It’s a common refrain in American society, I’m sure you’ve heard it before. The specific phrasing varies, but it usually goes something like, “Every parent wants their children to be better off than they were,” or “Everyone wants to be more successful than their parents,” typically followed by an assertion that “For the first time in American history, this dream will no longer come true.” I think this is a giant load of steaming garbage. Not only do I dispute that this is a common and/or reasonable goal, but I also dispute that “we” (meaning society at large) are falling short of it.
As an unapologetic capitalist, I have absolutely no problem with the notion of competition, but I consider it very bizarre that this line of reasoning tends to put individuals in direct competition with their parents, almost obsessively so. It makes very little sense to me. Would I like to be more successful than my parents? Of course, but only because I want to be “more successful” in general. I’d also like to be more successful than my sister, my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors, Michael Jordan, and Bill Gates. And I won’t just magically stop desiring to become “more successful” as soon as I happen to pass anyone on that list. I don’t have a giant chart in my room comparing my parents’ net income to my own, anxiously awaiting the day when I pass them, and therefore can consider myself “appropriately successful,” thereby eliminating the need for me to work hard and improve my material well-being. The entire notion is completely ridiculous. Who the hell cares “how well off” your parents were? Virtually every person desires to be as successful as they possibly can. In some cases, this will mean you are more successful than your parents, in some cases, less. The notion that we should somehow be in direct competition with our parents in terms of material benefits strikes me as completely arbitrary.
Furthermore, we have to define what we mean by “successful” or “better off.” Almost always, when people are discussing this topic, they are referring to tangible, measureable, economic data. Typically someone tries to “prove” that the current generation will be “worse off” than the previous one by citing a bunch of statistics. They show us a bunch of fancy charts of unemployment rates and student loan debt and median incomes and home ownership and all sorts of other metrics designed to make us believe that today’s youth are doomed to a lifetime of misery and poverty. Occasionally, the “evidence” is anecdotal, in forms of tall tales about the “good old days.” If these tales are to be believed, back in the 1960s, everyone got along in peace and harmony, you didn’t have to lock your doors, jobs were easy, plentiful, and well-paying, every job included comprehensive health care benefits and a generous company pension, everyone retired at 65 and lived happily ever after, life was just grand and peachy in a way that will never be approached ever again.
A critical examination of history will debunk most of that nonsense, but a lot of people still seem to buy into it. And while some current economic statistics may be troubling, they fail to tell the whole story. You see, statistics cannot actually measure quality of life. Human happiness in general, and the utility of certain items specifically, cannot be objectively compared from person to person. Put simply, there is no way to measure whether society is truly “better off” than it was in the past. Unemployment rates surely can’t tell the story. Leisure is a valued good. Most people don’t work because they want to; they work because it is necessary to achieve the standard of living they desire. If today’s unemployed could enjoy a comparable standard of living to someone who worked a full-time job in the 1950s (and I posit that in some cases this is entirely possible), that would be a net gain for society, not a loss. Incomes statistics can’t tell the story. Money is also only a means to an end. Money allows us to purchase both necessities and luxuries, but a far greater variety, and quality, of both exists today than did generations ago. If we have less money, but more (and better) stuff, we might very well be “better off.”
I always love to invoke the example of “Gordon Gekko’s cell phone” whenever this topic comes up. If you haven’t seen Wall Street, you can refer to the picture above. Gordon Gekko is explicitly written to represent “the one percent.” He’s a filthy rich, greedy, capitalist pig, who enjoys extravagant wealth. He has the best of everything that money can buy, including a giant mansion on the beach, his own personal helicopter, and even an item of obvious luxury, a cellular phone. His cellular phone is a giant brick that offers him nothing more than a low-quality voice connection, and yet, it is still presented alongside the mansion and the helicopter as an item that only the filthy rich could possibly possess.
Today, we have certain politicians arguing that smartphones and high-speed Internet are “basic human rights.” Do I need to remind you that these items didn’t even exist two decades ago? They were simply unavailable for purchase, at any price. Gordon Gekko couldn’t have even imagined the IPhone, much less owned one. Yet presently, it is an item that a great deal of lower and middle class individuals own. I personally know middle class families whose children each have their own. It’s important to consider exactly what this device can do. You essentially have access to the sum of all human knowledge at any time, right in the palm of your hand. You can video chat with almost anyone around the world in real time. This device greatly enhances one’s quality of life, in a number of interesting and exciting ways.
And phones aren’t the only area of life that has improved. Consumer choice has expanded vastly in almost all areas. Ethnic food restaurants are widely available even in small, remote, towns. Our cars are much safer, get better gas mileage, and have all sorts of interesting gadgets and gizmos from Bluetooth integration to GPS systems (Remember how awesome it was to have to call someone up on the phone and write down directions to their house? If you’re under the age of 20, probably not, thanks to the march of technological progress). There is a wider variety of music available, now easily accessible with the click of a button. You can even buy individual songs for a dollar, instead of being forced to buy entire albums for $15+. There are more television channels, with higher quality pictures, and even streaming Internet options that make eliminating television entirely a viable option for millions of Americans. These are just a few examples off the top of my head. I could probably go on like this for hours. The fact of the matter is that today’s individual is, on average, far “better off,” in terms of the amount and quality of tangible goods available, than anyone was in the 1950s. Worldwide, there are fewer people in poverty than ever before. In America, the definition of poverty has evolved to somehow include people with smartphones and flat-screen TVs. Life expectancy is up almost everywhere. Crime is down almost everywhere. War is affecting fewer individuals each decade.
In other words, life is pretty damn good. Would anyone really want to trade places with their parents? You understand that would mean spending the first 40 years of your life without the Internet being a thing, right? That video games would consist of pinball and pong? That there would be four television networks on a really crappy signal, and you’d have to get up and walk to the TV to change the channel? That the quality and variety of food available for you to purchase would be significantly lowered? But hey, you’d at least have a steady job and employer-provided health care, right? Perhaps, but consider that every single medical device, drug, and procedure invented in the last half century wouldn’t be an option for you, regardless of how much money your generous bosses at GM were willing to pay for them.
Despite the best efforts of governments, human progress continually marches on. Regardless of your yearly income or net worth, you almost certainly are in fact “better off” than your parents, not that such a distinction is relevant in any particular way. The myth of the “American golden age” is just that, a myth. The golden age is now, and it will continue to be “now” for the foreseeable future. It’s better to be alive now than it was in 2000, and it was better in 2000 than it was in 1990, and better in 1990 than it was in 1980. This constant angst over things supposedly “getting so much worse” is both unnecessary and just plain incorrect. Everyone reading my words right now has the incredibly unique and fortunate privilege of living during one of the most exciting, luxurious, and opulent eras in human history. Stop agonizing over whether your 401k is as generous as your parents’ pension plan. Get out there and enjoy life!