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THE NEXT ECONOMY

Millennials' Uncertain Future

The one sure thing is that all this will change.

No generation can foresee its own path. The confident British and French 20-somethings who began their careers a century ago had no idea how fundamentally and lastingly their prospects were about to change with the onset of the Great War. The anxious young Americans who started families and searched for jobs 50 years ago feared that their prospects would be permanently overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war. Some generations' hopes -- or fears -- are realized exactly as they were imagined. Some large patterns of economic and scientific development unfold exactly as predicted. But the events that matter most for a generation's success, or struggle, often come by surprise. A look back is a powerful reminder of the difficulty of looking ahead.

 

It's true that the sobering realities of today's job market will shape the Millennials' career possibilities. These realities need to be taken seriously, as the reports and essays in this issue capably explain. But they should be balanced against the near-certainty that some factor barely suspected in 2010 will be looked back upon -- in 2030, or 2020, or perhaps sooner -- as this generation's main career-changing variable. They should also be balanced against a reality that is even more powerful than today's discouraging employment trends: Members of any generation older than the Millennials, including my own widely unloved Baby Boom cohort, would give a lot for the opportunities that await those who are just now beginning their careers -- and, more important, just starting their lives as heads of households, members of communities, and citizens of their nation and the world.

What do they have to look forward to? Scientists argue that we have entered the age of technical confluence, in which advances in each field of human knowledge speed advances in all the others. Rapidly increasing computing power lets us know more about biology, biology sheds surprising light on physics, physics opens up new possibilities for computing, and on and on. The "cloud" of pooled, accessible worldwide knowledge, expanding and deepening at a seemingly infinite pace, is a symbol of the Millennials' era as clearly as the Tower of Babel symbolized a divided, unknowing time. As those graduates of Oxford or the Sorbonne a century ago could attest, worldwide commercial and intellectual contacts do not solve all political problems or guarantee peace. But with the global means at their disposal, today's 20-somethings can realistically and reasonably expect to be part of humanity's most phenomenal burst of creativity to date.

For instance: Medical care was transformed in the 1800s by the development of anesthesia. (Think about that for a minute, as part of any reflection on what people over the eons endured. Until about 1840, surgery in any form constituted what we would now call torture.) In the 1900s, it was transformed again through the discovery and use of antibiotics, immunizations, and preventive health measures. Yet all of these steps will seem imprecise and crude in comparison with the targeted therapies already coming from our expanding knowledge of the human genome. For as long as human beings have recognized their own mortality, they have struggled against disease, aging, and death. What "aging" means at the cellular level is more and more precisely understood. Sooner or later, such understanding leads to remedies. Millennials will not live forever, but they will likely have the chance to live longer, and more vigorously, than any generation before them. And the kinds of evolutionary leaps that are almost certain in medicine appear probable in virtually every other area of scientific and technological endeavor: information and communication; the development of new energy sources; our understanding of the earth, the sea, and space.

 

This is not to say, "It will all be terrific!" Apart from environmental problems, the Millennials will surely face some crisis in 2025 that no one yet envisages clearly. But it is important to put today's discouraging news in perspective. More lies ahead than any of us can anticipate. Much of the news will be good, some of it even miraculous. And even though the business ramifications may be the least important aspect of these changes: Yes, there will be jobs.

The author is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

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