When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, we often talked about what life would be like in the future. A common expression to introduce such daydreams was, “In the year 2000….”
That phrase and concept became the basis for a bit on Late Night with Conan O’Brien on NBC. Conan satirized futuristic thinking with such quips as, “In the year 2000, Coke and Pepsi will merge, and successfully market a product called, ‘You Will Drink This Crap and Like It.'” and “Golfer Casey Martin will win the right to drive his golf cart, at the Indianapolis 500.”
Late night comedy aside, there was a time in the mid-20th Century that Americans genuinely had a sense of optimism. And why not? We had won World War II, new technologies were emerging daily, medical advancements were curing once-fatal diseases, and America enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity.
This optimism was captured by the above-posted Walter Cronkite special. All the way back in 1967, he predicted multiple channels and digital TV listings, large screen TVs, the internet, the home office, homeschooling, and online recipes. The technology we have today isn’t as clunky as demonstrated by Cronkite, but it accomplishes the same thing.
“By 2001, home computers will be just as common as telephones,” Cronkite predicted. That was a huge prediction, considering that most computers in 1967 took up entire rooms, and the home computer hadn’t been invented yet.
He also predicted 6-hour workdays and month-long vacations. Those didn’t quite pan out.
The optimism of the 1960s didn’t just provide a wishful look at the future, it inspired greatness. We founded companies, invented products, built schools and bought homes knowing that life in the future was going to be better. By the time the 1980s rolled around, we were dreaming of flying cars, holograms, teleportation, and world peace.
The assumption in town was that the town would grow, and the business community wanted to grow with it. The bowling alley bought the land next door to build a putt-putt course. The skating rink expanded to add an arcade. The mall installed an ice rink in the center of all the action. Remember when the mall was the place to be?
The optimism that spurred the joy and growth of the late 20th Century is gone. No longer do we hold the assumption that technology will improve, that the economy will grow, and the town will get bigger. We no longer assume that the next generation will enjoy a better standard of living than our own. In fact, many believe it will be worse.
In a world where America won the Cold War, and rapid advancements are being made in technology and medicine, we no longer look to better times in the future. Instead of preparing to grow, we assume that tough times are ahead, and we fortify ourselves for the downturn.
So, what happened? What changed?
Is it the vitriolic nature of the political discourse of the day? Is it the ongoing threat of lawsuits? Is it the declining manufacturing sector due to increased overseas competition?
I can’t place my finger on it. If you can, let me know.
Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy the times we have now. If life has taught me anything, it’s that I will one day look back on today, in spite of its difficulties, and say, “those were the days.” Who knows, maybe I’ll catch a daydream of how great tomorrow can be.