People in the chattering class are finally starting to realize what my generation has known for a few years now: young people today will not have the same quality of life as older Americans enjoyed and are enjoying.
When people fret over some future quality of life benchmark we are supposed to achieve, it is clear that what they envision is “more of what we’ve got.” They want my generation to enjoy more of what they’ve enjoyed. A “better quality of life” for these hand-wringers just means jamming down the accelerator.
People in my generation, understanding that we aren’t going to go where our parents have been, are beginning to ask each other, “What if we didn’t want to go there anyway?” What if we’re better than what our parents had planned for us? What if our parents’ “quality of life” is a pig in a poke?
Here is what our parents’ generation has enjoyed and overseen during its heyday:
Obesity and an explosion of first-world health problems (diabetes, heart disease, cancer).
They’ve fallen into the two-income trap —their “quality of life” based on the inherently tenuous proposition of both partner’s incomes being necessary to making the family’s nut each month. Many in the financial services sector have profited from pushing (or at least covering up) the two-income trap. Beyond that, their “quality of life” has been based on the availability of cheap debt and fanciful home values.
They’ve allowed many in their generation to be bankrupted by medical debt by failing to build an affordable health insurance infrastructure in this country.
They’ve watched America’s infrastructure crumble and allowed our education system to become second-class, even while building up massive amounts of government debt for their children to pay off.
They’ve participated in an erosion of community organizations and civic spirit; their cynicism erodes our politics.
Upon examination, it appears that pundits have been eulogizing a “quality of life” that never was alive to begin with. They might as well eulogize Huck Finn or John Galt.
Fewer and fewer people in their own generation enjoy the “quality of life” advertised on Cialis and retirement commercials (sailboats, surfing, vineyards, bicycling, granite countertops). Growing income inequality in their own ranks means that “quality of life” more often includes payday loan sharks, putting $10 in the tank, and using the Emergency Room as a first (and last) resort.
Their “quality of life” is a fifty year-old man swinging a sign along a busy road that screams, “We Buy Gold and Silver!” The string on the sign rests on his neck like a guillotine’s blade.
Their “quality of life” is a passing driver desperate enough to consider selling.
Indeed, much of the hand-wringing going on about diminishing prospects at achieving the same “quality of life” as our parents arises not from declining American greatness, but of an awakening from the older upper class from their fantasy. Having invested heavily into the idea that selfishness is a virtue, the Baby Boomers are beginning to recognize that the products of selfishness are not worth producing.
They have chosen enormous debt (both personal and communal), ecological devastation, growing inequality. They have demonstrated an inability to solve (or even confront) big problems (opting instead to grab what they could for themselves), and have overseen the growing power and influence of big money business interests in search of a sanitized, atomized, commoditized, isolated existence.
My generation has watched our parents grow up. We have watched their generation believe the advertisements that told them that if they were just a little less bald, had a little more money, had a little smoother ride, had a little less bacteria on the countertop… then…. then they would be be secure, be safe, be admired, be loved.
Our parents have mistaken comfort for security.
That fantasy has played out.
The generation coming of age now, graduating from college now, the ones who are looking for jobs in the worst economy in living memory, they know that a comfortable security is a myth, that love and admiration cannot be bought. They have witnessed the emptiness of materialism and turned away. Young people today understand that something fundamental has shifted in America, that the old paradigms have crumbled before new paradigms have been built.
They know it is up to them to build those paradigms. Young people want desperately to do something that matters. They want to give gifts to the world, even as they have less money in their pockets, fewer health benefits, and no pension plans.
Young people today understand that security comes from living in the world, not trying to rise above it, defy it, insulate yourself from it. It is an uncomfortable security because it accepts the limitations of human existence, it confronts the pain of life and attends to it.
In the face of titanic economic failures, young people have developed a kind of stoic faith that if they just keep doing the right things, the universe will take care of them. Though they will not express it this way, they have the kind of faith Jesus urges in Matthew 6:24–34:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. …But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Young people have learned (beyond all odds) that people matter, community matters, communities matter. They know that love comes from loving, not buying. They know that if we are to reach some gentle, golden promised land, we will all get there together.
We will not enjoy the same quality of life as our parents’ generation did.