Way back in 1964 before about a half of the people now living on the planet were born, The Rolling Stones released their first top ten hit in the U.S., “Time Is On My Side.” Was time really on their side?
Well, actually, yes it was—and is. Mick Jagger and his band-mates are now turning 70, just like Bob Dylan did last week and Paul McCartney of The Beatles, who’ll hit that milestone next year. For these guys and most of their generation, time definitely was on their side.
They were born at the start of the Second World War and they were part of a small cohort compared to the Baby Boomers, who would appear a half a generation later. And that made all the difference. Their small generation was able to exploit the economic boom following the war and the huge market of younger preteens hungry for new entertainment.
This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. Another magic period in the mid-19th Century around the time American Civil War, produced some of the wealthiest and most influential people the world has ever seen. These included Andrew Carnagie (b. 1835), John D. Rockefeller (b. 1839), William Van Horne (b. 1843), Andrew Mellon (b. 1855) and Henry Ford (b. 1863). Why them?
The Civil War was the world’s first industrialized war. For the first time steam engines took the place of horses and sails, bringing a powerful new dimension to the practice of war. The telegraph, mass-produced weapons, armoured steamships and submarines made their first appearance. As invention became the mother of necessity, the ones with the best technologies—in this case the industrialized north—won the war.
The event laid the groundwork for a new American industrial revolution, and the new industrialists of the late 1800s, by accident of birth and by inclination, rose rapidly in this hothouse environment. Driving the revolution were fossil fuels, first wood and coal, and with the first successful drilling for oil in Pennsylvania in 1859—which was soon followed by Rockefeller’s formation of Standard Oil and the start of his billion dollar empire.
Three things made this phenomenal success possible: location, opportunity and timing—which, as they say, is everything. And the rest of the billionaire gang—from Carnagie to Ford—was in on the action. The new industrial machines ran on oil and steel, and so did the fortunes they produced.
Lately I’ve been taking this business of timing a lot more personally. We just took a trip to visit my parents. My mother has been on dialysis for several years and my father is now in his late 80s. Both of them are looking at the inevitable end, and preparing for it. There were many fond looks backward at things done and things regrettably missed. We talked about dances and camping trips as we wandered through the many things they’ve collected including a little Boler trailer where my dad goes to play solitaire and a big old Lowery electric organ stashed in his garage that he and I and my son played, loudly and wildly, for an hour or so.
My dad and I talked about the timing of his life. And I wondered what kind of future my kids are facing, and what kind of happy bounce from timing they’ll get.
There will always be opportunities, of course, even if times are tough. As we run out of fossil fuel and natural resources the naturally resourceful among us will find new ways of developing and providing the alternatives. And there are also the openings that we can’t foresee—like the rise of new trends like social networking was—that that will reshape the future for kids with great timing and proximity to the action.
But if I could actually predict which of these trends would take off, would I guide my kids toward them? I’d like to say “probably not.” Ah, but that’s not what ‘good’ parents do. Parents are pretty utilitarian when it comes to their kids’ futures. They work hard to make sure their kids get the best credentials, form the best social connections and aim for the most prestigious and secure careers.
I’m not sure that this utilitarian approach is actually the best way to go. Why not? Well, call it the Mick Jagger effect. I don’t think that Mick’s parents actually steered him toward his career. In fact, young Mick was predestined to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps—as a teacher. But his boyhood love of singing, the church choir and rhythm and blues on BBC Radio—added to the serendipity of timing and geography—led to him to his classmate Keith Richards and rock and roll history.
As I look back at my parents’ lives it’s obvious that they never “made it big.” Perhaps it was bad timing or an unlucky location. But really that had nothing to do with it. They made a choice—and time was on their side. They wanted a family, to build a home, to give their kids the opportunities that they didn’t have.
And in that they were supremely successful, and their timing was ideal. All I can say is, “may all our children do so well.”