Bright Future

These first years of the new Millennium have left a trail of disaster, fear and loss. Acts of terrorism, natural disasters, famine and genocide, manipulated elections, corruption in high places, loss of civil liberties and back sliding on human rights – the list goes on and on.

So how to explain the ebullient optimism of this year’s class of university graduates?  In Vienna and New York spirits and confidence are high. And while this can be hard to understand for some of us, it is exciting, and even a relief.

“For myself, it’s about freedom,” said Romanian Anca Lucien, a graduate of Webster Vienna in International Relations, on her way to Cambridge in the Fall. “It’s this amazing freedom, which I can enjoy at a much higher level than my parents did. Even just to study abroad would have been unthinkable for them.”

Anca was amused to get the phone call. She was in the middle of information-age guru and Oxford don James Martin’s 2006 book The Meaning of the 21st Century, which seemed only to confirm her positive outlook. “You must have been reading my thoughts,” she laughed.

Martin’s thesis was right in line with the view from Bronxville, New York, where my son, Austin Childs, just graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in Music and Intellectual and Cultural History. His optimism sprang from a sense of exploding opportunity, largely at the hand of technology.

“There is really a lot of interesting change,” Austin said, “in science, politics, the arts. It’s becoming so much easier to make and produce your own stuff. You don’t need companies to do it for you any more. Hundreds of thousands who wouldn’t have had a chance before will have one.

“It’s blowing the possibilities wide open. And if someone decides to do something cool with it, that’s going to be great.”

Anca sees the larger changes from an appreciation of the deep shifts in her own thinking since coming to Vienna.

“When I came, I had so much prejudice against the rest of the world, so many fixed ideas from the communist time,” she said. “We were told, our country is the best, everything here is the best. But Romania isn’t in the best shape…”

Even more important, she felt, was learning to look beyond nationality at what people themselves are like. (She started to say, to look at ‘the soul’, but decided that sounded a little overwrought in English and chose instead the term ‘personality.’)

“There are so many common things between people,” she said. “It is stupid and silly and ignorant to think in terms of borders and passports. By bringing civilizations together, better solutions can be found. I’m not giving a Miss Universe speech,” she said laughing, “but if there is a chance for peace, it will be because we get to know and understand each other.”

Hearing this in late middle age, it’s hard not to feel skeptical. Optimism may simply be the natural condition of youth, the result of raw energy, a long future and few regrets. And so much possibility can always fall into the wrong hands….

“But when hasn’t it been that way,” my son pointed out. Of course they saw the problems, he went on. This might be a case of “optimism out of necessity,” a sense of personal empowerment that defies the surrounding conditions, in which young people know that the same technology can be used to spread terrorism or yoga techniques.

“We all know that nothing is working,” Austin said. “But people really want to find out how to run the world in another way. So they are putting things out there, and other people are lapping them up.”

Still, his exuberance is tempered with realism. “Of course it’s all just potential at this point – in a way, all smoke and mirrors,” he admitted. Perhaps from having lived half his life in Vienna, he is careful to avoid utopian ideals. But he is excited about being  able to do his own writing and producing – and marketing over the internet.

“Think of it like this,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I am actually going to want to learn computer programs!”

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