While less dramatic than the atomic bomb, the microprocessor, the telephone and the emergence of transnational financial institutions, the dawn of casual clothes has subtly, yet significantly, transformed life in the late 20th century. In the past, adulthood was a chore, an austere undertaking that often required dedication and discipline. The army, parenthood and mortgages followed college, assuming one was lucky enough to obtain a higher education.
Compare that to my own life. I eat in a corporate cafeteria and wear the same style of clothes I did in junior high. Public relations companies send Nerf footballs and steel tubs filled with candy corn. One of our conference rooms contains a ping-pong table. At 38, I live in a perpetual state of pre-teen fun.
Another stunning, late-century development, in the snack realm: Chex mix, which once only existed at airports, can be bought over the counter.
That doesn't leave a lot of room to complain. One hundred years ago, workers in company towns could expect one holiday a year, 14-hour days and lifetime employment for those working in the blast furnace. Home dentistry was often the norm, as were perpetual debt, tuberculosis, child mortality and a diet of rotting tuber roots. Those better off (according to the pictures on the tables at Wendy's) had to wear striped, one-piece bathing suits and lift barbells at the beach.
Nonetheless, there is a sinking feeling that life is really not all that exciting at the end of the century. Somehow, a general sense exists that we missed the glamorous conclusion of the European era (1492-1945) and came around just in time to clean up the campground.
Stories from the earlier parts of the century confirm this. My Greek grandmother, for instance, can recall retrieving rain water out of a barrel. When Haley's Comet was scheduled to fly over her village, everyone doused their homes to guard against flames from the tail. My mother-in-law can remember gypsies with dancing bears, as well as tricks horse dealers would try to pull. A favorite: Dealers would shove peppercorns up the rear of a sluggish horse to make it active during market day; after the sale, it went back to being a nag. Both my grandmother and mother-in-law have seen humans walk on the moon and the dawn of kitchen appliances.
Even stories from a generation ago seem more lively. According to several middle-aged men, the three-martini lunch was no myth. This country became the most powerful nation on earth, and it was built by people who were lit half the time.
The information age doesn't deliver the same punch. Technological change may be accelerating, but we're going from 60 to 90, rather than from zero to 60. On a gut level, there is still something more exciting about a huge building or a bridge than a Web site that can locate all the best camera bargains in a 10-mile radius.
Most of our technological achievements in fact, will likely seem quaint. Instead, future generations will ask:
What was life like before the foot computer? How did you treat Chapstick addiction? You mean you just ignored it? How come there were so many bald guys all the sudden? Who really invented wheelie luggage?
And, of course, the inevitable questions about the Gap.
P.S. Notes on millennium madness: For the group that is sending out email stating that the United States will declare marital law on Jan. 1, the term you may be looking for is "martial law." "Marital law" would be a sudden act of government that forces single people to marry.