Did the world get better or worse in the 2010s?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

The teen years pose “some of the most difficult challenges.” They are a period of “disorientation and discovery” and can be “ripe for producing conflict.”

Those are psychologists’ descriptions of the teenage years of human development, but they could just as easily describe the decade that just passed. Over the last 10 years, humans have dealt with the growing pains of a changing world: rapidly advancing technology that suddenly connected everyone, political upheaval, rising social movements, sweeping demographic changes and the escalating effects of climate change.

In adolescents, all that turbulence is part of a process of physical and emotional maturation that ultimately results in a more stable adult. It’s not clear, however, whether the world’s tumultuous teen years have been a bumpy road toward a better society or if they represent a step backward for civilization.

Why there’s debate

To some observers, the 2010s were a decade in which the optimism of the early century disintegrated and the problems facing the world worsened. Little progress was made, some argue, in addressing some of the most pressing issues, such as climate change, unrest in the Middle East and global inequality. Technology was wielded by malicious actors and authoritarian governments to undermine democracy. Populist politics, fueled in part by racism, took hold in many Western nations, fueling an erosion of international alliances.

Others see the past decade as an era of progress. The world economy was crippled by the Great Recession at the end of the 2000s. Today it is thriving, especially in the U.S. Global issues like extreme poverty, child mortality and a number of infectious diseases are at their lowest rates ever recorded. More people than ever gained access to potable water, electricity and the internet.

Significant gains were made, some say, through social movements that drew attention to issues involving LGBTQ rights, criminal justice, racial and gender inequality, gun violence and climate change.


Things got worse

It was a decade of fear, anxiety and distrust

“Pick a decade out of a hat, and you’re likely to find a more agreeable one than the 2010s. ... It was the decade of anxiety, one in which we lost not simply a shared sense of purpose but a shared sense of reality.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

We lost our shared sense of the truth

“Perhaps the most depressing trend in recent years in America was how we’ve become an InfoWars society, how the rise of lies, conspiracy nonsense and absurdly over-dramatized news has eaten away at the vital center of American discourse, leaving this decade feeling so bitter and hollow.” — Rick Wilson, New York Daily News

The chance to substantively address climate change was squandered

“Even as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere race toward levels that could lock in catastrophic warming, the world continued to pump out more. Our collective failure to begin cutting emissions over the last 10 years almost certainly shatters the dream of halting rising temperatures at 1.5 ˚C.” — James Temple, MIT Technology Review

Populist politics have eroded democracy

“The lesson of the last decade is that millions of people do not want to adapt or change, and their complaints are likely to continue. For the foreseeable future, the opportunistic politicians who claim to represent them are going to be at the heart of yet another contradiction: Trump, [British politician Nigel] Farage, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán and the rest attract the votes of people who want the world to return to the past; but their mission is to push us into a chaotic, ugly future we cannot yet imagine.” — John Harris, Guardian

The economic recovery only made inequality worse

“Despite the longest economic expansion in modern history, real wages have barely risen. The share of corporate profits going to workers still isn’t back to where it was before the 2008 financial crisis. Never in the history of economic data have corporate profits outgrown employee compensation so clearly and for so long. The so-called ‘free market’ has been taken over by crony capitalism, corporate bailouts and corporate welfare.” — Robert Reich, Newsweek

Hope that the internet would be a force for good was dashed

“The second decade of the 20th century began at the apex of naivete about the potential for the internet to enhance democracy and improve the quality of life on Earth. By the end of 2019, very few people could still hold such a position with honesty.” — Siva Vaidhyanathan, Wired

The Muslim world suffered tremendously

“Throughout the Arab world, and in the Muslim world beyond it, the 21st century — and particularly its second decade — will be remembered for the litany of catastrophes that devastated entire nations and struck at the very idea of the moral arc of the universe.” — Kareem Shaheen, BuzzFeed News

Things got better

The economy recovered from near collapse and is thriving

“The decade now coming to an end delivered an underappreciated benefit to Americans that they’d surely notice if it were missing: Extraordinary job growth. ... The economy’s been growing for more than 10 years, since June 2009 when the Great Recession lifted.” — Editorial, Chicago Tribune

Global prosperity has hit unprecedented levels

“This decade, for all its sorrows, has been the best time to be alive. ... Human beings have never been healthier, wealthier, and safer than they are right now.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

LGBTQ rights made substantial gains

“In state and federal policy, in national political discourse and public opinion, LGBTQ people became truly visible, not just as a small minority whose sex lives inflame the culture wars, but as diverse subjects whose humanity should not be circumscribed by discrimination under the law.” — Christina Cauterucci, Slate

Social movements laid the groundwork for a more equitable society

“Change and progress are not only possible, but they are intrinsic to the dream that is this nation. And, every so often, a period arises in which some of that dream manifests and change is clear and indisputable, a leap forward for a people. The 2010s were just such a decade.” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times

World poverty is at an all-time low

“No matter whether you zoom in or zoom out, from New York to the world, things got much better this decade. Extreme poverty has fallen by more than half since 2008 and is now below ten percent of the world population for the first time ever.” — Kyle Smith, New York Post

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Bjorn Meyer/Getty Images