suburbia. And we moved on into the "Me Decade" of the Seventies, where people became self-absorbed and withdrew from public participation. This gave way to the "Go-Go Years" of the Deregulated Eighties, the Reagan Years, where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and the middle class got squeezed.

Such, at least, have been the media stereotypes of the past decades. Of course they contain inaccuracies -- any generalization of such magnitude must. But their repetition has given them a legitimacy, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in reverse, so we remember the "Seventies" as the "Me Decade," forgetting that this was also the beginning of widespread environmental awareness and the organized women's movement. We remember the "Reagan Years" for their renewed bellicosity in foreign affairs and the excitement of the takeover wars, putting aside thoughts of the painful and enduring economic shrinkage that may be the decade's most important feature.

And so we come to "the Nineties," a very large metaphor which is mostly empty. We are adding shovelfuls of time and events to try to fill it up. I have been noticing some of the ways the metaphor "the Nineties" gets used, and I think I detect some nervousness.

A typical use of the metaphor comes from a TV infomercial. "...In the Nineties, time and convenience are becoming more important to us...and I think the trend is moving toward the home." This social forecast comes from a half-hour commercial for a home exercise machine: "a machine for the Nineties." It has an "on-board monitor that calculates calories burned," since "feedback is a very important feature" of the machine.

A number of themes are struck here which often appear in "Nineties" predictions. "Time and convenience are becoming more important to us..." Why is that? Perhaps because we have less discretionary time? Maybe we are working two part-time jobs to make ends meet? Maybe we have to put in overtime to fill in for the people who have not been replaced?

Another theme of the "Nineties" is high-tech gadgets for the home. This "machine for the Nineties" even has an "on-board" calorie monitor. We are constantly being promised more services available through our telephone lines and TV sets, symbiotically linked by our home computers. We will be able to shop, bank, pay bills, order up entertainment -- and never have to leave the house. Technology will replace human contact, fleeting though that contact has become.

Why is it desirable to do everything from the home, and never venture out to deal face-to-face with other people? We have a need for human contact that this high-tech future will leave unfilled. It seems to me that "the Nineties" may be a lonely time -- at least this theme is implicit in the imagery of the isolated, high tech suburban castle.

High technology, the replacement of human contact by contact with machines, the continued downsizing of corporations so those with jobs will have to work harder -- these themes also often appear in discussions about job hunting in "the Nineties." One book, The Devious Decade, by Joseph Ackaway, insists that lying on your resume is necessary in order to get a job. Ackaway gives helpful tips on how to inflate your claims about past responsibilities and cover your tracks with a friendly reference person. He justifies such tactics by pointing out that executives do this anyway, and in the tight job market of "the Nineties," with so many white-collar workers laid off, you need to inflate your resume to stand a chance of landing a good job. Perhaps. There will always be justifications for deception, and some deception is probably necessary in any job hunt; but I would still like to think that one's resume should be a relatively accurate map for the territory it describes.

Still, I myself have predicted that the U.S. is headed for a period of increased stereotyping of others, deceptive communication, and combative attitudes toward others.

I came to these gloomy conclusions after examining the new words for communication which had entered the language from 1961-1986. Over half the new words described deceptive, combative, or socially pressured communication practices: "psyching out" your opponent, "shooting down" a proposal, taking "cheap shots" at others, "hanging tough" in the face of pressure. As these new words become part of our working vocabulary, helping us think about our experience, they will shape our thoughts and communication into plans for deception, mystification, and verbal combat. (See Gozzi, 1990).

So "the Nineties" are here. As we peer into the dark caverns of this empty metaphor, we try to discern shapes in our future. We project our fears and our fantasies into "the Nineties," but we'll just have to wait for some "defining moments" which will light up the metaphor and give us a glimpse of what we're in for.


Ackaway, Joseph C. (1991). The Devious Decade, A New Approach to Finding a Job in the 90's. Chicago: Adams Press.

Gozzi, Raymond Jr. (1990). New Words and a Changing American Culture. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Dr. Raymond Gozzi, Jr. is Associate Professor of Communication at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois.
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Title Annotation:Metaphors in Action
Author:Gozzi, Raymond, Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:A general semantics glossary.
Next Article:An exploratory analysis of responses to owned messages in interpersonal communication.

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