The long 20th century is ending

We believed that the adaption of the masses’ conception of the world to changed circumstances was a simple process, which one could measure in years; whereas, according to all historical experience, it would have been more suitable to measure it by centuries. The peoples of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine – Arthur Koeslter, Darkness at Noon

I first came across the concept of the “long century” in 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis[1]. It is the idea that instead of measuring historical centuries in neat 100-year intervals it is far more preferable to define “centuries” according to the events that shape and define them. So, for example, the long 19th century ran from 1789 (the French Revolution) to1914 (the start of the First World War). Similarly, the long 21st century probably started in 1989 with the fall of Communism.

In the context of public services, the long 20th century of public services almost definitely began with the post-war settlement[2]. But when can we say the long 20th century ended?

To answer this we need to know the essence of public services the 20th century represents. I would start with the following characteristics:

  • Regular increases in public spending
  • Regular and continued economic growth
  • The idea that the state can and does play a very large part in both policy development and implementation
  • People are passive recipients of public services
  • There is a relatively stable party system.

The post-war settlement, though, is looking very unsettled. If we look 100 years hence, my suspicion is that we’ll see the long 20th century of public services ended now; the exact date can be argued over, but I think 2015 (perhaps because of the general election) is as good a candidate as any.


[1] – Coincidentally, Flipchart Rick mentioned Hobsbawm’s “short 20th century” in his post on the first world war, which reminded me I’d drafted this post!

[2] – Apropos of Hobsbawm it probably makes more sense to talk of a short 20th century in public services (i.e. from 1945 to 2015). For clarity and consistency, though, I’ve stuck with the idea of a “long century”.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

3 thoughts on “The long 20th century is ending”

  1. The short welfare century can be made long by pushing back the starting point. There are two obvious candidates. The earlier was 1870, the beginning of universal compulsory education. The later – and probably stronger candidate in the context of this post – was 1909, the beginning of the state pension (and of the order book, which came close to having a century of its own - )

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