Generational perspective

The impending arrival of our daughter has me pondering a lot of big things that anxious fathers-to-be have for ages on end. Chief among them is that I – we – have no idea what the future will hold. This has gotten me thinking about how my parents probably felt the same when they sat where we do today, and likewise, their parents before them.

I was born in 1981 when my parents, both Boomers, were in their mid-30s. I did a little digging to get a glimpse of what the world, as viewed through a consumerist lens, looked like when each of our generations of the Reeves clan came into the world.

1946 1981 2017
Federal minimum wage $5.38 $9.43 $7.25
Compact car ~$40,000 $17,000 $16,000
Median home value $44,000 $135,000 $264,000
Public university tuition (Virginia) ~$4,000 (estimated) $2,100 $13,300

All figures converted to 2017 dollars.

This is a bit of manual confirmation of the broad trendlines evident in this somewhat famous graph from Vox:

It’s probably pointless to add to the volumes already written about the rise of economic inequality, both in the United States and worldwide; except to point out that a baby born in 2017 enters a society whose basic economic status quo is less egalitarian than it has been since the Great Depression, when my grandmother’s family reverted to subsistence farming for almost a decade.Both of my parents came from backgrounds that wouldn’t at all predict where they wound up, and along the way, they had experiences that are wholly unlike my own. My Dad was drafted into the Vietnam War and narrowly avoided infantry service. My Mom grew up in a fairly conservative, segregated southern city, inculcated with many of the worldviews that attended, until she went off to graduate school and, in her own words, “my mind opened up.” (She’s now a very liberal retired professor, in case you’re wondering.)

I look at the graphs above and wonder what beliefs about the world they would lead reasonable, well-educated people to form in their mid-30s in 1981. Beliefs like what constituted a middle-class existence, and what one did to attain it; what role hard work, determination and merit play in getting ahead economically and socially, as opposed to inherited privilege; and what the “American dream” means, among others. Some of these things you can try to consciously transmit to your children, but I believe that most of us cannot fight the dominant culture on all fronts. The Culture wins a lot more than it loses.

I worry about the world our baby is born into. The President of the United States takes to Twitter to hurl insults and provocations like a poorly supervised adolescent. It seems more likely than not that climate change is going to inflict enormous damage at a staggering human cost across much of the world because humans, particularly in America, cannot organize ourselves to constrain our own current consumption for future generations’ benefit. The systems and institutions that we have long relied on to function aren’t working so well anymore. There’s a sense of something coming unmoored and unfastened, a resettling, a rejiggering of the way of things that is underway. Maybe that’ll result in a more positive end. But maybe not. It still feels like a jump ball.

Of course, I am also grateful for a lot the world has to offer. The world in 2017 is a better, more just, more peaceful and wealthier place in lots of ways than it has ever been. Many of those dimensions of benefit do not show up on GDP graphs or bar charts; they are the very availability of new things, like ideas about equality and social justice, and the internet, and ubiquitous ways to access it. My daughter is less likely to contract a fatal disease, or die prematurely, or be the victim of violence than almost any other girl in any other age.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate what I’ve been pondering lately is this errant thought from Noah Smith:

What are you doing to begin rebuilding it? Throwing up our hands is no longer an answer – as if it ever was.



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