The Times

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

–Bob Dylan†

According to one piece of conventional wisdom, of which Dylan’s lyric is among the more effective and literate expressions, as each generation passes into its middle and old age, it bemoans what has come after.  Things are going to shit! Young people today are [fill-in your favorite disparaging characterization]. On this view, the last people you’d want to ask whether things are getting better or worse are those who are older than 40.

Of course, there is another piece of conventional wisdom that points in the opposite direction; that with age comes insight that can only be born of experience. John Stuart Mill maintained that in order to be a competent judge of which of two pleasures is better, one must have experienced both, and with regard to our times, every person over a certain age has experienced the relevant “both,” namely, previous eras and the current one.  On this view, it is precisely those over 40 to whom one must turn, if  one is to get a sense of our current times and whether they represent progress or regress.

This year, I will be 51 years old, so my conscious experience includes the decades spanning the 1970’s to our present day, and in a number of significant ways, I believe that the times (in the developed world) are getting worse, rather than better.  One reason for this negativity is the transformation in the personalities and habits of my students that I have witnessed over two and a half decades of college teaching. Another is the front-row seat I’ve had from which to view contemporary childhood and adolescence, in a run-of-the-mill, suburban, Midwestern town (courtesy of my daughter). I’ve already written quite a bit about this aspect of my dislike for our times; the anger I feel over the ways in which we have systematically destroyed the experience of being young in America.‡

But there’s more to it than this; something less definite and more difficult to pin down. A common thread running through what would appear to be a series of unrelated elements that come in glimpses; impressions; and sudden realizations. Finding a website devoted to the bygone Yorkville neighborhood of New York and thinking about how the Czech and Hungarian and German restaurants in which my parents and I used to eat have all evaporated into a fog of wannabe nouvelle cuisine style establishments, inflected with the current “artisanal” fashion. Wading through the toxic swamp that is the contemporary conversation on social justice and noticing that in contrast with earlier, more traditional civil rights discourse, the ideas of a common humanity and of meaningful differences between people and peoples have become mutually antagonistic. Recalling the famous Borg/McEnroe fourth set tiebreaker at Wimbledon and lamenting the fact that the tennis I once loved, whose small, wooden rackets and disparate surfaces demanded a skillful, tactical playstyle, has been transformed into a numbingly dull game defined overwhelmingly by fitness and racquet and string technology, in which gameplay has devolved into baseline ball-bashing, regardless of surface.  (At my suggestion, my current 26 year old coach and I have taken up playing with wooden racquets, and he has noted that it is an entirely different game.) Reading our own C.J Uberroth’s essay, “Bring Back the Slide Rule” and reflecting on the fact that our use of labor-saving devices has brought us to the point at which we can no longer estimate, calculate, spell, write grammatically, or even write at all (college students’ handwriting today resembles my grade school penmanship, back in the early 1970’s). Looking at pictures of my grandmother (who died in 2004) and meditating on the fact that as a child, I had a more substantial relationship with her by way of a single annual visit and monthly telephone conversations, across two continents and a significant language barrier, than I do with my living friends and relatives, through social media, today. Watching the kids in Stranger Things riding their bikes through their neighborhood at night, on their own, without helmets, and realizing that no kid has done this for decades or ever will again.

These elements point towards a bland homogenization, despite never-ending paeans to diversity; an erosion of enriching distinctions, in the name of an empty equality; a reduction of things to simple, generic elements, at the expense of sophistication and talent; a degradation of crucial capacities and skills, for the purpose of further reducing our already minimal labor; a profound and devastating de-socialization, in pursuit of a shallow, commercialized brand of connectedness; and the cultivation of a sense of fragility and fear, at a time when we are the safest we’ve ever been. What they represent is not the advancement but the diminishment of human life and experience, and rather than calling to mind the vibrant, new generation, on whose behalf Dylan’s song was written, they are evocative instead of the evolutionary dead-ends who populate H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, the Eloi, with their wispy, insubstantial beauty, insipid agreeability, infantile intelligence and personality, and ultimate instrumentality.

I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last.

–H.G. Wells‡‡

†From the song, “The times, they are a-changin’.” (1964)

‡‡ The Time Machine. (1895)






16 responses to “The Times”

  1. This year, I will be 51 years old,

    Still young, then. (I’m approaching 80).

    At age 51, I was just 5 years into a new position. I had switched from a mathematics department to a department of computer science. And there was, and still is, a lot of movement in computer science.

    Yes, if I had remained in mathematics, I would have been in the doldrums. And that’s probably what it now looks like to you.

    I’ve already written quite a bit about this aspect of my dislike for our times; the anger I feel over the ways in which we have systematically destroyed the experience of being young in America.

    I disagree with that.

    Yes, growing up was very different for my children than it was for me. And I did wonder whether they were being cheated of the kind of experience that I had when young. But then growing up for my grandchildren is very different from what it was for my children. And I no longer worry about them being cheated. It’s the nature of human existence. The only constant is that everything is changing.

    These elements point towards a bland homogenization,

    It was always thus. There is always homogenization. But there are always movements of change breaking out from that homogenization.

    For me, I see it as well past time for us geezers to step back and allow the younger generation to take charge.

  2. Chris Kimsey

    Well this one I can wholeheartedly agree with. Even someone like me who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s feels the changes accelerating. I try to voice this kind of thing to some of my educated friends and they talk about how the world is getting better, Steven Pinker ect., which misses the point. My working class neighbors on the other hand definitely acknowledge some kind of decline.

    Raising young kids right now make it doubly troubling. I worry about what the horizons are for their growth in such a reactive fear based environment.

  3. My daughter knows she’s been cheated and resents it. She understands the difference between an open campus and a closed one; between a world when you are free to go out to the park with your friends when you are 8 years old and a world in which your parents are arrested if they let you do that. These are crucial differences to which contemporary social scientists are attributing the unprecedented spike in anxiety and depression among young people. It is a dereliction of our responsibility to shrug it off and say “things are always chaging.” It is our responsibility to not change them for the worse.

  4. Yes, if I had remained in mathematics, I would have been in the doldrums. And that’s probably what it now looks like to you.

    = = =

    I’m not in the doldrums. The view that not everything new represents progress isn’t the doldrums, it’s being sober and realistic.

  5. I do appreciate being called “young” though. 😉

  6. I try to voice this kind of thing to some of my educated friends and they talk about how the world is getting better, Steven Pinker ect., which misses the point. My working class neighbors on the other hand definitely acknowledge some kind of decline.

    As I see it, progress is a myth. What we have is change. People who like the direction in which things are changing will consider that progress. And people who don’t like the direction will consider that to be decline. What I am calling a myth, is the idea that there is some absolute scale on which we can judge the direction of change.

    Change is inevitable. But we need to adapt to those changes. The problem right now, is that the people who don’t like the changes are voting for conservative governments that refuse to adapt to the unavoidable changes. And that only makes things worse.

  7. s. wallerstein

    I’m 73 and I feel even more “out of it” than you do. I don’t even own a smart phone.

    It’s frustrating to reach 51, having finally accumulated enough life experience to have something to teach to the younger generation and to find that you’re considered hopelessly old-fashioned. Still every generation has to learn on its own the hard lessons that experience teaches you. My generation, that of Bob Dylan, imagined that it was special and that it had insights that no one over 30 could possibly understand.

    The current younger generation will most probably go through the same process of discovering through hard life experiences that their parents and grandparents had something worthwhile and even wise to tell them that they didn’t bother to listen to. Probably it wasn’t that way in traditional society, but things change so rapidly these days (or at least new products are marketed so rapidly these days) that young people feel that older people have very little to tell them.

  8. If they were defiant and rebellious and refused to listen to us, it wouldn’t be worrying. The problem is the opposite, as I have chronicled in many an essay. They are docile and obedient and utterly conventional.

  9. Chris Kimsey

    The social and economic benefits of conformism are so large now, and parent’s fears of being declasse so strong.Kids have internalized it all.

  10. davidlduffy

    These comments definitely resonate with me, but I think it feels less severe here in Australia, despite the fact that every single person walking into the toilets just now were looking at their phones!

  11. s. wallerstein

    The social justice warriors are ostensibly rebellious and defiant. Let’s leave aside the question if they are “really” rebelling against the system or just opening up new market niches: the trans-gender market niche, for example, with new brands and styles. After all, much of the 60’s rebelliousness, although not all, was only a new market niche.

  12. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    There is still a crucial difference. Adolescent rebellion traditionally has involved escaping the intrusion of authority figures into one’s life, whereas the social justice types seem to want more of a role for authority figures in people’s private affairs especially on campuses. Rebelling against liberal society by demanding censorship and by constantly moralising isn’t remotely comparable to rebelling against stuffy 1950s sexual morality and gender roles and McCarthyist censorship. Even when it comes to something like gender nonconformity, which is on the face of it one of the more rebellious aspects of the current youth, past generations were more rebellious, since their intent was at least in part to shock and break the rules. You wouldn’t have caught David Bowie in the 70s demanding that everyone ‘validate’ his existence.

  13. s. wallerstein

    You’re right.

    The 60’s rebels didn’t demand safe spaces or trigger warnings. In spite of so much of the 60’s discourse that with 50 years hindsight seems pretentious, poseur and just the kind of thing only someone who never had children to support and raise or any other kind of adult responsibility might say, they rebelled and often paid the consequences. Jefferson Plane: We can be together.

  14. Aaron H Silverman

    I would suppose that as the number of people who use their child(ren)’s relative economic and social capital accrual as a key measure of their own moral goodness increases overall societal levels of: anxiety increase; tolerance for mediocrity decrease; encouraging risk-taking decrease; and perceiving social resources as zero-sum increase.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

  15. Zac

    Not to riff on a stray sentence, but … (classic commenter over here!)

    I saw a guy today riding on a moped with his kid, neither with helmets. I often see kids riding their bikes, some with and some without them. I didn’t wear one back in the nineties when I did my own Stranger Things thing, biking, skateboarding — night or day. I don’t know. Stranger Things itself almost feels like a homogeneous picture in its own right, among the crop of nostalgia-fuel stoking warm feelings of our past, as filtered through the tropes, references and tones that period already filtered to itself in its popular media. Whoo-boy. And I say that as I fan. Got a little carried away with sentence.

    Anyway — where was I? — I bike regularly now and always wear a helmet. Avoid night-biking and use an alert light if I do. If I had a kid, I’d encourage them too as well, even though I know full well I could never enforce it. Kids will do as they do. I doubt that our sensitivities are so uniform or so overwhelming at this point. Not least of all in all the Facebook comments I see on news stories involving bikers and the profound hostility of drivers to bikers, the utterly vulnerable ones in the equation, joking about their deaths, threatening their death. Hard to say that this callousness is just the usual internet commenter variety either.

    Holocaust survivors clapping when Trump says that America’s full is a Plot Against America-level fever-dream where The Spirit of St. Louis drops a bomb on the MS St. Louis. Many on the right are convinced that us on the left are hopelessly callous to the unborn, and we’re just as convinced that they’re hopelessly callous to the women who carry them. How much does the plight of Central Americans or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East at the hands of our people really register with us? Have we seriously sensitive to the No one gives much of a shit about the horrors of factory farming (I certainly live in blissful ignorance chomping away at the meat I have no direct relationship with beyond the kitchen). I feel like we can have our pick of the many contradictions of our time. That’s our now, now. Maybe in decades hence (should there be decades hence), they’ll repurpose our now into an Even Stranger Things to remind themselves when things were messier, weirder, tougher, interesting.

  16. 1970scholar

    I found this to a compelling and convincing summary of where we are now. One of the problems with where we are is that we are at the mercy of generational blindness regarding a more or less accurate description. The culture is biased to two large and overrepresented groups: baby boomers and millennials. Both are in their own way at once incredibly conformist and rebellious as it is possible to be both at once. Millennials have little to no attachment to any ways of life that held sway over more than a generation. They have no attachment to these as they were not trained in them and regard it as a curiosity from the outside to be viewed in representational popular culture in older movies and reruns etc. Their loyalty is more to the present and would gladly do away with anything from the past, good bad or indifferent. Boomers made a career practically out of destroying the past. Kaufman’s perspective is a Gen Xer one which might be unique.