So, this decade didn’t really start off on the right foot. In the span of three months, we went from happily ringing in the 2020 New Year with friends and family, to being confined to effective house-arrest as a global pandemic brought out the authoritarian tendencies of our elected officials. On top of that, the nation reeled from cultural and political divides that resulted in protests, riots and political violence during an election year where partisan tribalism was unlike anything we’ve seen in recent decades.
Indeed, on almost every front, last year brought to light the deep-seated dysfunctions within our society—with lockdowns, school closures and uncertainty amplifying all our cultural, political, and economic woes. And so, it would seem, that after such a chaotic and exhausting year, one might be tempted to write off the remainder of this decade as a loss before it even has a chance to really get going.
Doing so would be a terrible mistake.
The truth is, the chaos that came to define 2020 was a long time coming. The structural fractures in our politics, culture and government institutions have long been eating away at our previous sense of “normal.” And while specific government diktats are certainly responsible for much of the disruption we’ve seen in the last year, we were actually in the midst of a deeply transformational time already.
Which makes sense, given the technological changes that have defined the first part of the 21st century. The way we communicate, access information, and consume news has undergone dramatic shifts in the last couple decades. As is evidenced by the popularity of political outsiders, such as Donald Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, such shifts have had a profound impact on other important areas of our lives—such as politics.
Making these disruptions even more pronounced is the magnitude of generational differences during an era of such fast-paced change. The post-9/11 generation is just now coming of age. Generations who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall are gaining leadership roles in the economy and in politics. And, as a result, the older generations who were shaped by the ideological and social landscape of the 20th Century no longer guide the nation’s cultural, political, or professional conversations the way they used to.
And just like the economic disruption businesses see when innovative competitors enter their industry, these disruptions on the technological, political, and cultural fronts drive uncertainty, tension, and chaos. Combined with government’s heavy-handed authoritarian response to a global pandemic, it’s actually difficult to see, in retrospect, how 2020 could have been anything other than exhausting.
The world’s former sense of “normal” is gone, and in that void, we now find confusion, chaos, and desperate attempts by the old guard to claw back the world as it was. However, from all this disruption, there are great opportunities to rebuild our world as a freer, more diverse place for individuals to thrive.
After all, the lockdowns alone have likely done more to impassion the concept of individual autonomy and freer markets among normal Americans than any white paper could have ever done. Nothing drives home the rather academic and wonky policy concepts of free markets and individual liberty quite like petty tyrants in government closing down businesses and declaring countless workers as “non-essential.” Nothing makes educational choice less abstract and more approachable than when entire school districts lock children out of the classroom.
In that sense, despite its occasionally nightmarish appearance, this decade could very well be one of great success for promoting the freedoms necessary for human flourishing… provided that we seize this moment as an opportunity, rather than accepting it as a defeat.
The chaos of 2020 will, undoubtedly, continue into this year and beyond. And while it will often look as if we’re sliding into an increasingly dark authoritarian future filled with chaos, angst, and uncertainty, it’s crucial we remember that what we’re seeing isn’t an irreversible decent into madness. It’s a moment of massive cultural and political disruption that is screaming out for new ways to approach the world—ways that value and empower individuals rather than institutions.
In other words, the potential for the rest of this decade is limitless—which is, in itself, reason for optimism.