Societal change is difficult to describe, much less interpret accurately. We tend to rely on apt phrases like shifting sands, blowing winds and tossing waves. Such metaphors are helpful because the experience of significant change yields the same feelings of vulnerability we encounter when a storm emerges on the scene. We can protect some things and prevent certain impacts, but there is little we can do to dissuade the storm when it inevitably comes.
Many are caught up in the BBC television series Downton Abbey, now in its third season. It’s popular because it’s good television – something we see very little of these days. Set in England in the early 20th century, the story focuses on an aristocratic family named Crawley. On the surface, the unfolding saga follows the travails of a family and their servants through the ups and downs of relationships, conflicts and a bit of intrigue. The broader backdrop, however, bears witness to the tremendous social and political upheaval that reshaped much of Europe in the years before and after World War I. As I have watched the series, my mind has continued to drift between then and now, finding parallels between what we are experiencing today and a century ago.
The individual and collective experiences of the Crawley family are a microcosm of a much larger macrocosmic picture of that era. In their case, a once stable social order is collapsing. The social contract between the aristocracy and the working classes was a willingness to extend both privilege and respect in exchange for employment and philanthropy. The system worked for a long time. Yet the combined effects of World War I, the Spanish Flu and growing unrest began to fray an increasing threadbare social fabric.
Economic realities, likewise, reshaped expectations as wealth was dissipated through generations, squandered through extravagance or lost in a period of sweeping geopolitical and technological change that compounded risk. New technologies began to reshape society with the emergence of new industries. Through the early decades of the 20th century, innovations like the automobile and the telephone, coupled with the availability of electricity, refrigeration and plumbing, gradually changed expectations for individual quality of life, personal ambition and social mobility. Despite the many setbacks, including the Great Depression, one thing was clear – European society was experiencing massive and unalterable change.
My thoughts have turned to the changes I have seen in my life thus far. Born in 1960, my early years were shaped by the social revolution of that decade. My early memories of society are about assassinations, hippies, the Vietnam War, feminism, Watergate, protests, space flight, civil rights, abortion rights and an energy crisis. Many have referred to the period of the 1960s and much of the 1970s as a time of social upheaval, even revolution. Perhaps it’s still too early to tell what the long-term effects will be. We know how to describe those years now, but interpretation may be best left to future generations.
What about today? I think I hear some faint echoes, but it’s impossible to describe, much less interpret.
What I find interesting is the way of life each generation has sought to preserve and defend has sometimes been overturned by future generations. They inherit societies with both the power and mandate to shape as they deem appropriate. I think we lose sight of this too often. Whenever I hear a politician speak about his or her grandchildren and the need to preserve an existing legacy, I am reminded the world my parents encountered as mature adults was vastly different from the one my grandparents had in mind as they made decisions about their family or formed opinions about society.
There is much to celebrate today, and despite the conflict and turmoil of the moment, American society has a lot going for it. I do wonder, however, how this nation will be reshaped by the kids who were born 50 years after me. The babies of 2010 will be the leaders in 2050. They will be nurtured by a society experiencing the winds of change. We assume they will prioritize what we think is important. We can’t imagine they will hold different values or be guided by different principles. Yet history teaches us they will likely order the world in a different way than we do today. Some of their energy will be devoted to correcting the real or perceived errors we have made already and other missteps we are bound to make. Each generation of leaders bears the consequences of decision or indecision of its predecessors, along with all the attending impacts. They will have to forge a new consensus taking into consideration the realities of an era yet to come.
Will they look at economics, healthcare, immigration, social policy and geopolitics through the ideological lenses we have today? I think it’s unlikely. The prism they will need in order to find new ways will demand of them more than we can realistically anticipate. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give them is not a set of policy mandates we believe to be impervious to change. Rather we may serve them best by strengthening our social fabric, developing citizenship and building their skills for collaboration, negotiation and conflict resolution.
A scene from Downton Abbey finds Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, facing the potential loss of the house and all he has worked his whole life to preserve. His mother-in-law, an American named Martha Levinson, is visiting. She does not really fit in with the traditional culture of Downton Abbey, but has significant wealth. She’s a disruption in the house and seems to symbolically embody the discomfort of change for the entire household. She is seated quietly with Robert after a long day, and the conversation unfolds as follows:
Mrs. Levinson: You know the way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it. You’ll just get hurt.
Lord Grantham: Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wild whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed.
Mrs. Levinson: Some animals adapt to new surroundings. It seems a better choice than extinction.
Lord Grantham: I don’t think it is a choice. I think it’s what’s in you.
Mrs. Levinson: Well let’s hope that what’s in you will carry you through these times to a safer shore.