The last bit of evidence arrived in the form of three binders of news clippings. Because all the submissions for the Livingston Awards have to come from reporters under the age of 35, looking at the dates of birth on the entry forms for the finalists was like a stroll through my own past.
This young man was born the year I graduated from college, that young woman just about the time I became a reporter at The New York Times, this one when I was covering city hall, that one when I was writing my first column.
Needless to say, this made me feel really old.
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But my second response to reading over the stories was delight. They were so thoroughly reported, so well written. Whether local, national or international news, they were just what journalism ought to be. The next time anyone insists the business won't survive I may bash him with one of these binders, which are heavy with hope for the future.
They also made me think again about my own future. These clippings thoroughly ratified a decision I began to make a year or so ago, that has led me here, to my last LAST WORD column for NEWSWEEK.
The baby-boom generation has created an interesting conundrum for this country. Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers take up more room than any other generation in American history. They now account for about a quarter of the population. And so, inevitably, they have created a kind of bottleneck, in the work world, in politics, in power. The frustration this poses for the young and talented should be obvious. In my personal life it was reflected powerfully on the day when, talking of the unwillingness of my friends to retire, my eldest child noted, "You guys just won't go."
Let me assure you that this is a well-mannered and thoughtful person who shows all due deference to his elders. But his perspective is not uncommon among the so-called millennials, those in their 20s who constitute the baby boomlet, the children of the baby boom.
When my parents were my son's age, there was an orderliness to how one generation moved aside and another stepped up to primacy and prosperity. It was reflected in the actuarial charts: in 1952, the life expectancy of the average American male was 65, roughly 10 years younger than it is today.
Even when I was the same age as my children are now, there was a natural transition from one generation to another. Retirement at 65 was normative. Every year a small group of reporters would leave the newsroom, to be replaced by younger ones. (With the harsh insensitivity of youth, I thought this was perfectly fine.) In many businesses this rite of passage is disappearing, and the number of people who work past 65 has climbed steadily over the last two decades. This makes for a simple equation: fewer opportunities for the young to move in or move up.
I know the counterarguments, starting with the changing economic environment in which I have found myself making this decision. There are many of my fellow baby boomers who would love to retire but no longer can afford to do so. There are many who feel they have been pushed from their jobs by younger workers who are cheaper, and perhaps less able. When Chesley Sullenberger landed a passenger jet safely on the Hudson River, I joined the rest of the nation in thanking God that a man who had been flying for a lifetime and a crew of veteran flight attendants were working that day.
But those thoughts are also balanced by my feeling that many of us of a certain age have had a great deal of difficulty with the concept of getting older. There would have been no need for a product called Not Your Daughter's Jeans when I was a teenager because my mother would never have thought of dressing like me, or doing things to her face to convince others that we were sisters. Today we have an entire generation of Americans who seem dedicated to the proposition that they will fight aging to the death. Quite literally. And that means staying front and center professionally. The unspoken synonym for "emeritus" is "old." And old is a word we don't even use anymore in polite conversation, a modern obscenity.
It's particularly glaring when this generational stall happens in the news business, which constantly remakes itself in the image and likeness of the world. And it is egregious when it happens in the small subset of the pundit class, which is supposed to take the nation's temperature. It's undeniable: America's opinionators are too white and too gray. They do not reflect our diversity of ethnicity and race, gender and generation. They do not reflect the diversity of opinion, either, mainly because most are part of an echo chamber of received wisdom that takes place at restaurant tables in New York and Washington. Conservative pundits are making themselves foolish, flailing wildly because their movement itself is aging, confounded by the popularity of a president who stands for much of what they revile. But liberals are little better, fighting the same old battles in the same old ways, as though the world during their tenure had not changed radically.
One of those changes is in technology, and because of it young people in the news business have been able to exact a kind of inadvertent revenge. They seized on an information-delivery system that their elders initially found puzzling or unpersuasive. They created online outlets from the ground up. Now that this is where the action is, they are quite properly part of the action, not because we made room for them, but because they invented room for themselves.
I'm not sure what the future is for the print parents of these cyber-outlets, which puts me about even with the people who are running them. Even Brenda Starr, the red-haired comic-book character who convinced me as a child that being a reporter was glamorous, has been laid off. But I do know that journalism will have to keep changing as this country changes. It will have to reflect the interests of people in their 20s and 30s, not merely complain that people in their 20s and 30s don't behave the way their elders do. There is nothing quite as tedious, or as useless, as ritual recitations of the good old days, which most often weren't.
Throughout the country there seems to be an understanding that this is and ought to be a time of reinvention, in the economy, in education, in the office. But no one seems eager to reinvent on an individual level. Yet never has there been a time when fresh perspective and new ideas were more necessary. The linear path, the ladder, emphasizes stability, but too often at the expense of innovation and mobility. It's always seemed to me that running a company well ought to be like a variant of musical chairs; every few years everyone should move around to someplace else, some position where they will learn new things. I have changed jobs many times in almost 40 years (40 years!) of word work, including work as a novelist that I will continue. Experience often brings wisdom, but also sometimes torpor and fatigue.
As a columnist you not only think about these matters, you also discover that they have real-life applications, and the real life may be your own. Watching a black man born in the 1960s, who likes to say his father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas, barnstorm across America, I began to have inconvenient thoughts about myself. Barack Obama hopscotched over an entire generation of politicians to reach the White House; he had not waited his turn because a majority of the American people decided that he ought not to do so. They agreed that the country needed change.
And I believe it does, too. I believe that many of our old ways of doing things are out of date, including some of our old ways of looking at, and reporting on, the world around us. Since the day he delivered his Inaugural Address, when I was 8 years old, people have been quoting the youthful John F. Kennedy saying that the torch had been passed to a new generation. But torches don't really get passed very much because people love to hold on to them.
This page, this place, is an invaluable opportunity to shed some light. But if I had any lingering doubts about giving it up after almost nine years, they were quelled by those binders on my desk, full of exemplary work by reporters young enough to be my children. Flipping through their pages, reading such essential and beautifully rendered accounts of life in America and around the world, I felt certain of the future of the news business in some form or another. But between the lines I read another message, delivered without rancor or contempt, the same one I once heard from my own son: It's our turn. Step aside. And now I will.
What passes for the holiday season began before dawn the day after Thanksgiving, when a worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death by a mob of bargain hunters. Afterward, there were reports that some people, mesmerized by cheap consumer electronics and discounted toys, kept shopping even after announcements to clear the store.
These are dark days in the United States: the cataclysmic stock-market declines, the industries edging up on bankruptcy, the home foreclosures and the waves of layoffs. But the prospect of an end to plenty has uncovered what may ultimately be a more pernicious problem, an addiction to consumption so out of control that it qualifies as a sickness. The suffocation of a store employee by a stampede of shoppers was horrifying, but it wasn't entirely surprising.
Americans have been on an acquisition binge for decades. I suspect television advertising, which made me want a Chatty Cathy doll so much as a kid that when I saw her under the tree my head almost exploded. By contrast, my father will be happy to tell you about the excitement of getting an orange in his stocking during the Depression. The depression before this one.
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A critical difference between then and now is credit. The orange had to be paid for. The rite of passage for a child when I was young was a solemn visit to the local bank, there to exchange birthday money for a savings passbook. Every once in a while, like magic, a bit of extra money would appear. Interest. Yippee.
The passbook was replaced by plastic, so that today Americans are overwhelmed by debt and the national savings rate is calculated, like an algebra equation, in negatives. By 2010 Americans will be a trillion dollars in the hole on credit-card debt alone.
But let's look, not at the numbers, but the atmospherics. Appliances, toys, clothes, gadgets. Junk. There's the sad truth. Wall Street executives may have made investments that lost their value, but, in a much smaller way, so did the rest of us. "I looked into my closet the other day and thought, why did I buy all this stuff?" one friend said recently. A person in the United States replaces a cell phone every 16 months, not because the cell phone is old, but because it is oldish. My mother used to complain that the Christmas toys were grubby and forgotten by Easter. (I didn't even really like dolls, especially dolls who introduced themselves to you over and over again when you pulled the ring in their necks.) Now much of the country is made up of people with the acquisition habits of a 7-year-old, desire untethered from need, or the ability to pay. The result is a booming business in those free-standing storage facilities, where junk goes to linger in a persistent vegetative state, somewhere between eBay and the dump.
Oh, there is still plenty of need. But it is for real things, things that matter: college tuition, prescription drugs, rent. Food pantries and soup kitchens all over the country have seen demand for their services soar. Homelessness, which had fallen in recent years, may rebound as people lose their jobs and their houses. For the first time this month, the number of people on food stamps will exceed the 30 million mark.
Hard times offer the opportunity to ask hard questions, and one of them is the one my friend asked, staring at sweaters and shoes: why did we buy all this stuff? Did anyone really need a flat-screen in the bedroom, or a designer handbag, or three cars? If the mall is our temple, then Marc Jacobs is God. There's a scary thought.
The drumbeat that accompanied Black Friday this year was that the numbers had to redeem us, that if enough money was spent by shoppers it would indicate that things were not so bad after all. But what the economy required was at odds with a necessary epiphany. Because things are dire, many people have become hesitant to spend money on trifles. And in the process they began to realize that it's all trifles.
Here I go, stating the obvious: stuff does not bring salvation. But if it's so obvious, how come for so long people have not realized it? The happiest families I know aren't the ones with the most square footage, living in one of those cavernous houses with enough garage space to start a homeless shelter. (There's a holiday suggestion right there.) And of course they are not people who are in real want. Just because consumption is bankrupt doesn't mean that poverty is ennobling.
But somewhere in between there is a family like one I know in rural Pennsylvania, raising bees for honey (and for the science, and the fun, of it), digging a pond out of the downhill flow of the stream, with three kids who somehow, incredibly, don't spend six months of the year whining for the toy du jour. (The youngest once demurred when someone offered him another box on his birthday; "I already have a present," he said.) The mother of the household says having less means her family appreciates possessions more. "I can give you a story about every item, really," she says of what they own. In other words, what they have has meaning. And meaning, real meaning, is what we are always trying to possess. Ask people what they'd grab if their house were on fire, the way our national house is on fire right now. No one ever says it's the tricked-up microwave they got at Wal-Mart.