John Adams, generational succession and globalization

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
– John Adams

I love this quote. It gives a hint to where our forefather’s heads were when they were alive but it goes further than that. This offers a brilliant blueprint for what they saw coming after them. Since they were the founders, the instigators, of a number of ideas they were hyper aware of the generational view of history. They were actively involved in planning their legacy, even within their own family tree.

Henry Adams, John Adams great-grandson understood this flow and followed it. He fell into that last layer and studied various forms of the arts.

As a father whose daughter is about to head to college I see this kind of thinking among many of my peers. Elements of what John Adams shared are present today and as is the case with everything… there are pros and cons.

My parents grew up as first generation Americans. In addition my parents were born after the Great Depression. Like all others shaped by that era they operate with a razor sharp focus on practicality. They chose careers that would deliver them from the challenges their parents lived through in the post stock market crash of the 1930s. The key phrase in that last sentence might be as simple as “they chose careers” (places they could work for 40 years, they didn’t look for a job).

They gave birth to the generation of baby boomers. This next generation, even though they were raised within the structure of practicality, has many characteristics that are quite different than their parents. In my opinion one overarching characteristic is being more self-centered. This generation is widely associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values, they think of themselves as being special. Further, one could argue that the very option to work at a single place for 40 years was killed by this generation.

The boomers created the generation coming up today. This group is much more informed due to instant access of massive amounts of information via the Internet. They are also much less pragmatic and practical. In the spirit of the Adams quote, this generation is much more likely to study (and potentially get a degree in) audio engineering or film. Part of the shift is due to a media landscape shifting dramatically (access to professional level media tools are in the hands of everyone) but part of the shift is related to what Henry Adams did as a great-grandson of John Adams. Henry Adams had more options than John Adams; our kids have more options than our parents.

Or do they?

The thread tracing this process through time doesn’t connect.

It doesn’t connect due to the fact that if you start with John Adams generation and successively move on to future generations you do NOT get a smooth line or even a unidirectional vector. If you did our parents would have studied something far less rigorous than what they did. Richard Florida’s Creative Class would have been invented well over a hundred years ago.

The reason the thread through time doesn’t connect is because of unplanned, large-scale disruptions.

Various forces caused re-starts. In the case of our parents generation it was the Great Depression and wars. In today’s case it’s globalization and technology.

Historically speaking, it’s quite hard to operate without being strongly influenced by the scale of disruptions we’re talking about here.

A person may have wanted to become an accountant or a painter as World War 2 kicked into gear but being drafted may have taken those opportunities away.

A journalism student may have written newsletters when they were seven, become Editor of the college newspaper but a job at a regional newspaper may simply no longer exist.

The inverse to fretting about globalization and technology is seeking to understand them deeply… even embracing them.

I believe that is the best strategy at this point in time. I believe this is even more valid for our offspring. If they are going to have anything even remotely close to an easier live or a life with more options we must prepare our kids to compete with kids from Bangalore. We should encourage them to study meaningful languages that they’ll use in the years to come because the job waiting for them might very well be in another country. We should push them to experience, even live, in places well outside the boundaries of this country.

John Adams was a first generation explorer of a new world.

So are we.

More :

John Adams by David McCullough

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Lash,

    I love this kind of stuff.

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