Concurrent changes in seawater chemistry, sea level, and climate since the mid-Cretaceous are thought to result from an ongoing decrease in the global rate of lithosphere production at ridges. The present-day area distribution of seafloor ages, however, is most easily explained if lithosphere production rates were nearly constant during the past 180 m.y. We examined spatial gradients of present-day seafloor ages and inferred ages for the subducted Farallon plate to construct a history of spreading rates in each major ocean basin since ca. 140 Ma, revealing dramatic Cenozoic events. Globally, seafloor spreading rates increased by ∼20% during the early Cenozoic due to an increase in plate speeds in the Pacific basin. Since then, subduction of the fast-spreading Pacific-Farallon ridge system has led to a 12% decrease in average global spreading rate and an 18% or more decrease in the total rate of lithosphere production by the most conservative estimates. These rapid changes during the Cenozoic defy models of steady-state seafloor formation, and demonstrate the time-dependent and evolving nature of plate tectonics on Earth.