When does the 21st Century begin?

1 January 2000 or 2001?

You may notice that some of my maps depict the year 1900, which the purists insist is not part of the 20th Century, but rather, part of the 19th. In fact, I've had more e-mail on this subject than any other.

Martin Gilbert's History of the Twentieth Century also begins with 1900, as does Our Times: the Illustrated History of the 20th Century. Peter Jennings cheats. He starts The Century in 1901, but ends it in 1999, thereby trimming a controversial year off each end.

Which is it?

Let's recap the 2000/2001 question:

We started counting our years at a totally arbitrary point in time that's supposed to be the birthday of Jesus, but is, in fact, about five years too late.

We don't even accrue new years at a fixed interval. Some years are longer than others, usually by a day at most, but once, about 300 years ago, we dropped 10 days into oblivion, so that the "thousand years" between 1 Jan. AD1 and 1 Jan. 1001 is not even the same length as the "thousand years" between 1 Jan. 1001 and 1 Jan. 2001.

(If you really want to be pedantic about the Millennium, remember that it began on the Julian Calendar, so it has to end on the Julian Calendar as well, and 1 January 2001 (Julian) doesn't arrive until 14 January 2001 (Gregorian).)

We add new years to the tally when we reach an arbitrary date called 1/1, which was supposed to be on the Winter Solstice but has drifted until it's now about week off.

We make a big deal over clusters of years that can be counted in powers of ten, even though numbers like 10, 1000, etc. are pretty meaningless in any system other than base ten. And the only reason we use base ten to begin with is because of the biological accident that gave us ten fingers.

The only reason to even consider these arbitrary lengths of time ("centuries", "decades", "millennia") to be significant is that it is a convenient shorthand way of saying "all those years that begin with 19"; and the only reason to celebrate any New Year is to watch the numbers roll over.

Years don't even change all at once, at a fixed point in time. They roll across the planet as the Earth spins. I'll be several hours into the 21st Century while California is still bogged down in the 20th.

So basically, we have a system that has been cobbled together in random and arbitrary ways, one accidental or unilateral decision after another, with no anchor in any sort of reality, and yet, for some reason, there are purists who decree that because the first year ended in "1", now all major rollovers must end in "1", even if that means that every major grouping has one anomalous year (1901-2000, 2001-2100).

Nope. My vote goes to 1 Jan 2000. As far as I'm concerned, when we switched to the Gregorian Calendar, we also switched to centuries that run from 00 to 99.

If you'd like a second opinion, here goes.

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Last updated January 1999

Copyright © 1999 Matthew White