Desi’s onboard with less stuff. “You don’t need to have money to buy a huge record collection; you have Grooveshark. You don’t need that shit. Life is just getting easier.” And it definitely is, in terms of access to entertainment. Facebook and video games and Twitter and Internet memes and Google Books and smartphones and free apps have made life on a small budget a lot more diverting. Rob Weitzer, a 24-year-old Bushwick dweller who grew up in Connecticut and has been spottily employed since graduating from the New School, puts it this way: “My parents are well off financially, but I’m better off culturally.”
Desi’s father happens to be an engineer who worked for the company that made the StairMaster, that very boomer self-improvement device. His grandfather did important work on a generationally defining product of his own. Desi’s grandfather was John Rawls, the philosopher credited with expanding the intellectual framework for the modern social safety net. Desi also cares about safety nets, but smaller ones. “Feeling like you can take care of yourself and your friends … that’s the answer,” he told me when we were talking about Occupy Wall Street, and whether it’s worth it to be involved. “You know, you find a community where you don’t feel that powerlessness.” I bring up his grandfather’s legacy. He redirects the conversation. “Definitely, if you don’t do something, it’s not going to happen. But if you do do something, it’s still probably not going to happen. Your time could be time that you spend enriching your own life.”
Twenge, the Generation Me author, turned me on to the existence of a concept called “locus of control.” Essentially, it’s a measure of whether you think your destiny is controlled by you or outside forces. For years, young people have increasingly placed their loci of control outside themselves, and this is true of my generation more than any yet. It seems unlikely that a global financial crisis that revealed just how deeply ingrained, intertwined, and intractable are the world’s problems is doing much to counteract that trend. Yet someone like Desi manages to place the locus of control firmly within himself, centered narrowly on his own life and the people he knows. Notwithstanding what that attitude portends for social justice (nothing good), maybe it’s the only way to feel like you are in charge of your own destiny, by focusing your lens ever tighter.
Another phrase I now can’t get out of my head is “managed decline.” It’s been batted around in the context of Europe; George Soros splashily said it about the U.S. dollar a few years ago; and Ken Layne, the Wonkette Cassandra, used it when we spoke. It also strikes me as a fairly good way of describing the process of getting older. That’s what we’re doing when we decide that we can be okay with having more unpredictable careers and more modest lifestyles, if that’s what’s in store: Even as we hold out hope that something will reverse the trajectory, we are managing our decline, we are making do.
Desi and I tried to picture the country in 50 years, as a kind of parlor game. “Oh! Mushroom cloud! It’s going to be a disaster!” he said. “It’s so overwhelming there’s nothing in particular to be worried about.” We both laughed, because it’s true.