Of all the insights swamping us in old age, surely one of the most profound and hardest to ignore is the role of change in our lives. With six decades of perspective, can we at last understand that nothing ever stays the same?
Though it’s different for each of us, think about the things we accepted in the 1950s as we moved into our 20s. The voice of the culture told us to marry young, have children and stay home to raise them. Men earned the money and women did everything else. Women became accomplished support systems for their families and communities. Men were judged by how much money they made and women by how successful their children became.
And then, the ‘60s. The sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, the assassinations – all of it shook the country, and yet it didn’t affect the expectations of family. We still hoped our children would grow up, work hard, succeed, marry, and have children. But in this rancorous, violent decade, we were listening, beginning to think, and becoming ready to change.
The ‘70s – In some ways a quiet decade but Gloria Steinem, brave in a disapproving culture, began and never stopped spreading discussion of why women are secondary citizens. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and their generation revolutionized the corporate culture and changed communication forever. No, that’s wrong. They changed everything forever.
The ‘80s and ‘90s – Our children were marrying, our grandchildren were arriving and we began our quiet march toward irrelevancy. But irrelevancy brings a certain kind of freedom most of us never imagined. As we headed toward the turn of the century, our children became responsible for their lives and those of our grandchildren. The dreams of the technology innovators began to change the way our world works.
What we didn’t understand right away was that instant communication brought the immediate exchange of ideas, and when questioning took hold, customs changed quickly, not in the evolutionary way of the past. As the century changed, everything changed.
A new philosophy bubbled up in the culture: acceptance. What had it told us when we were young? That homosexuality was a rare disease that could be cured with help, that drinking was acceptable within limits and could be cured with help when it was excessive, that segregation was simply the way of the world, and that these questions weren’t up for discussion.
And now. Who has the right to tell people who they can love? Church, parents, schools, cultural consensus? No longer. I listened one day as a very intelligent judge explained her theory to me about the Supreme Court and the willingness to take on controversial cases. In sum, she said that when cultural questions are involved, the justices must weigh their decisions against the degree of acceptance that exists in the culture. By 2015, the country was ready to accept gay marriage and the court handed down its decision.
We have not yet addressed the damage done to our society by alcohol and drugs. There is no consensus on how – in a nuclear world – to eliminate war as the way to settle disputes. Will the new openness in the culture encourage us to talk about this before we blow ourselves up?
The truth is that no one now alive can predict where all this is going. Now that the world is connected by the flat phones we all hold in our hands, we know how quickly change will spread. Older men who gained their influence by working their way up in the power structure have lost that power to younger men and women who play in a world of words and concepts that their elders don’t understand. The power they exercised moments ago is vanishing. The architecture of our society has changed completely.
The new tools of work and play are second nature to young people. Right now, they seem to have little interest in power or control, more interest in innovation and change. And when change comes, they celebrate it and look for more.
Just take three minutes to go to YouTube to watch SpaceX, The Falcon Has Landed. As you watch, study the faces in that big crowd that put Elon Musk’s rocket on Mars and returned it to earth. That generation is taking hold of our world and it is exciting to watch their excitement and their accomplishment. Very few people over 60 are comfortable with the language of the new world. We need to salute those who are.
Will they morph into the power seekers of old? We can hope not. But if the hunger for power sets in again, could it happen that men will no longer prove themselves by starting wars? We can hope that the excitement triggered by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Larry Brill will continue. They have transformed the world in a way that encourages peace and competition, not war and weaponry.
Our grandchildren’s generation is moving into a culture where retail is being displaced by online buying, where self-driving cars are nearly here, where old energy sources are being replaced by new and cheaper ones. Yes, industries are being destroyed, and no, there is no point in moaning about that. The speed and breadth of the new discoveries renders criticism absurd. It’s here; don’t complain, don’t judge anything by the standards of our past. We must, even at this age, find our way in it. With a little luck and humor this just might be our best decade.