A Huffington Post article titled ‘Millennials Are Screwed’ and written by a millennial opens with a telling reflection:
“Like everyone in my generation, I am finding it increasingly difficult not to be scared about the future and angry about the past.”
This baffles me.
Personally, as a matter of pre-reflective temperament, I’ve always been excitedabout the future and interested in the past.
Be that as it may, it has recently become clear to me that my optimism about life and about the future is somewhat of a minority position. Even among people who, like me, were born in circumstances that would make 95% of the world’s population drown in jealousy.
In all fairness, I never considered whether I actually, after reflection, have most reason to be “scared about the future and angry about the past”. But if “everyone in my generation” leans that way, then I can’t go on having the opposite conviction without considering it critically.
So: how should we think about the future?
Micro-scale setbacks: society
Research supports the tendency reported in the opening statement of the Huffington Post article:
“For the first time since the 19th century, when the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution made belief in progress common, the majority of people in 36 countries believe the world is headed in the wrong direction.” — RobWijnberg
The idea that the lives of our children and grandchildren will be worse than our own is gaining ground. From the Huffington Post article again:
“What is different about the world around us is profound. Salaries have stagnated and entire sectors have cratered. At the same time, the cost of every prerequisite of a secure existence — education, housing and health care — has inflated into the stratosphere.”
This leads to a situation where
“My rent consumes nearly half my income, I haven’t had a steady job since Pluto was a planet and my savings are dwindling faster than the ice caps the baby boomers melted.”
I recognize these material struggles.
Buying a house is near impossible and getting a ‘real’ job, or something that looks like it, is nothing more than a dream for most. American friends I met last year at Central European University who got their Master’s degree are now stocking at Walmart and very capable Dutch friends of mine are working in call centers. In these respects, the post-graduate life is not as rosy as that of our parents.
The political and environmental situation provide further grounds for pessimism:
It’s not weird to think that the world is heading in the wrong direction.
Micro-scale setbacks: psychological
There’s no question that millennials struggle on the mental front as well.
Depression is, too. We are told that the American dream brings us happiness, but it does not, because happiness is not about external metrics, but internal. This internal criterion comes with its own problems, observes philosopher Carl Elliott:
“With no bedrock of certainty about what counts as a successful life, any choice to live a life may come to seem arbitrary. The result is often uncertainty or a sense of imbalance, because not only don’t you know what kind of life to live, you don’t know what, if anything, can give you certainty.” —Carl Elliott, Better Than Well
We’re also becoming more lonely — probably because we focus on impressing others at the expense of relating to them.
According to psychological research
“There’s clear evidence that [to impress people] the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up, and there’s also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious.” — Charles Chu
So: our personal lives are uncertain. The economy is unstable. The political climate is grim. The environmental crisis is huge.
These are legitimate reasons for pessimism.
On the other side, when we zoom out, there is a clear upward trend in how the world is doing.
“Modern life can not even be compared to ancient living. It’s safe, easy and and prosperous.” — Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
It follows that
The fundamental insight of so-called ‘Enlightenment progress’ is a commitment to the intrinsic value of humanity. All other tenets of Enlightenment thought — individual rights, the pursuit of happiness, democracy, freedom — follow from this basic principle.
Today, human rights are an actual right for people more than any other time. And in recent history, we have been able to prevent more and more human suffering.
Still, of course, there is still a great deal of misery in the world. So there’s plenty of work to do, for Christ’s sake. But the long-term upward trend is undeniable. We are so rich that we live in a time in which we can afford to, to partly quote Tyler Durden, “buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like”.
Many of us millennials are pretty damn high in Maslow’s pyramid. It’s easy to forget that.
Agreeing to disagree
There seem to be good reasons for pessimism and good reasons for optimism.
These disagreements lead me to doubt that any of these conflicting narratives are more true. Perhaps the question of whether the pessimistic or optimistic image is ‘more correct’ has no answer.
In that case, we should look at other considerations besides accuracy. Recall that the question we are seeking to answer was not
“Who is probably right about the future?”
“How we should we think about the future?”
There might be no clear answer regarding which prediction is more likely to be accurate, but this ignorance is of little practical importance.
On pragmatic grounds, we do have most reason to orient ourselves optimistically towards the future. The negative outlook is the wrong one to adopt.
“Cynicism is easy. Optimistic contrarians are the rarest breed.” — Naval Ravikant
Many of the long-term forecasts we’re seeing today aren’t particularly rosy. But at least we’re having them, now, when we still have a chance to do something.
And yet, some of the long-term forecasts are rosier than we can even imagine. The leaps forward in medicine, energy production and AI are transforming our world even as we live in it.
When pessimism was most discussed, in the late nineteenth century, many pessimists, such as Schopenhauer, assumed that the nature of human life is fixed, so that what is true now will always be true.
It is now clear, however, that human existence can be radically transformed. Due to the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed as fast. We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but also ourselves and our successors.
Probably this will be humanity’s most dangerous and decisive period.
Life can be wonderful as well as terrible. We shall increasingly have the power to make life good — and to make it bad.
We may be clinical in our assessment of how things are. And there’s no point in criticizing someone for feeling fear. But in your attitude, dare to be an optimist.
The future is too important to approach otherwise.
A happy ending is not guaranteed. The future depends on our actions. It’s our duty to believe in a better world and to fight for it. Progress may be the thread that runs through human history, but it’s far from inevitable.
To make it happen, we must have a positive view of how the world can be andbelieve in the possibility of progress.
That’s why the famed philosopher Karl Popper concluded that
“Optimism is a moral duty.”
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