What do you most look forward to about life in the 21st century? Space colonization? An end to world hunger? The Dow at 10 zillion? All worthy goals, no doubt. But by far the best part about crossing that millennial threshold will be our finally leaving behind all the 21st-century catch-phrases that have littered politics, books, and media during the 1990s.
Y2K-like, these phrases have tainted the entire policy arena. Tack on "for the 21st century" to any public initiative and it is instantly transformed into a visionary, futuristic proposal. It is no longer enough to fix social security - it must be "saved for the 21st century." Republicans don't merely promise to lower taxes, but to pass "tax cuts for the 21st century." Finally, the wonks at the Treasury Department and IMF are hard at work designing a new international financial architecture for the 21st century, which doubtless will pave the way for millions of high-paying, high-tech, 21st-century jobs.
Although his attorneys may deny it, Bill Clinton is a repeat offender in this category. After promising to "build a bridge to the 21st century" in 1996, the president followed up by invoking the 21st century a total of 22 times in his State of the Union last January. (His generation's "historic responsibility" ranked a distant second on the clich-o-meter, with a mere six appearances.)
Such gimmickry is not limited to politics. A quick search on Amazon.com - the quintessential, profitless, 21st-century company - reveals more than 1,500 books with the term "21st century" in the title. Meanwhile, a Lexis-Nexis search uncovers ... ah, silly me, who will still use Lexis-Nexis in the 21st century? Web search engine Yahoo! retrieves more than 300 "21st century" links, while Lycos churns out a whopping 41,340 relevant sites.
Would a century by any other name smell as sweet? Probably not. It's difficult to imagine President John Adams (1797-1801) promising to build a steamboat to the 19th century. In fact, neither Adams nor William McKinley (1897-1901) even mentioned the coming centuries in their inaugural addresses.
The 21st century seems to hold a unique allure, as if it signified a millennial coming-of-age party at which we can all get tipsy on deep draughts of the utopia at hand. All problems will be solved, all worries forgotten, and all needs fulfilled in the 21st century. Even our sins and debts may be forgiven in a grand millennial jubilee. Perhaps that is why world leaders are apologizing so much these days - they are wiping the slate clean ... for the 21st century, of course.
But might the 21st century crumble under the weight of such exacting expectations? After all, the Big Day is a scarce nine months away, and the closer we get, the more the new century will resemble the mundane, problematic present. Perhaps the 21st century will become a bit pass once we are actually in it.
So prepare for the letdown of the century. When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, there will be no vast, millennial metamorphosis.
Our 21st-century jobs will bear an eerie resemblance to the ones we held back in 1999, and the things and people around us will look much the same as before.
Except for that clock, of course, which may no longer work.
*Carlos Lozada is an economist in Atlanta.