Joe Mathews: California’s young are losing generational fight

Susan Sarandon, left, and Natalie Portman starred in the movie adaptation of “Anywhere but Here,” a novel that symbolizes California’s problems.
Susan Sarandon, left, and Natalie Portman starred in the movie adaptation of “Anywhere but Here,” a novel that symbolizes California’s problems. 20th Century Fox

At a moment like this, younger Californians should read Mona Simpson. The novelist, a UCLA English professor, may be best known as Steve Jobs’ biological sister; she told the world his final words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

But she first made her reputation with the novel “Anywhere But Here,” a California horror story first published in 1986 but still relevant to these times. In the novel, a mother, Adele August, and her young daughter, Ann, move from Wisconsin to L.A. The mother has big ambitions for herself and her daughter.

But she is desperate and delusional. She breaks virtually every promise she makes. And so the roles reverse. Adele’s age may make her a grown-up, but she is pure adolescent. Her daughter, even as a child, must be the adult.

I’ve long carried a torch for the daughter, and not just because Natalie Portman played her in the 1999 movie version alongside Susan Sarandon. Ann’s exasperation with her mother’s broken promises – and her mother’s inability to acknowledge her own irresponsibility – expresses perfectly the fix that younger Californians find themselves in.

Our elders in California tell us this state is a global leader in higher education, but kids today can’t find space at public universities, and those who do are running up huge debts.

We are told California is deeply committed to public education, but our elders fund those schools as if this were a poor Southern state. Our politicians trumpet recent statistics showing California leading the country in job creation, but our unemployment rate remains well above the national average.

In the face of broken promises, the generations in California have reversed roles. Younger generations are driving and smoking less, and committing fewer crimes than our elders did. Our elders live large on retirement benefits and the last generation’s big run-up in real estate values. We live on budgets with bigger college debts and housing debts and tax bills.

Our leadership reflects this upside-down reality. Elected officials are supposed to be creative and future-oriented. But our governor, who got re-elected without bothering to offer an agenda for his next term, is 76; our U.S. senators are 81 and 73. Even our rock stars skew older, certainly much older than their critics. At public protests in this state, the protestors are often older than the cops keeping watch.

While those who are supposed to bring new ideas are wedded to the past, those charged with imposing new limits are young and ambitious. Voters just confirmed Goodwin Liu, 44, and Tino Cuéllar, 42, to the state Supreme Court. Is this inversion the reason we are so aggressively restrained, adopting regulations for everything from grocery bags to the hours of high school football practice?

The worst thing about this moment is that there’s no escaping it. In “Anywhere But Here,” Ann would like to run away from her mother, but she can’t. Adele has the keys to the car, literally. After they fight, Adele offers to buy her daughter ice cream.

That feels familiar, too. Our elders have accumulated such wealth that we need them to help us buy houses or fund our kids’ educations.

Adele never explains herself. Being the mother, the elder, absolves her. Gov. Brown, in a late campaign appearance, let loose an Adele-like rant after a reporter asked why he hadn’t offered a fourth-term agenda.

“This is my 12th year” as governor, Brown chided. “No one’s ever had 12 years of constant press conferences and discussions and letters and what do they call those things – State of the State speeches. ... So what don’t you know? What don’t you know that you think I could tell you now in front of all these people?”

Fighting that attitude is a losing battle. As Ann says in the novel: “Strangers almost always love my mother. And even if you hate her, can’t stand her, even if she’s ruining your life, there’s something about her, some romance, some power … No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get to her.”

When will California’s elders lose their hold over us? Never. “And when she dies,” says Ann of her mother, “the world will be flat, too simple, reasonable, too fair.’’

Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.