I’ve been talking with an old friend from school recently. He is struggling with a job he hates and a marriage that has left him thoroughly disillusioned with the whole concept of relationships, and just a lot of dissatisfaction with hobbies and life in general. Spends a lot of time talking about how much fun it was to be in our 20’s and not having a lot of cares beyond passing Biochemistry and whether we had enough quarters to get our laundry done this week. When I ask him what he’s looking for, he can’t answer. “I don’t know. Just not this.” I’ve been quietly hinting that he’s in the middle of a midlife crisis. I don’t think he appreciates it much. (I also don’t think he reads this blog but I guess I am about to find out ;-)
To my absolute surprise, he’s also thinking about voting for Donald Trump. “I just hate this government. It’s corrupt. It’s dysfunctional. I sort of want to implode the whole thing and start over.” When I countered, “OK, so you implode it. What really good thing happens after that? What do you replace it with?” I again got no real response. “Just not this.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to America’s midlife crisis.
Yes; I’ve been dancing around this theme for a while. Not surprising, I guess, given that all of my contemporaries are in their late 40s and early 50s, stuck in that decade-long Thesis Year I alluded to a couple posts ago. We’re all feeling a bit uncomfortable in our own skin right now.
America is in much the same place. We are nearly 240 years old. The average lifespan of a civilization, from 3000 BC until now, is roughly 425 years, so do that math. We’re in that phase of our development where all the straightforward problems have largely been solved and we’re stuck with the really sticky ones that are seriously tough to work out. Our infrastructure needs a serious overhaul. Our population is aging and getting more expensive to take care of. We’ve run up an overwhelming and frankly insurmountable debt. We have had to put a lot of rules in place to curtail the bad behavior of a small minority of greedy or irresponsible citizens, and the sheer weight of regulation is starting to strangle all of us. We have a lot of “family members” who have serious entitlement issues, and an equal number who are struggling to get basic needs met. Both of these groups are “acting out”, like children in desperate need of balance in their lives.
America is not alone. The western world is stuck in a bit of a post-industrial existential ennui (Edit: I've been told that the word I really want here is Weltschmerz), as evidenced by last night’s decision by Britain to leave the European Union. As another friend pointed out to me, this is the latest in a long line of western populist revolts, their own midlife crises of sorts, that have plagued Europe in the last 15 years, largely led by charismatic authoritarians and largely voted in by people who don’t understand what they’re voting for.
These nations are longing for something, someone, who will make this all seem simpler, easier, more straightforward. For a problem that has a solution. As I pointed out a few months ago, Donald Trump is claiming to have those easy answers for America. He blames immigrants, the intelligensia, Democrats, Republicans, the media, social service programs, the poor, the rich (except for him) – anyone on whom he can pin some quick blame and onto which he can hang a quick, radical program that will have the appearance of a solution for the short term and make everyone feel better. In short, he’s suggesting that the sports car and the skinny girlfriend are a JUST FINE idea, and further that someone else will pay the bills and put the kids through college and fix that hole in the roof. It’s certainly an option; no question. But not unlike in our personal lives, the aftermath of tossing out simplistic solutions to really complicated problems can have far-reaching consequences not just now, but well into the future. Long-term recession, war, increased wealth disparity, civil unrest. None of it is particularly appetizing.
The problem, of course, is that the alternative – looking hard at the tough problems that face our country, our government, and our society, and making the hard decisions necessary to change them – is kind of a drag. Unlike our personal crises, this isn’t going to be solved by deciding to work out more often and take a pottery class on Saturdays. Because our problems are so diverse and so multi-dimensional, no matter what you do, no matter how you make things better for a majority, there’s always going to be someone who ends up worse off, and angry and vocal. It’s not too tasty either, and frankly it can feel Sisyphean. In fact, it can feel so overwhelming that it’s hard to imagine the “blow it up and start over” option could be worse.
Change needs to happen, no doubt. The issues that spark any midlife crisis are very real ones and we can’t afford to ignore them. It’s just a question of whether this country is going to go out for a pack of cigarettes at lunch time and end up at a strip club three states away, have a protracted divorce a la Brexit, or change careers, fix the roof, cut back on dinners out, get into marriage counseling for the next eight years and grind through it.
For my own part, I decided to buy a bikini and take belly dancing for now; we’ll see how that works out.
For the rest of us, I’m hoping that watching the collective buyer’s remorse of the Brexit vote will be a good object lesson and this nation will think carefully about its next move.