Whatever Happened to the Future?

There was a time when the future seemed like something you could rely on, at least if you were lucky enough to live in the ‘developed’ world; when you could look at your life twenty or thirty years down the line and know that you would have a job, and that if you worked for long enough and paid your taxes the future would be a place worth living in.

Today these expectations are increasingly fading.   I recently saw Andrew Niccol’s Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time (2011), in which the inhabitants of a future dystopian society in 2169 stop growing old at the age of 25.   After that they survive by literally ‘buying time’ which is imprinted into glowing ‘clocks’ embedded in their arms.    Where the rich have unlimited time and sometimes live for hundreds of years, the poor live in ghettos and never have more than a few hours or days at a time – a shortage that is artificially created by deliberate inflation of ‘costs’ by the rich in order to keep them in subjugation.

In Time may not be the greatest movie, and is generally predictable in most other respects, but this plot scenario is an extremely resonant metaphor for the 21st world of zero hours contracts, economic flexibility and ‘precarity’ that is being imposed on more and more people.   For many workers subject to these conditions,  the ‘future’ has become an impossibility.  If you don’t know when you will be working, or how much you will be earning,  or how long you will even have a job for, you can’t make plans about anything.  

You can’t go on holiday, you can’t save up to buy a house or even pay the rent.   One month you might make £1,000, the next you might make only £600.  What you inhabit instead is a state of permanent expectation and permanent insecurity, that stretches out continually from one week to the next. 

Jobs like this are just one more consequence of the neo-liberal economic model in permanent crisis mode, in which the future is increasingly reserved for the privileged few who are able to afford one, and those numbers are continually shrinking.

Perhaps not surprisingly, an Ipsos MORI survey carried out across 20 countries published this week noted a ‘significant shift in global optimism’ amongst the young, in which 42 percent of respondents believed that the future would be worse for young people, compared with 34 percent who answered that it would be better.

Within particular countries, these answers were subject to even wider variation; in China 78 percent of under-30s believed that their future would be better than their parents’ generation, compared with only 25 percent in France and 36 percent in the United Kingdom. Overall, pessimism was more pronounced in Western Europe than it was elsewhere, even in countries like Sweden and Germany that have remained relatively unscathed by the economic crisis of the last six years.

These findings shouldn’t be especially surprising.   Since World War II living standards, until recently, had progressively risen, so that each generation enjoyed a higher standard of living than their parents.   Now this trend is likely to be reversed, and the next generation looks set to become the first since the war to experience a decline in living standards since the war.   In countries like China and Brazil, on the other hand, the future still holds out the possibility of an improvement for many people – at least for now.

And it isn’t only the young who have watched the future disappear during the last six years.  Today even middle-aged and retired people can no longer take the future for granted, as governments use ‘austerity’ programs to cut back on pension rights and demand that they work longer, for less, and cast doubt on whether they will even have a liveable pension at all when they do retire.

Dimitris Chrystoulas, the 77-year-old retired pharmacist who shot himself in 2012 in front of the Greek parliament,  was one of thousands of Greeks who have committed suicide since the 2008 economic crisis, in a country which once had the lowest suicide rate in Europe and now has the highest. In 2011, statistics from the Greek Ministry of Health found a forty percent increase in national suicide rates since previous year, an increase which a spokeswoman for the 24-hour suicide hotline Klimaka attributed to a combination of ‘debts, joblessness, the fear of being fired.’

Other countries have experienced a similar phenomenon. In 2011, 6, 045 suicides were recorded in the UK, the highest figure since 2004. Amongst men in the 45-59 year-old-old group the number was the highest since 1986, as a result of what the Samaritans charity called ‘ a perfect storm of challenges: unemployment, deprivation, social isolation, changing definitions of what it is to be a man, alcohol misuse, labour market and demographic changes.’

In the United States in 2010, more people killed themselves than died from car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an increase that was particularly prominent amongst men and women in their 50s and 60s from the ‘baby boomer’ generation which once believed itself to be the beneficiaries of an era of unprecedented material progress.

These developments are unlikely to worry the governments that have presided over the ‘austerity’ of the last six years, some of whom are currently professing to see ‘green shoots’ and ‘recoveries’ on the horizon.

But for millions of people, the future they once imagined has vanished.   Some have killed themselves because they couldn’t cope with the fear, anxiety and despair that this situation has engendered.   Others have responded to this transformation with passivity and resignation.

But it would be far better, to turn their anger against the governments and financial institutions that made this happen – and find a way to make the future inhabitable for everybody, and not just for those who are wealthy enough to ‘buy’ themselves a place in it.

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