Our Kids Could Change the World
Two weeks ago, a woman about my age was sitting beside me at the airport.
I was reading the latest Newsweek. She was reading “The Help.” As strangers waiting beneath a clock sometimes do, we began to chat.
She was waiting to pick up her daughter from Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family in Indiana. My son was coming back from his mom’s in Maine. Hers is a senior at N.C. State, mine a senior at Elon. We swapped amusing college-parent war stories and shared thoughts on how rapidly our sprouts had grown up, were now grown-up people about to venture forth on their own — at least in theory.
She asked me what my son hoped to do when he graduated. I said he would soon be on his way to India to make his second documentary film about a pioneering rural health organization and planned to move to New York and find a job eithermopping floors or making movies, whichever came first.
The good news, I added, was that Junior possessed much more raw talent than his old man at his age, proving evolution really works. I wasn’t particularly worried about him finding his place in the universe — just losing his passport in India. “I know he’s my son,” I pointed out, “because I’m something of a serial loser.” She laughed, placing a finger in her book.
“Mine will have a business degree,” she said, “but the job market is so bad I honestly don’t know what she’ll do. I read somewhere that this is the worst time to finish college in more than 80 years. She’s talking about going on to grad school but I don’t know how we’ll swing that.”
Her daughter was the third child she and her husband had put through college. “We’re up to our necks in college debt,” she said, shaking her head.
I told her she wasn’t alone. That the working adults in our family had put two sprouts through college and had two more on the way. I said we didn’t expect to have lunch money until 2021.
She laughed again, and then turned wistful. “It’s such a different world than when I got out of school in 1976,” she said. “Life seemed so comparatively simple. My husband and I got married right after college and purchased a house in Chapel Hill for $26,000. He went to work for IBM, and I finished my master’s at nursing school. We were able to put money in the bank and eventually bought a place at Sunset Beach. We worked hard and even had a retirement plan that would keep us comfortable in our old age. That’s all pretty well gone now.”
Since we were complete strangers, more or less, she opened up even more.
Four years ago, her husband was “downsized” by the foreign company that purchased his software firm in Research Triangle. He also suffered a severe heart attack a short time later that forced him into early retirement. She underwent breast cancer surgery, and their savings dwindled to nothing — most of it going to pay the escalating medical costs and their ever-rising health insurance premiums. They eventually sold their beach house at a loss and were now watching every dollar after sending daughter number three through college, paid for mostly by large federal and private loans.
“We’ll make it to the finish line, I suppose,” she added, “but just barely. I read those stories about the one-percent living like royalty and I think, ‘I don’t know anybody like that. Who are those people?’ So much for the American dream. We used to be the rising middle class. I just hope the kids like our minivan. It’s probably all they’re going to inherit.”
I laughed at her joke, though it really wasn’t that funny. In the issue of Newsweek I was holding, ironically, an article on the “One Percent” explained that they represent just six-tenths of the American work force, earning on average $995,000 per year in income, with an average of $4.5 million in assets.
For Christmas this year, according to the magazine, the One Percenters planned to spend an average $68,000 on new luxury automobiles and maybe $50,000 on jewelry. That’s a genuine “December to Remember” event.
“I wonder what’s happening to America?” my new airport friend said. “It’s almost like we’re becoming Third World nation in our own country. What do you think?”
Like millions of Americans swamped with college debt and dwindling resources, I could relate to much of what she said, including her feeling that once upon a time, the future seemed promising for those who worked hard and played fair and strived to “get ahead.”
Thinking about how American life has dramatically changed over the past 20 years, I said, it was pretty easy to feel disgusted if not outright disillusioned by what the vast majority of us have been through and witnessed — a Wall Street culture that shifted from being a source of revenue for aspiring companies to being an unregulated casino for financial firms that cared only about making windfalls, not products, a federal government increasingly indifferent to the will of its citizens, partisan politicians lining their pockets while uniformly lacking the personal courage or integrity to do the right thing, and a vanishing middle and upper-middle class that was once the bedrock of the nation — increasingly fed up with all the above. “And yet,” I said, “I’m feeling pretty optimistic about our future — and not just because I’m so hoping for a new Lexus under the tree from my Secret Santa.”
She laughed and looked at me as if I were kidding. “It’s our kids,” I said. “I think their generation might actually be better stewards of the world they’re about to inherit than we were.”
I sketched out my thinking briefly.
They seemed, for example, far less motivated by the idea of corporate profit and personal financial security than we children of the 1970s had been, better informed and far less tolerant of the secret shenanigans of big banks and greed of an unregulated Wall Street.
Maybe more important to our nation’s future, as a group on the whole, our kids didn’t seem to see race, religion or sexual preference as a social barrier of any sort and appeared happily unburdened by the kind of blinkered nationalism that’s long lead America into foolish wars. The Occupy Wall Street and tea party movements, it struck me, were simply important manifestations of the same growing sense among most ordinary Americans that something is very out of whack in our national life, that our country has gone off the rails.
Nitwit cable commentators and elected officials who dismiss either movement or the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country, I added, would be well advised to go read their history of this country between 1929 and 1932, when thousands of hungry and disenfranchised Bonus Marchers — veterans of the Great War who’d been promised “bonus” pay for their heroic service — took over the Ellipse in Washington and brought down a government, awakening the ire of a nation. When Herbert Hoover unleashed police and Army troops to end the Bonus encampment, his fate was sealed and Franklin Roosevelt was elected president.
‘Big Change Coming’
Watching the shameful footage of peaceful student demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly and being calmly pepper-sprayed by a policeman in tactical gear at Cal-Davis, I told her, the image of the Bonus marchers popped into my head. Decades from now, that news footage, I predict, will be this generation’s version of Kent State.
“A big change is coming, and I think our kids will change the world. Their more interested in making a difference than making money,” I summed up my little speech. “I think our kids will actually create a better world from the ashes.” I mentioned a recent national poll that showed more altruism and less material desire expressed by current college students than our generation.
“Gosh, I hope you’re right,” she said, getting up to go meet her daughter. “You’ve cheered me up a little bit. I wish my daughter could meet your son.”
She started to walk away into the big holiday crowds and paused, looking back.
“Thanks for the chat. I hope you get that Lexus from your Secret Santa.”
A few minutes later, my son Jack climbed into the car holding his backpack. He asked me how my Thanksgiving had gone, and I told him it was fine, but I was glad to have him back for a short time before he traipses off to the poorest part of India to make his important little movie on innovative health care in one of the planet’s poorest places.
I mentioned to him how pleased I was to see that his film project, “Health For All,” had been gathering backers right and left on Kickstarter, the innovative fundraising tool run by Amazon. “Thanks, Dad,” he said. “I really can’t wait to get going. We’ve got a great team. It’s going to be a great little movie.”
“You’re proof that evolution really works, Junior.”
He laughed at this, probably having no clue what I really meant.
You can check out Junior’s project and first film on Kickstarter.com by searching “Health For All.”
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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