Why 2016 Is Only the Most Recent Worst Year Ever

This year has been miserable for many, but it has plenty of competition from its predecessors in the 20th century

Every new year is a new opportunity for the "worst year ever." (Oakozhan)
smithsonian.com

If calendar years were in competition for the “Worst Year Ever” crown, 2016 would certainly be a contender—at least according to the Internet. We’ve seen terrorist attacks and mass shootings, the deaths of famous singers and actors, rising nationalism, political upheaval and horrific deaths in the Syrian conflict.

But decrying the most recent year as the worst of all is hardly a new tradition. It’s practically built into our DNA, thanks to our innate negativity bias. The constant barrage of news media only further skews our perception. Yet even the dark side of news is nothing new: in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, a writer for The New York Times reminded readers on the last day of the year, “We are too apt to give undue consequence to the immediate present. Our hopes and fears are too much regulated by the morning’s news.”

Bemoaning the year, it turns out, is almost as popular as the cherished New Year’s Resolution.

In celebration of the end of the current “Worst Year Ever,” peruse a century’s worth of headlines and introspection. While the wording has changed (#worstyearever didn’t come into vogue until recently), the sentiments remain: it’s time to move forward and put the terrible past behind us.

But before you dive in, one more bit of advice from The Boston Globe on December 30, 1917, at the height of World War I: “It is not the time to indulge either in optimism or pessimism, to chase rainbows or shadows. Assemble the facts and face them with a clear eye and a stout heart. Hindsight is useless. Foresight is impossible. Our mental vision is not equal to the task of seeing even the present in all its stupendous proportions.”

December 28, 1919, The Washington Post, “Year of Confusion Follows Victory of Allies in the War”

What happened: World War I ends, but unrest continues across Europe. The Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918 is ongoing, eventually killing between 20 and 40 million people.

Key quote: “This year will go down in history as the year of confusion, because in it attempts to bring about a peaceful solution of the problems caused by the Great War have failed. As a matter of fact, it has been a year of turmoil and divided councils.”

December 31, 1930, The New York Times, “Europe Thankful That 1930 Is Over”

What happened: A global economic depression, with skyrocketing unemployment.

Key quote: “To England it was a thoroughly bad year, possibly worse than any experienced in the present generation…”

December 31, 1939, The New York Times, “Farewell to the ‘30s”

What happened: Nazi Germany annexes Czeckoslovakia, invades Poland, and Europe is plunged into contintental war for the second time in three decades.

Key Quote: “The decade of the Thirties was fixed by two dates, almost exactly ten years apart and only a few months off from the end of the calendar year. One was the stock market collapse of October, 1929, ushering in our longest and deepest depression. The other was the outbreak of the new European war, in September, 1939. Between those dates, like a row of books on a partitioned shelf, lie ten troubled, eventful years, distinct from those that went before and from those that are to come after.”

December 31, 1950, Los Angeles Times, “The Year is Departing and Not a Tear Is Shed”

What happened: The Cold War escalates, with the U.S. fighting in the Korean War and Senator Joseph McCarthy launching his hearings against Communists that would come to be known as the Red Scare.

Key Quote: “If ever there was a year every American would like to forget it is 1950. The halfway mark of the 20th century was supposed to be something in the way of twelvemonths, but it has turned out to be the worst of the 1900s so far... Farewell, 1950. A fond farewell. We’re so glad you’re going. And may your little brother, 1951, bear no resemblance to you.”

Dec. 31, 1968, The Washington Post “1968 Ends With Good News and Humbler Expectations”

Dec. 31, 1968, Chicago Tribune, “Put First Things First”

What happened: The Vietnam War turns even bloodier with the Tet Offensive, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are assassinated, mass protests are held across the country, and the Nigerian government causes mass starvation of the population in Biafra, ultimately killing 2 million people.

Key Quotes: “Two themes were common to the bad news of last year. It tended to lay up trouble for the future. And it came not in little packages—but spectacular doses… No doubt there is little cause here for the rousing cheer and whooping victory parade. What is happening is an adjustment of expectations to the realities, a deflation of pride and hubris.”  -- Washington Post

“There is a tragic irony that a country and a people as great as the United States and the great body of energetic and resourceful Americans should find themselves in a dilemma which every day becomes more manifest. The greatest, richest, and most progressive nation in all history now stands like some ancient monument which is slowly eroding away under the action of the sands, the winds, and the weather.”  -- Chicago Tribune

Dec. 31, 1973, Los Angeles Times, “Thoughts on the Last Day of the Old Year”

What happened: An oil embargo imposed by Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) leads to gas shortages, power outages and climbing food prices. The American public is reeling from the Watergate scandal and struggling with inflation.  

Key quote: “In retrospect, 1973 has been a dismal year… It’s a bit difficult to be positive when normally jolly Danes don’t have hot water for bathing. Britons have no rail service because of the strike and Americans keep spending more for food and getting less.”

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