Where Have All The Grown Ups Gone?

What’s the difference between a child and a grown up, other than physical and physiological maturity?  Most would argue that the immaturity of children includes matters of the intellect and emotion.  That kids have developing but still limited capacities in certain essential grown up areas.  They lack critical thinking skills, they struggle with understanding the concept of things like a moral compass, and they are pretty much wrapped up in their own little worlds and how they can get other kids to like them.  Kids aren’t keen on doing homework, they aren’t interested in understanding the deeper meaning of things, and they certainly aren’t willing to make sacrifices like eating their vegetables.  Kids want it, whatever it is, their way.  Sound familiar?

But you do know I’m not really talking about kids.  I’m talking about the actions and behaviors of our governmental leaders AND sometimes even ourselves.  Yup, ourselves.  We’re all acting like kids. 

It’s my belief that the walls and foundation of U.S. society are being eroded by an alarming immaturity of thought, action and inaction, an immaturity fueled by technology and what may be the late stage unintended consequences of a capitalist-led democracy and globalization.   Sure it’s easy to pick on our newly elected President as both the cause and effect of all this but I’m afraid it’s much for complicated than that. Even when/if old 45 checks out in 2020, it’s highly likely that the dysfunction and our collective child-like ways will remain. 

The only way to change that likely outcome is to first understand the cause.  And the way I see it the kiddie cause is at least two-fold:  technology and globalization.  I’m not suggesting that either was/is bad, but rather that they both brought with them some debilitating unintended consequences.  Think about it.

Technology begot 24/7 connectivity, which created 24/7 information, which eliminated any time to think, ponder and prepare.  The new measure of success is speed and quantity over quality.  And with that came the rise of user-generated content, arguably the forerunner to “fake news”.  Now anybody can write anything and share it with everybody whether it is true, thoughtful, and helpful or not.  In fact the silliest stuff gets the most play. Sounds remarkably like what happens on the playground at recess.

Technology also blew away our weekends.  More specifically we went from a world of work-life segregation (industrial age), when reading, considering, having quiet time after work was the norm, to a world of work-life integration (hyper-information age) where not drowning in information and transactions is the 24/7 goal.  Who has time to think?  It’s a child-like existence.

One of the most insidious aspects of our tech-centric 24/7 information-sharing world is that it puts everything we say and do under the comparison microscope.   We are all now constantly checking our pages and posts to see how many people liked what we had to say, and de facto, like us.  Kind of like being asked to the prom or voted Homecoming queen. 

Technology has also enabled intellectual and moral cliques, cliques that now appear to include the media. Reminiscent of the playground and the cool kids hanging out by the tetherball.  We only consume the content that aligns with what we already believe.  So how can we broaden our beliefs?  And what the hell happened to the Fourth Estate?  Weren’t they supposed to be the Principal? 

As technology has contributed to our child-like ways so too has globalization.  And again, I’m generally a fan of it, but you have to recognize the damage done.   In a nutshell, globalization has created a more level playing field, and when that happens, some percentage of adults get scared and start acting like little kids because they know that a level playing field will expose their own vulnerabilities or reveal what they should have done long ago to be able to compete today.  So instead of owning up, they get vocal, they get frantic and their actions roll up into something called Nationalism or Populism or the other N word.  And then they want to win the game by cheating the other players.     

Globalization has also lulled us into a false sense of understanding. It has been a distraction from the truth of our own country, and the realization that as much as our coasts are thriving, the center of America is in decay.  It’s back to us acting like little kids.  If we’re getting straight As and can have as much ice cream as we want, what could possibly be wrong with the rest of the class? 

Finally, globalization has also brought something with it that is oddly problematic and that is general economic stability and a lack of shared adversity.  In order for a diverse country like ours to come together we need a unifying force, and the best force is adversity.  These United States have been most united after the world wars, the Great Depression and for a few weeks, after 9/11.   In order for the kids to become grownups, to be able to look beyond our own selfish needs and worries, to move away from the superficial to the material, to embrace the good of the whole as our own, we need an adversary, a playground bully.  And it turns out we just might have one.

But a bully will not be enough.  We also all need to go back to school.  We need to re-set the expectations of ourselves as adults.   We need hold up the moral compass as the primary motivator of our actions.  We need to hold each other accountable for studying the issues and understanding the pros and cons of every major policy option.  We need to force our way out of the 24/7 information miasma and find time to think, to ponder and debate.  And we need to elect leaders that we do more than believe in.  We need to elect officials we actually understand. 

Last but perhaps most importantly we need to look at how we are educating each other.  The divide and the misunderstanding we see in the United States today is an indictment of our educational system, in school and at home.  We have failed them and each other.  We need to examine every aspect of how a child in America becomes a grown up.  How they are given or not given the opportunity to develop the requisite skills and sensibilities in order to both achieve a decent life but also contribute back to the collective good of our nation.  If want the problems of today to go away we must change the source code.  We must build a better system that not only helps our kids become grown ups, but as importantly helps them remain grown ups.  


chris colbert