Celebrations are an important part of social life. So important in fact, that it seems we are less and less inclined to wait for important dates to celebrate. We just create them instead.
Notable events are often celebrated on their centenary. A quick Google search reveals recent events staged around 100 years of Centre Court at Wimbledon, 100 years of Disney being celebrated through “Disney100: The Concert” (of course a globalised event), the La Mans 24 hour race, the 100th anniversary of the Hollywood sign and the Flying Scotsman steam train. In spite of this apparent plethora of party opportunities, one railway enthusiast complained that apart from the Flying Scotsman centenary, there were plenty of other railway events going unmarked, including 75 years since the Birth of British Rail, 60 years since the beginning of the Beeching railway cuts, and 55 years since the “15 guinea special” in 1968.
This comment underlines quietly changing attitudes towards anniversary celebrations. An event used to need gravitas – a certain passage of time that would merit a good knees up. Nowadays, it seems, almost any occasion and any time span can provide the excuse for an event. This impression was reinforced for me by a recent exchange with David Jarman, who just managed to find an excuse to celebrate six months since getting his PhD. I was telling David about the seemingly preposterous idea of Breda University of Applied Sciences to celebrate their 55th anniversary. It seems the big programme of events they organised for their half century five years ago was not enough. David dryly observed that my other university, Tilburg, was also have their 95th anniversary this year. Perhaps a bit more justified as a celebration, but even so – couldn’t they just wait to be 100?
The increase in what American historian Daniel Boorstin called ‘psuedo-events’, or celebrations organised for the sake of media attention, is hardly surprising in the current climate. Events are occurring at an ever more rapid rate, as the average lifespan of organisations declines. The average US organisation survived for 30 years in the 1960s, but today they only manage just over 20.
The average lifespan of organisational leaders is even shorter. The average tenure of a private sector CEO in Europe is only 4.2 years. Public sector mandates are now significantly longer, at almost 8 years. But the time a CEO stays at the top is also falling rapidly - UK bosses were in place for 8.3 years in 2010, but only 4.8 years in 2020. This explains why anniversaries need to be celebrated increasingly frequently and at seemingly odd dates: if you wait for a decade for an even-numbered year, it is likely that a new CEO will be in charge, or a new Mayor will have been elected. Leaders are also under increasing pressure to deliver success, and to deliver quickly.
No wonder anniversaries, celebrations and events are arriving at a growing pace. The tendency also is to celebrate the past, rather than the present or the future. As Boorstin observed: “pseudo-events based on the past are safer than those created around contemporary culture, because they defuse contemporary politics by infusing sanitized nostalgia.”