We face a future that will most likely be harder than we can imagine, and one which will require of us a degree of personal grit and sacrifice to which we are almost entirely unaccustomed. Our standard of living will be lower than we planned... perhaps lower than we can possibly imagine. We will have to work harder and longer, for less. Many things that we grew up taking for granted will slowly shift into the realm of the uncertain and unreliable. We will feel the first pangs of a hangover from the party that the highly industrialized world has been throwing itself for the past hundred years or so, and in doing so we will be forced to make the hard choices whose consequences may well chart the course of the very societies in which we live, and even the species of which we are a part. And yet, I fear that we lack the basic skills necessary to even understand the tremendous task set before us, let alone deal with it in some kind of meaningful and practical way.
Tonight, on the way home from work, I winced my way through yet another anecdotal pity piece from modern victims of the hilariously mis-titled "Great Recession." Interviewed on the APM program Marketplace, Caitlin Shetterly, author of "Made for You and Me," and her husband Dan Davis recounted (without a trace of irony) the sorrowful tale of their fall from upper middle class entitlement to the wretched condition of (gasp!) the majority of this country's population.
Caitlin (a writer and freelance radio reporter) and her husband Dan (a photographer) pulled up stakes from Portland, Maine and moved to Los Angeles to pursue their respective "careers." Enter the villain in the form of the economic downturn, and suddenly the future to which they had previously been entitled (on account of their having "dreamed" it) is called into question, at which point they fancifully cast themselves as the piteous victims, standing alongside the likes of the protagonists in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
A particularly telling paragraph from husband Dan:
There was one moment when I was in a strip mall in Culver City, looking for work. And I had parked my car at the end of the parking lot, and started to make my way down the row of department stores. And by the time I got to the end, something in me just couldn't turn around and walk the same direction. I just felt so ashamed that I had a college education and I felt like all of my hard work didn't mean anything anymore. I walked around to the backside of all the buildings and walked back through the back parking lots so nobody could see me. I just felt too beaten down and too embarrassed to turn around and walk past the same people whom moments before I was just asking for a job.
Despite feeling no small connection with Dan (I myself possess a meager bachelor's degree in fine arts, and indeed was a scant six credit hours from having a second one in his very own field of photography), this part of the piece had me rolling my eyes to their very extremes. Now, I have never seen Dan's photographs... he could indeed be very talented. And I respect photographers tremendously as both artists and valuable contributors to the societal fabric. But as I have been through most college art and photography classes, I can safely say that to classify them in the same terms that Dan does requires an exceptionally broad definition of "hard work." I myself did not pursue those last (admittedly easy) six credit hours to achieve a BFA in photography because I understood such a degree to be largely worthless, even in 2005's heady times.
In short, I think the "terrible ordeal" that finally formented the book deal on which their lifestyle apparently depends rings terribly hollow, even to those of us who do not count genuine personal hardship amidst the shadows of our past. In short, I feel not a single ounce of pity for the terrible shame that Dan apparently felt when he was almost forced to take part in a kind of work which was not his absolute personal ideal. In short, I call bullshit.
And, to Dan and Caitlin, I say the following as kindly as I can: "Hold on to your hats." Because you haven't even met the distant cousin of Hardship. Because the future whose boundary we're currently toeing has little need for freelance radio contributors, or freelance photographers, or boutique cupcake proprietors, or social media analysts, or professional bloggers, or people who "tweet" for a living. To you and all of them I regretfully report the increasingly obvious, that we have all been sold a false bill of sale, whose goods will never be delivered. That world, so long in forming, is already in serious decline. Your dreams, however grand, no longer matter. That bubble, as they say, done popped.
The tasks we collectively face would prove daunting for any generation, at any given point in history. And yet we now are not the "the greatest generation," whose young men and women who faced a terrifying new world and war unfolding before them in the 40's, and yet found the courage and iron to bend history to their will. We are not the generation that took to the streets in the 60's to protest injustice and buck every social norm with the notion of ushering in a new world order based on far loftier (if not terribly naive) beliefs. We are now merely a generation of dreamers, of self-indulgent children who have been thoroughly convinced and coddled into the notion that the small and selfish act of shouting loudly into the wind could (and should) fill the space of the legitimate careers whose humble diligence consumed the time and lives of our forebears.
And it is not with bitterness, or envy, or the hollow joy of loosely pertinent prophecy that I say this. It is merely, as they used to say, brass tacks.
The times are changing fast these days. The evidence is pooling around our feet. We who are young and still strong must be willing to stretch the boundaries of our own expectations and comfort. We must be willing to cast our expectations and entitlements aside in exchange for the unglamorous opportunity of putting our own nose to the grindstone. We will most likely experience true sacrifice and hardship to a most uncomfortable degree, and will hopefully emerge stronger and more worthy of the mantle that is being passed to us... however undesired it proves to be.