“It gets better”
This is the well-intentioned phrase uttered and posted online with increasing frequency by strangers, in response to news stories of young people who have been victimized by bullying or cyber bullying. It’s a considerate gesture, and an accurate statement – our lives do become better as we age – but in my opinion, it’s not sufficient. A vague promise is not enough to help young people weather the storm, or inspire those who are facing major challenges in their lives.
Therefore, I’d like to tell you exactly why your life will get better, and list specific, detailed examples. These improvements will happen slowly – in fact, you may not notice any changes from month to month, or even year to year, but if you look at several big pictures (as I am about to outline here), you will discover that your life will become easier, richer, happier, more comfortable, more meaningful, and more gratifying. Here’s what you have to look forward to:
You Will Accumulate Knowledge and Wisdom
If you’ve recently graduated and are just entering the workforce, I’m sure it seems like everyone in the world knows far more than you – and you’re probably right. However, as the years pass, and assuming that you are an innately curious person who believes in lifelong learning, you will continue to accumulate knowledge as rapidly as you did while you were in school or university. After a few years, your friends and colleagues will begin to ask you for advice and guidance, and you will probably be surprised by some of their questions. After two or three decades, you may often be regarded as the smartest or most experienced person in the room, a subject matter expert, or the proverbial “tribal elder”. When this happens, give advice freely and embrace your unofficial (but growing) role as a counselor, mentor or life coach.
We Gain Respect As We Age
Personally, I don’t think that we respect our elders enough in our society. However, older people are shown more respect and are treated with more deference than younger people. This increase is gradual, and may even begin during one’s adolescence. Here are a couple of personal examples:
- When I was a pre-teen, I was fascinated by stereo equipment. Back then, shopping malls had dedicated stereo stores full of the latest equipment (along with dozens of free brochures). As I perused the various models and fantasized about what I might own someday, the salesmen would invariably approach me and tell me to stop touching (or playing with) the equipment. One day, when I was about 15 or 16 years old, I was in a stereo store once again examining some of the latest receivers, when I saw a salesman approach me. I braced myself for the usual lecture, but instead of asking that I stop touching the equipment, he said “Can I help you with anything?”. Clearly, I was not in a position to buy anything, but I was impressed that he treated me as a potential customer instead of a nuisance.
- After entering the workforce, I noticed that more and more people were starting to address me as “sir”. It started with sales clerks, waitresses and cashiers, and soon included complete strangers. Now, middle-aged men and women are starting to call me “sir”, and teenagers will often hold doors open for me. I have no mobility problems and no significant social standing, so I can only deduce that this deferential behaviour is because of my age.
You Will Become Wealthier
Do you remember those Occupy Toronto protesters who were camping out in St. James Park in late 2011? They were complaining bitterly to whoever would listen, that people in their 50s and 60s had much more money than they did, and that this just wasn’t fair. Of course these people have more money – they spent three decades of their lives working hard, living within or below their means, saving and investing. Now they are enjoying the well-earned fruits of their labours. You will too, if you work hard, invest your savings and watch your spending. It will take you a couple of decades, but you will eventually be able to afford the finer things in life, and these things will be more meaningful to you because you worked hard for them.
Our World Is Becoming Safer
A couple of years ago, I was watching a stand-up comedian on television and he said “Do any of you remember the good old days – when our childhood toys could actually kill us?”.
As a kid, I remember playing with lawn darts in the backyard. As I’m sure you know, lawn darts are no longer sold – they were banned in the United States in 1988, and in Canada in 1989. I also remember playing with one of those “mercury mazes”. It was a small plastic box with a maze inside it, but instead of a BB pellet there was a glob of mercury. We tilted the maze back and forth and watched as the mercury snaked through the maze – great fun!
In the past generation or so, our society has become significantly safer in countless ways. Here are just a few examples and comparisons:
- Interior house paint used to contain lead. Lead-based paint was even used for cribs.
- Our playgrounds of my childhood were built on cement, so we knew not to fool around on the monkey bars. Modern playgrounds now have a squishy rubber foundation covered with wood chips.
- High school students still use geometry sets in their math classes, but have you seen the compasses and protractors? The metal point is only 1 millimetre long. When I was in high school, our geometry set compasses had a spike on them that could kill a horse!
- In my day, defibrillators were found only in ambulances and hospitals. Today, defibrillator boxes are now common in offices, shopping malls, hockey rinks and community centres.
- When I was in school, there were no peanut allergy alerts on food packaging (of course, there weren’t nearly as many kids who had anaphylactic peanut allergies, but that’s another issue). Back then, if you had an anaphylactic nut allergy, it was up to you to watch what you ate – it wasn’t the food manufacturer’s responsibility to warn you. Today, food allergen warnings are not only mandatory, they becoming increasingly comprehensive. Over the years, I’ve noticed the following progression: “contains peanuts”, “may contain peanuts”, “may contain peanuts and/or tree nuts”, “manufactured in a facility that produces peanuts”.
- During my childhood, regular gasoline contained lead; unleaded gas was just being introduced and was a “premium” grade.
- When I was a kid, cars didn’t beep when they were put in reverse – you had to watch for the white tail lights, because that was the only indicator (other than the car moving backwards).
- Smoke detectors were a relatively new invention, and homes weren’t required to have them. Gas and CO2 detectors were years away from being introduced.
- When I got my first two-wheeled bicycle, I didn’t wear a helmet, and neither did any of the other kids on my street.
- We didn’t have pedestrian lights at intersections – the traffic light could turn yellow without any warning, and you just had to be ready for it. Now, there are countdown timers on the pedestrian signals so that drivers know exactly when the light will turn yellow (or more accurately, they’ll know when to speed up so that they can clear the intersection before it does).
- When I was growing up, as soon as the traffic lights turned red, the lights in the other direction turned green. Today, there is a 2-3 second delay before the light turns green in the other direction.
- While we did have seat belts, there were no shoulder belts, and if you were unlucky enough to sit in the middle of the back seat, you didn’t even get a seat belt. Today, cars have crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, air bags, side air bags, air bags that inflate slowly so that they don’t injure passengers upon deployment, and proximity detectors to let you know when you’re about to hit something or someone while backing up. Cars also have GPS units with turn-by-turn spoken directions, and OnStar – a type of mobile concierge. There are now cars that can parallel park themselves, and Google is experimenting with a car that actually drives itself – so far, without a single accident.
When we middle-aged adults think back to our childhood, it’s easy to complain that “kids these days have it so easy”, however the technological advances of the last generation have created an unparalleled increase in the convenience of our day-to-day lives – conveniences that can be enjoyed by everyone, young and old. As the years pass, it’s reasonable to expect even more advances that will make our lives exponentially more convenient. Let’s look at just a few of the changes that have occurred during the past generation or so.
* If I wanted to change a television channel, I had to get up off the couch, walk across the room and change it (very slowly, because my dad would yell at us if we rotated the TV tuner too quickly). Then we had to trudge all the way back to the couch.
* We didn’t have cable in those days – television channels were transmitted only over the air. If you were lucky, then your family had a rooftop antenna that was attached to a rotor. If you switched to a different station, it wouldn’t always be clear, so you had to rotate the TV rotor (which moved frustratingly slowly) until the channel was clear. Even so, the distant stations were never perfect – there was always some “snow”, which became worse during inclement weather.
* My family didn’t own a VCR until I was in my early twenties. Growing up, if we didn’t watch a TV program while it was broadcast, we missed it.
* If I wanted to research something for a school project, I had to go to the library and search through stacks of books and periodicals. There was no Internet or computer searching – we used card catalogues.
* I didn’t have a personal computer or a printer until I was in university. I had to write out my school essays and projects in longhand. If I made a mistake, then I would use “Liquid Paper” to cover it up, wait for it to dry, and then write on top of it. By the time my essay was finished, my hand usually felt cramped. There were no spell checkers – we had to know how words were spelled, and were were generally marked down for spelling mistakes.
* Only 15 years ago, we used film cameras. After taking a picture, we had no idea how well it turned out, because there was no screen on the back of our camera. Our film cartridges could hold only 24 or 36 shots each before they needed to be replaced. Then we had to take the film to a camera store, wait up to a week for the prints to be developed, and then pay $6-7 per roll for the developing. My first camera was the Kodak X15 model, which used (single-use) flashcubes. We had to buy the flashcubes separately, and each one could be used only four times.
All of these things seemed normal to me growing up. My life now seems almost effortless by comparison.
A few years ago, I remember Jay Leno saying in his Tonight Show monologue “I’ve started a brand new diet. I’m not going to change my eating habits or my level of physical activity one bit. I’m going to continue exactly the way I am, and just let everyone around me become fatter than I am”.
This joke contains within it, a certain truth. Standards do seem to be declining from generation to generation. As I get older, I’m amazed top discover how much the educational and talent bars have been lowered during the past generation or two, and that things which were second nature to us as kids, are challenging to some young people. I realize that it’s tempting to chastise young people today, but it’s more useful (and humbling) to look back at the previous generation. Talk to your parents, aunts and uncles, and ask them about their lives growing up. You will be impressed with the skills they acquired during their childhood and adolescence, and realize that by comparison, your childhood was a breeze.
- Both of my parents studied Latin in high school, and both are surprised that Latin is no longer taught in school. My mom knows the Catholic Mass in Latin and understands what the priest is saying. I have absolutely no clue – the only Latin phrase that resonates with me is “Ite, Missa est” – go now, the Mass is ended. :o) I think it’s remarkable that my mom understands something that is completely incomprehensible to me. My dad also studied Latin, and he told me that in his youth, when he was faced with an unfamiliar word or scientific term, he could usually determine its meaning based on its Greek or Latin roots. I never had this exposure, so I have to look up new words in a dictionary. My dad, by comparison, seems to be doing something almost magical.
- Machines and computer are now doing a lot of the calculations that we used to do manually. It’s not always obvious, unless you step back and look at the changes over a span of 30-40 years. My father owns a slide rule, and when I was a teenager, I asked him how it worked. He seemed surprised that I wouldn’t know – when he went to high school, everyone learned how to use a slide rule. He also found it surprising and disappointing that we were allowed to use calculators in our math classes. He felt that this was cheating, and that we would never develop any mental agility if we depended on machines for simple calculations.
- When I was growing up, cash registers were mechanical devices. After ringing in your purchases, you paid for your items in cash, and the clerk or cashier calculated the change in his (or her) head. Today, electronic cash registers calculate the change for you. I’ll bet that few (young) cashiers could calculate your change mentally, accurately and quickly. I can still calculate change in my head, and whenever I go to the store, I try to determine my change mentally before the cash register displays it. I don’t say a word, but I’m always tempted to hand my bills to the cashier and say “OK, here’s $20.00, so that should be $7.18 change” – just to see their reaction. Maybe I will, someday.
- When I was a teenager, my father would often say “tuck in your shirt – you look like a slob!”. After many, many repetitions, I finally internalized his advice. Today, I’ve noticed that many teenagers, young adults and even some middle-aged adults don’t tuck in their shirts – and personally, I think they look like slobs who have no pride in their appearance. Therefore, without expending any sartorial effort, I am automatically neater and more presentable than almost half of our under-35 population.
- Kids of my generation would often take music lessons. We had to practice every day and study musical theory. We could all read music and play songs by ear. If you heard a pop song on the radio, it was likely that the musicians wrote their own music and lyrics, wrote their own arrangements, played their own instruments and usually sang while they played. This was normal. During the past generation, the musical bar has been lowered considerably – with the increase in popularity of rap music. Carefully-crafted melodies have been supplanted by chanting. Drummers have now been replaced by drum machines, and musical arrangements are often little more than sound samples of songs that were popular when I was in high school. Some singers now use a technology called “Auto-tune”. What was initially a gimmick is now widespread, and in my view it’s being used as a crutch. When I was in high school, musicians took singing lessons and practiced until they could hit (and hold) the right notes. We didn’t have any machines to correct the pitch for us.
We Are Becoming Nicer
We, both as individuals and as a society, as becoming kinder, more compassionate, more charitable, more inclusive and more accepting. However, this shift happens very slowly – almost imperceptibly – so we need to step back and look at a larger time period (one or two generations) to see these changes. Here are some examples of societal changes.
* When I was in elementary school in the early 1970s, physical bullying in the schoolyard was normal, and it was based on size. The big kids picked on the smaller kids, and if you were unfortunate enough to be one of these smaller kids, you learned to either stay away from the bullies, or you honed your oratory skills and tried to talk your way out of potential trouble. Today, physical bullying is no longer tolerated, and programs are in place to raise awareness and to help prevent it.
* There was also verbal taunting in the schoolyard, but we tried not to let it bother us. If it did, our parents would tell us to remember this phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” and encourage us say it to those who were insulting us. Today, name-calling has been relabeled as “verbal abuse”; many people believe that it can be as damaging as physical abuse, and are refusing to tolerate it.
* When I was in high school, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, gay students weren’t teased or bullied. That’s because, officially, there weren’t any gay students in my high school. Back then, if you were struggling with your sexual identity and believed that your were a homosexual, you kept that information to yourself. Under no circumstances would you announce it – not even to your closest friends. In my high school, being openly gay had the same social stigma as revealing that you still wet your bed at night. Admittedly there were a few students who seemed a bit effeminate, and we suspected that they might be gay, but the subject was never broached, and even if it was, I’m sure that these students would vehemently deny it. While I didn’t notice any overt hatred or even intolerance toward the effeminate males or “butchy” females, one’s sexual orientation was just something that was kept to oneself and never revealed or discussed.
Today, only one generation later, high schools students seem to have no qualms about “coming out” to their peers. In fact, many schools have formed Gay / Straight Alliances – clubs that provide a welcoming and supportive environment for students who are gay, straight, bisexual, trans-gendered or simply questioning their sexuality. Surprisingly, the only opposition to these clubs seems to be coming from people of the previous generation – school board officials. Despite the opposition, today’s students want to create a respectful, welcoming and inclusive social environment within their schools.
- There are fewer places where one is allowed to smoke. When I was in university, students could smoke in the cafeteria. When I started working full-time, people could smoke at their office desks. Back then, you could also smoke in restaurants, bars and even on airplanes. It sounds almost unbelievable now, and I’m glad that we’re finally admitting that smoking is a singularly vile habit – the only habit where you force those around you to ingest your poison. I’m happy to say that things are continuing to improve – hospitals now have a nine-metre smoke-free zone surrounding each entrance (I hope that this will be expanded to include all office buildings), and many cities are planning to ban smoking in outdoor restaurant patios.
Regarding individual changes, Pat Burns, a former coach of several NHL hockey teams, hit the nail on the head. In an interview six months before his death, he said “The end is near and I accept it. As the body gets weaker, the heart gets softer.”
- In the movie Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud enters the penitentiary as an angry young inmate who kills a prison guard. As the years and decades pass, Stroud becomes noticeably calmer, gentler and more helpful, eventually becoming a nurturing soul who cares for birds.
- In the 1990s, as Microsoft was rising to dominate the PC software industry, its chairman, Bill Gates, was criticized and sometime even vilified as a ruthless capitalist, who would not hesitate to crush his competitors. Today, Bill Gates is in his late 50s; he left Microsoft to form his own charitable foundation, and is doing exactly what he promised he would do, two decades ago: give away 95% of his wealth to charity. Bill Gates has recently been described as the world’s most generous person. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Gates also showered praise on his long-time rival, Steve Jobs.
As you age, your peer group ages with you. Since we become kinder and gentler as we continue along life’s journey, your peer group will also, through the years, evolve into more charitable and benevolent souls. If you want to speed things up a bit, make an effort to befriend people who are a bit older than you.
Everybody Is Eager To Help You
“The measure of your life will not be in what you accumulate, but what you gave away” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
And finally, the most powerful incentive of all. Few of us realize this, and fewer still take advantage of it, but we are surrounded by abundance and generosity. We have hard-wired in us, a desire to share our knowledge with others, and to help them overcome challenges. Personally, I think this comes from a universal desire to give our lives meaning. We want to leave something behind and we want to make the world a better place because we were in it. As we age, we become more charitable and this innate desire increases. Those who are wealthy can donate enough money to have a scholarship created in their name, or have a hospital wing or a university building named after them. The vast majority of us won’t be able to do something that far-reaching, but we can make individual lives a little better by sharing the lessons we’ve learned on our journey and by helping others benefit from our experiences.
Whenever you’ve had an unpleasant experience, you will probably tell your friends all about it, and in detail. If you were shopping, then you might tell them about a snooty salesperson, substandard service, a long wait, or outrageous prices. Conversely, if you had an exceptionally pleasant experience – let’s say that you found an honest auto mechanic – then you’ll also tell your friends and family members about this remarkable find. In each case, you are helping those around you through a warning or a recommendation.
Web site user reviews are another example – there are millions of user reviews on Amazon.com. Writing a review gives us an instant and sizable audience, so that we can share our good and bad experiences. Some of the Amazon reviews are quite comprehensive – it’s clear that the authors have spent hours testing the product, and at least another hour writing the review. They don’t get paid to write the reviews; they do it because they have a genuine desire to help others, and in a small way, to leave their mark on the world.
The more intense the experience, the greater our desire is to share it. Whenever we learn a lesson “the hard way”, we have an urge to tell someone about our experience, and what we learned from it. This is not merely a warning to others not to do what we did – it’s a noble gesture, and it’s our way of making the world a better place.
It’s really easy to tap into this vast repository of human kindness – all you have to do is gaze outward instead of inward – stop talking about yourself, and encourage people to talk about themselves. Ask them questions about things you don’t understand. Ask them to talk about mistakes they made in their lives or about advice they would give to younger people. The older the person, the more wisdom s/he has accumulated, and the more likely s/he will be willing to share that wisdom with you – for free. You just can’t get a better deal than this! Some of these lessons may have cost people a great deal – in time, money, energy or heartache – but in my experience, they will always be happy to share what they’ve learned with you. All you have to do is ask, and then listen, and learn. Finally, be grateful that someone gave you this opportunity to learn the lesson without making you pay the price yourself.