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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

For better or for worse

Are we headed up or down the quality-of-life ladder?

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

It's become a maxim in recent times: The long-held expectation that we would generally pass on to our children a better life than we ourselves enjoyed-that optimism has all but disappeared.

How do you want to pose the question?

Economically? Maybe it's not fair to ask just as we're emerging from a bruising recession. But when so many folks say they question whether we're really emerging, maybe we're obliged to raise the issue. You don't have to look far to see a whole lot of next-generation wages and salaries that don't measure up to last-generation incomes. And those smaller incomes are being asked to pay for long lists of increased costs, ranging from health coverage to housing, from electricity and natural gas to tuition, from state inspection on your car's exhaust system to the interest on multiple trillions of dollars of government debt. Not much to encourage us-or our kids-on that front.

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Vocationally? In one sense, jobs are pretty closely related to the economy. But in this context, we're talking about something more profound. A job is more than a paycheck. The question a lot of our kids ask themselves, and each other, is: "Will we ever have a job that's as good as the jobs our parents had?" And while they'll be including the pay scale in that question, they'll also be quietly thinking about job status and job satisfaction. When they think about their dad having worked for one company for 30 years, they'll also be pondering their own job security.

Educationally? If you could measure the quality of the educational enterprise by the number of diplomas awarded, things would be looking pretty good. But no one these days should ever automatically equate a diploma or transcript, whether from high school or from college, as signifying achievement as an educated person. Throughout the vast educational establishment-90 percent of it operated under secular statist sponsorship-there are some happy exceptions among institutions, teachers, and students. But for the most part, without radical changes, the next generation will be less well-educated than their grandparents were. The Christian school and homeschool movements do wonders, on modest budgets, to counteract that drift. But even after a generation of significant growth, they still account for only one child in 10 in society at large. For that society, statist education will be an increasingly bad bargain: It will cost more every year, and produce less.

Technologically? At last-a category with a little promise. Almost by definition, our children will enjoy goodies we never dreamed of. But the more those goodies proliferate, the more we'll have to ask: Can we trust ourselves to use them for each other's good instead of so predominantly for our own comfort?

Medically? Another contradiction. Every indicator suggests health-achievers and life-extenders of mind-boggling categories. But with them will come ethical challenges so painful our kids might want to revert to a simpler day. And the dollar cost of all these wonders, for our children and our children's children, will almost certainly jump from the 3 percent to 5 percent of our family budgets we enjoyed as little kids to 20 percent or even 25 percent. That's not a wild guess. In 2009, it reached 17 percent.

Environmentally? Hey, be thankful for all the good things your kids will inherit. Cleaner air, cleaner rivers, safer surroundings. If the green movement has too often gotten carried away, let's give credit where credit's due. Your children won't have to bankrupt themselves to be good stewards of God's creation. They will have to exercise a little discipline.

The media? If your generation had to worry about too much power being concentrated in just a handful of influence peddlers (the mainstream media), your children will need to watch out for sources other than New York, Washington, and Hollywood. But just because they're more numerous, and more diverse, doesn't mean they're more trustworthy. Truth telling isn't yet a preoccupation on many media fronts.

Basic freedoms? It's hard to watch what's happening in Washington and then predict that our children will enjoy all the robust liberties we used to sing about. Political correctness threatens even the basics of the First Amendment.

Morally and spiritually? Do we dare even ask?

Is our society headed in the right direction? In a December poll, only a third of all Americans said yes to that specific question. Will the United States still be setting the pace for the world 20 years from now? Only 37 percent of Americans thought so-while 39 percent said China will have assumed that role.
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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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