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SCOT BELLAVIA: I’m Turning 30 . . . Or Am I?

As I look toward my 30th birthday at the end of this month, I wonder how old I’m going to be.

That is, will I be entering my thirties or finishing my twenties? This wouldn’t have been a question in elementary school math. Clearly, I’m starting my thirties. Look right there, the 3 in the tens place signifies just that!

However, I recently learned this is but a microcosm of a debate quite literally as old as time: when does a new century (in my case, decade) start? Was it January 1, 1900, 1800, 1700, etc. or January 1, 1901, 1801, 1701, etc.? Will I be in my thirties on my 30th or 31st birthday?

Here is some evidence for what I see as the common sense answer: ’00 years usher in a new century.

Let’s start from the building block of a century: a single day. We all understand midnight to be the first minute of a new day, do we not?

When we relate a story of something we did last weekend in the wee hours, we’ll say, “Saturday night, Sunday morning, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it.” But if we stopped to consider when the events transpired, we’d know which side of midnight it was on and so know whether it was Saturday night or Sunday morning. A day begins at midnight.

After all, midnight is “0000 hours” in the military. There’s no sensible number less than zero when it comes to telling time. As a day starts at 0000 hours, a century ought to start at 1/1/00.

The way I learned history, each decade was denoted by one item. Let’s stick with the 20th century, a confusing title that muddles our century debacle.

  • 1900s: Industrial Revolution
  • 1910s: World War I
  • 1920s: Roaring Jay Gatsby
  • 1930s: Great Depression
  • 1940s: World War II
  • 1950s: Leave It to Beaver
  • 1960s: sex, drugs, and rock and roll
  • 1970s: hippies
  • 1980s: the most absurd hairstyles
  • 1990s: beginning of the modern era, as I was born then.

Though I know the US was only involved in WWII from 1941-1945, this historical perspective— calling each decade by the last two digits (the Twenties, the Thirties, the Eighties)—only reinforced to me the obvious: the hippies ruled from Jan 1, 1970 to Dec 31, 1979 and Cyndi Lauper, perhaps, was handed the scepter Jan 1, 1980.

The problem with that is that we count from 1-10, not 0-9.

I made the case for ‘00 using its basic denomination: the day. The evidence for the other answer, ‘01 years, is in the beginning: year 1.

The experts say we didn’t have a year 0 and so, if we subscribe to ‘00, the first century would have been just 99 years, from 1 AD to 99 AD.

This is the answer, mathematically speaking. ‘01 is the beginning of a century. Yet isn’t that a letdown? ‘00 just sounds right. Think; this means Y2K was apprehended one year early, though I suppose that gave them an extra year to fix the computers.

Also, as Senior Science Specialist Ruth Freitag wrote in the 1990s, plans to celebrate the 21st century on 12/31/99 “have become so widespread that anyone who tries to call attention to the error is disparaged as a pedant and ignored. Perhaps the only consolation for those intending to observe the correct date is that hotels, cruise ships, supersonic aircraft, and other facilities may be less crowded at the end of the year 2000.”

So, likely you end up where I am, which is where Neal Ewing of The New York Times was in 1899. “The change in the [hundreds place digit] is so impressive…we should not be troubled by the resulting reduction to 99 years of the first century.”

What does all this mean for me today? It means that mathematically I’m finishing my twenties and it’s not until next year that I’ll be in my thirties. And that’s good news because that means I’m younger than I am, because I’m not quite ready to turn 30.

– Scot Bellavia

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