The 20th Century was Amazing, but It’s Over
The 20th century wasn’t perfect, but I feel very lucky to have been born in 1951 rather than 1851. The way things are going now, I may be glad that I’m no longer alive when 2051 rolls around, however.
Sorry, kids. We almost had it all but we didn’t take care of it.
The social change that took place during the 20th century was unprecedented. Sure the downtrodden have rebelled in the past resulting in small changes, but nothing like the systemic changes that took place in many parts of the world during the 20th century.
When you throw in technological progress as well, there can be no doubt left in my mind that the 20th century rocked the world.
Was it something in the drinking water? Were aliens living among us for a short period of time?
Unfortunately, it came and went and nobody noticed. I mean humans did what they always do. They fought for change, even died for change, and then quickly forgot about the change.
Soon, so soon that it’s embarrassing, they not only forgot what things were like before but started giving these hard won victories away to the highest bidder.
Even those who benefitted the most from the progress of the 20th century —like women, the working class, and Caitlyn Jenner — began to waffle, even jump ship entirely.
Waffling is a dangerous pastime. It weakens the resistance to attacks from the old order, those who remember the way things use to be with fondness.
Before you know it, the steps forward that our ancestors worked so hard to achieve turns into two steps back, back, back, back to the good old days when women couldn’t even own a credit card let alone their bodies.
Let’s take a quick peek at the progress made in the Unites States alone during the last century …
Women FINALLY got to vote
Child labor laws were passed
Unions were formed
The New Deal was established
The eight hour work day
Pension plans became common
Retirement became a reality
The average lifespan was doubled
40 hour work week
Abortion was legalized
The middle class
The middle class in America expanded dramatically in the mid 20th century. They became a force to be reckoned with and established a culture that was based on their own potential growth and the idea of being upwardly mobile.
Divorce was normalized
Civil rights movement emerged
Gay rights moved center stage
Life was changing. Expectations were changing. Collective consciousness was broader, less provincial.
Middle class boys and even girls were going to college for the first time. They were becoming our doctors and teachers. Mandatory attendance of school until age 16 was established.
The idea of a literate citizenry was normalized.
Public schools were built all across America. You may think I’m exaggerating but let me tell you, my grandmother was born and raised in the hills of Kentucky. She only went as far as the 8th grade. Why? Because there wasn’t a high school in her neck of the woods. She liked school. So she decided to repeat the 8th grade. That was until she ran off with my grandpa and got married instead.
She was fourteen years old when she married my grandpa. He was nineteen. She hadn’t even had her first period yet.
Of course, if I decided to include the technological advancements made during the last century, this essay would be much too long. If a person was born at the turn of the 20th century and lived to be one hundred, they witnessed firsthand what almost qualifies as a true miracle.
From horse and buggies to rocket ships, from handwritten letters to the internet, from scrub boards to robots, it was a brave new world.
Yet, we remain basically unimpressed, even teetering on the edge of losing the advantages we gained. The sad part of it is, we’ll most likely regress. We may even hand our privileges back without a fight.
We’re easily convinced to vote against our own best interests, blame the wrong people for our current problems, and succumb to complacency.
Just take a second glance at the above list of important social changes. A good number have already been either weakened or destroyed. Unions are almost nonexistent. Pensions have disappeared. Public schools are under attack. Social security wavers on the chopping block. The LBGTQ community is being threatened and marginalized again. Retirement looks less and less likely. Middle class is shrinking. More and more young people can’t afford to go to college. Our intellectuals and scholars are reviled.
Why do humans always take things for granted?
They bite the hand that feeds them. They reward the wrong people. They admire the bad guys. It’s another blip in the functionality of our big brains. Our big brains are wired to short out and malfunction rather than think things through. We’re emotional creatures not rational creatures.
We can be persuaded to give up protections, privileges, and progress a lot easier than we can be convinced to take the next step forward.
We may or may not continue to advance technologically, but without social norms that focus on leveling the playing field, educating our citizenry, and strengthening our democracy, these future advancements might become a threat to our quality of life. Robots may be designed to enhance and protect the oligarchy instead. That seems to be a likely scenario considering how much ground we’ve already lost.
The 20th century is a hard act to follow.
It’s far far, far easier to regress than to progress. I’m old enough to look back, back, back and remember. I stumble across people like myself from time to time, but mostly, I encounter people who should remember but can’t.
Can’t or won’t? I don’t know.
Does it really make any difference? Both imply a reduced mental and moral capacity to protect the future for the next generation.
Sorry kids, we almost had it all but we gave it away.
Teresa Roberts is a retired educator, author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.