By Dan Hendrickson
I’m a middle-aged man – a Generation X’er, they tell me. And here in the middle of my life (hopefully, but these days, who the hell knows?) I find myself wondering, What happened to progress? My generation grew up with The Jetsons, a cartoon show (for those of you who don’t know) that aired back in the 60’s and depicted life in the future. People, or at least the men (remember, it was the 60’s), still trundled off to work, but they did so in flying cars. There were robot maids. Food was prepared with the push of the button. There was no stated promise that this would be our future, but it was somehow implicit: The future would be a better place.
My generation is not The Greatest Generation, nor are we Baby Boomers. We’re also not Millennials. We are a generation – again, they say – best summed up by a single letter, a letter which can stand for anything…or nothing at all. If we are nothing else, though, we are survivors. We grew up in a world where the prospect of nuclear war was never too far off on the horizon; a world where our fossil fuels would one day run out, likely one day soon; a world where having sex seemed like a great way to get killed. We had a parent at home or maybe we had no parents at home. Either way, most of us grew up on TV, which was good and bad. But we were perhaps the last generation that was promised a better future. For us, the present was a bad joke we had to get through to reach a glorious punchline.
I look around now and have to wonder what kind of future any of us will have. Or, worse, I’m stuck with the thought that…this is it. That we’re all stuck in this awkward, adolescent phase where we remain children, where inventions and innovations that could truly change our world are shelved or destroyed, so that businesses can keep on harvesting and selling us the fossil fuels which built our world and now seem destined to also destroy it; so that the tech industry can continue to peddle apps and platforms which keep us occupied, adrift and half-asleep; so that the auto industry can sell us a new line of cars each and every year; and so that our politicians can keep fiddling while Rome slowly burns to the ground.
The word adolescent was chosen purposely because, as our technological development has been stunted, I believe our personal development has as well. Rather than charging boldly together into a brave new world, we remain trapped and isolated in the cowardly old one, selling each other products and goods and providing each other with services, all which exist solely to maintain the status quo. We’re pitted against each other relentlessly for a continually dwindling amount of wealth and resources. And the logic of this is never debated. The fairness of it rarely, if ever, questioned.
When is the last time anyone spoke of a brighter future for all, save in the broadest possible terms? Instead of envisioning a better world, a future based on the concept of progress, we continue to yammer about jobs and the economy, and fight over this rapidly shrinking present, a present that would seem to have no future. Machines are here, AI is coming, and neither are going away. We – human beings, the ones who created these systems which are ostensibly supposed to improve our lives – are still here and we’re running out of time (in terms of ways to support ourselves and finding rewarding ways to live our lives). We’re killing the very things we need to survive (the oceans and the Amazon, just for instance), and…why, exactly? What will any of this mean when there’s no food to eat?
I’m not saying that I have so much as a single answer to these complex problems, nor am I a raging Socialist (or a Socialist at all) And I do recognize that our world is slowly progressing on some level (if only technologically). But to me, progress is a world where life isn’t all work. Progress means less work, not more; progress means better lives, not worse. Progress is a world where things are improved not just for the extremely wealthy, but for everybody. Progress is a world where everyone has at least some idea of what true freedom is or at least what it could mean. As Americans, it’s ingrained in us that the answer is always to work more! Work harder! But even pack mules have only so much they can give. And ours is a culture that treats our roadways better than we treat each other. We at least recognize that roads eventually break down and need repairs from time to time. That’s a courtesy that we do NOT extend to one another.
But if I don’t have the answers (and I do not), I’m at least willing to ask the question: What happened to the idea of progress? What happened to the concept that the point of all of this was a better way of life? A more perfect union?
I realize that this essay may not be popular and I recognize that I will likely be labeled un-American, a whiner and/or a communist. Possibly even a whiny, un-American communist. But as a member of Generation X, I’m very used to being stuck with labels that do not apply. And to me, there’s nothing more American than asking tough questions. At the end of the day, I guess I want only two things: I want my goddam flying car (and yes, I am willing to work for it) and I want someone to tell me what happened not just to progress, but to the very idea of progress.
Is anybody out there?