Back in your day, you had it easy...
Who here understands Newton’s laws of motion Nice! Put your hands down. Most people with a high school education can say “yes” to this question. Who understands Special relativity Fewer people, but still some. Who understands General Relativity Only people in the field of physics or with a special interest in this sort of thing can answer “yes” here.
We can’t answer the question of who was smarter: Newton or Einstein, but we can probably agree that Einstein had a tougher job than Newton, overall. It was Newton himself who said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” While this is true, you have to climb onto their shoulders first, and seeing further, as it turns out, has some special difficulties unrelated to height.
Imagine, then, scientists of today, who must work harder still to make further advances. The immediate and most useful territory has already been covered. Hell, there’s scant use for Einstein’s theories, much less the stuff that’s probably been built on top of it. These scientists must not only learn what has already been discovered (a fairly significant task in itself), but also now eke out new ground which is often tougher than the low hanging fruit which has already discovered. Even after this point, the application of this discovery may be very limited.
To become a scientist today takes some confidence that you are the best. Even average scientists are generally among the top of the ladder, academically. This may seem a little tautological, like saying “even average triathletes are fairly fit”, but it’s worth asking whether scientists in times past were really smarter or just luckier (wealthy, with a lot of free time, or perchance accidentally placing radioactive materials on photographic plates1).
This isn’t just true of science, but in all fields. Engineering, where IP is becoming a bottleneck rather than a help; art, where some rather cynically believe that all art has been invented (where really, it’s just harder to come up with new art, and art students aren’t really very good at working hard2); even gaming, where we’ve gone from one or two buttons and a D-Pad to a D-Pad, 2 analogue sticks, and a panoply of buttons. My mouse has more buttons than I have fingers in that hand.
Today’s world, and today’s kids, are smarmy, short tempered, very picky, and taking huge advantage of technology. Consider that in today’s world, in order to be someone, you have to work harder than you ever have before. Your opportunity cost for time is close to infinite. You are going head to head against robots, both in the human sense, and in the actual machine sense. You also have a lot of the world’s (old) social questions answered for you right there:* The media (movies, TV shows) makes us acutely aware of the things we have to think about — our happiness, our success. If you aren’t somebody, you’re nobody. If you don’t take the time out to do what makes you happy, you won’t ever be happy. * The media (internet) makes us acutely aware of our competition, people who are making great strides in our fields. To be at the top, you have 6 odd billion people you have to go against. There is only one ladder, and the others show a dedication you cannot hope to compete with.
You can see why younger people act the way they do:* They pull up huge credit card bills, because without pursuing their happiness right now, they may never achieve it. * They have no time for the old, which hasn’t had all content cut down to maximise their time or effectiveness. * Whenever you ask them a question, they go to a calculator or Google instead of being able to tell you straight away. * They are stressed and lacking in empathy — they’re competing against the whole world, the threat of which they see every day, as soon as they log on. * They are facing some of the biggest problems the world has seen, including energy crises, population (not everyone can afford a house), aging populations with too many resources, and global warming.
They are no longer in a microcosm, where they are shielded. They got the world like a punch in the face, and they’re learning how to fight.
1 OK so maybe the Curies weren’t actually very lucky, considering how they ended up.
2 I am kidding. Although, there’s something to be said for the postmodernists...