Mod note: for the tl;dr version, skip down to "Circa 1960"
First, some background. I'm going to explain how we got to where we are today in order to frame our place in history and our model of life, so bear with me...
A Long Time Ago B.C.(E.)
A long time ago, human civilization began somewhere in the region of North Africa and the Middle East. Doesn't matter what you believe about the origins of the world - it was a long time ago, and that's the agreed upon location. Humans were hunters and gatherers, mostly, and they started spreading across the earth as the ideal ratio of hunting/gathering human to square mile was exceeded within each subsequent square mile. People expanded to the edges of Africa, Europe, and mainland Asia, eventually crossing the Bering strait and populating the Americas as well as traversing the islands of the south Pacific down to Australia. Once the population in a given area couldn't expand anymore, people were forced to domesticate plants and animals. They experimented with all kinds of wild flora and fauna, domesticating some and ignoring or killing off the rest.
Because the axis of the Eurasia supercontinent ran primarily east to west and fell behind the other continents on geographical barrier count, the plants and animals that were domesticated in one region were quickly spread to other regions, uninhibited for the most part by significant climate changes, deserts, rainforests, or mountains. Other technologies followed a similar pattern. In contrast, the spread of domesticated life and technology were inhibited by the north/south axis of the Americas (too large of a climate change for a plant or animal domesticated in one region to be effective 1,000 miles north or south) and the geographical barriers of the Rockies, Andies, Sahara, Pacific Ocean, and Australian deserts. Domestication and technology provided for division of labor, allowing the rise from tribes to states to nations. Thus, Europe and Asia surpassed the other regions of the world in what we will define loosely as "progress". The model of life for everyone, however, was still simple: just survive.
Circa 1400-1600 A.D. (C.E.)
After the giant hiccup of the Middle Ages, Europe was a bit behind Asia. However, circumstances were right (i.e. willingness and ability of European monarchs to finance expeditions) for globalization to begin as European explorers began to make contact with the other civilizations of the world. Unfortunately for the other civilizations, Europeans had spent the past few thousand years making their livings from animals that were best kept in large herds (sheep, cattle, etc.), and as such were a far better breeding ground for pathogens than the animals other societies depended on. Furthermore, Europeans lived much more closely with their livestock than other civilizations, leading to the rapid mutation and proliferation of disease from animal to human. As a result, when the cultures met and unwittingly exchanged diseases, a few Europeans died, while other peoples perished by the tens of millions. Americans were wiped out or assimilated, and Europe regained its edge over the Far East. Sub-Saharan Africans and Australians were still somewhat isolated, and the stage was set for the world to become what it is today.
Circa 1800 A.D. (C.E.)
Then the Industrial Revolution came. Until now, technological progression was incremental, but humanity (or at least the luckiest segment of it) had hit the key point in the exponential growth line of technology. With the Industrial Revolution came the most significant milestone since the domestication of plants and animals - the creation of the middle class. Until now, tens or hundreds of millions of Einsteins and Edisons had lived and died farming the rice patties or watching the sheep. Now, for the first time in human history, a large chunk of humanity was given the opportunity to exercise its creativity and ingenuity.
The 19th - 20th Centuries
As the middle class exploded, particularly in the U.S., the resulting technological innovation coupled with individual freedom and the rule of law made the U.S. became the world's sole superpower. (I acknowledge I am skipping over a host of important geopolitical considerations, but this is the driving force.) Various Western and Far East nations followed a similar path, though helped to a lesser degree by their respective natural resources, geographical locations, and government systems. As a species, we did incredible things - talked to one another though thousands of miles apart, transported ourselves without the use of muscle motion, even flew like birds. The model of life for the middle class then became as follows:
1) Get as much education as you possibly can. Education is the key to opportunity. Try to make it through high school, and do whatever you can to get into college. Get as much as you can for yourself, marry someone who has it, and try to give your kids more than you got, sacrificing whatever you have to in order to get them through college.
2) Get a job with a good company. Work hard, be loyal, and make enough money to buy a house, a car, the comforts of life, and take care of your children. With a combination of intelligence, ambition, and hard work, you can climb the corporate ladder all your life and end up at the top. Retire with a pension and a Social Security check, and live out your days with the peace of a life well lived and the knowledge that you have contributed to society and given your children the opportunity to have an even better life than you had.
Once the pace of technological advancement hit the creation of the computer and the internet, the already exponential pattern was well on its way, and got a rocket boost. We now possessed data processing power far superior to that of our own minds, and used that data to compile and use information in a manner so rapid that we did things humanity had only ever dreamed of. The human race made more progress from 1960 to today than it had made throughout the rest of history.
We are only a day's travel from anywhere in the world. We even travel off our own planet. We possess devices that can fit in our pocket and hold the entirety of human knowledge. (Yes, we use it mostly to look at cats and argue about grammar with complete strangers, but man, are we smart.) Unfortunately, the pace of technological advancement has become so rapid as to wildly outpace our ability to adapt our societal structures and institutions to that advancement. (By this I mean economic and governmental systems and processes - not trying to be Marx Jr. here). As a result, we find ourselves at the crux of a few vexing problems:
1) The rate of increase of the cost of education has grown more than twice as quickly as the rate of inflation, and has done so for a very long time. Now most paths of higher education have a negative net present value when compared to the alternative. Curse you, concept of compounding! (Example in defense of my statement: consider the path of a plumber/carpenter/oil & gas technician, etc., against the path of the median traditional four year post-secondary education. Both paths have essentially the same income over a 40-year career, but the post-secondary education has a much higher cost, especially considering the compounded interest on those student loans.)
If costs continue increasing at the current rate, by the time I have kids it will cost over a million dollars to send them to a top college. How many people will have that kind of money? Consider further the ratio of productive vs. unproductive years of our lives. The ideal successful upper middle class professional spends 25 years listening to people talk about how to be successful (5 to learn to walk and talk, 13 in K-12, and about 7 in college - FYI the average time spent to complete just an undergrad degree in the U.S. is 6.5 years.) After that is about 40 years of work, with 15 years of retirement. Simple math - we spend as much time being economically unproductive as we do being productive. How is this supposed to work as a model for society?
2) Oops - when we set up our society's retirement plans we forgot to ask the actuaries how to account for fluctuations in generational patterns (i.e. number of kids vs. parents) and market returns. Instead of legislating that 6.2% or so of all salaries be put aside to grow tax-free in accounts that were limited to reasonable, low risk-investments, we legislated that our citizens give all that money to the government so the government could borrow to finance its other activities. Now we have hit a) the societal shift where parents have less than 3 kids, b) the peak/trough in the cycle where a baby boom has now eventually resulted in a huge number of retirees, and c) a very big problem with job opportunities for millenials - see 4) below. In a generation, traditional retirement will very likely cease to exist. By the time I am 70, I will need at least a couple million to live comfortably. How many people will be able to save that much?
3) Natural resources are becomingly exponentially more scarce, and the world population continues to rise. Oil used to be right under the ground, but now we have to frac shale and so forth. The same holds true for nearly all other natural resources. Eventually we will reach a point where it takes more energy to extract the resource than the resource is worth. So, we can add fundamentally rising costs to that toxic mix of poor education systems, retirement systems, and job opportunities.
4) The parents told the kids that if they did well in school, they could get into college and find a good job. That how it worked for the parents, so that's what they told their kids. No one took into account technological advance, job automation, and globalization of competition for jobs. Then the kids grew up and found that in order to get a decent job, they usually needed a specific type of degree (STEM), top-notch grades, some extracurriculars, and some. Most didn't find that out in enough time, and graduated to find that the promised jobs weren't there. Even graduates in high-demand fields like nursing often have to either relocate or wait for months before getting any opportunity. So, the kids move back in with their parents and struggle with loan payments disproportionate to their income. The houses, cars, and other opportunities their parents had are solidly out of reach, and life is put on hold.
The result is that the coming middle class generation of the privileged world sees the halt of the frontier of human progress. What we wanted was for this group of people to be "better off" than their parents. I'm sure "better off" in most people's minds means more than just better toys - it means the next logical step in human society, which to me is the ability of its members to spend their productive years in innovation, unshackled more and more from the requirement to spend their time in manual-digital labor. Right now, it doesn't look like that's going to happen for our generation (i.e. millenials). To me, there are a few logical progressions of the current situations (numbered in tandem with the problems above):
1) The education system gets fixed - eventually. Take a step back for a moment, and imagine a good movie you saw recently. The producers took the script and added some of the world's best actors, special effects engineers, musical producers, costume designers, etc. And that movie was awesome. What if instead, the producers has distributed the script to local theaters across the world, who hired their own actors, costume designers, etc.? Same script, drastically inferior quality. Why then do we insist on taking this approach with education? Someday soon this will become obvious to society at large.
Take the best dozen teachers in the country in each narrow subject and pay them to produce a series of lectures, assignments, etc. Design a curriculum in each subject and apply the concept of gamification, where students earn a "degree" or "grade level" once they complete a certain number of courses in a subject, thereby drastically increasing motivation to learn through smaller goals and competition. Require a core curriculum, but leave students free to explore where their minds take them. Let students learn at their own paces, and keep the local teachers to provide personalized attention as necessary. Less time spent on preparing lectures and grading tests means more time helping the students learn.
Also, re-institute the apprenticeship system. It worked for thousands of years, then we abandoned it last century in foolish pursuit of "higher learning". As a result, students spend 25 years "learning" but still have no useful skills. Then it takes another 5-10 years or so to build a skill set that is actually worth something. Why not let kids gain this skill set during ages 8-18 instead of 25-35? Productive years would then start at 18 rather than 25, and best of all, no debt! Fifty years from now, I hope society will have corrected course and adjusted the education system to keep what used to work and harness technology appropriately. I think the increasing focus onhas already begun to correct that first component. The second is also in process - godspeed to Salman Khan.
2) FICA makes the necessary adjustments - increased retirement age, increased FICA rate, elimination of the contribution ceiling, partial privatization, etc. It's painful but not earthshattering. Moving on.
3) We get to the point where natural resources are more expensive to procure than they are worth. So, the same thing happens as when humanity ran out of earth to hunt and gather on. We innovate. We mine on Mars, and get our energy from the sun. Again, not a big deal.
4) The world becomes truly globalized over the next century, lifting billions from poverty. This equalization, however, continues to weaken the job opportunities for those who had previously been the lucky few who could afford education. If the middle class of the developed world (previously the driving force behind the advancement of the human race) do not continue to advance, there is nothing for the rest of the world to follow. However, at some point this situation naturally ceases. We find equilibrium, this time with an army of developed world middle class young people 100 times larger than the one before it.
At this point, technology has continued its rate of advancement, with computers being fully integrated into our everyday lives, leaving us free from the worries of many of today's normal activities. We will have an incredible understanding of the human genome, gotten through the related ethical dilemmas, and used gene splicing to cure most illnesses and give people far better mental and physical abilities. The stage is set for that next step in human advancement, where a huge chunk of humanity can spend its time in innovation and fulfillment of the tip of Maslow's pyramid.
So how should you then live? How do you see yourself fitting into the big picture?
I leave it to you to venture an answer to that question. Thanks for reading this far - I'd love to hear your thoughts.
EDIT: So to redirect the thread a bit - I wanted to leave it wide open, but was thinking less along the lines of "Do drugs to find your place in the universe" and more along the lines of "With this big-picture view of the trajectory of human progress and our place in it in mind, what do you hope to achieve in life, either as an individual or as a generation, and what impact do you think it will have on the trajectory of human progress?"