GAME CHANGERS (August 31, 2023)
I find myself increasingly preoccupied by compounding transitions. Closest to home, it seems as if all the residents in our retirement community are dealing with ailments, injuries or loved-ones’ demise. TV news bombards us with images of “once-in-a-century” extreme-weather events that are becoming continuous. The COVID virus is stubbornly resurging. Ukraine-war fortunes tilt back-and-forth. Putin threatens NATO, Xi, Pacific harmony, and Trump, American democracy. Inflation drops while gasoline prices bounce. Weekly AI innovations offer promise and peril. Nothing stands still.
Some of these changes seem destructive and disheartening. Others, encouragingly transformative. Here are three examples that captured my attention as Summer yields to Fall.
REDESIGNING THE AMERICAN DREAM
In his new book, THE SEARCH, Bruce Feiler plunges into the post-pandemic employment maelstrom and charts an alternative course forward for American workers:
In recent years, for the first time in history, the number of Americans quitting their jobs reached a million people a week. Buoyed by the tightest labor market in eighty years, a million marketing directors and money managers, truck drivers and tech designers, artists and acupuncturists decided they weren’t doing what they wanted to be doing and opted to do something else. Many of these people did what their parents and grandparents would never have dreamed of doing: walk away from one job without having another job lined up.
Most of these decisions have been attributed to a supposed surge in resignations set off by the pandemic. But that narrative is grossly misleading. What economists call the quit rate….rose to a record four and a half million in 2022. A third of the workforce now leaves their jobs every year. Another third redesigns the jobs they’re in. They assert more influence, work more remotely, dial back hours to spend more time with family, dial up flexibility to pursue side work that brings them purpose. … We’re moving from a means-based economy to a meaning-based economy. This book is about learning to take advantage of this opening.
Feiler has written a half-dozen national best-sellers. In his spare time, he’s a TED Talks super-influencer. So his proposals for worker navigation are attracting major attention. His core perspective is assertively revisionist. Reviewing the “five most influential success books of the twentieth century,” including HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE by Dale Carnegie and THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING by Norman Vincent Peale, he notes that they were written almost exclusively about and for white males. He argues that that “narrow-minded, restrictive” orientation helped define the American Dream, a code overtaken by change.
Overall, women now hold more American jobs than men, and that gender gap is expected to grow to ten million by 2030. Also, for the first time in history, the Department of Labor reports that the majority of workers hired today are people of color, led by Black and brown women.
Feiler’s prose style reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s (without the quirky wit.) He distills economic complexities and quantitative data into accessible explanations. His autobiographical anecdotes and thumbnail case studies combine for entertaining story-telling. His summing-up soundbites can be catchy and memorable:
The idea of a traditional career that follows a linear path has been obliterated.
The most valuable skill today is no longer how to have a career. It’s how not to have a career.
THE SEARCH is essentially a self-help manual for restless or discontented workers. In addition to digesting and synthesizing relevant social-science research, Feiler’s methodology is to identify 150 contented and successful workers from across the country and then to conduct and analyze personal interviews to extract what they have in common.
I confess I’m skeptical that the author’s template for DIY employment liberation can have a broad or deep impact on American labor practices. His inspirational case studies of individual innovators almost all describe highly motivated mavericks. I believe that most trapped workers will have difficulty emulating those role-models. In addition, I think that Feiler severely understates the wrenching burden determined transplanters can impose on their spouses and children.
Entrepreneurial experimentation is expensive. Most experiments fail. Most require front-end capital. Antsy workers are not hedge funds. And those funds look for Silicon-Valley geniuses, many of them immigrants. Ruthless investors cannot be expected to subsidize footloose artists and artisans.
That said, I’m attracted by Feiler’s proactive, revisionist enthusiasm. Too often we assume that economic change is negative, disruptive and damaging. He is challenging old career paths, redesigning the American Dream. To paraphrase the homily, “If it is broke, fix it.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
THE SEARCH is non-fiction sociology. In August I also reconnected with a fictional exploration of transformational themes. I’d first heard about BEWILDERMENT two years ago, in a radio interview on All Things Considered. Author Richard Powers was a hot ticket in 2021. THE OVERSTORY, his Pulitzer-winning homage to sentient trees was piling up mega-sales on a fast track to pop cult status. I didn’t remember much about that NPR conversation beyond an impassioned author and adoring interviewer. But I did find THE OVERSTORY imaginative and lyrical. So I picked up BEWILDERMENT last month when I spotted Powers’s name in our retirement-community lending library.
Since near-future science and technology frame this novel’s intimate narrative, BEWILDERMENT is being marketed and reviewed as science-fiction. And as my wife Nancy says, the best science-fiction is today’s science dialed forward to tomorrow’s possibilities. No greenie-meanies or gliding polar bears, just plausible “what ifs.”
In BEWILDERMENT, there are three interwoven transformational sci-fi strands:
- Medical science, treating Asperger’s impairment with “Decoded Neurofeedback,” AI-mediated neural imaging;
- Astronomy, studying ever-more distant planets to examine their atmospheres as possible life-support systems; and
- Human-intensified climate change, accelerating animal and plant species extinction.
What gives these global phenomena their narrative punch is their up-close-and-personal anchor: the intense, poignant relationship between a father and his nine-year-old son, coping together with the recent loss of their beloved wife/mother. The man is a gifted astrobiologist, who feels consistently inadequate as a parent. The boy is precocious but deeply disturbed, regularly erupting into verbal and physical violence.
For this struggling pair, transformational science is both blessing and curse. Feedback training calms the boy and releases his visionary sensibilities. Yet when grant-funding is cut off, he not merely terminates his mental development but steadily retreats into his original emotional turmoil. Breakthrough telescope acuity holds the promise of advancing the astrobiologist father’s research from life-form simulations to possible contact. Here again, tightening anti-scientific strictures imposed by a populist government removes all support for long-lead-time probes.
Less balanced is the book’s treatment of environmental transformations. National Park ecosystems are painted as terrestrial paradises being rapidly trashed by destructive campers. No one beyond the boy and his father seems to appreciate the threat of species extinction. The new presidential administration closely resembles Trump 2.0 (with a chilling scenario for second stolen election.) The boy’s green-militancy role-model is a Greta Thunberg clone. At least one harsh review faulted BEWILDERMENT for degrading the novel’s science-fiction “integrity” with environmental polemics. For me, this acknowledged passion was part of the package. I see no requirement for creative energy to be value-free.
For me, what gives this wake-up call conviction and power is its eloquent prose and its poignant father-son intensity. Listen to Page 1, launched in mid-conversation without reader-coddling orientation:
But we might never find them? We’d set up the scope on the deck, on a clear autumn night, on the edge of one of the last patches of darkness in the eastern U.S. Darkness this good was hard to come by, and so much darkness in one place lit up the sky. We pointed the tube through a gap in the trees above our rented cabin. Robin pulled his eye from the eyepiece – my sad, singular, newly turning nine-year-old, in trouble with this world.
“Exactly right,” I said. “We might never find them.”
I always tried to tell him the truth, if I knew it and it wasn’t lethal. He knew when I lied, anyway.
But they’re all over, right. You guys have proved it.
“Well, not exactly proved.”
Maybe they’re too far away. Too much empty space or something.
His arms pinwheeled as they did when words defeated him. We were closing in on bedtime, which didn’t help. I put my hand on his wild auburn mop. Her color – Aly’s.
“And what if we never heard a peep from out there? What would that say?”
He held up one hand. Alyssa used to say that when he concentrated, you could hear him whirring. His eyes narrowed, staring down into the dark ravine of trees below. His other hand sawed the cleft of his chin – a habit he resorted to when thinking hard. He sawed with such vigor I had to stop him.
“Robbie. Hey! Time to land.”
His palm pushed out to reassure me. He was fine. He simply wanted to run with the question for another minute, into the darkness, while still possible.
If we never heard anything, like ever?
I nodded encouragement to my scientist – easy does it. Stargazing was finished for tonight. We’d had the clearest evening, in a place known for rain. A full Hunter’s Moon hung fat and red on the horizon. Through the circle of trees, so sharp it seemed within easy reach, the Milky Way spilled out – countless speckled placers in a black stream-bed. If you held still, you could almost see the stars wheel.
Nothing definitive. That’s what.
I laughed. He made me laugh once a day or more, in good stretches. Such defiance. Such radical skepticism. He was so me. He was so her.
“No,” I agreed. “Nothing definitive.”
Now, if we did hear a peep. That would say tons!
Writers are often counseled to write about what they know. So I was astounded to learn that Powers has never had nor wanted children. BEWILDERED is an impressive feat of imagination and art.
In our context, the novel is also a stark reminder that breakthrough science is not sufficient to sustain societal transformations without commensurate political leadership.
SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES
Here’s an imaginative transformation you can feel with your feet. When I lived in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, the Presidio was strictly off-limits to civilians. It was war-time and this army post was gearing up to process Vietnam-bound troops and later to treat the returning wounded at on-site Letterman Hospital. Today, this sprawling military hub has been repurposed as an inviting National Park. Tourists stroll its parade grounds and historic neighborhoods, pausing to marvel at the soaring Golden Gate Bridge.
As an enthusiast for public/private partnerships, I was intrigued how this strategic harbor-guarding bastion had survived by opening its gates. Let me share a few details I garnered during a recent visit.
The Presidio occupies 1,500 acres wrapped around the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. Its military evolution was a microcosm of major developments in California history:
- First, a tiny fort established by colonial Spain in 1776 as its northernmost outpost in the Americas.
- Next, passed to Mexico in 1822 on the latter’s independence.
- Briefly abandoned, then occupied by the US in 1846. The post grew to the largest U.S. Army base in the western States before being decommissioned as excess property in 1994.
A wealth of historical highlights colored that tenure. I especially liked learning that, from 1890 to 1916, the Presidio was the home base for the Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American cavalry charged with protecting the new Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in the Sierras. (In a racist taunt, this unit’s champion, General John Pershing, Commandant of the Presidio, was derided as “Black Jack”.)
Presidio ownership and management were transferred to the National Park Service in 1994. Two years later, Congress created the Presidio Trust, a federal corporation with the express mandate of operating the facility on a self-financing basis. (“No drain on the taxpayers!”) This was a demanding sustainability challenge; today the Presidio’s annual budget exceeds Yosemite’s and Yellowstone’s combined. The ingenious solution was to restore and remodel 400 historic military structures for leasing to commercial and residential tenants. The 200 current professional tenants, employing 4,000 workers, include Lucasfilm, with its subsidiary Industrial Light and Magic. 3,500 individuals are also in residence. For all these local occupants, express buses connect the remote site to downtown San Francisco.
The Trust manages the Presidio’s interior space, 80% of the total acreage. The National Park Service has jurisdiction over the coastal 20%. The non-profit Golden Gate National Park Conservancy contributes environmental-protection advocacy. My quick reading suggested that this tripartite balancing of interests has not always been easy to maintain. Maximizing revenue generation from private lessees competes with expansion of public use and access. Restoration of natural habitats is difficult to reconcile with commercial development. But the Presidio is paying its own way.
Today the Presidio is one of the busiest National Parks, attracting millions of tourists each non-COVID year. Unlike Yosemite, during our visit it gave no indication of overflow. A carefully designed and maintained combination of historical military buildings (all white with red roofs) and environmental open space, the Park accommodates 24 miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as San Francisco’s only campground. One symbol of this dual mission is the Inn at the Presidio, converted from the 1903 Bachelor Officers Quarters. We found its accommodations spacious and comfortable, with décor preserving and celebrating the structure’s original function. Another innovative conversion is Tunnel Tops, a pedestrian plaza constructed on and around new Presidio Parkway tunnels. This 14-acre parcel offers picnic tables and a campfire circle in addition to spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Nancy and I strolled for miles through the restored and renovated post, pausing to study the numerous sidewalk display panels. These compact, curated exhibits utilize period photos and texts to explain architectural designs and modifications, as well as recaps of 19th Century lives of military families.
We’re often discouraged, even defeated, by our political system’s paralyzing polarization. As an antidote, I found the Presidio’s inclusive restoration uplifting and reaffirming. The iconic Army post and its distinctive architecture have not been demolished but honored. On the same site, 400 native California plant species have been protected and preserved. Just plain folks with no ideological affiliation can enjoy the spectacular vistas. Something for everybody. A transformation template.
My one wistful regret as another native Californian stems from an alternative-history might-have-been. One year after the 1945 San Francisco Conference establishing the United Nations, President Harry Truman offered the Presidio site to the fledgling organization to erect its new international headquarters. Apparently, European diplomats and East-Coast capitalists defeated the proposal in favor of Manhattan. But imagine the symbolic power of this peace-promoting Golden Gate overlook, especially since the Asia-Pacific region looks increasingly likely to dominate 21st Century international relations.
Thanks to Nancy Swing and Shutterstock.com for the use of their photos.
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