Thursday, June 18, 2009

Best Era to Live In?

I assume I'm not alone in periodically finding myself wishing I had lived in some other historical era. Being a pioneer in the nineteenth-century frontier: what a simpler time. Living through the World Wars and Great Depression: definitely meaningful, if perhaps somewhat sucky. Being around for the invention of light bulbs or cars or being present for various periods of great social and cultural change—sometimes it seems that practically every time period was more interesting, more dynamic, and more significant than the current one.

(Of course, I have since come to the conclusion that no time seems particularly history-making and society-changing while you're in the midst of it, if for no other reason than that half the time you're not even aware of what's going on until it's over. It is somewhat difficult to detect broad changes without the benefits of hindsight. Anyway, of late, this time period has started seeming pretty interesting: advent of the personal computer, cell phones, the internet; a couple of sweeping social changes (like gay rights); general historical events like 9/11, the election of the first black president, and a crippling economic downturn; a few ridiculous scientific/medical/technical advances (mapping the human genome, anyone?). All in all, it seems my lifetime is set to contain plenty of interesting things that my grandchildren will (hopefully) be jealous I got to live through...even if robots and flying cars are, as yet, not a part of that.)

Anyway, so I was wondering when the ideal time to be born would have been in order to have lived the most interesting / best life (let's keep it narrowed down to America, just for simplicity's sake). What would have been the perfect lifespan—to experience plenty of interesting times and historical events and to be at good ages for appreciating certain things as they occurred? For instance, being a teenager or young adult in the 1920s or the 1960s would definitely be more fun and/or meaningful than being 75 then (a senior citizen flapper?). And don't forget avoiding the worst of negative times; just as graduating from college and seeking a job in 2009 seems less than ideal, obviously, the same would be true for embarking on adult life during the Great Depression or the Panics of 1837 or 1893. (Can we please start calling this the Panic of 2008? That makes it sound much more interesting than "the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.") Similarly, being on the verge of retirement when the Panic of 2008 hit pretty much messes up the remainder of your life, and I'm sure the same is true, though to an admittedly lesser extent, during prior recessions.

Right now, I'm thinking coming of age around the turn of the twentieth century would have been a particularly interesting time, though I suppose that puts you raising a family during the Depression (but is there really an ideal time of life to be hit by the Depression?). I'm pretty sure being a baby boomer is not my idea of the ideal life. I mean, it's great for some of them, like Bill Gates, who were able to get into certain industries at exactly the right time (read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell), but in general, being a middle-aged adult at this point in time seems entirely unappealing.

I'm thinking, as odd as it sounds, that being born in the thirties (too young to really remember much of the Depression, or just being around for the tail end of it) and coming of age around World War II might have been a pretty good time to live. In general, I'm anti-war, but as far as wars go, WWII was probably our most justifiable one. Plus, the entire country was involved and invested—everyone had brothers, cousins, sweethearts, and classmates fighting overseas, the war effort was supported at home (bonds, scrap metal, victory gardens, and the like), and it generally just seems the country all came together. Then that puts you raising a family in the fifties, which seems to be one of the best times to do that. Of course, then you're still stuck being old now, which as we have determined, might kind of suck. Also, the last forty years or so haven't been so great for farmers, which it can safely be assumed a large percentage of these people would have been. Oh well.

I think I'm just biased through the oral histories I've been transcribing for work. So many of the most interesting people whose life stories I've gotten to hear did have this approximate lifespan (which I guess is obvious, since they're pretty much the oldest generation around, so of course they're the ones whose stories people are concentrating on recording before they all die).

My absolute ideal life, as far as I can tell? Being an AP journalist born in the late twenties or early thirties. If you're covering the news, you're practically guaranteed to be present for a pretty big chunk of it. While now is not the best time to be a journalist, retiring a decade or two ago still leaves you with a nice, exciting life full of adventure and feeling generally useful and important. Ah, to have been born 75 years ago...and also a man...whose father knew someone in the newspaper industry...