If “Life is what you make it”, what are we making it into?

Contemplation of the ancient and the new, all at once..

Every once and a while, I seem to sit up straight, cast off the blanket of “normal life”, and look around with fresh eyes. During those times, I start to wonder: “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?”

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not entirely unhappy with my life. I doubt this is any real sort of “mid-life crisis”-induced thinking. Granted, the phenomenon is common enough to be a cliché, and one of the most astonishing things one realizes about one’s life is how many of those are true, even without consciously being molded into them..

No, it’s not entirely about any form of dissatisfaction in life that I put that question to myself. Rather, it is the strange notion of “age” and “age appropriateness” which I’ve never entirely cottoned on to.

(Er.. “to which I’ve never entirely cottoned”? Let’s not let grammar get in the way of meaning, shall we?)

I’ve always felt that age was really just a label, and really not meaningful. When I was a kid, I got along better with adults than other kids. As an adult, I’ve always related to university-age “kids” better than contemporaries. I’ve always bristled at the notion that I had “to grow up” or “grow out of childish things”.

I don’t think I fall into the cliché of “man-boy” — I’m plenty mature. Actually, in some ways I think it’s the prime of my life: I’m old enough, mature enough and experienced enough to have self-control, reflection, insight, intelligence, appreciate hard work and so forth, yet still young enough to appreciate fun things and allow my mind and heart to wander. I don’t have the phenomenal disposable income someone of my age typically gets from work, but that’s less typical these days for the majority of people anyway.

I think I’m caught in the in-between generation, the generation that started when the world worked one way — let’s call that the standard model — and a brand-new way, which we’ll call the new model.

The Standard Model of Life

The standard model goes something like this: have a nuclear family, get an education, get a career, work and progress in that career for most of your life (occasionally changing locations, but not careers), then retire, working only on things that you enjoy and volunteering much of our lives. Eventually, you sell the home (or pass it on to your descendants) and move into a retirement rental place. You die, your final assets are given to friends and relatives, and then are buried. Most people are forgotten except by close friends and family, a minor blip in the memory of the universe.

This comes from my own observation, which I must admit, comes as much from popular media as it does personal experience. I also realize that I neglected elements like “love”, “marriage” and “kids” in this model. but that’s likely because I have very little experience with them — although they are obviously significant to the model. They are often less planned elements, however, intersecting largely at random to the way a person lives their life.  It seems like the randomness has only increased over the last century, from the very regimented way families were built in the 19th century to the much more free-flowing 20th century, and the completely scattered 21st century..

Well, I could continue to extend the model to take into account all sorts of things (economics, climate, culture, etc), but unless one plants a first post in the ground, one never builds a fence..

The Emerging Model of Life

The new way — which is still emerging — shakes that formula up on many layers. All these things I will note are changes, but without any positive or negative overarching criticism. They are all nuanced and new, so applying any blanket statement of them is largely subject to failure at this early stage. Nonetheless, they are changes worth noting, and all feed in to the uncertainty of identity about age.

The Fallout of the Nuclear Family

The nuclear family is now largely an antiquated model. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen — we’re still in transition, and many great families still exist — but the structure is being shaken up and changed, mostly for the better. Grandparents aren’t around to nurture or offer advice — they’ve either already passed away (because of the trend of the age of childbirth changed dramatically) or they are too busy living extensions of their standard model lives. The delay before retirement and “slowing down” is obvious, with people being fully active a decade or too longer than before.

There’s also shake-ups in the structure of families, the changes of genders in parents (no longer just one of each, but one or two of one gender). Marriages don’t last like they used to, leading to a proliferation of step- and half- relatives, usually geographically diverse. On that last point, people move more, so they might not even have relatives anywhere near them.

Post-Post-Secondary Education, Like Post-Rock Music

On to the next point of change: education. I’m of the generation which clearly got the message: “You need a university degree in order to get a good job.” This was broadcast far and wide, and parents were also certain of it. It’s not terrible advice, really: everyone should have further education high school. If anyone really believes that they learned everything they needed to know once they graduated high school, they probably were a self-starter or from a different era.

But further education isn’t necessarily going on to university. I think people are starting to realize that. My undergrad university experience was very valuable to me, but I learned a tremendous amount from my on-the-job experiences and personal explorations. I think there is an increasing recognition that people need not only learn stuff, but actually have to start doing stuff. Few people, I think, are pure academics, satisfied by a diet of theory and mental activity. Most people, I think, need to really be making something in order to truly understand it.

University doesn’t seem to be equipped for that. In fact, hands-on was one of the buzzwords of community colleges and trade schools, looked down upon by the ivory halls of university academia.

(For the record, my university halls were not  made of ivory, but crappy tile floors and a mish-mash of eras of construction. But lets not ruin a perfectly elegant image with reality, eh?)

What changed? I think the biggest change was computers. Now, the distance from talking about building something and actually building it was much shorter. When the Web came around, suddenly you could easily build something that could even have impact in the world. You can’t do that with most hands-on experiences: building a great physical object is a local production, and can’t be easily transported.

And now, educational experiences are more plentiful, also caused by the Web. You can get real, true education from experts not just by attending a class in university, but by subscribing to a podcast or reading articles on the Web. You can watch how-to videos and learn how to do an incredible amount of things. You can order parts and pieces from around the world to your home to work on it, rather than being limited by what your local store might stock. You can find out about the entire world of things instantly, rather than by the happenstance of the one time your local drug store owner randomly takes a chance to stock some new magazine (which is similar to how I found COMPUTE’s Gazette on Commodore 64 programming, way back in the day).

So, the sentiment behind “you need post-secondary education” is still strong, but the method for getting it is questioned. It is being reshaped, and the next generation of learners will have an entirely new way of going about it all. Everything from online classes to Maker Spaces contribute to this, and I’m glad for it.

The Careening Concept of a “Career”

Now, how about that whole “career” thing? Is that even relevant at all today? I’ve heard quoted statistics which say something along the lines of “people now change careers every 5 years”. I find this assertion non-sensical. When words stop making sense to me (as in the recent case of “moot”‘s double-meaning become known to me), I look to a dictionary.

I’d go over to my shelf, but I’ll just Google it: “career, Noun: An occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.”

Is 5 years “significant”? If you are changing careers, how can that possibly offer “opportunities for progress”?

I think that we change jobs every 5 years, and the jobs are in different fields, but I think a person’s “career” is no longer something measure as a prospective thing, but rather a retrospective thing. That is: we no longer should think in terms of “I’m going into career A”, but rather that we look back on our lives and say “I had career A”.

Our career, then, is not what we plan to do, it’s what we did. Between then and now, all we are doing is looking for jobs, and hopefully jobs we like. Even better: jobs we like and give us what we need.

Just as no one reads from only one web site, just as no one focusses on only one thing in their life, they will no longer focus on doing only one field of job. Part of that is opportunism in the face of hard economic times, with the jobs that exist and the jobs you want not overlapping as frequently as we would like. Part of that is the natural effect, I think, of having the whole world laid out in front of you, an awareness of the world that has never existed before in the history of mankind.

Rather than try to mold people into the standard model, we have to recognize the new way, and reorganize for this new reality. Don’t do “career counseling” any more; instead, do “job counseling” and “interest discovery”. (Maybe that’s really what they’ve been doing all along, and it’s simply a re-labeling.)

Retirement Is Now The End of the Middle, Not The Middle of The End

Retirement used to be the green pasture after the lifetime of hard work. It was the reward, earned at the end of the career. If life were described as a dramatic work of art, this is the climax and then the long, slow, relaxing denouement. It’s easy to see how simple the standard model of life was, how very linear and unsophisticated. There are good reasons that it worked for so long, and good reasons why it feels so flimsy and inappropriate today..

Now, people didn’t always retire. Many people work much later, never retiring because they can never afford to. That’s not a model that people should aspire to, I don’t think, but I will recognize that it exists. In many ways, this is the depressing version of life, to never leave the treadmill, to work until you die. I fear it, I know friends who will be in it, it’s not the target of ambition but the acceptance of a bitter reality.

Of course, most people who eke out a living find ways to live very happy lives. It need not be all bad. But it’s not the model to emulate. And the fact that people aren’t retiring out of necessity in a reduced job market, and are tending to take entry-level positions (or positions which never progress far from entry-level) is causing massive employment problems for those who really need that work experience: youth, who need to either pay for post-secondary education or get real-world experience.

But that is another problem of the clashing models and transition the world is under. Back to the model examination..

Rather than retirement being seen as a reward and a release from working, I think people are seeing it more as a release from the obligation of work. The model today is likely to be more like “Why retire? I’m having too much fun!” People’s lives simply last longer these days, both caused by increased health systems and the growth of non-physical extensions to experience. Creative expression and the ability to make a living from it is one of the ways modern communications has shattered the notion of retirement.

Retirement in the new model is something we can’t really talk as much about just yet, I think. This is one thing that will need time, because no one born after 1990 is even close to ready to retire. (1990 was the year that the World Wide Web was launched.) Personally, I’m mid-way between youth and retirement, and so I’m looking at this stage with amusement and finally considering planning for it. It’s a moving target, however, and I have much thought to be done before then.

Live Long Enough To Live Forever

Life comes to an end.

This used to be an absolute certainty, and we considered it right and proper. It still happens on a regular basis, and there is still a firm belief that it will happen to most of us. (There might even be a good case to be made that it should happen to most of us, but that’s another essay to be written..)

But in an age where it is nearly possible to record every minute of our lives, what does death mean?

It means an end to the active creation of new records of life, but the existing life records will live on — forever!

We have become a world in which it is anathema — even sacrosanct! — to forget anything. We want to catch all the television we want to watch, so we record it with our PVR or demand it on-demand. We shudder at the thought of losing data in a hard-drive crash, but taking personal responsibility for backups is still fraught with a consumer nightmare, leading to the growth in services which will “remember it for you”, like online services like webmail, internet-based backup or cloud storage services. Effectively, they have out-sourced memory to make it immortal.

This has grown to such a high-level in recent years that people are starting to question the assumption that remembering everything is good. Prominent books are written about the virtues or even necessity of forgetting things. (I haven’t yet read them, but I have them lined up in my consumption queue.)

So, death is merely the end of physical living. In many ways, it always has been. We examine fossils and excavate ruins to find out the information buried within them, clues to how they lived and what they thought. We continue to do that, but now include much more living data and have a more complete record of everything done. I recently saw Stephen Wolfram’s post about his analysis of his own data, and read with amusement how he just “actually assumed lots of other people were [accumulating personal data about themselves] too, but apparently they were not.”

In the new model, he’ll be right. We’re already doing things like graphing our weight, our steps, our spending, everything. We’ll be doing more of it, and then at the end of life, that will be fodder for analytics companies and historical analysis educational firms.

And what about the other digital artifacts? We’re starting to think about these things, about what happens to your email account or your website when you die. Off-hand, I can think of two different examples of blogs from people who died, the most famous of which is the Posthuman Blues blog by Mac Tonnies. It sits there, fixed in time after his sudden death, an in-depth tombstone and library of thought. It’s a little eerie, but a stark reminder that this will happen to more and more of us.

Similarly, there have been questions about Facebook accounts, Gmail and so on. Those happen to be free services, as is the host for Mac Tonnies’ blog, but what about those that cost money? This blog, for example, has a yearly fee. Should it disappear after I’m dead? Should there be provisions to let it live?

These last 20 years have brought such an unfathomable change in the amount of new “digital property” that are possible, but have brought no clear thinking about what that really means, and the long-term implications aren’t understood at all. One need only look at the attempts to introduce horribly short-sighted legislation around copyright and digital media to see that we are struggling to understand what to do, and are scrambling for solutions.

Land of Confusion

So, what model do I live my life by? One seems terribly antiquated and inappropriate, the other not yet defined well enough. Both are in use at the same time, but the world doesn’t fully support either one. We are in a time of rapid and unprecedented change, yet human beings still experience life one day at a time, hour by hour, without any biological, sociological, personal or intellectual tools well-enough developed to cope.

Surprisingly, I feel a little bit better about my own confusion, which inspired this wordy explosion. It doesn’t offer me any direction for solution, which I really want — my personality is built around problem-solving, and nothing is more frustrating than not even being able to define the problem solidly enough to define strategies to solution.

But it does offer me food for thought..

Are you chewing on it too?


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