Somehow I don't think future generations will find much nostalgic value in looking back at this last year. I know I certainly won't be able to generate any fond memories no matter how much time dulls the details.
For Americans, terrorism and recession stand out as the defining themes of the millennium's first year, one a societal horror unmatched in the history of this country and the other an economic pain we haven't had to endure in a decade.
All year long the general public seemed willing to ignore strong indications of economic troubles, but after Sept. 11, the optimistic spirit of the '90s was quickly deflated. The psychological aftershocks of the attacks were only amplified by a sudden recognition that jobs were disappearing and consumers were quickly retreating from their generous spending habits.
As an industry, trucking bore its share of the year's tough times. Shrinking freight volumes, collapsing used truck values and generally difficult business conditions are all old news by now. Even private fleets, which to outside observers might seem immune from the sharp drop in for-hire freight demand, faced tough times as their companies adjusted inventories to match weakening consumer appetites. And everyone with trucks and drivers on the nation's roads had to come to grips with heightened security concerns.
Starting a new year always seems to bring out the optimist in even the most cautious among us. We make resolutions to correct our failings, look at baseball spring training rosters with World Series anticipation, set business goals that promise success for both our teams and ourselves.
Given the battering we took in 2001, finding that optimism is going to be difficult this year. There's a general sense of unease that's hard to shake, and it's compounded by daily news that constantly underscores the uncertainty of these times.
Among the legions of economic forecasters, the business picture is both bleak and contradictory. The most positive tell us to not look for signs of an upturn until this summer. And there's no shortage of seers who write off 2002 completely, predicting no economic recovery until 2003.
Every day seems to bring a new round of dueling economic indicators that cancel each other out, one pointing to better times ahead and the other to worse: Housing starts are up but consumer confidence is down, interest rates hit record lows but unemployment hits new highs. You'd probably be better off using chicken bones to divine our economic future.
In the war against terrorism, everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop as the FBI keeps us on edge by periodically issuing its non-specific “high alerts.” While airports get most of the general press attention, enforcement agencies around the country, even without FBI encouragement, continue eyeing trucks as one of the most vulnerable chinks in our security armor. The shooting war may be over in Afghanistan, but operating a fleet will continue to be a nerve-wracking experience for the near future.
As happy as I am to see the end of 2001, I'm finding it hard to generate much of a welcome for the New Year. The best I can do is hope we're in for a pleasant surprise.