The Age of Cool is ending. I explain the reasons why in my new book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool
. But the implications are even more important than the causes. They are evident everywhere, and especially in the new culture of confrontation that is permeating almost every sphere of day-to-day life.
It gets ugly when a whole society loses its cool. The term "going postal" didn't exist before 1993, but now the concept of a violent anger meltdown in the workplace — or in the school, on the road, or (most recently) at the town hall meeting — is all too familiar to us. Fisticuffs and outbursts on air flights, once virtually unknown, are now increasingly common. British railway stations have recently been forced to put up signs asking passengers to refrain from assaulting the staff.
One of the fastest growing professions in America is anger management counseling. This occupation didn't exist a few years ago, but now it is a booming business. You might have seen Dr. Steven Stosny, a guru in the field, on Oprah's show. When he started out his anger management practice in the 1990s, his clients were inmates at high security prisons, but nowadays it might be your boss, your neighbor next door, your date on Saturday night.
Medical practitioners have been forced to invent a new name for the syndrome. They call it Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) — another term that has entered our vocabulary in the post-cool era. A Harvard study suggests that as many as one out of every 14 adults may be afflicted. Do the math, and it suggests that every NFL game has several thousand hotheads in the stands ready to blow a fuse — and you thought violence in football was only on the field!
But the most visible place to watch people losing their cool these days is the media. Talk radio has become scream radio, and hosts and the folks phoning in seem to be in a competition to find out who can get the angriest. A similar phenomenon can be found on cable TV, where the ratings climb as the proceedings get nastier. And every reality TV show seems to need some angry person — a Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay — if it hopes to attract an audience.
Why is this happening?
As I show in my book, in the 1990s the Age of Cool started to come to an end in the United States. Cool was many things, but one of its dominant attributes was a laid-back personality style. It avoided confrontation, and instead made its points through humor and ironic distance. The hip and stylish folks prided themselves on not losing control of their emotions. Put simply, it just wouldn't be cool.
But nowadays, a new personality style is emerging. It prides itself on being blunt and direct. Communications — from the simple text message to the polished pundit on TV — are now short and too the point. The idea is not to be clever and ironic when talking, but to go straight for the jugular.
Don't get me wrong, this new personality style has some positive aspects. There are no hidden agendas any more, and in dealing with the new generation of post-cool people you can rest assured that "what you see is what you get." But, as I suggest in my book, this story is not likely to have a happy ending. And certainly, as cool leaves our lives, many will be nostalgic for what we've left behind.