America’s Struggle Through Puberty

by Bill Brenner on August 7, 2012

In yesterday’s post, “It’s the End of American Dominance and I Feel Fine,” I suggested that it’s no big deal if America is no longer number one. But if it’s no longer the top dog, what is it? America is like a confused, emotionally exhausted child trying to find itself.

Mood music:

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My friend Dave Marcus offered this reaction to yesterday’s post:

Not so sure I fully agree with the tone. I think its more that America shows signs that it needs to evolve and neither party wants to as it would mean an end to their bureaucratic hold.

That’s certainly true. If you compare America’s age to that of many other countries in the civilized world, it’s still a child. The Democrats and Republicans are a couple of drunk parents in the middle of a bitter divorce, grabbing the child by each arm and pulling the limbs from the sockets. And it’s been that way for a long time.

Now that child has hit puberty, and the shit is hitting the fan.

Like any tortured kid, America is trying to be what both parents want it to be: the winner; the one who always brings the awards home and walks away from schoolyard fights unscathed. But the parents are clinging to old, unrealistic ideas the child can never live up to. 

The old ideas of prosperity are obsolete. An increasing number of us no longer live in a world where you go to an office or factory for eight hours a day, five days a week, then leave the work behind. We’re always checking email on our smartphones and the Internet allows us to work pretty much wherever we want. Work and personal time have been woven together. In this new environment, we have to re-evaluate what it means to successfully compete and prosper while also enjoying our friends, families and personal pursuits.

And so we have a country in economic turmoil and divisiveness coated in hateful rhetoric. In a sense, the child realized it can never live up to Mom and Dad’s expectations and decided to kill the pain with a bottle and a handful of pills.

Our country needs to find itself.

Finding ourselves is not about trying to be number one. It’s about trying to be better than we are.

America can still be a winner. It will never lose its ability to compete, innovate and lead. I’m proud to call myself an American, and I cherish our history. But we can’t stay atop the heap forever. We can only get so big before the load gets too heavy to sustain. The Roman Empire couldn’t do it. Neither could the British Empire. The empires are gone, but the cultures that sprung from them are as prosperous and vibrant as ever.

I know plenty of Brits who are proud of where they’re from, and it has nothing to do with being the richest and most powerful country, which they’re not. I know some folks from Ireland who are pretty happy to live where they live and are proud as hell of their rich heritage. By economic, military and population standards, Ireland is not number one. Not even close.

So what?

The difference between those countries and America is that they have the wisdom that comes with age. They matured long ago. When you get older, you realize some of the stuff you found important as a kid wasn’t so important after all.

America will grow up sooner or later. It will stop measuring its greatness by the size of its wallet and the number of missiles it has in the basement. Right now it doesn’t know quite what to do because the careers of old are gone and not coming back. It has to evolve, as my friend Dave said, and that means shifting expectations.

Adjusting expectations doesn’t mean settling for less than an excellent existence. It may mean redefining our idea of what an excellent existence is and adjusting to the idea that America can’t go back to the way life used to be. The dream of a house with a white picket fence and two cars paid for by Dad’s 9-to-5 office job isn’t realistic anymore. Mom has to work now, too, and there’s no gold watch for either of them after 45 years of service. They’re lucky if they stay at one job 5 or 10 years.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have it good. It just means we have to find new ways to get there.

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