10 years: Goodbye bad times, good times

WASHINGTON - Late tonight, people will note the end of the first decade of the 21st century - some with fond memories.

People who met the loves of their lives, perhaps. Had children. Got their first jobs - and held on to them. Men and women who will define the past 10 years largely by personal triumphs.

They will be in the minority, though.

Most Americans will look back on the decade and say "Good riddance." Farewell to a decade that began in seeming peace and prosperity, saw America attacked and ended with the worst recession in more than 70 years.

In fact, for all their differences, Americans largely agree on two things: 2009 was a lousy year for the nation and 2010 is likely to be better.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans think 2009 was a bad year for the country, while 42 percent rated it "very bad," according to the latest AP-GfK poll.

During the past decade, the country lost a lot of the swagger that had defined the American Century, that glorious span from the defeat of fascism in the 1940s to victory over Soviet communism in the Cold War.

Stagnant - even declining - wages. Jobs in jeopardy or lost. Soaring prices for health care. Lost or shrunken pensions. More people working past retirement age. The U.S. auto industry - which built the middle class - collapsing. Robber barons in the corporate suite. China rising, along with America's debt.

Thousands of fellow Americans killed by terrorists. Thousands more dead fighting against an enemy who hides in caves and waits to strike again. Fellow Americans taking up the cause of Islamic terrorism, gunning down soldiers in Texas or traveling abroad to fight Americans there.

Americans are not optimistic about the nation's two wars. In the AP poll, 31 percent think the situation in Afghanistan will get better; 67 percent think it will stay the same or get worse. The results were about the same for Iraq.

But the decade had its pluses, too. More young Americans are finishing high school. People are living longer. Fewer people are dying from AIDS.

Technology made the world smaller. Laptop prices dropped, cell phones became commonplace, and the Internet spread information - and misinformation - around the globe.

There were other changes that made some people happy, and others nervous or angry. Six states allowed gay marriage at the decade's end; none allowed it at the start.

There also were shifts that happened gradually but marked a change in the American self-portrait. An African-American was elected to the White House. Hispanics surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest minority.

America certainly has shaken off worse decades, such as the 1890s and the 1930s. Those periods of unsettling change, economic calamity and social upheaval led to new political orders. Whether this era produces a similar change may not be known until the next decade.

In the AP poll, however, some 72 percent of Americans said they're optimistic about what 2010 will bring for the country. And four in five are optimistic about what the year will bring for their families.

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