Are We Entering the “Gloomy 20s”? All the Headlines Seem to Say So

Social Commentary

Are We Entering the “Gloomy 20s”? All the Headlines Seem to Say So

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Normally, when we enter a new decade, there is an overt sense of optimism over what the next ten years hold in store. And why not? That’s a long enough timeframe for good policy and technology to develop meaningful change, yet short enough for us to see their benefits ourselves (just think of mobile technology, for instance).

Remember the excitement as we entered the 2000s and the 2010s? The internet and fruits of liberalisation sweetened the former, as did a strong economy, smartphones, and Obama’s presidency for the latter. But this time around it seems different: Global expectations from the decade we’ve just entered seem to oscillate between tempered realism and outright dread. This is because most people who follow the news know that it’s a make-or-break decade for the planet. There are several variables — from a Trump re-election, to action on climate change, to whether India ends up as a Hindu Rashtra, to the increasing hegemony of China, to the fractious condition of the EU, to the re-rise of ISIS — each of which has the potential to upend the world on their own.

Don’t take my word for it: The RBI’s consumer confidence index says India has turned its most pessimistic since 2014 (we won’t comment on the obvious correlation). Open the politics and business page of any newspaper and you will be hard-pressed to find anything to smile about (except some idiotic quotes equating slowdown to millennial choices). Globally too, this is a trend: CEOs are six-fold gloomier (PWC survey), the public mood of their economies is low (Pew Research) and even if you take economic factors out of the equation, the UN tells us that most of the world is pretty damn pissed off.

Bushfire

A CFA Member works on controlled back burns along Putty Road on November 14, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.

Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

The Words of the Year by various dictionaries are an interesting barometer to document this change. Oxford’s words in the middle of the decade were selfie, vape and that cry-smile emoji. In contrast, the words of the last two years: Toxic, and Climate Emergency. Various reputed news publications have pretty much given this decade a thumbs-down.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. As we entered the 2010s, there was hope that the worst of the recession was over (did I tell you I survived that?). America had elected a black man as president. Disgruntled by the financial mess, brains moved from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, hoping to use tech to preponderate liberal goodness around the world.

Domestically too, India was on the up. Unshackled from the prison-ball of the Left parties, the Congress could finally go on and make some kickass economic changes — after all, it had the mastermind of the Indian economy at its helm. Some deft stewardship of the RBI meant India didn’t feel the worst of the global recession, plus it had an opportunity to build a reputation as an outsourcing hub beyond back-end IT work, as the companies around the world looked to get more value for their buck.

How mistaken we all were: As we enter 2020, two buffoons are in charge of the erstwhile most powerful countries (US, UK), a ruthless dictator is in charge of the challenger (China), and the world’s most evil man is in charge of Russia (and everything else). Protracted nationalism and Islamophobia is on the rise around the world. Silicon Valley — our supposed saviour — has destroyed everything from mental health to democracy. India is embroiled in debates that draw comparisons with Nazi Germany. Oh, and there’s shocking apathy to climate change all around. The last 2-3 years in particular seem to have been a non-stop barrage of bad news, starting with Britain’s shock decision to leave the EU.

Domestically, Modi has realised that cows and Islamophobia sell better than vikas and toilets — so expect more lynchings and fewer flyovers.

It isn’t getting any rosier. There’s a very real chance Trump could get re-elected. The Brexit jokes stop now, as we enter the business end of a disastrous decision. China and Russia look scarier by the day. ISIS, al-Qaeda, Taliban and Boko Haram are all on the rise, after being supposedly dying out. The Softbank-funded recklessness of startups will come to a screeching halt, upending the lives of millions of users and employees.

Domestically, Modi has realised that cows and Islamophobia sell better than vikas and toilets — so expect more lynchings and fewer flyovers. But biggest of all, climate change looks set to accelerate, despite warning after warning by everyone from scientists to 16-year-old activists to raging wildfires in Australia. To avert a planetary crisis, we will need everyone to cooperate, which looks more unlikely than Arsenal winning the Premier League.

It’s no wonder that any optimism about the next 10 years will be laughed at. 

What’s worse, because of what we know we’ve done with technologies from 2010, new ones are met with fear and scepticism. The 2010s truly were the decade of, “If there is tech, humans will find a way to misuse it.” Gene editing was supposed to rid us of all diseases, instead we’re wondering what eugenesists would do with it. Facial recognition was supposed to just make unlocking your phone easier, now it’s used by China (and the Delhi Police) for surveillance. In the past decade the commentary about our Martian adventures went from “What a dream!” to “Why should we destroy another planet?”

This sense of pessimistic realism hits everything.

New product? What’s its climate change impact?

New service? The VC party is over, how are you going to make money?

New technology? How do you make it dictator-proof?

Elections? Don’t rule out fringe loonies becoming popular — like in UK, Germany, and even the Netherlands (keep in mind that at the time of the Babri demolition, the BJP were a negligible national force).

JNU Protests

Students of different colleges and universities, artists and activists are joined a rally in Kolkata, India on January 7, 2020 to protest against NRC, CAA, NPR and the attack on the students of Jawaharlala Nehru University (JNU) by members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyatri Parishad (AVBP) on the night of 5th January.

Photo by Sumit Sanyal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It feels foolish to have utopian, up-in-the-air dreams when there are crises to solve. Somehow, Facebook trying to work out VR and cryptocurrency seems misplaced when it has so much to solve in terms of misinformation. Elon Musk’s aura has insulated him thus far, but eventually he’ll need to stop starting new companies and focus on making one sustainable. Eventually (sometime this decade, we hope) countries will need to prioritise climate change over infrastructure and statues. It’s inevitable.

Yeah, this is not a cheerful post. Maybe the time for unchecked optimism and cat GIFs is over (Tellingly, Buzzfeed is yet to turn a profit, while NYT has grown its digital business substantially. Imagine that in 2012). We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There’s a lot of shit to fix.

This is not the time to slot ourselves as glass-half-empty or glass-half-full people — it’s the time to understand just how much water we have left in the glass and do something about it. Here’s to a decade where we, as a species, do something so we can go back to writing positive decade-gleaning pieces in 2029.

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