Weird History

Why Did Everyone Care So Much About Y2K? 

Oliver Pretl-Drummond
Updated October 16, 2019 4.6k views 12 items

While the world collectively held their breath through December 31, 1999, the Y2K hysteria predated the new millennium by decades. Prince was singing about “two thousand, zero zero, party over, oops, out of time” as early as 1982, and preparations for the great unknown of the 2000s intensified throughout the 1990s.

In hindsight, it was a new year like any other. Why were people scared of Y2K? To put it simply, it was the sobering realization that we had permanently crossed the threshold into a computerized world, and the possibility of even a brief widespread technological issue could signal the end times. 

Though it may seem as though there was never anything to be afraid of, enduring New Year's 2000 was a multi-billion dollar endeavor. All told, this was hardly a waste of money, and it even proved to be an invaluable expenditure in the years to come.

People Thought Software Relying On Two-Digit Dates Would Suddenly Malfunction When The Date Changed To '00'
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While many theories were promulgated about the impending end of the world, the most salient concerned the “Millennium Bug,” which would theoretically devastate all computers when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000.

For the first 40 years or so of computer programming, years were typically denoted with two digits - 98 for 1998, 99 for 1999. This shorthand seemed logical at the time, as these programmers likely didn't expect the immense staying power of their archaic machines. 

The fears surrounding the Millennium Bug were not completely unfounded. The Social Security Administration, one of the organizations that spent the most time and money preparing for the new year, uses date calculations in order to determine eligibility for benefits. To do so, the computers subtract the birthday of a potential benefit recipient from the current year. This works fine subtracting a 65-year-old’s birth year of (19)34 from 99, but the same 65-year-old would suddenly lose their eligibility when they turned -34 on New Year's Day. 

The potential disaster at the Social Security Administration was just one of many examples of this fear, which only grew due to the increasingly widespread hysteria.

The Government Set Up A $50 Million 'Y2K Command Center'
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In an abundance of caution, the US government set up a temporary Y2K command center, known as the Year 2000 Information Coordination Center (ICC). In the months preceding New Year's Day, the ICC was staffed with employees from other federal entities including FEMA, Agriculture, Commerce, the EPA, the military, and the National Weather Service, among others. 

Using preexisting disaster frameworks used by these same agencies, the government took a "single point of contact" approach to solving the Millennium Bug issue, ensuring that all organizations were on the same page. In the final days before Y2K, the ICC was briefed on FEMA's Civil Disaster Response processes.

People Worried That Everything From Banking Software To Air Traffic Control Systems To ATMs Might Suddenly Fail At Midnight
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The media and the wider public saw the reasonable concerns held by the SSA and ran with them. Suddenly, everything that was computer-operated ran the risk of malfunctioning or glitching out, temporarily or otherwise.

The possibility of hospital equipment failing weighed heavily on providers. Infusion pumps ran on timers that might forget what time it was, charts would become lost and inaccurate, and no one could receive necessary care when all of the computers shut down.

To curb the consumer impulse to take out an entire account in cash in the days leading up to Y2K, bank programmers and IT departments had to update their systems, as well.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration had a major headache on their hands when they realized that the air traffic control computers were likely to be affected. Based on their 1999 projections, systems that had not been updated could possibly malfunction and display plane positions on a 10-second lag, leading to potentially dangerous consequences. Thanks to a budget of over $400 million dollars, four years of planning and programming, and a series of potential contingency plans, the FAA was able to secure their systems with no issue in the new millennium.

The Government And US Companies Spent Over $100 Billion On Becoming Y2K Compliant
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While the exact numbers vary between sources, the government and major US companies spent a bare minimum of $100 billion on Y2K compliance in the latter half of the 20th century. General Motors claimed to have spent around $626 million, Exxon reported about half of that, and the federal government estimated around $8.4 billion. 

These figures do not take a number of factors into consideration. The amount spent mostly went to the billable man hours paid for research, investigation, and reprogramming. The real cost includes the acquisition of new machines for those that could not be updated, major publicity and information campaigns, and whatever litigation eventually stemmed from unforeseen glitches during or after Y2K. Some economists estimated a more realistic total of $150 billion spent.

Despite this harrowing figure, many economists predicted that the updated machines and newfound importance of IT knowledge would boost the economy and create many new jobs. While the exact numbers are hard to place, it’s no coincidence that the tech industry would proliferate in the years to come.