Essay

The new social order my son and his generation will build

Depending on where you draw the generational line, this Sunday my son will join one of the first, if not the first, college graduating classes of Generation Z.

If you follow the generational theories of William Strauss and Neil Howe, we live in a four-generation cycle that builds and then destroys the social order. A first generation builds a social order, in which institutions and communities are strong. The subsequent three generations feel constrained and limited by that social order, so they weaken and even attack the institutions, and seek autonomy and individualism. Eventually a historic crisis finishes that job and the next generation quietly builds a new social order.

You can see this in the Silent Generation, which began to come of age as World War II ended. They rebuilt American society, perhaps without intending to. They simply noted the mess the world was in as they grew up during the Great Depression and World War II and, in response, set about creating highly stable, even cautious lives for themselves. They went to work and worked hard. They were loyal employees and climbed the ladder. This helped create the most prosperous time our nation has ever known.

And you see it in the Baby Boomers, which began to come of age in the mid-1960s. They rebelled, and hard, against the conformist lives their parents had lived.

Each generation responds in predictable ways, say Strauss and Howe, to the generations that precede them. In and through every fourth generation there is a historic crisis that finally destroys the social order. The next generation responds by quietly building a new one.

The Silent Generation was followed by the Baby Boomers, which was followed by Generation X, which is followed by the Millennials, which is followed by Generation Z. One, two, three, four, …and one again.

In my Generation X lifetime I watched the Silent Generation’s social order weaken and fail. I’ve quietly endured the destruction of useful institutions, such as the nuclear family and a large and strong middle class. I’ve cheered as harmful institutions have given way, leading to such things as improved equality for women and the ending of bans on interracial relationships.

This period in which we now live, which I think began with 9/11, continued through the great recession of 2008, and is very likely ending with an unconventional and destructive President, is the historic crisis to which my son’s generation will respond. Or at least I hope it is; I’d hate for it to be capped by a major war, as it was the last time.

Damion, I look forward to the new social order you and your generation will build. I’ll bet you won’t even look at what you’re doing that way. You’ll just say you’re quietly living your lives.

Advertisements
Standard
Essay, Personal, Stories Told

The secret to adulting is routines and systems

My older son Damion graduates from college on Sunday. I’m sad to admit that I’m primarily relieved that I no longer have to write big tuition checks. These college years have been financially stressful! One graduate down, two more to go (in 2021 and 2022).

Still, I’m happy for my son, and deeply pleased with his accomplishment. I might even shed a tear on graduation day.

He made it through in four years with relatively light student-loan debt, no small feat these days. He hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he’s working on it. It will come. And then his adult life begins.

I remember when mine began — and how challenging I found the adjustment. I think many of us experience this. I’d run out of things to graduate from and had to find my way. It was bewildering.

So I aped what I saw my parents do: make routines and systems out of everything I could.

Leaving for work, 1989

I organized my life around my job. It’s what my dad always did. He worked from 7 to 3:30 in the factory, and by God he made sure he was at work not just on time but early and ready to work hard. I didn’t have to be to work until 8, so I adjusted my timing accordingly, but otherwise I followed his pattern. I went to bed every night by 11 and rose at 6. I showered and dressed, and then went into the kitchen where I turned on the radio and made eggs and toast. I read the newspaper over breakfast until it was time to go. I got to my desk by 7:45 most days. When I got home, I made a simple dinner and watched the nightly news. I did simple chores around the house or ran routine errands, and when that was done I watched TV until bedtime.

I set aside Thursday evening to go to the laundromat and afterward iron my dress shirts, and Monday evening to shop for groceries and supplies.

I adapted my mom’s system for not running out of items at home. Every week I put a fresh sticky note on a kitchen cabinet and another on the bathroom medicine chest. As I got close to running out of items I’d write them down on the nearest sticky note. Then on shopping day I’d transfer those items to my shopping list and set out fresh sticky notes. For critical items like toilet paper I always kept a spare in the closet. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use one of my spares it went onto the nearest sticky note so I could get a new spare on my next shopping trip.

I paid my bills on Saturday morning. As they came in the mail I’d stack them on a table next to my desk. On Saturday I’d figure out which ones were due soonest and pay the ones I had money for. The rest went back onto the stack. I didn’t make very much money. but there was enough to pay for everything if I timed it all right.

Those were my normal routines and systems, but I could shift them around when adventure came my way. For a while I had a Thursday-night airshift at my alma mater’s radio station. Sometimes a friend would call and want to go get a beer. Every now and again I had to work late. Sometimes I went away for the weekend. I kept enough of everything on hand so that if I needed to, I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. My Saturday bill-paying routine could always be done the preceding Friday over breakfast.

My routines and systems provided structure and resiliency to my life. I always had clean clothes, so I never had to worry about what I was going to wear to work. I always had food in the house, so I never had to spend big money on a meal out (unless I wanted to) or go hungry. My bills were always paid, so nothing ever went past due and collection agencies never called.

My routines and systems let me live a pretty good life. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.

Easy like a Sunday morning, 1989

I still keep these routines and systems, except today shopping is Sunday after church and laundry is Saturday morning. I still pay bills on Saturday, although there’s enough money now I just pay every bill every week. I still have enough slack in the plan that I can move things around a day or two without running out of underwear or finding nothing in the house for breakfast.

I suppose I come from a family that naturally builds routines and systems. I know not all people do. But I know everybody can build habits, like brushing your teeth. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Essay, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Essay

Stuck on Facebook

I know someone who used to not only work at Facebook, but was in a position where she regularly spoke with founder Mark Zuckerberg. She frequently posted images and stories from within Facebook’s offices. I saw an energizing place to work and a company on a positive mission.

Being on Facebook was fun in those days. It’s not anymore, except for rare occasions when it is. As I’ve written before (here) this is like the abusive spouse who’s nice to you just often enough that you think maybe it’ll be different now and you stay.

Amid the ever growing negative news about Facebook — how they gather and sell information about you, their monopolistic practices — I think they’ve lost their way, if indeed they ever had it. I want to walk away. I don’t want to support them anymore.

Sites that drove traffic to my blog the week of Jan. 28 – notice what is #2

Yet I stay, because at the moment it is the best platform available to me for promoting not only this blog, but also the Michigan Road Historic Byway and also my church. I post on behalf of all three on Facebook and it drives more engagement and traffic than anything else I do. It’s not a life-changing amount, but without it my stats would be far, far lower.

I’m also over Instagram, because it’s a Facebook company and because literally every third post is an ad now. I’m especially frustrated with that because Facebook knows my search history and has figured out I’m looking for comfortable shoes thanks to my bum left foot, and keeps showing me lovely orthotically correct shoes and I keep clicking through because foot pain sucks. I hate it that I’m falling for this.

But I promote the Michigan Road Historic Byway there, and new posts there automatically post on Facebook too. This drives more engagement with our byway than anything else we’ve tried. It’s not an overwhelming amount, but we hate to leave it behind.

I seldom look at what my “Facebook friends” are up to anymore. I’ve hidden all the friends who post mostly political stuff, even when I agree with their politics. I’ve also hidden the friends who post mostly memes and share articles. That leaves little to see.

But in the last couple years Facebook’s groups have become a welcome replacement for the forums I used to frequent, about the kinds of arcane and esoteric topics I enjoy — old roads, neon signs, obscure cameras, and more. The Indiana Transportation History group is flat out amazing for the information its founder unearths in his research. I don’t want to leave that behind.

I keep thinking I ought to quit it all. But I hold my nose and stay.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Essay, Old Cars

Buy a fun car while you’re young

1968 Chevrolet El Camino b

When I was a kid, my dad wanted a Chevy El Camino. I mean, really really wanted. He imagined himself driving in carlike comfort while being able to haul lumber and other large items with ease in its bed. He was so hot to own one that he tried to convince my mom that our family of four would fit just fine shoulder to shoulder across the front seat. 

Mom wasn’t having it. Thank goodness, because the four of us shoulder-tight on that bench seat did not sound like fun to me. But I feel bad for my dad that he never got his El Camino.

As Dad aged, that spark for fun motoring left him. I think that’s natural for anyone who didn’t get to sow those oats when they were younger — he never knew the joy of the fun car and so those synapses never formed in his brain. By his middle age he declared that his cars were meant only to get him from A to B.

BMW 3-series coupe

I’m in the middle of making the same mistake. When I was young I wanted a 3-series BMW coupe. Really really wanted one. But I never felt like I should extend myself financially to buy even a well-used one. I could have, but I always played it safe with my money.

I regret it. While it’s important to be good stewards of our finances, it’s also important to seek good, fun experiences in life.

I’ve already told my wife that after the kids are done with college I’d like to buy a fun car. I’ve lost my BMW lust in middle age, so I don’t know yet what that car will be except that it’ll be older and will not be my daily driver. Whatever I choose, it’ll be our road-trip car and we will make memories together in it.

This one’s for my dad, who would have been 78 today.

Standard
Essay

Hiring managers and recruiters: tell the candidates you didn’t select that they didn’t get the job

As I start my new job today I am going to vent a little about how few companies got back to me after any conversation about, or even my application for, a position they had available.

Closed

There was one shining exception, a small and privately held software company. My interviewers there included the CEO, who is from a prominent family in my city. He called me a few days after our interview. “I’m sorry to say that you are our number two candidate,” he began. “I’m sure this is not the news you want to hear. But I’m calling you personally to say that you impressed us all. It’s just that the fellow we hired has direct experience building integrations to a couple of our customers’ systems, and we need that in the short term much more than we need leadership like you offer. It was a tough call. But I can imagine all sorts of places I could plug you in later, if you’re open to me calling you back when the time is right. And now you have my personal number, so if you ever think I can help you with anything, please call me.”

What a class act. A quick email would have done the job but this CEO didn’t lose the opportunity to make a fan out of me.

The only other company to officially tell me “thanks, but no thanks” was a mid-sized medical services company with a large internal software-development team. Seven weeks after my interview their recruiter emailed me to say they had chosen another candidate. He admitted that the holidays had delayed their decision process, at least.

No outlet

A colleague referred me for a job at his company. He and I and the hiring manager all worked together at the same company several years ago. I thought the interview went great and I was excited about the opportunity. But then I heard nothing for a few weeks. I reached out. The manager said that he was pursuing a couple other candidates but that I wasn’t out of the running. I never heard back from him or his recruiter again. It’s been almost two months since then. Certainly they chose one of the other candidates.

No other company with which I had interviews followed up with me at all.

I applied to a dozen or so jobs where I did not get an interview. Only one communicated with me at all about my status as a candidate.

I could have followed up with these companies myself. But one company made an offer, a good one. As I tried to read the tea leaves of my active opportunities I could see nobody else was going to offer me anything better before my family’s finances got rough. I accepted and moved on.

Wash out

I’m not upset that I wasn’t chosen for the other jobs. Every job search involves hearing “no thanks” a number of times before hearing “you’re hired.” Even though I know I could have done well in each job for which I interviewed, there could have been candidates in the running that offered something valuable that I didn’t.

But I wanted to hear the “no thanks” and have the loop closed. I hated having so many balls in the air. It would have let me move on cleanly as I continued to pursue other opportunities. And, daggone it, it’s just professional to do so.

From now on, whenever I fill a position on a team I lead, I will either personally write the “thanks, but no thanks” notes, or confirm that my recruiter did.

Standard