We need to have a talk.
A real, down-to-earth, grown-up talk.
But not with the kids.
We need to have a grown-up talk with the grown-ups.
People like us — grown-ups, adults, parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents — we’ve lived our lives mostly optimistically and, regardless of religion (or irreligion), with one shared article of faith: that we were working toward progress and, specifically, that each new generation would have things better than the last. Better lives. Better opportunities. Better tools. Better rules. And a brighter future. It’s been a staple of most of our existences. It’s been a goal and an ongoing process, and — regardless of our politics or worldview — we’ve all coalesced around our simple faith in it. We have been united by this dream and committed to this wonderful aspiration.
Unfortunately, however, we have also been blinded by it. We believe it is simply part of our DNA. We seem unable to acknowledge that it is no longer possible.
By the time the Baby Boomers were in their 30s, well into careers, raising kids, and settling into adulthood, blue-collar wages were great. The average journeyman electrician, for example, made just over $20 an hour. It was a comfortable, living wage for important work. The typical automobile at that time cost $3,000, and the average home ran around $15,000. Today, the hourly wage for the average journeyman electrician is still just over $20 — but the typical automobile costs $36,000 and the standard home $200,000.
This is the state of the American dream. Most American citizens are upside down in terms of their finances and basically live check to check.
The next generation isn’t going to have or enjoy or afford near as much as the Baby Boomers did. The next generation isn’t going to be able to have or enjoy or afford as much as Generation X did. Put it out of your mind. We all had more, and they’re going to have less. And their lesser spoils aren’t even going to be real, satisfying, or healthy.
While we were growing up, starting lives, having kids, and engaged in careers, we could, for the most part, at least count on a significant portion of the food on our tables being real, naturally occurring, produced without gobs of preservative byproducts, created without genetic modification, pumped full of growth hormones or antibiotics, or sprayed with poisons. Today, current and future food stores are shot, and our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will consume foodstuff that contains known carcinogens as a matter of course — and be happy to do so. Because there isn’t enough left to go around, and things will get worse.
The generations to come will not enjoy breathing clean air.
The generations to come will not drink clean water.
And, unlike so many of us, who, after lives of safe, unremarkable sedimentary posts in the employ of corporate conglomerates who promised pension plans and retirement savings (and partially delivered), the generations to come will not even be able to retire, much less fund retirement.
We tell our children and grandchildren to pursue the same surrenders we did, spend the bulk of their adult lives in various endeavors of corporate inertia, but their payoff will not come. We’re well aware of the chipping away of pensions and retirement plans today — we know that they won’t be around in the near future. But we don’t have time to worry about that and can’t afford to tell the truth about it to our children. If they stopped buying into the lie and refused to reduce themselves to the fleecing we took, our retirement plans would be disrupted.
This dream is dead. This goal is no longer achievable. Our descendants will inherit our folly.
But we still deserve ours, right?
We smile and say everything is going to be OK, but it will not.
It’s almost funny. No, it’s actually intensely sad.
In 2003, we were led to war en masse over a fractional potentiality. Our leaders told us if there was a 1-percent chance that another leader had nuclear weapons, we must act, we must take up arms. Because the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud. Because we couldn’t afford to take that chance. Because we couldn’t ignore that infinitesimally small possibility.
Today — quite conveniently — we see things differently. Today, there’s only a 1-percent chance we’ll survive climate change unscathed, whole cities sunk, massive swaths of entire continents reduced to desert, whole natural food sources vanished, and catalogs of entire species disappearing before our eyes.
And yet we — and especially the grown-ups — refuse to act at all.
The smoking gun is a smoking blue orb, and the second-hand “smoke” from fossil fuels is choking us all. The smoking gun is the dead zones appearing where our poisoned rivers meet the rising seas. The smoking gun is the continent-sized garbage patches in our oceans, the dying coral reefs, the reliance on genetically modified food sources, food source cloning, rising sea temperatures, longer drought seasons, killer heat waves, the increasing severity of natural disaster damage, and so much more. A hellscape for the generations to follow. A better life for no one except grown-ups today, right now, until the consequences of our ignorance and wishful thinking are writ cataclysmically large.
And yet you and I still manage to sleep at night.
And yet you and I still manage to look ourselves in the mirror without contempt.
And you and I go back to the football games on TV or the latest binge-watch on cable.
The most shameless fools in human history. And the last comfortable adults in our bloodlines. l
Fort Worthian E.R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (History Press, 2013), The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas (History Press, 2014), and The San Marcos 10: An Antiwar Protest in Texas (History Press, 2019).