In July 2020, I purchased a pair of generic white New Balances. I loved those shoes. They fit right in with the rest of my modest wardrobe, and I was sad to throw them out this month, after almost two years of their distinguished service to my feet.
I am not a fashionable person. I couldn’t even begin to describe what makes “good” or “bad” fashion sense. And yet, it appears that my seemingly inconsequential shoe choice coincided with the decline of a mid-2010s fashion trend, “normcore.” Popularized by “trend forecaster” Sean Monahan of the K-Hole collective, “Normcore, as it came to be understood, was about embracing the banality of plainness, of not being alternative, and of not seeking difference to affirm your individuality,” writes Donovan Barrett of Highsnobiety. By wearing New Balances, I had accomplished each of these goals — even if I did so without much grace.
Unfortunately, I am still behind the curve. A year after I purchased those shoes, Monahan predicted on his Substack and in The Cut that American (read: millennial New Yorker) culture is already experiencing another “vibe shift.” Goodbye, he postulates, to Jerry Seinfeld’s bulky jackets and chunky sneakers. Welcome to the renaissance of Effy Stonem, indie sleaze and the end of the hyper-digital, hyper-“cancel culture” era.
After the profile in The Cut, the term “vibe shift” began to take shape in the media as an idea that extended beyond just fashion trends. Buzzfeed columnist Elamin Abdelmahmoud argues that “vibe shift” can also function as a framing device to analyze broad changes in American culture. In his opinion, the pandemic, anti-establishment Trump politics and now the war in Ukraine have all contributed to a decline in social trust. America’s democratic institutions are being challenged, and foreign countries are demonstrating that autocratic regimes will not easily capitulate, rebuffing political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s bold prediction that stable, liberal democracies would become the dominant world order.
The “end of history” argument arose in response to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1989. America believed, after the Cold War, that the project of liberal democracy had been vindicated as the supreme form of governance. However, as we have seen over the past two decades, efforts to democratize in other parts of the world have been overwhelmingly futile. It is amusing, therefore, that Generation Z would revitalize the late ’90s-Y2K-early 2000s aesthetic in which that optimistic spirit was born.
America then is unlike America now. In the late ’90s, the internet and other technological progress spurred an economic boom. Productivity soared, wages grew, incomes rose and, at the turn of the century, the unemployment rate dropped to 4%. In 2018, Neil Irwin of the New York Times wrote that the modern economy might be on a similar track towards ’90s-level growth. The labor market was (and still is) “tight,” which means the ratio of job openings to job seekers is high, and a persistently low interest rate has kept investors confident enough to keep pumping money into the stock market.
Then, the pandemic happened. Investors remained optimistic and the stock market flourished, but the effects of the pandemic were not felt evenly among Americans. If positions could not go remote, people lost their jobs or were forced to put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. Fiscal stimulus measures from the Trump and Biden administrations helped keep people afloat, but now, after a little more than two years since the start of the pandemic, inflationary pressures have forced the Federal Reserve to begin raising the interest rate in an effort to prevent the post-pandemic economy from spiraling out of control.
It remains to be seen what effect raising the interest rate will have on the economy. Rate increases, if they happen too fast, can cause a recession. A potentially troubling development is that the yield curve, a measure of investment in U.S. government bonds, has inverted. This means that either investors are less confident in the U.S.’s long-term economic prospects, or, a more benign cause, the Fed’s decision to end its program of purchasing bonds is starting to affect the bond market.
Even if the economy does not enter a post-pandemic recession, the economy will still be a vibe killer. Gen Z’s nostalgia for the turn of the century is harmless, as long as we simultaneously maintain a sober perspective on the economic direction of our country. When we leave the University of Michigan, we will not enter a housing market as hot as it was in the ’90s, especially if we don’t build more homes. And, if the precarious, stunted experience of the millennial generation is any indicator of what Gen Z will face as we lurch into adulthood, unabated optimism is not how I feel about life post-graduation.
So, go ahead and buy that outfit you’ve saved on your Pinterest Y2K moodboard. Maybe don’t start smoking cigarettes again, something that I witnessed a group of assumedly freshmen do over the weekend. But as you ride the vibe shift’s wave, keep an ear to the ground (as I know we all do) and plan your economic future with prudence. It does not yet appear that the vibes of our time are spilling over into a speculative fervor on Wall Street, but we should be careful to not let that become our reality.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com