Yesterday I went to the mall. It was my luck or ill fortune, depending on which of my colleagues you consulted about the role, to drive a group of students to a mall in central Connecticut, so that they could do their Christmas shopping. I try not to do my Christmas shopping in malls, myself, but it does afford me a marvelous opportunity to do some people-watching, and to ponder what the future holds.
There’s a game available on the iPhone called reMovem. The goal is to sweep the screen clear of little simulated balls of differing colors. When two or more of the same color are touching each other, you can double-click on them and they disappear. The more balls that are touching one another, the more points you get for clearing them. Yet the results of such large-scale clearings are difficult to predict, and sometimes clearing out one large block of balls has long-range consequences for the longevity of a given game.
In one game variant, the balls cleared from the bottom row allow an equal number of vertical columns to be brought into the game. This allows the game’s score to climb up, well above the 350+ points possible in the basic variant. In theory, the game could go on forever, if you were but wise enough to determine which group of balls to double-touch into oblivion next. Eventually, the balls run out, though, and it’s game over.
And so we come back to the mall. Behold, there’s a flow of humanity into the mall. But not many are leaving with shopping bags. The job news is not good. We had 11,000 new jobs created last month — but given that we need something like 300,000 a month for a couple of years, just to break even with all the job losses over the last dozen months — it’s not such great news.
The kids I see here are not students. They’re kids… young kids, pre-teens, teens, young adults. They’re in their natural habitat, as sales clerks, retail assistants, shoppers. What does it say about America that we are a nation, not of shopkeepers, but shoppers?
In Barnes and Noble, I see a kid looking intently at a book. After a few moments — with not even a furtive glance — he flips out his cellphone, snaps a couple of pictures of an interesting page, and puts the book back.
He’s information-savvy in a big way. He also knows not to pay for what can be had for free.
We know that kids look around our schools and say, “what is this preparing me for?” They’re also completely unaware of the costs of their education. Teachers I know routinely complain about their pay scale: how much they make, how much they used to make, how much they’re likely to make in the future. It’s an obsession for many of them, and the numbers are never good.
I encounter another kid, late teens or twenties. He’s wearing a coat I happen to like, so I ask him where he got it. He tells me, and then mentions how much it costs, around $400. A nation of shoppers. We go our separate ways.
These two kids are part of America’s future story. One is digitally empowered to photograph interesting bits out of books he’s not going to pay for. One is hyperconscious of the clothes on his back, and their success or failure in drawing attention to him and his spending habits. Neither they, nor the teachers who instruct them, have any idea what the future holds.
But both of these kids are merely balls waiting in the wings. On stage now, waiting for the double-touching finger, are low-double-digit unemployment rates, an evaporated manufacturing infrastructure, an evaporating service structure, a collapsing media infrastructure, a collapsing financial infrastructure, and a collapsing familial infrastructure.
There’s some perceived need to fix health care and pension systems in this country as the Baby Boomers retire, but let’s be honest here. To hear policy makers and futurists talking, the current generation in American schools now are being prepared for “service industry jobs” like lawyering or waitering or design or … I don’t know what, anymore.
But you can’t support five retirees on the backs of the Social Security payroll taxes that a deputy assistant manager at McDonald’s pays into the treasury. Medicare? Enh.
This is not a casual problem.
How many of us look around our classrooms and wonder what these kids are going to do in a few years? Didn’t we used to look around, and guess, this one a lawyer; that one a real estate agent; this one a scientist; that one an artist; this one a musician (if he can lay off the pot long enough)?
I don’t think their plans or our predictions are sensible any more. The world five years from now is beyond prediction, and so are their futures. But looking around, I can see that the lack of programming or real computer skills teaching in our schools is going to bring about “game over” scenarios a lot sooner than we’d like. I can see that the lack of engineering programs in our schools is going to bring about “game over” pretty fast too. And the lack of farming programs, and the lack of strong arts programs, and …
I have to wonder what the new game will look like. Because if we rob this upcoming digital generation to retire the Baby Boomers, well. Everyone loses.