Few decades have been as resolutely and relentlessly dismal as this past one, which is thankfully all over but the shouting (a note to calendaric purists who insist that the decade really runs from 2001 to 2010: You're part of the problem). Contested elections, international terrorism, more bubbles blown (and burst!) than on a Lawrence Welk special. Did we really survive the Y2K bug, avian flu and the unstoppable proliferation of saggy pants for this?
There was plenty serious that went wrong with "the Aughts" (one more indicator of a desultory decade: the period has produced no commonly shared nickname). It was one of the worst decades ever for stocks, the U.S. mired itself in two seemingly endless and intractable wars, total federal spending increased by more than 100% in real dollars, unemployment hit double digits and for the second time in 10 years, the government is poised to massively intervene in health care (and not just Medicare this time). Most troubling for long-term economic growth, and hence living standards, it is no longer clear where the public sector ends and the private sector begins. It's hard to escape the sinking feeling that the government-controlled General Motors may well be prototyping America's answer to the Lada.
Yet for all that trouble, we spent a lot of time and energy in the Aughts fighting phantom menaces, such as the ideas that vaccines cause autism in children, that ATM machines featuring a Spanish-language option posed a threat to national sovereignty and that rampant steroid use by players was turning off fans who attended Major League Baseball in record numbers. All of these oh-so-pressing issues received multiple congressional hearings when they should have been more properly rinsed away, like the hand-sanitizer gels that rose to ubiquity.
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As a sadly appropriate parting gift to this grim first decade of the 21st century, a period so debased that the Boston Red Sox managed to win not just one but two World Series, we can thank Nigerian would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for robbing us of our inalienable right to use a cramped bathroom at 30,000 feet. Indeed, we can only await Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's directive that all frequent fliers must now go commando as a condition of air travel.
While Mr. Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb thankfully did not explode en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, his botched attempt (and the heroic acts of passengers) has reignited one of the decade's most pervasive—and overblown—anxieties: that terrorist violence would become "the new normal," an everyday occurrence in the United States.
As Ohio State political scientist John Mueller has documented, such fears are as erroneous as they are deeply held. "The likelihood that a person living outside a war zone will perish at the hands of an international terrorist over an eighty-year period is about one in 80,000," wrote Mr. Mueller in the American Interest in 2008. "By comparison, an American's chance of dying in an auto accident over the same time interval is one in eighty." Well, rational analysis should never get in the way of strong feelings.
What will be the great hysterical fears of the coming decade? By definition, such worries need to be simultaneously undocumentable and just plausible enough to convince politicians, celebrities, civic do-gooders, captains of industry and media types that our very society hangs in the balance.
For a classic example, think back to the 1980s, when Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, helped form the Parents Music Resource Center and addressed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation regarding the pressing topic of sexual, violent and occult imagery in pop music. As Mrs. Gore wrote in her best-selling (and now hard-to-find) 1987 book "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society," "By using satanic symbols on the concert stage, and album covers, such as those used by Ozzy Osbourne…certain heavy metal bands lure teenagers into what one expert has called 'the cult of the eighties.' Many kids experiment with the deadly satanic game, and get hooked."
It is probably only thanks to the intervention of the Gores that we managed as a country to wrestle free both of Beelzebub's and Ronnie James Dio's bony grasp. Which, it's worth adding, might have been preferable to that of Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner.
Here's a tour of the probable panics of the 2010s, some of which are already well under way.
China Is Both Making and Eating Our Lunch
Few things engender flop sweat faster among upper-class Americans than the idea that a lesser nation is on the fast track to economic domination. In the late 1980s, it was self-evident to those in the know that Japan's government-subsidized, super-hierarchical and tightly integrated mega-corporations were intrinsically superior to their American counterparts. A raft of best sellers like "Rising Sun" and movies such as "Gung Ho!" bid sayonara to the American Way. The fear collapsed in the '90s along with the Japanese economy, which has yet to pull out of a "lost decade" that's lasted nearly 20 years.
Look for a repeat of the same story, this time with China in the lead role. By keeping their currency low—they have pegged it to the dollar, after all—the Chinese have thrown "hundreds of thousands and maybe even more Americans…out of work," says Sen. Charles Schumer, who has called for a trade war. After a couple more quarters of weak or nonexistent growth, get ready for calls to banish dissent and individualism in business that will last right up to the moment that the Chinese government makes the wrong call. Which, if history is any guide, is already in the pipeline.
Peak Oil Refuses to Rise to the Occasion
You don't have to be a global-warming alarmist to wonder just when the world's oil reserves are finally going to dry up and drive the price of oil through the roof, thereby ushering in a glorious age of energy created by hamsters on exercise wheels or some other renewable source. Conservatives who are into energy independence (such as former Gov. Sarah Palin) are also rooting for "peak oil," the moment at which oil reserves go into irreversible decline, as it means that increasing domestic production will become politically possible.
The funny thing is, peak oil has been predicted with regularity for decades now and something always gets in the way: new reserves are discovered, prices collapse due to economic slowdowns, new technologies extract more fuel from less supply. Look for a new peak-oil panic the moment the world economy unambiguously recovers and demand rises. And after gas prices climb up to $4 a gallon before dropping again to $2.50.
Everything That Can Be Invented Has Been Invented
A new Zogby poll reports that about one-third of Americans "believed there would be greater technological advances by 2010." Who isn't disappointed by the lack of jetpacks and doggie treadmills like on "The Jetsons"? The iPhone came out like three years ago and there hasn't been anything else invented since then, right?
When we're not complaining that the rate of innovation is so fast that it's causing future shock, we like to complain that it's been years since anything radically new has rocked our world. Sure, the Clapper was promising, but it utterly failed to usher in an age of smart appliances that would do our bidding without even being asked. The contraptions in SkyMall magazine run decidedly more toward hot-dog-and-bun toasters than something as futuristic as, say, an airport-screening device that actually works. Given that the first big jump to the Internet, networked computers and e-commerce started more than a decade ago, we're perfectly poised for a perennially recurring panic that we're in a new Dark Ages and that the major innovation necessary to pull us out of our current recession is never going to happen.
Mission Accomplished: The War on Boys
No decade has gone by without some sort of brouhaha over changing gender roles. Typically, the root fear is that boys are becoming sissified dandies. In the 1950s, masculinists decried "Momism," the control of the household by the pants-wearing monster formerly known as Mother (think "Rebel Without a Cause").
Over the past decade, wise observers looked past corporate boardrooms and legislatures and pooh-poohed the idea that men still rule the world. Instead, they fretted over the diminished prospects for boys, who fail at school, get arrested and are unemployed at significantly higher rates than girls. No wonder they are also more heavily medicated and diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder too. (Who can concentrate when your future is so bleak you might end up reporting to a woman?) Many colleges have even acknowledged that they practice affirmative action to pump up the Y chromosome counts on campus. It's only a matter of time before Very Serious People take up the question of what we can do with this most dangerous of endangered species.
We Need to Reinflate the Higher-Education Bubble
Forget about all the worries aired in the last decade that college was a cruel hoax that was creating an impoverished underclass that could only find work as baristas. Forget everything you heard about "Generation Debt," those sad-sack college grads coming out of universities with crushing debt that keeps them from fully participating in The American Dream, aka securing a mortgage that they can't really afford. (Forget too that the typical graduating senior comes out owing just $23,200 and will only make somewhere between $200,000 and $1 million more over the course of her career thanks to her sheepskin.) And forget that only about 53% of college students have graduated six years after starting school.
In the 2010s, the fear will be that college enrollments will tank, especially as higher-ed costs (thanks to massive amounts of student aid) continue to spiral upwards like health-care costs. Sure, community-college attendance will surge, but four-year enrollments were already flat in the Aughts. How will we compete with China (see above) and other rising nations if the next generation isn't taking three semesters of advanced calculus and earning enough engineering degrees to build an infinite number of bridges to the future? And how will our children ever move out if they don't immediately make more than the national average upon graduation?
Why Have the Kids Stopped Having Sex?
From at least the 1920s on, the older generation has consistently fretted over the possibility that the younger generation was not only having more sex than adults did, but that they were enjoying it more, too. Now prepare for the opposite. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute and other sources that track this sort of thing, high-schoolers are actually scoring less and having fewer pregnancies since the 1990s. Whatever the cause for the slowdown in sex, as the solvency of Social Security and Medicare come closer to reality, not to mention the true costs of health-care reform and record-setting budget deficits, expect a series of prurient exposes on the trouble with promise rings and alarmist reports worrying about who exactly is going to pay for Baby Boomers' entitlements.
The above list is hardly exhaustive, of course. For instance, it is unimaginable that we'll go 10 full years without a White House Conference on the Coarsening of Culture, that some form of deadly yet cuddly mammal will be identified as near extinction even as its population is increasing, that we will suddenly recognize that our core common culture is threatened by the failure to teach "The Brady Bunch" in the K-12 curriculum, and that viruses are either multiplying or disappearing altogether at an alarming rate.
The important thing is that such outsize and overblown fears distract us from what really matters. Which may not be such a bad thing, especially if we suffer another decade like this last one.