The Past Is Never Uncertain

September 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Yogi Berra famously said, It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. He should have added the corollary (the obverse? or is it the converse?) – it’s easy to make predictions about the past.  I was going to say “the obvious corollary,” but I keep coming across statements by people who don’t seem to realize that they are making predictions about the past or that it’s easy.

A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran an article by psychiatrist  Richard A. Friedman, who was skeptical about claims that technology was rewiring the brains of America’s youth, and not for the better. “Despite news reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of an epidemic of anxiety disorders in teenagers.”

Times readers, some of them at least, could not let this calm, evidence-based assessment go unchallenged. The letters in response (here) included this, from a clinical psychologist.
[Dr Friedman’s] failure to take seriously the increased anxiety experienced by young people is problematic. The everyday lives of young people confront them with much more uncertainty about their futures than everyday life did for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Young people today experience increased financial uncertainty relative to previous generations, with housing, education and health care costs having escalated astronomically relative to income. In addition, young people today have to contemplate the consequences of climate change over the next five or six decades, which will in all likelihood transform the quality of everyday life in many ways, almost none of which are desirable.

Oh for the 1960s and 70s, the era of certainty. But they were certain in the same way that it was certain Justify would win the Triple Crown, that the housing bubble would burst and with disastrous consequences, or that the song “Cheerleader” (God help us) would be a huge hit. They are certain only because we now know that they happened. Before that, all these events were uncertain.

Is the future more uncertain for young people today than for their counterparts fifty years ago? The sixties was a decade of cultural and political change:  a country divided over a seemingly endless war; political assassinations; urban riots, crime and White flight transforming the cities; drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll; student protests shutting down universities; the new feminism challenging rules and ideas about gender; and the ever present possibility of all-out nuclear war. Was anyone certain that it would all turn out OK?

Even for the fraction of today’s population (maybe 20%) who experienced the sixties, when we think about it now, all the  uncertainty is gone. We know what happened, and it’s hard to imagine that it could have happened any other way.  Because the outcome has now become certain, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever having been anxious about its uncertainty.

The logic used by the psychologist I quoted seems to go like this:

1. Things today are more uncertain than things were in the past.
2. Therefore, kids today must be more anxious than were kids in the past.

Neither of those statements is accurate. The first statement is true only because the past is history. When the current moment has passed into history, it too will be less uncertain than it is now. As for anxiety, if Dr. Friedman is right, then the evidence shows that the second statement is simply untrue.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


In the 50s and 60s, it wasn't clear that MAD was going to work, and those of us subject to the draft didn't know if we'd be forced to choose between Canada and participating in a criminal war. (And, of course, we were on the wrong side, the anti-democratic side, in that war: we had refused to hold the Geneva Accord stipulate elections that the Viet Minh would have won in a landslide. But that's another rant.)

We really didn't think we'd make it to 1984 to see if Orwell got it right or not.