Who would have thought that in the second decade of the twenty-first century the developed world would be in such dire financial straits. What happened to the idea that Western liberal democracy and its free-market ideals had triumphed, completing an “ideological evolution,” as Francis Fukuyama famously put it, which would ensure peace and stability? Reading the papers, you get the impression that things are rocky, but that we’re not yet on the cusp of socialist or fascist revolutions. The students protesting in Quebec are “loafing about,” according to one Formula 1 driver. Occupy movements have been successfully dislodged from our city parks. Rioting Greeks are, well, you know, Greek. But old Louis XVI thought grumbling provincials were a passing nuisance. So did Charles I.
The mainstream media is getting wise to the anger that many young people feel, and the defensiveness of many in the older generation. Rob Carrick at The Globe & Mail has been generating a lot of page reads (and discussion) over this inter-generational strife (here, here, and here). And economist Frances Woolley suggested last week that Canada’s employment insurance is “Canada’s shame” because it is “stealing from the young.” As the comments section of the G&A suggests, a good number of folks slough this all off as youthful entitlement—the whining of a spoiled class of college grads too used to the good life.
As one of those spoiled kids, I’m trying to understand the moment we’re in. It’s true that no one is starving in the streets, but revolutions are rarely born of material circumstance. It’s ideas and debt (that is, the promise of austerity) that cause problems. As the late Harvard historian Crane Brinton perceptively argued in 1938, it’s “government deficits” and “conspicuous governmental favoring of one set of economic interests over another” which foment revolutions (oh, and lots of under-employed, over-educated people). Sound familiar?
It certainly didn’t just a generation ago. I recently rewatched On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Vincente Minelli’s 1970 film version of the musical by Burton Lane (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics). I last saw it when I was fourteen. Like most earnest children newly in the throes of hormones, I somehow had no ability to appreciate it for its sheer camp value—I really thought it was a probing psychological work. So did Alan Jay Lerner, but years of amphetamine abuse will do that to you.
We should leave aside the silliness of the premise (which involves ESP, hypnosis, reincarnation, and plants which grow really fast when you sing to them). Oh, and a line-reading so exquisitely ostentatious that it’s a shame more drag queens don’t do it: “My name is Melinda Tentrees”! There is a remarkable bit of cultural criticism buried in the B-plot in which the neurotic (and psychic) Daisy Gamble interacts awkwardly with her nerdy boyfriend, Warren. In one musical number, Warren attempts to wow Daisy with the insurance benefits his new job will provide them with. “Wait Til We’re Sixty-Five” is a jaunty jazz-waltz with a clever hemiola in the middle of the phrase. That Dave Brubeck-esque rhythmic effect is perfect for Warren, who is educated, modern, industrious, but maybe a little bit odd. He could be the vaunted archetypal employee of the new information economy (which is just the old industrial economy, but without workers who make anything). The lyrics have a similarly awkward gait. They’re supposed to be celebratory, but end up somehow all being about death.
The number was cut from the movie (which Minelli first cut at over three hours!) This version (in an arrangement by Nelson Riddle) is more late-sixties than the original and features much more of Daisy (they did cast Barbra, after all). But you still get the picture. (You can buy the original Broadway recording on iTunes. It’s more fun and features some really splashy horn work in the break.) I love the two trick rhymes in the last chorus:
Life will be gala / Every mala- / dy all completely paid. / And we've a plot a’ / Terra cotta / In which we'll both be laid.
But the song paints a rosy picture of what we now think of as boomer privilege. Secure employment, guaranteed pension—even if “the children never mature” (but “the bonds will / so we’re secure”). What’s remarkable is that this is satire. Only at sixty-five can Daisy and Warren “come alive.” Daisy rejects this life of staid middle-class bliss for an uncertain future with her shrink (who’s in love with her eighteenth-century self). Listening to this piece today is confusing. It sounds almost like an elegy for a life that is no more; but it’s a pointed critique of that life all the same.
Or maybe it’s not an elegy for that life. Maybe it’s an elegy for choice—for a time when you could choose between Warren and Dr. Bruckner, between bourgeois propriety and intellectual bohemian chic. Or maybe it’s an elegy for certainty. Bond yields aren’t what they used to be. It’s unlikely that Warren and Daisy could live in Florida with their “boomerang” layabout children. They’d just retire to “Tampla, Fla,” after taking out a second adjustable-rate mortgage to shore up their depleted 401K, only to be foreclosed on after a housing market collapse. And they wouldn’t be doing it at 65. At least not in Canada (but maybe in France.) And Dr. Bruckner certainly wouldn’t be tenured at Columbia studying ESP. Just imagine the Fox News reaction to that indulgence of liberal, lefty, academia.
Perhaps the sad lesson we’re all learning is that age never brings certainty, happiness, or great comfort. This isn’t true for a couple like Warren and Daisy who only have “six or seven” years to enjoy retirement, or for the students marching in Montreal who may never have a pension to retire on, or for our culture, which ardently needs to believe that it’s evolving into something better than what came before. Like seventeenth-century England, or eighteenth-century France, or nineteenth-century everywhere (and twentieth-century Russia, China, Iran, and, of late, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, and God-willing, Syria) we’re sensing that things aren’t getting better and we’re angry. We hope we’ve replaced those former regimes with something better. I want to believe we have. And if someone comes up with a humane, democratic, and clever solution to our current problems, I’ll gladly take to the streets as well.
Until then, if you’re retiring—at sixty-seven—perhaps you might like some advice from someone much wiser than myself. I’ll therefore leave you with this wonderfully witty poem by the late David Wright, “Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear.” If you like your life lessons served conversationally in iambic pentameter with a helping of sarcasm, he’s your man. This poem depresses me, but makes me smile all the same. So does “Wait Til We’re Sixty-Five.” Then, I suppose, so should most things.
Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.