A fundamental shift occurred in our perception of the future shortly after the turn of the century. Shaped by the dot-com bust of ‘01 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the past decade has been a story of slow recovery from a ruined economy and broken trust. We’re finally back in a place where we worry about the next tech bubble, not the next terrorist attack, but our scars still remind us of the worst that can happen.
Buried within those memories is a collective hope for the future that we once believed in. Individually, we each believe in our personal fortunes, whether it be the exit price of our startup or social impact of our charity. We lament our astounding college debt, unable to find the fantasy job we were supposed to land, and hopelessly watch as baby-boomers force us to pay for their retirement. We soldier on, hunting for jobs alone and searching for happiness on our own terms.
The last era of collective optimism was the sigh of relief after the Berlin wall fell. After decades of tension came a decade of freedom and possibility, and it brought with it the rise of an internet where strangers met offline and friends were found online. Looking back, we were childishly naive, but we were also childishly content — there’s something beautiful about not knowing.
That’s what we’re missing today: the belief in a future with hoverboards and flying cars, a world with clean energy and without malaria. Of course, we’re trying harder than ever before, and we’re closer than ever before to having self-driving cars and vaccines for cancer. Yet we’re more concerned with getting ourselves to work without traffic than how much happier we should be without road rage.
We’re not trying to be selfish. The sense of impending — yet far away — doom is the topic of the century. Between peak oil, overpopulation, and climate change, there’s no surprise that we’ve chosen to optimize our personal happiness. The world is going to end anyway!
The extent of our apathy is saddening. From the failure of Occupy Wall Street to our addiction to phone screens, there is nothing to draw us together to tackle the problems we face. Individually, we do care about changing the world: we start companies with hopeful mission statements and non-profits to address boring necessities. Each flourishing social network and crowdfunded project puts smiles on faces, and that’s what we need to remember. We’re here because we believe in spreading joy.
It’s easy to conclude that the counterculture of the Sixties was spurred by the conformism of the Fifties, and it wouldn’t be hard to do the same for much of the past century. Yet the issues ahead are not the tangible ones of yesteryear. We are the cause of the issues we face. That’s scary. This brave new world requires us to change ourselves, and everything from our beliefs to our habits must be rethought.
Now more than ever, our happiness depends on us working together.