My niece was born in 2009. Her favorite colors used to be pink, purple, and gold; these days she prefers blue and grey. To her, old age starts at twenty-six and adulthood is about bills and taxes. She wants to be a herpetologist when she grows up. I want to see the world she’ll grow up in.
I’ll be approaching sixty when my niece celebrates her twenty-sixth birthday and becomes officially, in her estimation, old. They say not to think about age in terms of calendar years. Thirty is the new twenty. Sixty is the new forty. To be alive today is to be granted the possibility of an extended old age. But will those extra years be good years?
Our social, economic, and political institutions have become creaky and sclerotic. In the United States, attitudes towards capitalism are deteriorating among those under forty years of age. Young Americans strain under the yoke of obscene education, healthcare, and housing costs while navigating career roadblocks including lack of legal protections, ongoing commoditization of labor, and structural inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in crushing global job losses, only a decade after the Great Recession battered career prospects. Workers around the world are struggling with unemployment, underemployment, temporary positions, or juggling “gigs” to create a stream of income while we hold our collective breath to see if Jeff Bezos will become the first trillionaire in history.
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed Western liberalism to be the ultimate form of human government. In 2018, he lamented the “disastrous effect” of unregulated markets running amok in the intervening years and argued for the implementation of socialist-style redistributive policies to combat today’s massive inequalities—a stunning reversal. Between Reaganomics, Thatcherism, petrogarchs, and technogarchs, the guardrails have fallen off the free-market economy. We’ve given ourselves free rein to exhaust our resources, no matter the consequences. While humanity could very well survive the worst climate change scenarios, the impact on the interconnected natural and man-made systems we depend upon is inescapable. 2020 tied for the warmest year in recorded history. Without urgent carbon emissions cuts, we will soon trigger the 2°C temperature rise believed to the tipping point for irreversible climate change. We don’t have the luxury to look away. No, Mars is not a realistic back-up plan.
While Jeff Bezos is busy looking to the stars, I’m still having a hard time imagining the future here at home. Perhaps this explains why I am not a future trillionaire. Sometimes I catch glimpses of what the future could look like. Some are hopeful. Maybe we’ll learn to cooperate better globally thanks to new communication tools that connect us all. Maybe we’ll curb our appetite for fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy sources even if it’s initially uncomfortable. Some are harrowing: how desperate will we get if we have to fight each other for clean water or livable land? My niece will turn twenty-six in 2035. I hope the years will stretch out long before her. But I fear our debts are coming due, and I worry about the world she will grow up in.
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Katerina Tsasis is a marketing consultant and writer based in Austin, Texas. Her writing has been published in the New York Times. When she's not working, you can find Katerina making art or out in nature.