One of the funny things about any kind of economic system is that, by definition, you learn a lot about it simply by existing in it. But as more and more people are realizing, there are a wide variety of ways to exist in any system, thanks to a bunch of different factors we have limited or no control over. The of the virulently pro-capitalist immigrants from Soviet bloc countries, or jaded left-wing twenty somethings drowning in college debt. Think of racial minorities, or women, watching Jared Kushner standing up at a podium with enormous power, completely oblivious to the fact that he is utterly unqualified to be commenting on a Reddit thread about pandemic logistics, let alone leading the federal response or lecturing us about its efficacy.
Increasingly, in fact, even I am starting to have this reaction to 21st century American capitalism, and I’m a healthy, middle aged white guy who makes plenty of money. And yes, I’ve been yammering on about captured markets and corporate sloth for a long time, but even as I’ve watched my station in life improve pretty dramatically over the last decade, it doesn’t feel like the system works at all.
In some ways, I wish it was simpler. Americans love a simple enemy, and I am no exception. But there’s nuance; we live in a society where merit is not irrelevant, but we don’t live in a meritocracy where merit is the most important thing. People who work hard and make rational, risk-informed decisions are more likely to succeed than those who don’t — but they still too often are derailed by things outside of their control. Conversely, people from a certain social class who don’t work hard, and don’t make good decisions almost always end up totally fine, and while these people are relatively small in number, it seems like more and more of the world is built around their needs and preferences.
Anyways, I am aware this is a pretty standard, center-left, Warren-ian societal criticism, and I’m aware that people like me who feel this way are often puzzled why more people don’t agree with them, so I’ll stop here.
So what should I tell my kids?
My kids are in kind of a weird, middle ground position not unlike the one I grew up in, just updated for the 2020s. They have tons of advantages, and basically no disadvantages, so they actually kind of will grow up in a meritocracy, at least to the extent that there isn’t anything obvious that will unfairly or irrationally hold them back. As discussed previously, shed no tears for the Sullivan children.
On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that they end up with the kind of bulletproof financial security that comes from being the child of millionaires; we’re doing great, and it doesn’t seem crazy that we can retire comfortably someday (after a lot more working), but neither my children’s parents or their grandparents are going to bequeath fortunes to them. Their privileges will be numerous and important — but the won’t be the kind that ensure long-term success. So yes, they can putz around and play in bands as long as they stay out of trouble, but at some point they’re going to need to feed themselves and figure out how not be crushed in the gears of late-stage capitalism, just like their dad.
With that in mind, here are some things that seem like they’ll be useful to be good at.
I know I’m not alone in this, but I think “everyone should learn to code” has always been the wrong way to think about kids, technology, and job prospects. Writing code (and doing it well) is a really specific subset of something much larger, which probably has a real name, but I’m simply going to refer to as “systems”-driven thinking. Basically, can you break something up into logical pieces, see patterns, and translate things you’re trying to do into processes or concepts that work at scale. Whether you’re building software, using it, or just trying to deal with its existence, thinking this way is really useful. As someone who does very little coding of any sort anymore (and was never very good at it), the ability to think of the things around me as objections and functions has served me well, and I’ve seen a lot of people who can’t think that way struggle.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching the Boomers grow up, it’s that every time it feels like the “end of history”, it’s not. All kinds of old things are becoming increasingly relevant, from the roots of World War I, to the underpinnings and motivations of the New Deal. So many concepts and institutions that make modern society work have atrophied, set on cruise control and forgotten, or stripped for parts over the last forty years or so and at some point we’re going to have to rebuild them. Trust-busting, the relationship of labor and capital, international trade, and the idea of what borders mean and what they’re for all seem like ideas that need to be redefined, reasserted, or both. Anybody with a really great grasp of history is going to be able to skip a lot of steps in an otherwise very painful, trial-by-error process.
Whether we continue to live in what we recognize as a democracy, expand into something even better and more involved, or descend into factions and mobs, mobilizing people is going to be a huge part of it. I’m not talking about being comfortable using Twitter — I mean actually getting people to stop, listen, and consider what you’re saying. It’s really hard. I’m actually pretty good at getting people to understand technical concepts they struggle with but want to understand. Getting people to consider societal/political/economic ideas they actively distrust is a whole other ballgame, and it’s something I’m not especially good at. But some people are, and if that’s a skill you have, I think you’re going to have very little trouble finding relevant work over the next fifty years or so.
We make too much garbage, and we have no idea how to live in a way that isn’t based on making and disposing of TONS of stuff. I don’t know how this ends, but if it doesn’t involve all of us choking on millions of plastic bottles, we’re going to have to figure something else out. Plus, materials seem to always lead to really cool advancements, even if they’re subtle — from batteries to all the crazy stuff we do with aluminum in consumer electronics. And they are currently the limiting factor on a lot of things, even though we always seem to be getting better at it. Let’s just say if my kids show any aptitude for chemistry (that would definitely not be from me), I’m going to be very supportive.
Bonus Answer: Proximity to Stupid Capital
This is actually the best and worst answer, in that I’m the most convinced it’ll be useful, and I’m the most scared it’s what my kids will end up actually being good at. But honestly, you can’t go wrong with rich idiots thinking you’re worth bankrolling. It’s gotten a million terrible businesses started, and more than a fair share of them acquired. It represents everything that is wrong with 2020s capitalism — a bad idea attached to established financing is more valuable than a great idea that has to earn financing on its own.
I won’t give my kids this advice. But it’ll be in the back of my mind if they’re banging away at some dead-end job and living in my basement at 25.