by Christopher W. Ritchie
I don’t often give my blog over to guests, but this essay gave me pause. I commissioned Chris Ritchie to research certain aspects of social developments, and what you’re about to read was part of his report. I asked him if I could publish this, and this is the result.
Chris is in his early 30s, has a degree in history, is proficient in Mandarin, having taught in China for a year, and has done various kinds of research for me about the future, mostly relating to social media. He has a bright, capable, analytical mind, and a warm, engaging manner. He’s also a bit of nerd, which is seen as being somewhat of an advantage in today’s market. Yet despite all this, he still can’t find permanent employment in our society. He’s not alone, and that, in itself, should give us pause. Worse, I suspect that everyone who reads his essay will immediately recognize young people of their own acquaintance in similar situations. In my mind, this is an extremely dangerous portent for our society, and our economy.
If someone is asked to talk about ‘their generation,’ they will invariably take their own experiences, plus those of people they know, and try to fit them into a broader context. In essence that’s what I’m about to do. And based on what I see, the prospects for my generation are poor indeed.
‘My’ generation is commonly called Generation Y, though there is a tad of overlap with ‘Gen X’. In any case, we are the children of the early Boomers, and we are now in our mid-twenties to early thirties, people who grew up principally in the 80’s and 90’s. We are now out of college & university (for the most part), and into the work force (at least in theory).
The first observation I would make about my generation is about Nostalgia, with a capital “N”. I think every modern generation has its share of nostalgia. What I think marks my generation is how early and readily nostalgia emerged as a guiding theme in our entertainment, and in how we talk. We should, in theory, be entering into the most productive period of our lives, the generative era, youth in the past, our time to shine. And yet we spend so much time thinking about our youth. Everything that was popular or interesting to us on the schoolyard in the 80’s and 90’s is back, remade and repackaged, complete with remakes and re-imaginings, and stuff pulled from the ether. Is there new entertainment and new media? Yes, definitely, but I am astonished to realize the number of movies, TV series, and so forth that harken back to my not-so-distant youth. Many of the most prominent shows on the internet, and the most prominent themes, have to do with this Nostalgia.
The other purpose of the Internet
There is a joke that the internet is for pornography and complaining about movies. Yet to me, I think you can add ‘obsessing about your childhood’ to that list. One of the most popular of the ‘New Media’ sites, as one example, is front-lined by ‘The Nostalgia Critic’ who entertainingly reviews movies from our childhood and discusses how they ‘hold up’. Plenty of other comedy is rooted in appeals back to common touchstones, which mostly seem to dwell in our childhood.
This could suggest that Hollywood and others are merely out of ideas, recycling whatever they can get their hands on. I think, though, that it also suggests that my generation as a whole feels more inclined to look back rather than forward. I think this is as if someone has told us “Your parents got to the party before you and ate all the good stuff. Here’s your half-eaten bowl of potato chips, go sit on the couch if you want, but they’ve already got the remote and decided what to watch.” Our parents – the Boomers – have occupied our future, and aren’t leaving.
This is a sentiment that summarizes much of how people around my age feel when confronting the world. I can readily recall from the recession of the 90’s onward being told how I was part of the first generation that would be worse off than their parents were. Whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, there is no denying that it is in many ways true. The sentiment of that truth is near universal in the people I know.
Our parents’ lifestyle is beyond our reach
The ‘lifestyle’ established as normal in the 50’s and 60’s, the lifestyle portrayed in so many TV sitcoms, or for that matter the lifestyle that I experienced as a child seems not just impossibly beyond my grasp, but just simply impossible. I was too late to the party, and now the idea of getting any job right out of university, let alone a good job, is laughable. The idea of entering into a career or profession, and being there for decades, is equally so. I think I know one person from among my peers who has a pension plan, and she is a public servant. By the time they were my age, both of my parents had been in their respective careers for 6 or 7 years, they were having their first child, and they had purchased a century-old farmhouse out in the country. I have accomplished none of these things, and neither have the vast majority of my peers.
And the problem is not just one of income. No one of my generation that I know owns a house. Even those who are full-time professionals find the cost far too steep. I know many of my peers have gone back to live with their parents, sometimes taking their own children, Boomer grandchildren, with them, making this hard economic choice because they have no financial alternatives.
My parents were, until their recent retirement, teachers. I have several friends of my age who have completed teachers’ college. None of them have jobs in teaching. One of them moved to England in hope of getting some employment experience, and yet still scrambles just to get on the supply teacher lists, while working at a bar part-time.
What once would have been hard luck stories are now just the everyday tales of my generation. With one or two exceptions, everyone who went to university, trade-school, or college didn’t end up in their profession of choice. Most have been through several career changes. Many, even at thirty, are still trying to develop careers. The exceptions of my acquaintance include precisely one nurse and one professional welder.
In some ways our lives are better than our parents at this time, but in plenty of other ways, they feel so much worse, and all of this is, I think, connected. So it might not be surprising if the other trait I would call typical of people my age is political cynicism. Even those who are conservative are deeply cynical about the political processes. That’s important. I’m not talking here about ‘Oh all politicians are liars’. That’s certainly said enough. No, what I’m talking about here is basically ‘Involvement never changes anything, so there’s no point in getting involved’. No matter how real or unreal that statement is, the sentiment is rife.
I see more political activity at a local level than I do in broad political involvement. It’s no secret people my age don’t vote nearly as often as older people do. People my age simply don’t participate in politics as much as past generations did. I had heard that the major political parties have all extended the age ranges of their ‘youth’ wings, and I can’t help but feel part of the reason is that there are simply fewer ‘youth’ in them to begin with.
Those of us without conservative values have seemingly existed in a world of near perpetual siege. Certainly there have been amazing advances made in the world of social justice, yet everything past generations fought for seems under attack. Healthcare, pensions, social security and more are all under siege. I grew up through recession, through TINA (There is No Alternative), through successive governments in which promises of just maintaining the status quo seemed out of reach. Hardly anywhere do I see political vision, only smaller and smaller versions of our future. I think part of what catapulted Obama to the presidency in America was that his message during the 2008 campaign seemed to resonate with people. It seemed to offer a greater vision of what could be, something that has been missing from politics for the entirety of my life. That narrative of change appealed to people my age, who seem desperately desirous of it, yet convinced that it will never happen.
Not – yet – without hope
Mine was the first generation to truly ‘have’ the internet. It will be the last that remembers a world without e-mail, the World Wide Web, and social media. I recall the fall of the Berlin wall only vaguely, and the Cold War only in the most basic of ways. Most of us are now tied to our phones, our iPads, and our computers in general, though we can remember an age when we weren’t. We live in a world that seems a whole lot less secure, in terms of the basics of life, than that of our parents.
I won’t say – yet – that my generation sees our future without hope. I will say that many of us have no sense of how we are going to get by, and greater aspirations seem completely beyond reach. We look up to the tower where our parents sit, hectoring us to at least try to climb, but find that there’s no longer a ladder available to make that possible.
Is there a bleak future ahead for us? Yes, and that is depressing.
Richard here. I would add that while it’s depressing for Chris and his peers, it’s also dangerous for our collective future, for the plight of this generation eats at the foundation of our economy. I will return to this topic in later blogs. Meanwhile, my thanks to Chris for his insights.
© Copyright, Christopher W. Ritchie, April 2012.