Regular readers who have also enjoyed the work of Bill Bryson likely have noticed that I am also a fan. The man is a very good writer, and I've learned more than a few things about putting sarcasm into print from his work over the years. You can imagine how disappointed I was, then, to read his latest. It's terrible.
Bryson, 64, mis-titled the book. It should have been called "Things were all better back in my day!" or "Old Man Bitches About Everything." I don't know what happened – perhaps it is a simple function of age – but there's no humor or no pleasure in this. It's a man touring England complaining about everything. Literally everything. All the shops in this town are closed! Everything costs too much! That sign has a grammatical error in it because everybody is stupid now! The kid at McDonald's asked me if I wanted fries, and if I wanted fries I would have fucking told him I wanted fries! This museum is just a big gift shop now! Who are these "celebrities" and why are they famous when they have no talent! Kids are so disrespectful these days!
I have no doubt that it is hard to age, to see things change, to wake up one day and realize that the world you live in is no longer the one you know best and with which you are most comfortable. Readers of any age can have some sympathy for it. There is little joy or interest in reading someone go through the process, though.
The thing I wish older people complaining about the state of the world would more often recognize is that choices made by the same generations currently complaining are largely responsible for all that now bothers them. Kids are stupid and don't know how to speak? Well, look what has happened to public education since the 1970s. Yeah, kids with no job prospects will probably just sit around and drink all day. All the cute little shops are gone, replaced by soulless chain stores? Well, changes to the economy and wage stagnation more than explain why people prioritize low prices and convenience/speed (got to make it to that second job on time!) above all else. Your favorite seaside or countryside town is a fraction of what it used to be? Well, all the sources of employment are gone. Why would anyone stay? People are less friendly now? Well, maybe that's because the world is shitty and there's little for them to be happy about.
And that's the part that kills me about When I Was Your Age rants – they're not wrong. I have no doubt that for the modal American, the country was a less shitty place in the past. This argument of course overlooks great advances that have been made in the rights and lives of women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and other people for whom The Good Old Days were not quite so Good. But in terms of the state of the country, I have no doubt that people were generally less miserable and our towns and cities looked less sad and run down Back in the Day. Back when our society was one of generally shared prosperity – again, not without exceptions – and people could get half-decently paying jobs without having to experience lightning-strike luck, I'm sure everyone smiled and said Hello more often. I'm sure people were happier back when the places they live did not look like setpieces for post-apocalypse action movies. Everything is dirty, falling apart, and empty. Boarded-up windows and empty Main Streets don't make people feel cheerful.
If Bill Bryson reads this (that was a joke, relax), yes, you're right. Everything sucks now. Believe me, we know. We get it. It seems like an intelligent person could readily identify the causes, though, and perhaps at least nod at them while cataloging all of one's gripes about the corporate- and gift shop-funded museum world in which we find ourselves. You personally may not bear direct responsibility for creating it, but it didn't happen by accident. Previous generations – your generation – made choices that led to it. I'm sorry you're unhappy with it, but trust me that the young man at McDonald's isn't exactly loving this world either.