The View From Away: There's no avoiding the generation gape

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Now that my son Bobby has one foot and most of his body out the door, I feel a great urgency to impart all my wisdom.

What a joke. A letter full of my wisdom? A postcard, maybe. Plus, he’s already years ahead of me at his age, so he probably sits there reading the letter saying, “Know it … know it … always knew it … oh, come on, Dad! What am I, like, 5?”

The letter I wrote to him did get me thinking about what the world will be like for him, a process that I thought would depress me no end. Instead, I came away intrigued, even sorry I won’t be around for all of it (arguably, the jury is still out on my immortality).

The next period in history is going to be fascinating. There are many unsustainable trends going on in the world. By the way, you’re welcome, Bobby’s generation. We’ve done a pretty good job of leaving you plenty to do. The next generation will change the world in fundamental ways because it will have to. The good news is, they’re up to it.

As my wife Carol pointed out, the things that terrified our parents didn’t terrify us. I came up in the “duck and cover” years. Our neighbors had a bomb shelter. My parents thought it was a good idea. So did I, but only because my friend had a fort in his back yard, and I thought I could one-up him with an underground concrete bunker. My parents were thinking Armageddon; I was thinking clubhouse. That’s the difference between the generations. 

I exaggerate to clarify, but trying to look at some issues through my son’s eyes, they look a lot different. Oil is a dwindling resource in an era of increasing demand. The energy industry is going to have to change significantly to find new ways to meet the demand. Whole new sub industries will grow up: producing alternative fuels, creating delivery systems, figuring out how to keep it from killing us, etc., etc. Water is recyclable, but like fossil fuels, it’s also finite. Demand is increasing unsustainably.

However, while we may be a cantankerous and arrogant species, we’re not suicidal. So the next generation won’t be able to put off dealing with these global systemic problems. Maybe the next Steve Jobs will come out of this arena.

Or maybe he will emerge from shaping the global workplace. I grew up in a huge, fractionated world. Now traditional national boundaries are breaking down, in fact if not literally, as we become more interdependent. Literally would be cool with countries merging like companies. I’d love to say I lived in “Ger-France” or “Swe-Way.” Anyway, when I was in school, people expected to get a job someplace and stay there for a long time. Not anymore. There’s less of an illusion of job security, but this generation gets that.

They’re also learning that if they have a nimble mind and a number of skills, they will be able to do more than one job in more than one industry. They may not have jobs the way we think of them. They’ll have careers instead. My son’s generation will skew heavily toward independent contractors. They won’t climb a corporate ladder rung by rung. Instead, they’ll jump from level to level, and when they complete the necessary tasks in one environment, they’ll shift to a different set of challenges. The way you do in a video game. 

Maybe all those hours spent with controllers in their hands won’t end up being a complete waste of time. It’s like ashes in my mouth to admit that, but there you are.

Millions of other people will be working all over the world, but virtually. The information economy is going to be huge. It has already destabilized the concept of intellectual property. Sometimes it seems like my son’s generation believes in a bastardized version of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his ability to block pirates.”

Illegal downloads are a relatively insignificant but easy example to visualize. The more significant shift is in the wholesale theft of technology. Companies try to steal other companies’ secrets. Nations launch millions of cyber attacks every day trying access to information that will give them an edge. What seems like chaos and illegality to me is really just a shift in the paradigm to the next generation, the creation of a new reality. 

Damn. Sounds like one of those endless explanations of video games Bobby tried to give me every day when I was driving him to school. I didn’t understand it then, either. Sometimes he would just look at me and sigh. I’m not sure I’m up to being patronized by an entire generation.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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