Looking Back At The Decade That Changed Everything

As New Year’s Eve draws closer and retrospectives of this tumultuous year and decade pervade, I couldn’t help but add my voice to the fray. For me, the past ten years can officially be considered the “decade that changed everything.”

The decade began with the Y2K panic, with doomsday theorists predicting that computers would fail when rolling over to the double-zero year. I vividly recall a Y2K party held at my church, complete with bonfire and prayer, organized to distract from the potential nightmare that some predicted but thankfully went unrealized. A few days later, I received final approval in the process to become an Eagle Scout, and my ceremony was held a few months thereafter at the same church where I had gathered with family and friends on the eve of what was described as a potential technological disaster. My Eagle ceremony proved momentous not just for me but for a family member, whose gift to me launched a career that sustains her to this day.

The following year brought the worst terrorist attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor, an event that permanently scarred the country and led to a war that continues to this day. In the same way that my father will forever remember where he was and what he was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated, the memory of sitting in Mrs. Fletcher’s math class as an assistant headmaster announced that a plane had struck the World Trade Center will stay with me forever. 2001 also plunged the country into the first of two recessions the United States endured during this decade, though it turned out to be one of diminutive proportions compared to the current crisis the world economy endures. Standing as the final insult to an already pox-marked year was the December collapse of Enron Corporation, a disaster that would have then-unimaginable consequences for my professional career. As this momentous yet forgettable year ended, it led to a year of extraordinary change in my life.

As the nation came to terms with a new reality, one that found us on the defensive not only from foreign terrorism but also from the spate of anthrax-laced letters circulating in New York and Washington, we slowly came to terms with what it meant to be a nation at war. For my generation, this was a difficult reality to comprehend, having been too young to fully appreciate Operation Desert Storm and having only learned of previous conflicts in school.

In May, I graduated from high school and spent the summer preparing to begin college at an institution I would later deeply regret attending. After living in the same place for 18 years, I relocated to Connecticut in August and moved into a dormitory at the University of Hartford. Little did I know that I’d been duped into attending a university with a sub-par audio engineering program, a realization I wouldn’t make until it was too late to rectify.

I vividly recall the first anniversary of 9/11 coming just a few weeks after moving to Connecticut, and the twinge of fear I felt when I first heard a plane pass over the campus. I remember finding myself amidst students from New York, New Jersey, and southwestern Connecticut, all who seemingly new someone killed at the World Trade Center. And I distinctly remember how awkward I felt, not knowing what to say to a classmate who’d experienced such a loss. With my first semester of college nearing completion, I found quite remarkable the changes I’d undergone in a scant four months. From my upbringing in southern New Hampshire, with its shelter and homogenity, I moved to a Connecticut town that not only boasts a larger Asian population than any other in the state, but that is also the center for Jewish life in Connecticut’s capital region and a popular relocation destination for Puerto Ricans. I became friends with an improbable group of people, a disparate bunch that would likely never have come together were it not for the smallness of the university’s technology college. And I learned quite quickly that my meager savings from part-time jobs held during high school was inadequate given Connecticut’s high cost of living. Returning to New Hampshire for the holiday break, though, I was rather satisfied with the experience on the whole.

2003 was a turning point in many ways, not the least of which was the beginning of the credit bubble. Recognizing that I would inevitably incur expenses my part-time job could not satisfy, I applied for and was approved for my first credit card. The initial credit limit of several thousand dollars was a complete surprise, considering at the time that it was at least double (if not triple) my annual income. As the world economy would discover roughly five years later, it was actions such as this that brought major banks to near-collapse and induced a recession no country could escape.

Just three months into 2003, and only slightly more than one year after going to war in Afghanistan, President Bush announced plans to invade Iraq. As I gathered with friends in my dormitory to watch the President’s address (one that added “shock and awe” to the vernacular), the striking images of bombs devastating Baghdad demonstrated not just American military power, but the incredible advancement technology had made in just a few decades. Would such instantaneous relay of video footage been possible ten years earlier? Could embedded reporters have provided their stories from remote areas of a country half a world away were it not for internet technology? The answer to both questions is a resounding no. Yet in spite of the controversy the Iraq invasion generated, why does the impressive use of technology stand out so clearly in my mind? Likely these memories are attributable to my generation having grown up as internet and mobile technologies matured.

Google, for all its current-day dominance, was still relatively unknown in 2003. The search engine hadn’t yet gone public and its name had not become the neologism it is today, nor had it introduced any of the myriad services that now bear its name. There was no Gmail, no Google Maps, and certainly no mobile phones running its Android platform. For that matter, neither Facebook nor Twitter had yet been invented, Apple computers were just beginning to shed their niche status, and the iPhone was nonexistant.

In 2003, Apple had just introduced its now-ubiquitious iTunes Store, a month after the US invaded Iraq. The following month, President Bush would stand on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln before a “Mission Accomplished” banner. In a three-month window, three different yet related events occurred that would irreversibly change this decade, a presidency, and the business of selling music. At the time though, at least to me, the significance of these events was inconceivable.

The remainder of 2003, as best I recall, was essentially uneventful. I completed my first year of college, moved home for the summer and worked full time, and then returned to Connecticut to begin my sophomore year. The director of the University of Hartford’s Audio Engineering Technology program continued to successfully gloss over the programs shortcomings, and I naïvely continued to believe that this education would prepare me for a career mixing live sound. As yet another year drew to a close and my classmates and I remarked on how quickly the semester had passed, I prepared to cut my Christmas vacation short so that I could complete a general education requirement during winter term.

The whole of 2004 passed without much significance, save applying for an Audio Engineering Internship with National Public Radio. This statement is not intended to make light of that year’s presidential election, but is made knowing that sitting wartime presidents are generally reelected for fear of what would happen should the country change its Commander in Chief in the middle of an ongoing conflict. That being said, 2004 was the first year I was old enough to vote in a presidential election, and I took full advantage of the opportunity. A month or so later, I applied for the aforementioned internship, a decision that would prove to be one of the best made during my undergraduate career.

As I began the spring semester of my junior year, the poor quality of my undergraduate degree first came to my attention. I was just beginning to realize that the program focused more on electrical engineering than it did audio, and I also discovered that any class involving time in a recording studio occurred during the first two years of the degree program. As such, I would spend the balance of my time as an undergraduate learning how to design AM and FM transmitters, repair tape machines, and program then-outdated microprocessors. There would even be a 1980’s-era video illustrating VCR repair. Further emphasizing the electrical-engineering-technology focus of my undergraduate program, I received an “accidental”1 associates degree in the subject in May. At the same time, having secured an internship at National Public Radio in a department studying the then-nascent HD Radio technology, I truly began to worry that my deficient education would jeopardize my intended career goals. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed during three months spent at NPR’s Washington, DC headquarters.

During the summer of 2005, as I worked on NPR’s Tomorrow Radio Project, it became painfully obvious that my hybrid audio-electrical engineering technology degree did not suit a career in either profession. Instead of effectively merging the two disciplines, I received enough education in each field “to be dangerous,” as a former supervisor once told me. As such, upon returning to Connecticut to complete my senior year, I began exploring what few other options were available to me.

I very quickly determined that rather than attempt to salvage my engineering degree, I was better off pursuing a different career. While I still planned to complete my undergraduate degree, I explored the possibility of becoming an accountant. Strange as this may seem, I had excelled in the accounting courses I took while pursuing a minor in business. Thus, it seemed a logical choice for a second career and as such, I resolved to pursue a third degree after finishing my undergraduate program the following spring. Had, by some miracle, I received a job offer in an audio engineering field, I likely would have pursued it, but given the poor quality of my degree, I thought such an occurrence to be highly improbable.

In the spring of 2006, I began the final semester of my undergraduate program, one filled largely with the non-engineering courses my degree required. Simultaneously, I pursued audio engineering jobs while studying for the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Not surprisingly, I did not receive a single job offer, which only reinforced my desire to switch careers. I was accepted into the University of Hartford’s Accelerated Masters of Accounting and Taxation program, thereby ending any possibility of becoming an audio engineer. At 8am on the Monday following my graduation from the undergraduate program, I began my graduate studies.

Because my graduate program was accelerated, I had 3 three-hour courses four days a week. As a result, I could no longer work even part time, as I had no time to study or complete the necessary coursework to earn my degree. In the summer of 2006, I became a full-time student shortly after moving for the second time following my decision not live on campus for the senior year of my undergraduate program. I had, in four years, lived in more places than in my first 18 years. Before I completed my graduate degree in May of 2007, I would move once again, and once again a year later. Of the many changes I experienced during this nearly-completed decade, constantly moving was one of the hardest.

The summer and fall of 2006 were entirely consumed by my graduate studies. Thankfully, one of my roommates had followed a similar path to mine and was pursuing a Masters of Business Administration. Together, we spent hours studying, writing papers, and completing projects in pursuit of yet another degree. By October, I had secured an internship for the upcoming tax season and a full-time position contingent on my graduation, two promising signs compared to my previous degree. What’s more, the role of full-time student was beginning to wear on me and I was ready to finally have a real job earning a meaningful wage.

In 2007, I shifted my focus from solely being a student to that of an intern completing the last three courses towards my Masters. It was a welcome change. Being forced to get up at a specific time and don more than a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals alone made me feel that I was a productive member of society and that five years of education had finally paid off. The semester flew by as I endured my first tax season. By the time graduation came around in May, I was so burned out from school and work that I didn’t even attend the ceremony. Besides, the third time around, commencement loses much of its appeal. The balance of 2007 passed with little significance as I adjusted to working full time in public accounting.

2008 was, arguably, the least interesting year of this decade, with two exceptions. First, the nation elected its first African American president, the bulk of whose work will impact the coming decade. Second, save moving for the fourth time, I worked and did little else besides watch the economy crumble. Each morning as I prepared for work, I would turn on Bloomberg to learn what institution had collapsed, been rescued, or been bought out as the financial sector endured the worst recession since the Great Depression. Even after Lehman Brothers collapsed in September, the effects of the recession were still largely something I read about but did not experience. 2009 would change that.

In 2008, only one of my clients was substantially impacted by the recession, leaving the accounting firm I worked for largely unaffected by the economic malaise. As my firm prepared for the 2009 tax season, little changed from previous years. Unfortunately, though, this trend did not continue. Early in the season, we noticed that many clients were scaling back the services they required. Even though I had taken on more responsibility, I was able to leave the office at a reasonable hour more often than not. The most obvious sign of trouble came when the tax-season intern was without work. When I held that position two years prior, I always had more than enough assignments to keep me busy. In the final week of tax season, rather than frantically rushing to complete client engagements, most of the staff was free to clean and reorganize cubicles and leave promptly at 5pm.

In early May, when I learned that a major client had taken its engagement elsewhere, it became plainly obvious that the firm was struggling and something was bound to change. Already, I had done little to no work since April 15, and as May and June slipped by, I grew increasingly nervous. In hindsight, the partners’ push to “green” the office should have warned of the firm’s troubles.

On June 26, 2009, I was laid off for the first time. A month later, I moved my belongings to storage and vacated the house I was renting.

Now, as December 31 approaches and I am still out of work, I can say with sincerity that this was the decade that changed everything.

  1. Thanks to a now-closed loophole in the requirements to earn an associates degree in electrical engineering technology, my particular choice of electives satisfied the degree requirements, hence my “accidental” degree.