We Need To Talk About Old Economy Steven 

Photo of a zeitgeist: ruddy, slightly uncertain, disco collar and chain.

I’m not interested in talking about the math, the facts. We’ve done that, read Joan Walsh, “We Must Hate Our Children,” Stephen Marche, “The War Against Youth.” Read some of the same analyses on Medium—Amyaz Moledina, Noah Bradley, DM Wetzel, Kristen Hawley. All re-reporting what those of us under 35 already know: that we are in debt, un- and under-employed, facing increased insecurity and decreased prospects.

I’m interested in talking about the feelings. The unacknowledged gulf of anger and misunderstanding between myself and my Boomer-and-older friends, co-workers, family members. Anyone lucky enough to be born earlier, to have gotten here first, before college cost as much as a mortgage, before so many of the “good jobs” were taken away.

Thus the catharsis of Old Economy Steven. So easy to scroll through the pages of all-caps invectives that “my” people, the newest Lost Generation, have splayed across his unsuspecting face.

The 2-part syllogisms implying it, us against them:

Even more bitter, sometimes, Steven’s silent, unwitting face against a single unarguable fact:

And most painful, but somehow most gripping (and a distortion, an oversimplification—my better self does know that—an only partial truth, a strawman upon which to land an easy, feel-good punch) are those that accuse Steven, the older generation he represents, of hypocrisy, carelessness, self-interest, sleeping at the wheel:

I am not being fair to Old Economy Steven. I know that. What has happened to young people is the fault of so many things. Demographics, globalization, powerful corporate and government interests that monopolize an increasingly unequal share of the world’s wealth, no matter how little it leaves for the rest.

Old Economy Steven is not Enemy Combatant #1. But what I can’t decide—within my own flawed, confused, faltering self—is if his generation is some sort of enemy combatant, nonetheless.

An old graduate professor, reassuring me in all earnestness, “I promise you, all the really good people get wonderful jobs.” He emails me years later, very sweetly, to find out how my job searching has actually gone. The answer, actually, is OK. But thinking of the easy way, 25 years ago, he landed his much less grueling and much more prestigious position with credentials no different than mine, I hit delete.

A 60-something friend, wonderful, loving, generous, shares her sadness at selling the house she has lived in for 20 years; as her body ages, the stairs are starting to be too much. I should be contemplating her grief. But instead, I am contemplating Zillow, calculating the $300,000 profit she made between buying and selling, housing crash and all.

I try to discuss with older family members the crushing pressures of my husband’s and my combined $77,000 of student loans and the $45,000 of therapeutic expenses we’ve racked up for our special needs son. Their reply, honestly intended as sympathetic, comes shockingly close to this Old Economy Steven meme:

It is not my professor’s fault that one lucky epoch carried him up, while another, less fortuitous, knocked me back. My house-selling friend has her own child in college—so she is also, indirectly, subject to the same pricing bubble that has delayed (maybe squashed entirely) my own hopes of being a homeowner; much of her profits may evaporate there. And my family member—once he gets back from Cancun—will continue to age in a country without universal health insurance, and may thus eventually surrender to the same uncovered medical expenses that I have, in caring for my son.

And yet, there is something here that these softer, more judicious considerations still cannot erase. This recession has played out as a case of generational regress. There are many credible reports, but the Pew Center’s might say it all: “The Rising Age Gap in Economic Well-Being: The Old Prosper Relative to the Young.We’ve all lost out—some of us tragically—in recent years. But no matter how much older Americans may feel cheated, may be themselves angry, in the aggregate comparison, younger Americans are still the ones who have lost the most.

In the end, Old Economy Steven gripped me enough that I wanted to research him, the actual man that I’ve been using, literally overwriting in my own spite and confusion and guilty pleasure.

According to The Daily Intelligencer, the real Old Economy Steven “is Kenneth W. Kiser, a 48-year-old graphic designer and hobbyist photographer from Coshocton, Ohio. . .‘Having read only a few dozen of the captions, I’ve found many of them to be quite funny, and a few were even accurate to my life in particular,’ he said.”

He was once in the Air Force. He worked in magazine and newspaper publishing for many years. But recently he developed a back problem, and is not currently working. His wife reportedly has a solid job with a major non-profit, and he has a son in college, aiming for medical school.

Is his story, his real story, luckier than mine, than yours? Is that a sacrilegious question, a stupid one, a question way off the point of determining what we should be doing as a nation to make conditions more equal for all of us, of all ages, here and now? It has to be.

Is it worth the misspent energy of all those hours that Generation X and Y internet citizens have spent in one-sided argument with a yearbook picture? It can’t possibly be.

I know those two things in my mind. I’m just not sure I know them in my heart.

And that’s why we need to talk—more, and more honestly—about Old Economy Steven.

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