Living and working in a worsening world

Not long ago we lived in a world which kept getting better. Oh, there were tragedies and catastrophes, and there was profound inequality, but still, on a global scale, over the span of years, from before the fall of the Berlin Wall until quite recently, most things were getting better for most people.

Reasonable people can disagree about when “quite recently was.” Personally, I put the turning point at circa 2015, after which refugee counts swelled, talk of the “precariat” grew, xenophobia which often more-than-verged on neo-fascism began to rise around the world, and the growing threat of global warming became inescapable.

Others would say the world kept getting better until this year. But few would dispute that we’re backsliding now, in the face of the pandemic. It’s not just its direct mortality, and its morbidity; it’s the skyrocketing unemployment rates — absolutely necessary lest the mortality multiply many-fold, to be clear — from which we won’t recover as soon as we hope, and the consequent global recession. Worst, it’s the projected massive rise in global extreme poverty.

We live in a world that’s getting worse, at least this year, likely next, and maybe beyond. That’s awfully hard to get used to, when you’re accustomed to justified faith that things are getting better. It’s been a long time — probably not since the mid-70s and early 80s — since we’ve collectively hit a ditch like this.

What changes in a world getting worse? Well, you have to be more careful about consequences, for one. During boom times there’s an unfortunate tendency to write off any unpleasant side effects of a company’s success — or failure — as temporary friction, soon resolved. You can indeed make a case for that doing boom times, when a rising tide is lifting us all up, and those affected can (at least theoretically) easily find a new job. But it’s very different during an ebb tide with sharp rocks below, and people should adjust accordingly.

There’s another, more interesting and counterintuitive, lesson to be learned from the mid-70s through early 80s. That’s the era that birthed punk rock and hip-hop, both of which sounded almost indescribably strange by the aesthetic standards of the time. Those were Hollywood golden years, because, famously, “nobody knew anything.” And that was when Apple and Microsoft were formed, when personal computers were a weird curiosity whose very existence was somewhat obscure.

Maybe the lesson here is that this is the time to strive to do something weird — genuinely weird, not path-following, different-version-of-conformist weird. Maybe this is time to found your weird startup; or maybe startups are the mainstream engine of change now, and the truly weird thing is to forge something entirely different from a startup. Maybe it’s time not just to create art, but to invent your own art form. It’s an optimistic take on a worsening world, I know; but even a pandemic needs optimists.