A friend in his early 60s was recently trying to get me to take six solidly-constructed oak dining room chairs off his hands. He had tried to sell them to an antique store without success, and at this point he mainly wanted to find them a good home. I declined. Though I had recently bought a house, I didn’t need extra chairs cluttering up my living area, or my basement.
I have a number of older, white male friends in the upper-middle class demographic who all seem to be getting rid of stuff. For the most part it’s nice stuff – cheaper things they don’t mind donating to Goodwill – but for the nice stuff they want to find a good home.
These are men who, in their heyday, were highly successful, running companies, making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. They haven’t retired per se, but their careers seem to have somehow run down before what’s currently deemed an acceptable retirement age. They can’t necessarily “afford” retirement, but their prospects and willingness to work, in the sense of starting a new company or going out and finding a job with a boss, is limited or nonexistent.
What do they do? They tend to their family affairs, they work on their houses, they maintain relationships with family and friends. And they consolidate, getting rid of stuff they don’t need, stuff they haven’t needed for a long time, but which has steadily accumulated over the years. Men like these, pre-retirement age men in the act of consolidating, don’t appear in the unemployment statistics because they’re not looking for work or applying for unemployment, they don’t seem to actually think of themselves as unemployed – just as vaguely “moving on” to another life stage, or something.
In the media and in politics, I believe that the rhetoric about “getting the economy moving again” and “sustainable growth” rings hollow to an entire generation – anyone who has graduated from college since the year 2000 as I have has never seen a truly growing economy, it’s like a passenger pigeon or a dodo bird. When people who had adult lives in the 80s and 90s talk to me, I feel fundamentally disconnected from their nostalgia for an era of perceived robustness that no-one under 35 has ever known. And the thing is, that’s okay… it’s not good or bad, it’s just reality. We can’t quite imagine what they’re telling us we’re seeking.
It seems like only two imagined futures are being presented as possibilities – one, growth toward some kind of techno-utopia of unlimited energy and connectivity, and two, utter collapse, anarchy and Rapture.
Over the last few years I’ve really lost interest in this conversation, as it’s grown more clear to me that it’s largely driven by the Baby Boomer generation itself, whose worldview is still prevalent, in the western world at least. These are exactly the people who are entering their 60s, coping with the deaths of their parents, becoming grandparents themselves, and contemplating their own mortality.
Given their history over the last half-century, it makes sense that the existential crises of the Baby Boom generation would dominate the cultural conversation for a time, and that it would be appropriately melodramatic. It also makes sense that a lot of the strong feelings would be projected outward onto the world as a whole – “we’re doomed,” etc..
I’m not saying that climate change, peak oil, global debt, aging nuclear power plants aren’t serious concerns. It is indeed a mess. But I believe that my generation – those of us in our 20s, 30s and 40s – has a choice about being swept up in the existential drama of our elders.
We will still be here when they are gone, and the world will be different, and we will continue to learn to cope with new realities and find our way forward, as every generation has before us. We will wake up in 20 years to find our parents mostly gone, and it’ll be up to us to figure out how to run things, whether in a local or larger sense. It may not entail a revolution or an apocalypse, it might be merely a quiet, gradual shifting of consciousness as we realize that we don’t have to follow their crisis narrative if we don’t want to.
Our elders are still in the process of figuring out how to be old, and how to come to terms with the end of their lives – some will figure out how to do it gracefully, some will throw epic tantrums, and some will be in denial right up to the end, certain that the whole world is going to end because they can’t fathom it going on without them.
And then, their voices, whatever the tone, will be stilled, and in the ensuing hush we will have the opportunity to look around at the world and see it anew through our own eyes, and negotiate it on our own terms.