With the relentless press of bad economic news, it takes more than flawed genetic programming and a strong stomach to sustain an optimistic attitude toward the future. So it is past time that we optimists created a new support group -- Optimists Anonymous! It is going to take more than firm resolve and a lot of prayer to remain optimistic in a country that seems to be hell-bent on destroying itself. We optimists need each other!
I've had the misfortune to publish an optimistic book about baby boomers this summer. The contrarian message of the book -- that we baby boomers are far better positioned for the last third of their lives than our parents or grandparents were, and have no intention of retiring, moving to Florida and listening to old Jimmy Buffet records, and that we don't have to bankrupt our society to take care of us in the last third of our lives -- would have been a difficult sell in any case.
But wedged between the grisly, slow motion political suicide of the emblematic boomer political couple, the Clintons, and the decimation of our retirement savings by the ongoing financial crisis, the project never really had a chance. Then I realized what I was fighting -- it has become politically incorrect to be an optimist. After all, didn't George Bush believe that Iraqis would come rushing into the streets proffering roses, strong coffee and their daughters as we invaded their country? Didn't the people who bought more house than they could afford or fought against the estate tax do so because they were simply certain that they would become wealthy?
Well no, they were simply delusional: America's leadership in the world was an artifact of a late 20th century global power vacuum, rather than intrinsic strength, our culture is terminally mired in hedonism and moral decay and our financial system shot through with fraud slathered with a thick layer of dodgy accounting. And what we really need now is a lengthy period masochistic handwringing and show trials of the most egregious public optimists.
Actually, that is precisely what isn't needed. What we actually need to do is to clear away the wreckage, learn the important lessons about why you can't make risk simply disappear, and start dreaming again. Fortunes will be made picking through all this wreckage (including by our own federal government). New companies and jobs will arise financed at more realistic valuations and with less leverage from the newly chastened equity markets. Improved personal cash flow and a healthy aversion to debt will rebuild family balance sheets. And lower interest rates will enable people once again to sell their homes, finance their businesses and buy things.
Tom Friedman may be right. We no longer have a monopoly on the creation of intellectual property. No, we merely create 70% of the world's IP with less than 5% of the world's population. We control as an economy something like $100 trillion in assets (60% of which will belong to boomers by 2015!). Take a good long look at the NASDAQ companies, and tell me that all that knowledge and talent won't generate trillions in future revenues and earnings.
Our culture may be decadent, but it continues to produce the most interesting literature, science, motion pictures and music in the world. Our political and business leaders may be trapped in the short term, but the ones who cannot make sound long term decisions will eventually be fired, either at the polls or by their shareholders.
Nothing here is to deny that real damage has been done this year. People have suffered real harm, and have good reasons to be anxious about their futures. But if we lose our capacity to dream in all of this, we will truly have lost everything. So let's keep things quiet. Let's meet in church basements. We can begin with the Serenity Prayer, with special emphasis on "the courage to change the things we can". We can swap stories about how much of a difference optimism has made in our lives, share our experience, strength and hope with our fellow optimists and wait for our moment. After all, there are tens of millions of us optimists. Our positive expectations are the engine of our economy and society and our time is coming.
Jeff Goldsmith is President of Health Futures, Inc. and Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press: 2008).
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