Hearing this old Billy Joel song from the early eighties made me feel somewhat nostalgic about my childhood in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
It is also seems to me to be a bit melancholy. The closing of a factory town. The passing of the torch from generation to generation. The bitterness and pain of change.
It made me wonder: will my generation do better than the last?
I ask this question not as a challenge, but as an honest effort to hear from others about their hopes and fears of the future.
“Do better” can mean whatever you want it to mean. It could mean that my generation will be wealthier than the last, or more or less responsible, etc.
I am just interested in opening up a dialogue and hearing different viewpoints, particularly from members of the current and last generation.
It seems to me that the measure of a generation, in common understanding, is a measure of the challenges it faces. The Greatest Generation earned their sobriquet by meeting the central challenge of their– perhaps any– era: defeating Hitler and Japan.
I’m in my early 30s. Enduring this Great Recession is not the stuff that legends are made of. I forget whose line I’m appropriating here, but you can’t “win” a War on Terrorism any more than you can “win” a War on Strategic Bombing– it’s not possible to defeat a tactic the way it’s possible to defeat a regime. And I wouldn’t wish a war of a million casualties (what we endured in WWII, which is of course dwarfed by Soviet losses, to say nothing of the civilian suffering of Europeans that we avoided) on anyone.
When he was campaigning in 2000, George W. Bush said, “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us vs. them, and it was clear who ‘them’ was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.” He was knocked around a bit for his not-quite-Churchillian phrasing, but the substance is absolutely dead on, in my opinion.
This is getting kinda rambly, so I’ll cut it off with: I wouldn’t wish for the challenges the Greatest Generation overcame. We probably won’t be blessed in historical memory, but cursed in endured experience, with an unambiguous foe requiring mass mobilization to defeat. We will probably muddle through, and (despite my concerns about our culture in general, and political culture in particular) persevere, because democracy and capitalism are the greatest forces yet known in world history.
Well said! (and not because you quoted Bush).
I think the only way our generation gets a reputation on par with the Greatest Generation is if we became involved in a dreadful war against China. I put the odds of this at 1% in the near term, but the latest dust up in the South China Sea makes me a heck of a lot more nervous than it is making the press.
Most people don’t even know about it.
The short answer: Probably not.
The long answer: In terms of wealth, it seems increasingly unlikely that our generation will exceed our parents’, on average. As we slowly inch towards retirement age, most of us have 30-35 years remaining in the workplace, and I fear we will see more of the same (a general flattening of the wages of the middle class), and we may well see an actual drop in the wages paid to high-level executives.
I could be wrong of course. That alteration (some would call it a correction) to the current corporate pay system would require either legislation or stockholder disapproval, and both would likely rely upon a widespread public distaste for excessive executive pay. We’ve had motions in that direction with the general reaction to the bailout, but the memory of the public is short, and fickle. Chances are that people will simple forget about the issue, or accept it as simply “the way things are”, rather than attempt to change the system that generally does not encourage actions in the best long-term interests of either the corporation itself, or the world in general.
In terms of responsibility… Perhaps. There is at least some pressure to move the economy towards more sustainable energy sources, barring, of course, a sudden reversal in the scientific position or a prolonged period of slow economic growth brought about by the “Green Revolution”. But even if it succeeds, it will simply be the opening chapter in a long, drawn-out struggle because once we’re done financing the construction of coal plants in China by buying their cheap solar panels, we’ll have to deal with the developing world. And won’t that be fun.
And speaking of China, or more specifically a possible war with China…
Now there’s a pickle.
Not yet, is the best answer I can give. China isn’t ready to go to the mat in an actual military conflict.
But they’re getting ready for it. And while China prepares for a war with the United States, we prepare for the next war in Somewhere-or-other-stan.
In 20-25 years, I can see China being ready. I can imagine a scenario where they simple state an intent to “reclaim” the island of Taiwan, and brusquely instruct the United States to stand aside and let it happen.
At which point, the ball will be in our court. And while our generation will not be the ones who fight in the trenches of that war, we WILL be the ones sending others to do so.
I don’t know how that story will end. I obviously can’t even say that it will happen in the first place; perhaps the next generation of Chinese leaders will resist the indoctrination of the past, perhaps there will be a general reconciliation between Taiwan and the mainland, perhaps the United States will indeed decide to go quietly into that good night. A lot can happen in twenty years.
Who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.
This has always been the problem with our military — always preparing to fight the last war. Before 2001, we were training to fight a massive conventional war. After 9/11, the military reconfigured to fight counterinsurgencies. If history is any guide, our next war will be a massive conventional one.
To an extent, it makes sense in this instance; we are, after all, currently involved in counterinsurgency operations, and it’s the most likely sort of conflict we could see in the future.
There’s a marked difference in the consequences of being unprepared for counterinsurgency operations, and the consequence of being unprepared for a massive conventional war.
Indeed. The good news is that it is easier to train Western Armies for the former than it is the latter. So, though the consequences are much higher for not being well-prepared for a massive conventional war, Western Armies can come up to speed again pretty quickly. We were amazing at fighting conventional campaigns back in 2003. People forget that the US military dropped Iraq in about three weeks despite an intense sandstorm that halted operations for several days. Such an advance was unprecendented in modern history.
“If history is any guide, our next war will be a massive conventional one.”
How do we keep it from going nuclear!?
We don’t invade our enemies’ territory, but fight on the periphery. Fighting China in North Korea and/or Kazakstan would be an example.
Your point also raises an even more important question: If the world pushes toward no nuclear weapons, will it lead to fewer or more large scale wars?
I think you know the answer…
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My sense is nuclear weapons reduce the chance of war, but make the worst case a lot worse.
Risk aversion suggests that fewer nuclear weapons is the course we’d prefer.
The reason for so many in the first place was to ensure the deterrent effect of a retaliatory strike. Now that we have nukes on subs, no adversary could find them all in time. Thus a need for fewer weapons. Plus, fewer weapons reduces the probability of an accident.
Also less costly!
On the whole the future better or worse. I’m an optimistic ultimately.
I’m older than you as a boomer and you I think gen X. (If the WW II is the greatest, I hope boomers aren’t the worst as we defend our medicare and social security). In my time I’ve seen a lot of waves of pessimism. They seem to end and the country is better in the end. I believe that will happen again.
I hope you are right Bruce. My entire adult life has been marked by one macroeconomic setback after another, and I always happen to be in the middle of it.
I joined the Army in late 1998 after a decade of peace. Within six months we were bombing Serbia, then 9/11 happened, and in 2003 we invaded Iraq. I left the Army in 2003 to go to grad school. I then worked at a financial firm from 2006 to 2009, where I watched the financial crisis unfold and saw 8 or 9 consecutive quarters of layoffs, even though my division had nothing to do with the mortgage crisis.
I won’t fly on a plane with you!!
I am the poster boy for why it is better to be lucky than good. If I relied on luck instead of hardwork, I’d probably be lying in a ditch right now. 😉