I just posted nearly three dozen quality of life indicators for America. Most of the indicators show trends toward an improving quality of life. In fact, putting all the indicators together, the worst time in America in the last fifty years was not 2005. It was some time around 1981. Most of the indicators have improved since then.
Even so, I sense more pessimism and angst about the future in our culture than ever before. When I have told people about the indicators I have studied, I usually get an incredulous response. One woman I talked with was actually offended that I could even suggest things might be improving. There are some deep emotions at work here.
So if things are so good, why do we feel so bad? The first possibility is that I have missed the mark. That is always a possibility but I don’t think so. We can quibble about individual indicators but I think the overall assessment is valid. But I think there are hints within the indicators themselves.
I wrote that most of the social indicators show an improving trend. It is telling that the trends not showing improvement deal with the most intimate aspects of our lives: Marriage, family and sexual activity. It is also interesting that one of the bestselling books of recent years is Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. It seems to me that there is a deep hunger for connectedness and purpose.
The upside of our 21st Century economy is its speed and productivity. We have an unprecedented number goods and services readily available to us at low cost. Our economy has enriched our material lives immensely and is now doing the same for many other parts of the globe who are integrating into the world economy.
The downside of our economy is the increasing level of “churn.” Technology changes faster and faster which means we have to learn “how to learn” faster and faster. The creation and “creative destruction” of entire industries is accelerating. People have to become ever more mobile to take advantage of opportunities. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people move across a county line each year. About 1 in 14 move across a state line. Life has become “uprooted.” We are churning geographically as we move about in response to opportunities.
In short, people are earning more, achieving more and being dislocated more. That leads to stress on intimate relationships starved of the support networks that used to sustain them. This “churning” gives us a ubiquitous sense of not really belonging anywhere. As beings created for community, that is not a good place to be.
Another aspect of our times is a shrinking world. With the rise of cable television over the past generation, and the internet over the past decade, we are in ever closer contact with people and ideas that challenge our own perceptions of our world. The rituals, values, and morals we took for granted seem vaguely challenged (sometimes not so vaguely.) Once again community and belonging feels diminished.
The ever-present media of television, radio and internet has contributed in yet another way. Most of the time there just isn’t that much that is newsworthy to most people. The various media entities compete for eyes and ears 24/7/365. Sensational stories are what bring ratings. Consequently, there is a near obsession with the sensational stories and sensational usually means scandal or horror. We get endless coverage about a middle class guy who murdered his wife, a girl apparently murdered on a trip in Aruba, or wild parties at college campuses. Whether these events are truly more prevalent than in the past is debatable.
The Columbine High School tragedy is prime example. I do not want to diminish in any way the events of that day. Yet, that event was endlessly portrayed as the unmistakable sign of growing youth violence in our culture. The facts show that 33 students were murdered at school that year. There were 34 murdered the year before that. For the previous decade the number vacillated between 28 and 34. Had Columbine not happened, the rate that year would have been the low for the decade. The following years had about a 12-16 homicides and overall violent crime had been in significant decline for a decade. Still the visual image is more powerful than the facts.
Too Many Choices
Yet another issue brought on by our affluence is the availability of choices in just about everything we do. It is almost impossible for many to make a choice in one direction without a gnawing feeling that they missed something by not making a different choice. Some seem to address this by trying to do everything and put off making choices until compelled to do so. Others seem to wither in a state of paralysis, not choosing any direction for fear of making wrong choices. That also creates anxiety.
I think all of the above contribute to our angst. (If you have some other theories please let me know.) However, I think there may be dynamics operating in our culture that require us to step back and take a longer view of what is developing. I think we have been “here” before as a culture on at least four other occasions. I think we are more influenced by oscillations of one generation to the next more than we realize.
I am going to take a look at the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe and their generational approach to understanding history over the next several posts. I will then tie that back to the social indicators I have presented. If you have read or heard about “Baby Boomers” and “Gen X” in the popular media over the years and have become jaded to the faddishness of these stories, I invite you to suspend judgment. I find that few people have really taken the time to delve into Strauss and Howe and appreciate the intricacies, qualifications, and nuances of their perspective. Unfortunately, what most people see and hear are people who have not fully appreciated what these two are saying. I hope you will join me in reviewing what their perspective might tell us about the times we live in.