Is 2020 the first year of a new decade or the last year of an old one? Depends on who you talk to.
The Farmers’ Almanac says it’s the last year of the decade, explaining that “decades begin with the year ending in the numeral 1 and finish with a 0.” For example, “January 1, 2001, opened the 21st century and the start of the new millennium, just as the year 1 A.D. marked the beginning of the Christian era.”
Then again, people at the Encyclopedia Brittanica say they “never really considered the possibility that a decade could begin in any other year besides one ending in zero.” Notes J.E. Luebering, executive editorial director: “I love the question because it has never really occurred to me or any of us at Britannica to be concerned about it.”
But concerned, people are. And how fitting that this new (or old) decade should begin (or end) with a harmless yet passionate controversy, given our belligerent times where we would rather fight than seek common ground.
Question is, why all the negativity?
According to left-leaning columnist Nicholas Kristof “In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.” Kristof highlights the decrease in worldwide poverty, the increase in literacy, and the near eradication of many diseases. “By the time I die, illiteracy and extreme poverty may be almost eliminated – and it’s difficult to imagine a greater triumph for humanity on our watch.”
Right-leaning writer Jonah Goldberg sees similar advances, citing the work of British journalist Matt Ridley: “We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history” – from advances in energy production to a significant drop in consumption.
And yet, Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life has become the “most popular class ever” at Yale University, teaching “coping strategies” to undergraduates.
“Honestly, I was really worried about the kind of mental health dysfunction I was seeing on campus,” says professor Dr. Laurie Santos. “This is a thing that’s happening nationally, where 40 percent of college students report being too depressed to function and over 60 percent report feeling overwhelmingly anxious and lonely.”
I can hear the critics: “Typical snowflakes!” But as a father and high school teacher, I’m sympathetic. I understand how growing up in a world beset with political dysfunction (see “Washington, D.C.”), a deteriorating planet (see “Australia”), and international disorder (see “U.S.-Iran turmoil”) can be downright frightening.
As a know-it-all boomer, I have one simple suggestion to help kids escape this existential morass: Put down your cell phones!
Personal texts, social-media posts, perpetual buzzes and tones – they all distract us, knock us off-kilter, take away our sense of equilibrium.
Text messages, for example, put the focus squarely on “me.” Yes, it’s nice to stay in continual contact with friends, and yes, a text is often the most efficient form of quick communication. But kids’ ostrichlike approach to life does nothing to prepare them for life’s challenges. They should just forget the texts for a specified time every day and open themselves up to that great, big world around them.
Sadly, texting isn’t the half of it. An even greater threat to a healthy and balanced worldview is social media. For me, Twitter can be a depressing and poisonous place, dividing the world into simplistic factions: conservatives vs. liberals, boomers vs. millennials, Trumpers vs. Never Trumpers. Looking for middle ground on Twitter? Forget it. Never gonna happen. Twitter divides and conquers, leaving us with a jaded worldview.
Granted, most kids are likely to be on Instagram – a more benign environment for now – but life is not social media, and social media is not life. So again, disconnect for a spell every day and live your real life.
I know I’m saying nothing profound here, but sometimes Occam’s razor prevails – the simplest explanation is often the best. And I believe that the anxiety of our times is intensified by our attention-deprived, social-media-obsessed, smartphone-addicted habits.
So whether you’re young or old, step away from your cellphone, turn off Twitter, and read a book. Or go for a walk. Just get away from the vitriol and divisiveness of the digital world every so often and live your life.
It’s an optimistic resolution for the new (or old) decade now emerging (or fading away). Whatever your interpretation of 2020, you have the individual power to make it a healthy and constructive year.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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