In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proven false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.
If you squint hard enough, you could theoretically be optimistic about capitalism in America right now. Technically speaking, the U.S. economy is currently in the midst of the longest expansion in its history—a record that started when the country dragged itself out of the Great Recession and back into something resembling growth in 2009. Middle-class incomes have shown (at least fleeting) signs of life after decades of stagnation, too.
But if the first decade of the 21st century was defined by the rise and fall of what George W. Bush described as the American "ownership society,” the second saw that myth permanently disintegrate, replaced by the realities of economic precariousness. Even as stock markets started booming again, politics shifted leftward and socialists gained clout—and hackneyed terms like "late capitalism" gained followings.
Along the way, the very idea of what counts as money—what wealth looks like and how it's represented, what people aspire to earn and how popular figures flaunt it—shifted radically. This is the era of memes about the horrors of student loan debt and temp gig labor, about young people subsisting on GoFundMe campaigns and Seamless coupons, about plowing all your savings into brand-new digital currencies.
If the economy's capacity to atomize workers and conjure up wealth were part of the story of our unraveling confidence in capitalism, this decade also saw a surge in awareness of pay disparities, discrimination, and scams. The Women's National Soccer Team. Theranos. Fyre Festival. This was the time when the spectacular display of wealth reached its zenith, and also when society started to turn up its collective nose at the ugly truth.
End of 2011: U.S. Student Debt Tops $1 Trillion
In late 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street movement communicated millions of people’s frustrations with the economic policies of the last decade, the country quietly eclipsed a statistical marker that would help to define the next one: $1 trillion in student loan debt. Over the following years, the amount of student debt accrued by Americans would continue to steadily rise as the nation came to grips with the true extent of a college-affordability crisis that disproportionately affected lower-income families and people of color. By 2018, total student debt would reach $1.5 trillion, leading to calls by Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to eradicate most (if not all) of the debt that continues to hamper an entire generation. For a huge percentage of the millennial generation, the debt they took on in hopes of obtaining decent-paying jobs also became the reason they stayed at home with their parents, put off having children, and lost hope that they’d ever own a home of their own.
July 2012: Uber Launches UberX, Mainstreaming the Gig Economy
In the middle of 2012, a three-year-old tech company called Uber announced a new version of its service: Uber X. Until then, Uber had only offered rides in fancy black Town Cars. But Uber X allowed regular people to sign up to pick up customers in their regular cars. Riders would pay less—35 percent less to be exact, according to then-CEO Travis Kalanick at the time. When combined with the recent launch of what would become Uber’s main competitor in Lyft, the birth of “Uber X” helped push the gig economy into the mainstream. It seemed like a simple enough shift to open up the service to more riders and drivers. But within a few short years, there would be protests, resignations, boycotts, and, in some cases, suicide—aftereffects of the a more on-demand economy. Today, using an app to pay people to walk your dog and do your laundry is an unquestioned part of city life. But for the millions of people on the other end, the shift has fundamentally transformed the nature of work, creating an environment where health benefits and rest are harder to obtain, and a forced smile is key to keeping your rating high enough to keep going.
June 3, 2014: Seattle Is the First City to Pass a $15 Minimum Wage
When this obscenely expensive tech hub joined a nearby suburb in changing its minimum wage to nearly double the federal one, haters came hard. The massive number was a job-killer, they predicted. Liberal fantasies were being wrought on hapless business owners, and destruction would surely follow. Instead, a wonky experiment became a model for cities and states across the country, and entered the mainstream as a de facto standard of progressive quality of life. Just as important: Research since has shown that initial predictions were misguided or just plain wrong, and most workers across income levels are benefitting. It's almost as if forcing bosses to pay people more works. Six years later, ideas as radical as guaranteeing people a universal basic income were at least getting a hearing, however fleeting, on the presidential debate stage.
September 17, 2015: Martin Shkreli Reminds America How Fun It Is to Hate Arrogant Rich People
Martin Shkreli had long made the rounds as an up-and-coming finance dude, a hedge fund wunderkind who studied under alleged luminaries like Jim Cramer. But it wasn't until a health publication reported on his company Turing Pharmaceuticals having jacked up the price of a life-saving medication 5,000 percent virtually overnight that he became Pharma Bro, the so-called most-hated man in America. This was partly a story about absurd wealth and the toys it buys—in Shkreli's case, infamously, it was a never-before-heard Wu-Tang Clan album. But it was also a story about financial predation in the healthcare system, of the incursion of hedge-funder thinking—thirsty as fuck for profit, fast—on industries that maybe shouldn't be so ruthless. It wasn't a coincidence that Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All platform, now somehow halfway in the political mainstream, got so much traction around the same time Shrekli had his 15 minutes of fame.
October 16, 2015: The Wall Street Journal Publishes the Exposé That Would Take Down Elizabeth Holmes, the Biggest Grifter of the Decade
The title of reporter John Carreyrou’s initial story about the underlying issues at Elizabeth Holmes’ company was almost comically demure: “Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology,” the Wall Street Journal suggested. But within a year, the effects of Carreyrou’s reporting would become inarguable. Once a high-flying blood-testing company that made its founder, Holmes, the richest self-made woman in the country, Theranos has since been described as “massive fraud” by the Security and Exchange Commission—the most high-profile grift in a decade of grifts. Ever since, so-called scammers, like Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland and Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway, took advantage of Americans by employing some combination of charm and would-be technological know-how. But no one had done so quite as beautifully as one Elizabeth Holmes.
March 30, 2016: U.S. Women’s Soccer Players Allege Wage Discrimination
Only five women filed the federal complaint that accused U.S. Soccer of systemic wage discrimination. But when soccer stars Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo did so in March 2016, it felt like they did so not only on behalf of the rest of their team, but on behalf of women all around the country. In the years leading up to the complaint, conversation surrounding the gender pay disparities in the U.S. economy had only gotten louder. Nowhere was the argument more clear than within U.S. Soccer, where the World Cup-winning women earned only 40 percent of what their mediocre male peers made. But the federation dug its heels in, leading to a battle that has continued to the present day.
April 23, 2016: The Panama Papers Drop, and the Rich Get Nervous
That rich people cheat on taxes and stash their assets in places Normals can't access has long been accepted as a fact of life in America. But a massive—like, millions of them—cache of documents uncovered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and partners at various outlets touched a nerve at a time when a billionaire accused of tax evasion (Donald Trump) was taking on a millionaire with lots of rich friends (Hillary Clinton) for the presidency. The bold-face names squarely implicated in using shady (now defunct) Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca were mostly abroad: friends of Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Iceland. But at a time of surging inequality and anger at the One Percent, the Panama Papers (and the Paradise Papers that followed the next year) helped put meat on the bones of a general suspicion that rich people don't just make their own rules—they make their own reality. Suddenly, getting a handle on who has what and where—much less taxing it to fix inequality—looked almost impossible.
December, 17, 2017: The Bitcoin Bubble Hits $19,783
It was pretty easy to feel like an idiot in December 2017, when the price of a single Bitcoin rocketed to almost $20,000. By the next month, The New York Times was already publishing stories titled things like “Everyone Is Getting Hilariously Rich and You’re Not.” Bitcoin’s rise over the previous six months had been a sight to behold—the previous December, a Bitcoin hadn’t even been worth a grand. The success of the digital coins seemed to diehards like righteous proof that the future of the economy was on the internet, not in governments. Then, over the next six months, the price just as quickly dropped back down to earth. Within a few months, a Texas professor would publish evidence that “at least half” of the price spike had been due to something else entirely: “coordinated price manipulation.” Like so many other things on the internet, it seemed Bitcoin fever had been fake.
May 15, 2017: Avocado Toast Defines a Generation and Sparks a Million Arguments
“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn't buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” millionaire Tim Gurner told the Australian version of “60 Minutes” in May 2017. Gurner, then a 35-year-old luxury real estate developer, was arguing that the frugality and hard work he had himself practiced as a young man were key to homeownership, and that the lifestyle expectations of young people had grown far too grandiose—European vacations, etc. At the time, Gurner was an unknown in the U.S., and far from the first person to make such an argument, but his comments still set off a torrent of anger from millennials, who justifiably argued that larger macroeconomic issues—like, say, the Great Recession or ever-increasing student loan debt—had more to do with low home ownership rates than any one person’s personal responsibility habits. From then on, avocado toast became a symbol of the generational divide over what was to blame for the financial positions of an entire generation.
February 21, 2018: A Single Kylie Jenner Tweet Costs Snapchat a Billion Dollars
Over the course of the decade, the newfound power of social media influencers became increasingly clear. But perhaps no moment crystalized the influence of a new generation of celebrities more than when Kylie Jenner knocked Snapchat’s value down by more than a billion dollars with a single tweet. "sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad,” the Kardashian wrote. The idea that one person could hold so much sway over a company they don’t run seemed absurd to some people. To others, it was clear proof that the balance of power was shifting toward a new kind of broker: those who rule the internet.
March 12, 2019: The College Cheating Scam Is Exposed, and Any Remaining Illusion of Meritocracy Crumbles
Aunt Becky (Lori Loughlin) from Full House. Felicity Huffman from Desperate Housewives. Inflated resumes. Fake photos of kids playing sports they knew nothing about. The feds busted a ring of bribery and fraud at high-level colleges and it broke through in a big way, thanks to the star-studded cast—and the gall of already-rich people perpetuating the myth of merit in a country that is supposedly about individualism. Loughlin was allegedly a party to half-a-million dollars in bribes to get two of her kids admitted to USC for nonexistent crew talents. Huffman pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to fake her kid's SAT scores. It all proved that rich Boomers have the same weasel-y insecurities as the rest of us. And it served as a fitting coda to a decade of hand-wringing about the habits—avocado toast, working remotely, whatever—supposedly endemic to young people. In fact, the reality of young people struggling to hack it in a world with so many entrenched inequalities was clearer than ever: Not only can donating money buy heirs and heiresses access to the elite institutions that perpetuate wealth gaps, America learned, but when that doesn't work, there's always Photoshop.