#112: The Normality of Not Knowing

We are all seemingly stressed by a growing sense of uncertainty, it seems. When will the pandemic end? How will foreign policy shape up – will there be a new stable world order or utter chaos? What will climate change bring? Will we be able to keep our jobs? How can we navigate these increasingly troublesome times? Will we ever be able to retire? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? Everything around us seems to be changing. We are caught in quicksand, and the future is less and less certain. We don’t seem to know anymore how this will all turn out in the end.

These fears and concerns may well ring true for many if not most of us, but they certainly are not the worst fears you could have. As I am writing, I am well aware that the likelihood that you – dear reader – just as myself may not necessarily have to worry about our next meal, or about our housing situation. Otherwise, both of us would have better things to do than to spend time on an internet blog.

It seems, in fact, that such fears as voiced earlier are indeed a sign that we have been privileged enough to ask these questions, and also, that we may have the wrong idea about reality.

If we believe that we can know the future, we are deluding ourselves. Life cannot be planned. You may get your family started, have employment, plan for retirement and for how your kids may be able to live, but then life gets in the way. This has always been true. Nobody plans on losing their jobs or changing employment. Nobody plans to get sick or chronically ill. Nobody assumes their children would get in trouble. Nobody plans to die early. Nobody plans on their houses burning down, their countries being invaded, air plane toilets falling from the sky, etc. We may be able to make plans, but their coming to pass is never guaranteed.

The true illusion within the affluent and free world since probably  around the 1970 has been that we can take charge of our lives. It has always been an illusion. We cannot know the future, we can only try to navigate through time as best we can.

There is peace in that. Not fatalism, but peace. Surely, the world can be a scary place; certainly right now. But we cannot lose hope, and we cannot lose perspective. Plan for the future, but live in the moment. Appreciate what you have. It will be over too soon.

#44: There is Too Much “Now” Today

We live in a society governed by the demands of today, of the now, of the immediate. This is, of course, not a new observation. For decades now, cultural theorists have described the decline of traditional values, of belonging, and an increasing frustration with the speed of technological and societal change. But it appears that these lessons have not only not been learned, but that we seem to have leaned in to this atmosphere of constant change and embraced it whole-heartedly.

Accepting reality is healthy, of course. We need to be mentally prepared for a life of constantly changing parameters, and ignoring such changes is not helpful. But that does not mean that we should simply give in without a fight, and lose our minds in the process.

One of the primary problems of today seems to be the loss of history. There is not just a decline in knowledge about history (which is bad enough) but even more so a decline in the awareness of history. We live in the ever-present “now”, in the ever-changing “now”, which has decreed that history would be useless, because the present would be so much different and no lessons – allegedly – could possibly be learned from it. At the same time, we are told that we are moving towards a better future, but that future will also just be an ever-expanding “now”, just a “now” that has forgotten and invalidated the past “now” because it will equally not care about history.

Even worse, it seems, is the more recent development that even the belief in a better future seems to be declining. Sure, social problems are being addressed, and so-called progressive movements claim to bring about change for the better in this regard; but is that really progressivism? Fighting social ills does not need a claimed future orientation, it needs just as much historical awareness, as much as knowledge about the suffering in the now. Progressivism used to be so much more – a future with a vision for human development, togetherness, space, technology, science etc. But that is too often disregarded as dreaming that distracts from the now. But we must be building our future in the now. We must plan big again to eradicate disease, slavery, extreme poverty, dictatorships, ameliorate climate change, save our environment, go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, right now.

Without such big goals, we cannot proceed in the now. We need to dream big. But we cannot do that without an awareness of history, of the historical moment we are in, of the challenges to humanity in the past. We need history to tell us about mistakes we may be making right now, and to also let us know when we are making progress.

If we cannot put our current situation in a historical context, we will always despair, and whatever ails us personally and societally right now will only seem so much more unsolvable. Without being aware of the demons of the past, we may not recognize them when they are return. Without serious historical grounding, we will not be able to distinguish between the very many problems we are facing. We seem to be living in a time of both complete moral relativism, and an inability to recognize nuance. We either see no problem, or every problem we see gets elevated to the most absurd degree.

The “now” removes the humility we need that can only come from historical grounding. Historical awareness lets us know where we (as people) are doing better or worse than in the past; it also tells us to be careful assuming we have all the answers – for we don’t, as the future will tell us soon enough.

#7: We’re Headed in the Wrong Direction: Retirement Policy

I know things cost money. I am not a pie-in-the-sky socialist. I am very much aware that money has to be earned, economies need to grow, and benefits do not grow on trees. I grew up in East Germany under Socialism/Communism, and I do not want that back, under no circumstances.

There are some things though that are starting to worry me on a systems-wide level, and one of those issues is retirement.

It used to be that retirement meant that you would have money to spend. Maybe I remember wrongly, but I distinctly remember Western European and American senior citizens travelling around the world with apparently no care in the world, spending money on their kids and grandkids, building inheritances and nest eggs. Surely, this was a middle and upper class phenomenon, and poverty in old age has always been real in many cases. But it surely seems that whatever leisure and luxuries the past may have held, there will certainly be less of that in the future.

Already now, senior citizens frequently work in retail professions to make some extra money on the side, probably because their retirement benefits are not making ends meet. But this is just the beginning, and my Generation (Gen X) already seems to know that we’ll probably not have much to live for, and Generations Y (Millennials) to Z (does that mean the last?) probably don’t even want to know what will happen.

Again, I know that retirement and pension funds cost money, but this is cutting money at the wrong end.

In the “good old days”, old age meant “good luck” – if you were not incredibly rich or important, you would suffer. Older people doing well is an achievement of the late 19th and the 20th century.

Older people doing well means they can spend money on future generations, that they will spend money, period. Not investing in them is a deeply counter-productive thing to do, as it damages the entire fabric of inter-generational support. Typically, we hear the narrative that the working younger people support the older generations in retirement. Sure, tax-wise that seems not wrong. But the reverse is even more important: Inter-generational wealth and stability can only exist if parents and grandparents can actually support their offspring, and build wealth over time, and even babysit.

The trajectory we seem to be following throughout most if not all Western countries is pernicious and destructive, and needs to change. I certainly hope it does.