Should We Be Hopeful?

Recently I met a young business manager at our neighborhood watering hole. Our discussion covered many areas, including current events and music. He was articulate and seemed to have his head screwed on straight.

We quickly developed a rapport, so I asked him: “Is it just me, or are depression and anxiety epidemic among your contemporaries?” He agreed that they were, and he included himself among the afflicted. I told him I would love to understand that better, and his response was fascinating. He cited three major factors: 

1. Extreme change. He felt nothing was stable. The ground was constantly shifting below his feet. “We’ve become unmoored as a society!”

2. Loss of the American Dream. “I’ll never own a home,” he lamented. “The financials are simply out of reach. I make good money, but I live paycheck to paycheck due to high college debt and skyrocketing apartment rental costs.” 

3. Loss of Human Interaction. He saved his greatest criticism for social media and phones, saying: “We don’t meet up anymore. Social Apps have displaced social interaction. It’s a toxic and impersonal world.”

“Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” 

It concerns me that so many young adults have a dour outlook. But I must admit, the U.S. is not heading in the direction I imagined or hoped for either. 

As a nation, we have lost a sense of vision or direction. We distrust our major institutions. It seems that society is guided more by algorithms than ethics. At a macro-level, U.S. living standards are the highest the world has ever known, yet the dream is out of reach for many. We have become cynical and divisive. Differing viewpoints have gone tribal. It’s hard not to fall into the trap.

When I was young, we eagerly pressed for change. We rallied against the man or the system rather than each other. We believed in a better tomorrow. A lot has changed since then.

I am a member of a discussion group that meets monthly to discuss important topics. A while back, our topic was: What current issues of today will our grandchildren still be facing 50 years from now? 

Climate change is a likely candidate. Beyond that, it’s easy to be blinded by current events. I decided to do some research. Historian Ian Mortimer’s book Millenium offered a clue. In it, Mortimer examined each century going back 1000 years. The book provided overwhelming evidence that pressing issues rarely persisted from one century to the next. Each century brought new developments and issues people living in the previous century never imagined. 

We tend to think our era is different and that disturbing trends will continue. History refutes that notion. Still, we are blinded by the present. Here’s an example from my life:

In 2008, I moved into a new job, which included responsibility for our company’s energy purchases. In proof of Murphy’s law, energy prices subsequently advanced to record highs. I got a lot of unwanted face time with the CEO.

I knew nothing about energy markets and put our brightest young analyst on it full-time. After a few weeks, she said she didn’t think high prices would persist. She believed record prices would spur new technology developments that would drive prices down in the long run. I was unimpressed, telling her that in the long run, we’d all be dead!

It turned out she was right. A new drilling technology called fracking transformed energy markets. In a few short years, the U.S. went from being the world’s largest energy importer to a net energy exporter. Prices have been lower ever since. 

Here’s my takeaway. Don’t get too wrapped up in doomsday chatter. There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Our young energy analyst entertained possibilities I was too blind to see. 

The historical function of youth has always been to shake off the old guard. That will likely continue. When the creative destruction of youth is combined with the promise of new technology, we might just get a dog that can hunt!  Bob Dylan clued us in years ago: “They say the darkest hour, is right before the dawn!” 

I may not not see the dawn, but the arc of history bends towards progress. For me, that’s reason enough to be hopeful.

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