What should we think when decades and centuries turn?

Ken remembers the turn of the century when society feared digital failure and relying on antiquated tools

There’s something about the turning of one year into the next, not to mention when a decade slips quietly into another. But how could such an event compare to the morphing of both a century and a millennium from old to new? On the cusp of 1999/2000, I was gainfully employed as cabinet communications advisor to the Yukon government. As such, I inhabited the inner circle of the territory’s premier, whom we still called Government Leader back then.

When 2019 recently moved aside to make room for 2020, it was relatively anticlimactic. After all, what could distinguish one year, even a whole decade, from its predecessor? Impeachment? Climate crises? The possibility of another world war? Piffle. None of that compared to the transition from the second century AD (or whatever they call it these days) into the third.

You see, we faced this little thing called Y2K.

I didn’t get my knickers in a twist when the ’40s became the ’50s, or when 1959 gave up the ghost to 1960, with all the promise of a new Camelot on the grounds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The passage of 1969 into 1970 meant little more than the prospect of an end to war in Vietnam and the possible impeachment of a strange, messianic leader of the free world.

When 1979 yielded to 1980, and 1989 became 1990, I might as well have been asleep in bed. It meant nothing to my daily existence, on either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1. However, when 1999 was about to fold its millennial hand, most of us were as skittish as what Tennessee Ernie Ford would have referred to as “a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.”

Dire predictions abounded everywhere. The stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000 would unleash universal chaos and the end of civilization as we knew it. Planes would fall from the sky and elevators would plummet to the ground, as in some apocalyptic Bruce Willis movie. Millions would die under the surgeon’s knife as operating theatres worldwide went dark. All because somebody, somewhere in Techland, lacked the foresight to embed enough digits in computerized calendars. 

Guess what? It never happened.

In the finely-honed bureaucracy of the Yukon government, appropriate measures had been taken. If all else failed, we could go back to pencils, paper, even slide rules and abacuses, if necessary. The crucial business of government (collecting taxes, issuing cheques and doublespeak news releases) would continue.

But in the Government Leader’s office, we were pumped. A new millennium (which happened to coincide with an election year) would be a time to celebrate.

It was. And we did.

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