The Dystopia of Starters

Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about Lissa Price's debut novel, Starters. It, like all great dystopian novels, is a mirror of today's society, rather than a window into a future world. If you haven't read it yet, well, you should--since you're reading this blog, you'll love Starters. It's about a dystopian society in which all but the young and very old have been killed by biological warfare. The old, Enders, control the government, media, and financial sectors. The young, Starters, are legally prohibited from working, and thus left to fight--literally--over the scraps the elderly don't wish to consume.

Starters presents an extreme view of the consolidation of power among the old and wealthy--or so I thought until I happened across this article last week. The article is titled The War Against Youth, which at first seemed like hyperbole aimed at selling magazines, but is really only barely an exaggeration. Here are the first three paragraphs:
Twenty-five years ago young Americans had a chance.

In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.

This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.
Stephen Marche goes on to catalog an extraordinary decline in the prospects of youth over the last 25 years.  Average net worth of those under 35 has fallen from $11,521 to $3,662.  The U.S. government now spends $2.40 on the elderly for every dollar spent on children. Older Americans have seen their wealth increase 42% while younger Americans have lost -68% of their net worth.

Is there any wonder why dystopian novels are so popular among teenagers? They depict the world we are bequeathing to our youth. All these novels are real. The gerontocracy of Starters, the brutal income inequality and reality TV distractions of The Hunger Games, the war on women of XVI and Truth, the environmental calamities of Shipbreaker--even the warped disaster response of my novel, ASHFALL: they all exist in our society today in some form.

We should celebrate the fact that so many adults are reading YA, Joel Stein notwithstanding. Perhaps they'll take something other than a few hours of enjoyment from our work. I suspect, however, that adults and politicians will fail to solve, or in some cases even to recognize, our society's problems. If the last 25 years are any guide, the best we can hope for is that they'll quit making it worse. If we must give our children a dystopia, perhaps the literature that accompanies it may inspire them to bequeath something better to our grandchildren.

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lexcade said...

That is scary. Seriously. Are the worlds we're reading really the worlds we want our children to inhabit? It seems like our future is going to be an amalgam of all these different fictional (for now) places and worlds.

I think anyone who's tried to enter the job force in the last 5-7 years is feeling exactly what you describe. I know I am. A college degree hasn't helped me at all. I'm in more debt trying to pay for a pretty useless degree than I'm making at my crappy job. But prospects are still pretty slim, and there's still at least 4 applicants for every available job. We're setting ourselves up for these futures if we don't do something now.

Mike Mullin said...

Absolutely. And I'm at a loss for what to do other than continuing to write about it and volunteer locally. Neither party in the U.S. seems capable of addressing these issues in any meaningful way. Any ideas?

Natalie Aguirre said...

I had no idea of the stats though I know it's hard for our kids and us to find jobs. I worry for my daughter. I want her life to be better than mine and I would like to be able to retire someday.

I loved Lissa's book. It was so original.

Lissa Price said...

Mike, thank you so much for this post. Yes, it is shocking what's going on in our world. But hopefully for readers to deal with it in an entertaining way, it will effect change. It's why I love books with strong protagonists, teens who aren't afraid to stand up for themselves.