If you're over 40, you may have noticed that for very the first time in your lifetime there's a definite lack of optimism about the future, both for our country and the world as a whole. People growing up in the 1950s and 60s were bombarded with stories about how bright everyone's future was going to be. Remember The Jetsons? That's what I'm talking about. Flying cars. Affordable space travel. The elimination of disease. Everyone believed that things would just continue to get better and better.
In 1956, Fortune magazine published "The Fabulous Future," a book of essays by luminaries forecasting a nation of technological and economic wonders by 1980. Adlai Stevenson spoke of "the most extraordinary growth any nation or civilization has ever experienced." George Meany predicted "ever-rising" living standards. And David Sarnoff gushed, "There is no element of material progress we know today that will not seem from the vantage point of 1980 a fumbling prelude."
That same year, that wild utopian, Richard Nixon, then vice president in the Eisenhower administration, heralded a 30-hour, four-day workweek "in the not too distant future." Gallup polls found that only 3% of the population questioned whether the nation was enjoying "good times," and just 8% doubted that the good times would keep getting better indefinitely.
So what the hell happened? I am especially interested in an explanation for the lack of a 30-hour, four-day work week.
Something's gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Last year I read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. It starts off strong with his description of the 10 or 12 driving forces behind globalism, then starts to sputter at mid-point and makes it to the finish line on little more than fumes.
There's one truly disconcerting point about his book. Throughout it, on almost every page, the implicit message is that we, as individuals and as a nation, will have to work harder and longer just to keep from falling behind. As I read through it the image of someone torturing a gerbil by spinning its wheel faster and faster kept appearing in my head.
Look, I'm self-employed and am fortunate enough to actually enjoy my work. I currently put about 12 hours a day into it 5 days a week, plus a few more on weekends. But at some point enough is enough. Do we really want a life where things are so hyper-competitive that we have no time for living?
Last fall, I read one of the dumbest comments ever seen on the Net, at least in my book. Several people were arguing on a message board over when life was better: now or back in the 1960s. One participant replied with almost palpable exasperation, "Of course life is better now! Just look at all the electronics we have." Lord help us, if we ever sink to measuring our lives by how many gadgets we have to distract us from real life.
There's an interesting article in the LA Times titled "Utopia Lost" about our collective loss of optimism.
If you have lost your sense optimism about the future, you are not alone.