In one of the Ann Rice novels, a vampire became so disenchanted with immortality after a couple of centuries of watching the world change that he ended his undead life.
50 Years of Change
I’m about halfway through my first century and have seen enormous change; probably, people my age have seen more dramatic changes in our lifetime than any other generation at any other time on Earth. The rate of change is itself changing. It’s getting much faster.
As a young reporter, I was once sent to interview some nursing home residents about the changes they’d seen in their lifetime. They gave the expected answers about automobiles, electricity, air travel and antibiotics. I am now in a position to give the same kind of interview, even though I’m hopefully several decades away from needing to be popped into a home.
Top change: the Internet
The internet is the obvious change of our time, and it’s driving much of the acceleration. Everything is faster with the internet. Almost the entire collection of human knowledge is available instantly; if you don’t know something, that’s on you. Research is faster and easier and so is sharing the results. A scientist on one continent can collaborate with colleagues on another, and we’re all better off for it.
Finding and verifying information used to be a complex and time-consuming process. My journalism training took place pre-internet, and what takes a few minutes now might easily have taken all day then. A few years ago, I covered a double-murder suicide and wanted to know who owned the house where it happened. I used my phone to instantly access county real estate records right there at the scene.
My millennial children are in the last generation to remember life without the internet. Their children will someday marvel at what a stone age they lived in.
Communication – Cutting the Cord
Right behind the internet is communication. Times have changed and so has the way we talk to each other. The idea that we all carry a small, relatively affordable device that allows us to instantly communicate with almost anybody else on Earth is still mind-blowing to me. That the device also allows you to tap into the internet? Even more mind-blowing.
When I grew up, almost everyone had one landline, usually in the kitchen. When the phone rang, there was no way of knowing who was calling or (unless you lived alone) who they were calling for. It could be your dad’s boss, needing him to come in. It could be the boy you liked, ready to ask you out. It could be your school principal, wanting to inform your parents of a certain incident that happened that day at school. It almost certainly was not a telemarketer, because that wasn’t a thing then. Whoever it was, the conversation took place sans privacy.
Have you ever tried to flirt with a boy you liked while your entire family looked on? I envied friends with extremely long phone cords that could be stretched far enough to crouch in a closet. Later, we had cordless phones, which allowed somewhat more privacy in theory, except that your neighbors could sometimes hear everything you said via their baby monitors.
My son was surprised to learn I didn’t grow up with a microwave. My parents bought their first one in the early ’80s and it was huge and very expensive. I ruined the first few things I tried to make with it.
Whatever the state of technology is right now, you soon take it for granted and cannot imagine life any other way. Everything before right now is seen as The Olden Days. (True story: Upon watching the old “Lady and the Tramp” movie, my little granddaughter assumed it was set in my youth, “when people didn’t have cars and dogs could talk.”)
Growth of Personal Rights
But even more wondrous, to me, is how society itself has changed. The civil rights movement began just before my lifetime, if you date it from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine that the generation before me grew up with separate drinking fountains and hostility against interracial marriage.
Women have more rights than ever before. We now have gay marriage. We recognize the rights of trans people. Nobody bats an eye at interracial relationships. We have improved our views of all kinds of people living all kinds of lifestyles. Plus-size people have claimed the right to expect to be treated with respect.
The Down Side of Change
Not everything is better. The internet killed newspapers and disabled all our gatekeepers; a random dude in his mom’s basement can operate a website that churns out disinformation, and a shockingly high percentage of the population cannot distinguish between his rantings and reasoned, professional journalism.
And keeping up with technology is difficult. In fact, nobody can do it. Technology has exploded to such a degree that all anyone can do is keep up with the parts of it they most need to know. That some people who lived the majority of their lives before they knew the internet existed can today program and write code is nearly miraculous. For the next generation, it’ll be just an ordinary skill that most everyone has.
The sheer amount of knowledge that is required to thrive in this world is beyond belief. Go back a few hundred years, and most people knew everything they needed to know to survive by the age of 12 or so. Reading was optional. Now? If we want kids to thrive, they must master an incredible array of skills.
My predictions for the next 10 to 50 years? Probably, we’ll own less stuff. We’ll rent our homes, clothing and furniture and will use some kind of new technology like automated on-demand cars to get around. We won’t cook for ourselves much at all. All kinds of new relationships and living arrangements will form. Long-distance travel will be faster and more common, but so will working at home and using virtual reality to interact. It will be as common to relocate to a different country as it is now to move to another state. Income inequality, authoritarianism and fringe politics will continue to grow.
Keep an open mind about social changes. I never would have imagined so many people were trans or non-binary, but now that it’s more acceptable to come out, I have many such people in my circle and I’m sure you do, too. What is next? I am guessing we’ll see more people living single or entering into polyamorous relationships, but your guess is honestly as good as mine.
As for technology, it’s hard to keep up but you have to do your best or you will be unemployable within a decade of your college graduation. Even though technology is not my strong suit, at times I end up helping somebody who is much more tech savvy than I am. Sometimes, I have some specialized bit of knowledge they don’t, even though their general technological knowledge is much greater than mine. None of us will know everything, but make sure you know what you need to know.
Work at keeping in touch with people — in real life, not just via social media or virtual reality or whatever thing is coming next that I cannot imagine. There will never be a time when people do not need other people, so cultivate relationships outside your own neighborhood, socio-economic group and profession.
Oh, and try to be nice. Life is getting harder for all of us.
Michelle Mueller Teheux is a journalist and former newspaper editor and columnist. She frequently writes about health, family and lifestyle.