16 March 2011

Youth Explosion

A few weeks ago, the Urbanophile posted a piece on the generational shift happening in this country. I largely agree with what Mr. Renn had to say. I've written about this a little bit as well, but I would like to add something to the discourse. I am 33 years old, an age that puts me just at the tail-end of the accepted range for Generation X'ers. Just old enough to know what a busy signal sounds like or what a mimeograph machine was for. However, unlike people just a few years my senior, I grew up amidst what will no doubt come to be seen as an epochal event, the revolution in data processing and telecommunications that gave us everything from personal computers to mobile phones to the 24-hour news cycle. I'm not saying that somebody in their 40s can't wrap their heads around these modern marvels, or that there are many computer scientists & engineers older than me who are doing things I myself couldn't even begin to comprehend, but they were certainly at a later stage of brain development than those of us my age and younger by the time they were introduced.

Our family got it's first of many computers, an Atari 400, in 1980. My dad was an early adopter, as he's always had a penchant for gadgetry. That said, there is a disconnect between myself and my parents when it comes to technology. My mom still doesn't know how to use e-mail or send a text message (two things I'm secretly grateful for), and my dad apparently has yet to find a better use for a computer than playing solitaire or checking stock quotes. For me, growing up with microprocessors and modems that got exponentially faster every year, the possibilities were more limitless. For one thing, inside a computer, national borders are meaningless. I've been interacting with people from a multitude of countries since I was in high school, all it took was a 2400 bps modem and finding people who could speak English. We take websites like eBay & PayPal for granted now, but the notion of having a global marketplace with an instant payment system is pretty revolutionary stuff in historical terms.

And it's a revolution that's still playing out, as we've seen recently in Egypt and elsewhere. This is a generation that is just coming into it's own, and as should be expected from a group weaned on satellite tv and the internet, the expectation of instant gratification is high. Egyptians too poor to travel abroad could go online and see that people in other parts of the world took for granted the same freedoms that they desired. It's the great promise of the freeing power of mass communications technology that our neo-liberal State Department has pushed for the last decade...until WikiLeaks came along.

The long-term implications of what's taken place over the last twenty years will take decades to sort out. Some have wondered whether our brains can psychologically deal with all the information that we're now bombarded with. Technotopians counter that this is just going to unlock parts of the 80% of our brains that we're not currently using and human evolution will advance as a result. Who knows? We're only now coming to terms with the darker side of the automotive revolution that changed this country after World War II. And as technology marches on, it's hard to fix an end date. We've reached a point where microchips can't get much smaller and still work effectively, so it may be close. There's no "new" technology in the iPad 2, for instance, just improved and repackaged ones, some of which have been around since the early '80s. What is clear to me is that the younger generation and those that follow are likely to have much different views of the world than our parents. That's always true, of course, but I think that today's youth are much more flexible than their forebears. It's out of necessity, mostly. We can't expect to find a job that will employ and feed us for forty years and give out a nice pension at the end, because they just don't exist anymore.

In part, I think the reason younger people have embraced low-tech solutions to the world's problems, like riding bicycles or producing food locally, is out of a desire to reconnect with "simpler times". If you attend an event like the Renegade Craft Fair, you may be surprised at the entrepreneurial spirit on display. Hundreds of small businesspeople, selling handmade whatnots, to people who appreciate such things. It may seem overly precious to some, but none, or few, of them seem to have set out to become huge financial successes, and there's a cooperative attitude which is refreshing. Many business owners I know in Chicago work out trades for their services, libertarians would no doubt be appalled at such a collectivist mindset. Lest we forget, Portland, often seen as the incubator of such things, saw the country's largest protest against the Iraq invasion in 2003, nearly 100,000 people on the streets of what George H.W. Bush christened "Little Beirut". Mostly young people, and now that they're older they are trying to break the country's addiction to petroleum products in myriad ways.

Every generation that comes along bemoans the mess left by the prior one, it's nothing new. But it's certainly true that the leaders of the last sixty years have really done a number on this country. I take a small amount of solace in thinking that it could be worse, we could be Greece. Then this morning, I read this opinion piece from a Greek newspaper which could just as easily apply to the United States. The youth are just as undervalued in this country, as older workers are either unwilling or, as has been the case with my parents, unable to afford to retire, it's left huge numbers of recent college graduates (myself included) unemployed or underemployed. an entire generation's potential is being squandered, largely due to economic conditions. Something has got to give, I hope it doesn't take a Greek-style collapse (either in the financial sense, or of the kind that left it in literal ruins) to awaken the change.

No comments:

Post a Comment