When historians begin to look back at the first pivotal decade of the twenty-first century, what will they see? What types of words will they use to describe the 2000-2010 years, and how will those words hold up to other decades in terms of prosperity, popular culture, and innovation?
These questions seem out of the blue, given our ever changing environment. But these queries need to be answered, or at least pondered to some degree. Every single decade of the twentieth century has been labeled to some degree or another, usually with unique events in mind. The 1920s came to known as the “Roaring Twenties,” the 1930s saw the “Great Depression,” and the 1980s were considered to be the time of “the me generation” (whatever that means). Of course, the 1960s and 70s were both regarded as decades of immense cultural ferment in the United States, as social and political issues previously hidden or suppressed demanded their rightful place on the public agenda.
The verdict for the 2000-2010 period is still up in the air, and not without good reason; it takes generations before scholars can accurately analyze a time period in its full dimension. After all, it has only been seven months since the decade came to a close. But it’s interesting to start speculating, both because we have all experienced the tumult of those years and because the world changed drastically in a number of areas.
On its merits, the first decade of this century doesn’t appear to have been a particularly happy time for mankind. In the United States, it started with a terrible financial scandal at a huge corporation (Enron), where thousands of employees lost their hard earned livelihoods as a consequence of corrupt business executives. Of course, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed some 3,000 innocent civilians and gave birth a dark cloud that continues to hover over us up to this day. Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, and the SARS outbreak in China all demonstrated that humans are still unable to control everything, despite their technology and brainpower. Fighting erupted around the globe, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from the Sudan to the Caucasus.
Despite all of these disasters and catastrophes, there were also tremendous achievements throughout the last ten years. According to Charles Kenny of the New America Foundation, literacy rates across the world rose to 80 percent of the human population. In Africa, the most destitute continent, two-thirds of people can now read and write, perhaps paving the way for a new era in African development. People are being paid more, with an average global annual income of over $10,000. Agricultural yields have increased in the developing world, and the low price of grains over the last decade enabled more families to afford food and provide for their children. The number of children that have died from measles (a preventable disease) has dropped by 60 percent due to the widening availability of immunizations. And child mortality has declined by 17 percent, which could potentially help poor countries beef up their economic productivity.
From where we stand now, the last ten years seem like a mixed bag. Terrorism and violence crept into areas that were previously quiet, but intelligence services have responded with improvement. The global economy is still struggling to get out of the hole, but families are bringing more money into the household. In other words, the decade has witnessed a lot of balance, with pros butting heads against cons and solutions creating even more problems. One year, you’re at the top of the game, and the next, you’re at the bottom of the pile.
How about “the roller coaster decade?”