Birthday’s, Anniversaries, and other events tend to have a contemplative effect on me. It’s a sobering thought to think that this time next year we will be ‘celebrating’ or at least remembering, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, the Great War. That milestone makes me think of historical memory, of things like the unmarked, save in certain circles, passing of the last veterans of that conflict, and the diminishing numbers of veterans of World War II. That war is as far from us today as the Napoleonic Wars were for them, and what has always been most compelling to me in history is that relationship between what changes and what stays the same.
My own recent Birthday has brought to me considerations of the world in which I live, the time that I live. I question my previous thoughts on these matters, wonder how those in the future will perceive this era, and how it affects both the larger picture of history and the much smaller picture of my own day to day life.
In 2012, I wrote a small piece for Richard Worzel’s Futurist Blog. It can be found here. Rereading it I find I agree with myself of the oh so recent past, but have found some refinement in positions and opinions. I am in the early part of what might be called the ‘middle years’ of my life. When the foundations for life are supposed to be laid and the ‘work’ is to be done. Historically it might be the period you would expect a man to ‘earn his fortune’, or reap the benefits of an established career. In my parents time it was the era of buying houses, expanding careers and children, and those things still tend to be true, but with a string of asterisk now attached.
Median family income has shifted, but after accounting for inflation, it’s over-all movement has been relatively static for the last 30 years. A dip in the 90’s, and then a surge in the 2000’s. It may be there has been another dip post the 2008 crisis, but what is unmistakable is what has increased in price compared to these values. Average single-family home prices are easily more than double what they were in 1980, again even accounting for inflation. Education costs have increased by a greater factor, with just tuition rising from around the $2000 Mark into well over $6000, and set to go even higher, again numbers adjusted for inflation. Health costs have noticeably risen.
None of these stats are hard to find. One can look at the ‘good’ things. Consumer electronics are markedly cheaper than they were decades ago. The cost of a personal computer in the late 80’s/early 90’s ran well over a thousand, and sometimes upward of two-thousand dollars. You can buy a personal computer for far less than that in today’s currency, with a utility that far outstrips the 386SLC from IBM I got in 1992.
What this paints, however, in economic terms, is a reflection in the changes in the world, and in the personal experience of people my age, compared to those both older and younger than me. Several of the points I made in the article at future-search hold true; Coming out of university there are more graduates, fewer jobs, and more over-all debt. Even people I know who have stable long-term jobs often spend years trying to eliminate the debt incurred by an education that often doesn’t net them a compensation. Or more plainly, the costs of education use to be assumed to be ‘worth it’ in that they netted you a better income. There are many area’s where that can still be true, but the prospective investment to reward ratio has changed markedly, at the same time as the hall-marks of the middle class; property ownership, have become increasingly expensive.
My central thesis of that piece might be best phrased as; The Baby-Boomers defined their generation, and than ours, though control of institutions, and the impact and changes they have had on society. I have been hearing about how I won’t be able to live like my parents did since high-school. I’ve observed friends who continue to struggle in jobs that the generation past would consider ‘menial’ or ‘entry-level’ for years. Many people in their thirties seem to be in a position that was posited as being the norm of being in your twenties. A reflection of the demographic ageing of the country, of the shifts in economics that are shown above which keep people poorer longer. But perhaps beyond that is a cultural standard, generated in the Post World War II world, which maintains itself despite the world it was built in and for is long gone. An expectation that you graduate, move out, earn income, buy your own house, etc. Incomes come lower and later. Children, who are correctly viewed as a serious expense, also seem to come later. Thirty-somethings living with their parents not because of necessity, laziness or what-have-you, but because it makes the most economic sense. Yet this not reflected in our cultural bias’. I can readily recall myself using ‘Living in your parent’s basement when you’re thirty’ as a hall-mark for social failure, and yet now it is all too often merely a reflection of daily realities.
People with thousands of dollars of educational debt taking jobs that use to be occupied by people with less education, and a subsequent ripple effect. The explosion of temp, contract work and the joke that is unpaid internship as a cultural norm. Indeed the generation of a whole different class of ‘working’ people. The greasy blue overalls and the wrench replaced by what? The casual dress-shirt and the computer?
I have touched on several idea’s that I feel might be better expanded on in individual posts. One big one being the slow erosion of the ‘job’ economy. That idea that you go to work for some-one, and exchange your labour for money. That has been the foundational understand of ‘work’ for almost two centuries. Replacing earlier conception such as the feudal work obligation, or the self-sufficient small farmer or craftsmen. There have always been other ways of ‘working’. Some of these other ways seem to be expanding. The idea of work based around ‘gigs’ rather than jobs. Where more and more people are functionally self-employed.
I started this piece talking of historical change and continuity. In 1814 a North American Man might work as an apprentice to a craftsmen, or be the son of a farmer and expect to till his land and sell that produce, and the handicrafts of his family, to earn his bread. The first stage of the industrial revolution were beginning and while cloth was being weaved and new machines were being born, a Button was still something you made, rather than something you bought. That’s not even touching on other realities, such as that of women, or of the countless slaves who toiled, still generations away from any pretence of freedom. In 1914 a North American Man might expect to work at a factory, or as a clerk, or in any number of other jobs. He might join a union and be attacked by dogs and police. He might expect that his own lot could not just better than his fathers, but that it might be essential different. Now, as we approach 2014, what are the expectations? I have a feeling we are as different from those of 1914 as they were of those from the previous century.
- My article for Future Search “The Boomers have occupied the Future, and aren’t leaving…”
- A look at the Canadian Housing Market
- Government stats on Median Family Income in Canada