Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

June 28, 2005


Filed under: — Different River @ 1:50 am

I normally don’t post “personal” things on this blog, but I make exceptions sometimes, when I think they might be of interest to the blog-reading public. This is one of them.

I recently had a birthday and turned 36, and this occasioned some reflections on the flow of time, age, and how time seems to be flowing fast, and I am starting to feel old — not in a vain sense, like oh-gosh-I-am-getting-wrinkles — but in the historical sense, in that I remember events that other people who are also considered adults count as history, and in that there are people around me, other than kids, who were born after both major milestones in my life, and major events that I remember.

The age of 36 is a good time for such reflection, particularly in the months of May and June. June is the month of high-school graduations. High school graduation is, for most Americans, the last turning point in life almost everyone shares. Depending on which statistics you believe (or rather, how you want to do the counting), somewhere between 67% and 85% of Americans graduate from high school. About 90% of those students are in public schools. Although there is some diversity in quality and student population, most public schools are mostly like each other in many important ways, providing — by intent, a leveling experience. Even a large percentage of private schools are similar, often differing only in the offering of some religious classes, or in the percentage of AP class, or some other details. Even for those who don’t graduate, much of the years up to age 18 are spent in school.

My point is not that all schools are the same, but rather that most Americans between the ages of 5 and 18 are doing things that are very similar to each other — certainly more similar than they will be doing later in life. The average future medical doctor and the average future construction worker are — at age 10 or 15, say — doing pretty much the same thing. Perhaps by age 15 their paths will have diverged a bit (they are taking different classes in 10th grade) — but only a bit.

At age 18, all this changes. Some people go to college, some don’t — and colleges are much more different from each other than high schools. Some get jobs, some get married, some join the military — and some do all three. These will put them on very different paths by, say, the age of 24 — by which age it is not surprising to find some people married, with children, and maybe buying a first house, and other still (mired? cocooned?) in graduate school, years from getting their first real (full-time, year-round) job. In short, at the age of 18, we lived lives very similar to those of others in our age cohort. After that, our paths diverge, sometimes very greatly. The corporate lawyer is living a very different life than the singer or doctor or secretary or at-home mom or teacher he stood next to — perhaps as friends, perhaps by alphabetical order — at graduation 18 years before. By age 36, we have spent just as much time diverging as staying on the same path.

In a very real sense, by age 36, we are in a different generations. There are people — lots of them — born on the same day I graduated from high school 18 years ago, who themselves graduated this month. To me, it doesn’t seem like that long ago — I remember who I took pictures with, the sharing of the what-college-are-you-going-to stories in the months before, what I did that summer, and how it felt to start college a few months later. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a shocking, earth-shattering event of unprecedented worldwide euphoria. The world I had known — with Europe and Asia divided by an ‘Iron Curtain” into separate “worlds” of Communism and Democracy, with the rest of the world lining up on one side or the other or professing to be “non-aligned” — changed forever in what seemed like an instant, without the massive war that usually accompanies sudden changed. I remember this as the pivotal (non-personal to me) event in my lifetime. Those graduating today were about two years old then. Most had probably learned to walk; some had probably not learned to talk yet. They could not possibly remember it. To them, the Iron Curtain is something they encounter in history books — if at all, given the state of history education these days. It’s precisely as remote to them as the fall of Saigon is to me. Likewise, Jimmy Carter’s presidency — the first one I remember — is as remote to today’s 18-year-olds as John F. Kennedy’s is to me and today’s other 36-year-olds.

For comparison, let’s go a generation in the other direction. Someone who was 36 when I was 18 is 54 now. Born in 1951, today’s 54-year-old was old enough to have served in the Vietnam War and remembers the presidency of John Kennedy and probably Dwight Eisenhower. And — this is the freaky part — could be be working in my office, on the same types of projects as I and the 22-year-old who was born well after his or her career started. Today’s 54-year-old was born six years after the end of World War II — and today’s 18-year old was born five years after the last real economic recession, which ended in 1982.

Today’s 18-year-olds also do not remember: gas lines, inflation, fear of nuclear war, Ronald Reagan, “Tear down this wall!,” or the release of the first three Star Wars movies. They do not remember a world without a world without music CDs, VCRs, or cell-phones. Unless especially precocious, they do not remember a Democratic-controlled Congress, MS-DOS, or rotary telephones. They certainly do not remember a time when computers filled rooms; by the time they were born, computers were common in homes. By the time they started kindergarten, computers were in a huge percentage of homes and most were running Windows. They were in the 8-12-year-old bracket when e-mail was becoming commonplace among the general public. That’s the age bracket when most people in my generation started getting permission to dial the phone and call our friends. For all practical purposes, today’s 18-year-olds don’t know a world without the internet. They also do not remember any of these events.

Likewise, I imagine today’s 54-year-old finds it similarly striking that those my age do not remember: Vietnam, the draft, John Kennedy, Elvis, hippies, Watergate, or the Moon landing — despite the special connection I’ve always felt to the first Moon landing given it’s proximity to my birth and the fact that my parents told me I was there “watching” it on TV as an infant.

The people graduating this month were born when I was the age they are now. They have
experienced more changes in themselves in the last 18 years than I have. Have I grown as much in the last 18 years as they have? I don’t think so. I certainly haven’t changed as much in the last 18 years as in the previous 18. (Think about this — it’s impossible.)

As we get older, time seems to go faster. I don’t know when I first noticed this, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that it’s true. My grandmother, who is now 94, confirms this — it seems to go faster and faster as you get older. Someone I knew in 10th grade said his father had this theory that any particular length of time “feels” long or short based on the percentage of your life it makes up until that point. Thus, a year or a day or an hour at age 36 feels have as long as the same length of time at age 18. I don’t know how we could ever prove it, but that sounds eerily right to me now.

I have been thinking about all this for the past month and a half or so. (I was going to type this in weeks ago, but got busy). Last week, I saw someone I know from high school (even middle school) who I don’t see all that often — in particular, we’ve seen each other twice, maybe three times since I graduated 18 years ago. I did the math and realized that we are more than twice as old as when we first met (an even which I must admit I don’t remember). If you are 18 and you’ve seen someone twice in the last 18 years, you’re strangers. If you’re 36 and you’ve seen someone twice in the last 18 years, you might count as old friends.

She was about to get married (and presumably did so over the weekend), and is hoping for babies very soon. Her children will not remember a world without e-mail, September 11, 2001, or getting on a plane without taking your shoes off. They might know what a VCR is, but they’ll probably never use one on a daily basis. (By the time they’re old enough, recordable DVDs — or the next similar thing — will be as common as VCRs were 10 years ago.) To them, perhaps, the term “Arab democracy” may not be an oxymoron or an innovation. They may never meet anyone who fought in World War II, at least not at an age when they will be old enough to remember it. They will not — unless the mood of the country changes drastically for the worse, which is possible but I think unlikely — remember a time when it was at best uncool and at worst an act of defiance to fly an American flag on one’s home. They may not even remember Fidel Castro. (I can hope, can’t I? ;-) )

The world changes, and it changes quickly. An individual’s life passes very quickly. Make the most of it!

3 Responses to “Reflections”

  1. romy Says:

    a brilliant, thoughtful, well-paced post. thanks for this one, DR.

    a certain cranky AP english teacher would be proud. ;)

  2. ollie Says:

    If you find that working with a 54 year old strange, consider I am married to someone who
    was born while WWII was still on (and in doubt!). Technically speaking, I was born while
    “Ike” was still president, and was only 4 when I remember my mom watching TV news about
    President Kennedy being shot.

  3. Different River Says:

    It’s not that working with a 54-year-old is strange. In fact, what surprising it that it’s not strange — despite the fact that such a person has a whole different set of memories to draw on, compared to a 36-year-old or a 23-year-old.

    I’m a 36-year-old economist — and I have to get used to the fact that my 23-year-old colleague has no memory of (serious) inflation or gas lines, and take that into account when explaining things. For me, those are the first “economic things” I remember, so they made a big impression. For an older colleague, they are probably just a “blip” — like the 1987 stock market crash is to me.

    Ollie: To give an example more in your line of work, consider that I’m part of the last generation that will remember Fermat’s Last Theorem as a great unsolved problem. No more will math students — from high school students to budding number theorists — spend weekends trying to be the first to prove this seemingly-simple but mind-numbingly complex problem. Your incoming freshmen next year were around 10 years old when Andrew Wiles published his proof, and they probably had no idea what a theorem was!

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