“[The American Dream] is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
-- James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, 1931
Earlier this week, Pew Research once again noted that Millennials (corresponding roughly to those born between the early 1980s and 2000) “are at risk of becoming the first generation in American history to have a lower standard of living than their parents.” This subject has been of great consternation to many writers in recent years, as Millennials continue to grapple with being the generation who came of age during the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression (see here or here or here).
When the subject came up in my own workplace this week (a place full of Millennials lucky enough to be in gainful employment), it raised a number of issues:
· How do we measure “standard of living”?
· Depending on the definition, is it even a problem that our generation may have a lower standard than our parents?
· Is the standard of living calculation inappropriately disassociated with indicators of happiness?
On this third point, I highly recommend taking a gander at the 2012 World Happiness Report, in which Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs stated:
In an impoverished society, the focused quest for material gain as conventionally measured typically makes a lot of sense…[because] [e]ven small gains in a household’s income can result in a child’s survival, the end of hunger pangs, improved nutrition, better learning opportunities, safe childbirth, and prospects for ongoing improvements and opportunities in schooling, job training, and gainful employment.
However, as Sachs notes, the same calculus is not true at the other end of the income spectrum—in developed nations like our own where the majority of Americans do not worry about the “basic necessities” of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. In these societies, not only do increases in living standards not lead to the same rise in happiness, but they also lead to “disorders of development” like obesity, diabetes, addictions, and the decline in social trust/community institutions.
Perhaps more importantly, in a world in which wealth is often extracted—directly or indirectly—from the consumption of the planet’s natural resources, these gains often come at the expense of the world’s poor, both by siphoning off the wealth of developing nations and by increasing the risks of climate change, which hits the poor the hardest.
All of these concepts are topics for future posts, but today I want to focus specifically on how we measure “standard of living” and whether the measurement that has emerged in Post-War America—which is grounded in “disposable income”—has led us away from the things that truly matter to happiness.
In A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in. Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard Professor and Dean of the Radcliffe Institute (disclosure: I am her former research assistant), wrote that consumerism became such a powerful force in mid-20th Century America that people began to equate “free choice as consumers with political freedom.”
Indeed, from the Kitchen Debate between President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to President George W. Bush imploring Americans to continue to consume in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the vision of the American Dream laid out by James Truslow Adams in the midst of the Great Depression seems to have slipped further and further from our grasp.
As I noted in a piece for the Harvard Law Record in 2008:
The conspicuous consumption of the post-war consumer age has replaced a fulfilling vision of the American Dream with a vacuous conception of liberty and success. No longer is the rallying cry to make it in the New World in a new way-your way-but rather to make it in the New World via the tired, trodden path of swiping credit cards and compiling symbols of status.
That conception of the Dream deadens the soul of a Nation. It stands in contrast to our most venerated modern conception of the Dream—that issued by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial over 50 years ago. The Dream listed the following factors: that all men are created equal, that people of different backgrounds will sit together at the “table of brotherhood,” that freedom and justice will reign across our land, and that our children will not be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That gets me to Millennials—that generation simultaneously chided as lazy and lauded as idealistic. If indeed we are not to match the standard of living of our parents, what are we to do? Here’s an idea: destroy, once and for all, the perversion of the American Dream that arose with the consumerism of the 20th century and restore the Dream to its historic roots.
That doesn’t mean shirking from the challenge of poverty and injustice. To the contrary, it means addressing the scourge of poverty in America—even as it entails sacrifices by the middle and upper classes—so that all people have the opportunity to pursue happiness in accordance with the lives they have imagined for themselves.
We may not be the richest generation; but if we end up the happiest, the freest, the most tolerant, we will have accomplished something far greater for our world and ourselves.