Hello, 2010. Goodbye, Decade of Cringe

Who could have predicted the twists and turns of the past decade -- from hanging chads to 9/11, the bubble economy to Bernie Madoff? It is tempting to believe anything will be better than the Decade of Cringe. But the next 10 years will dismay and delight as well.

I know we never agreed to call them “the aughts.” Nor are they officially over when the odometer flips to 2010. Calendar killjoys won that debate 10 years ago by correctly pointing out that the year with the zero belonged to the decade just ending, not the one beginning. Point taken. But if memory serves, a special UN commission concluded that we could party like it was 1999 anyway and that ’01 sticklers would be free to twirl a solitary noisemaker the following year.

Also, yes, the decade to come is not yet the teens. The years 2010, ’11, and ’12 are an in-between period, a three-year run-up to the official teens. For the next year, you may hear people talk of “the twenty-tens.” That won't last beyond New Year’s Day, 2011. In 2013, historians and headline writers will finally have a handy moniker to describe our era. Decade-naming will be a piece of cake for 87 years after that.

Whatever we call the period kicking off on Jan. 1, 2010, it is long past time to put to bed the decade that began with the Y2K scare. Granted, many good things happened over the past 10 years. Babies were born, people fell in love, friendships and business deals were inaugurated. But at a news level, it was grim – from hanging chads to 9/11, “Mission Accomplished” to “I voted for it before I voted against it,” the financial panic to the “beer summit.”

There were wars, pandemics, bubbles, and Ponzi schemes. There was bad behavior by Mel Gibson, Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, and far too many others formerly trusted and admired.

The zeitgeist was perhaps best captured by uncomfortable sitcoms such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office.” In the spirit of Larry David and Steve Carell, you could call the last 10 years the Decade of Cringe.

What’s ahead? It is difficult to see too far forward. We know that the economy is on the mend but shaky, that humongous budget deficits are the next big worry, that Big Auto, Big Finance, and Big Media are not likely to return to their former glory. Fortune magazine’s best stocks for 2010 tellingly don’t include any Fortune 500 companies. (Oddest Fortune pick: Renhe Commercial Holdings, a Chinese company that “develops air-raid shelters in China ... that double as underground shopping bazaars.” Hmmm.)

Futurism is an exercise in extrapolation, which usually doesn’t get us very far. There will be surprises next year, and many more as the decade unfolds.
No one knew at the beginning of the 1960s that the Beatles would take the world by storm or that we would have landed on the moon before the decade was out. In the 1970s, oil shocks and disco came out of nowhere. The ’80s started with no hint that the Berlin Wall would fall. The ’90s are looked back upon as a fairly pleasant era – South African apartheid ended, prosperity increased in most of the world – but horrors like “ethnic cleansing” emerged. And the seeds of the next decade’s terrorism and economic upsets quietly germinated in ’90s soil.

The problem with extrapolation is that the future looks either utopian or dystopian, depending on how you view the present. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are classic examples. With the Roaring ’20s having just passed, Huxley’s 1931 vision of a brave new world was one of pleasure-seeking. From the perspective of 1949, suffused with the nightmares of Nazism and Stalinism, Orwell’s “1984” saw a totalitarian future. No seer will get the next 10 years right. Surprises will delight and dismay us.

So long to the Decade of Cringe. Welcome to whatever comes next.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor

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