Court squares are now becoming a thing of the past. It seems that what everyone once predicted has happened: the bypasses and superstores have killed the little towns. But it’s even worse than that. Because the factories are gone too. The storefronts are empty. What used to be vibrant areas now house a title loan place and a pawnshop. As I’ve traveled through various States, it all seems to be the same thing: a lot of empty buildings.
At some point America stopped making things. I remember in the 70s and 80s that there were no VCRs made in America after a certain point. That seemed odd to me. But I had no idea that the electronics revolution would leave America behind. And as a result of stagnation, property tax revenues have been pretty flat and so you don’t have big municipal buildings being built anymore. If you spend as much time downtown Memphis as I do, you know that we have some pretty grand buildings from back in the early part of last century. But nobody is building things like that anymore. We built the interstate system in the 50s. We crisscrossed the entire country. But we don’t build big municipal projects like we used to. And not just in Memphis but across the whole country. Further, not only are not building anything anymore, we can’t maintain what we have. That’s why bridges have fallen in in Minneapolis, Minnesota. New Orleans still has areas that look like a Hurricane hit yesterday.
When I was a teenager, I had so many jobs but teenagers today are rarely hired. Part of that is due to regulations designed to keep them safe, but part of that’s because there’s just a lot of work that is not done by people anymore. Your email has replaced the postman. No one pumps your gas, people bank electronically, and some restaurants are self-serve. At Walmart and Kroger I check myself out entirely. If you go to places like India, it feels like you step back in time. Shopping for clothes you will probably have a group of people helping you. At the gas station it’s like in the 50s where people are all over you. There are seamstresses who will alter your clothes while you wait just set up anywhere. So I’m not suggesting anyone move to India on this account, but I am saying something has changed and I think many of us are just now seeing how big the change has been.
There’s an Alan Jackson song called “The Little Man” that I think really encapsulates what I’m seeing. And I think I have to be careful in my nostalgia not to try to keep something going just because it was always a certain way. Taken to an extreme, we could be mad at the Internet for putting libraries out of business. I don’t think that’s where we want to go. But there just are not very many options anymore for the type of upward mobility that I grew up expecting to have for my children.
Research says this is going to be the first generation that will be worse off than their parents were in our country. I mean that just can’t be good. How can we possibly put a positive spin on that?
But there is hope. Young generations are finally embracing something that has the chance to make a real positive difference. They are seeing the value of entrepreneurship. They are seeing that they can take advantage of new technology and new ideas and be their own boss. In addition, some of the big technology firms are actually thinking big. Google has a self-driving car that its maker hopes will be pretty common in five years. Other companies are taking advantage of just using what we already have. Companies like Uber realize that a lot of us have cars and are running errands and out and about. Why not get paid to do that by riding someone else where they need to go if it’s in that area?
The last baby boomer is in retirement age now. So we are seeing the torch handed off to the next couple generations. And I don’t know exactly where success will be found in these generations, but I suspect it will be in going backwards. And here’s what I mean by that. Newer generations are rediscovering their own gardens. Raising chickens has become en vogue even among the suburban set. There seems to be a return to simplicity married with really high-tech gadgets, and it’s creating your future that is difficult to predict.
Already, the future seems to be one where Uber is replacing taxis and various companies are replacing hotels. Electric cars may very well replace gas powered ones while almost instant delivery of just about anything just about anywhere will take a lot of us off the street from running those errands all the time. Some cities are tearing up streets and turning things back into pedestrian zones in an effort to recapture the past. They are also scoring big health benefits of people walking many miles a day in the routine interactions. Portable computers have allowed people to work from just about anywhere on the globe that has Wi-Fi and thus causing these monstrous office buildings to become more and more vacant. You can even see the shift from the generations in the prices and inventory of things at estate in garage sales. Gone are the silver settings and the expensive chinaware settings at weddings. No one even asks for those anymore or registers for them. Which is smart because most of us hardly ever used our wedding China at all. But it’s so deep-seated a change that even dining room suits are a dime a dozen. People don’t want fancy antique wooden furniture; they’d rather have a farm table and something simple and utilitarian. It’s a really odd time that we’re going through right now.
When we live through history I don’t know that we notice the history happening around us. But there are significant changes happening every day. Those in this next generation who look at these changes and get ahead of them are the hope of our future economy. The baby boomer generation gave us a great legacy but due to the housing crash of 2008 they were hobbled a bit at the end. It is now up to the current and future generations to grab the torch hold it high and lead this country into a future that can look pretty dark at times.
May God again bless America.
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