May 6, 2011
A better life
The New York Times Economix blog reports this week (Dimming Optimism for Today’s Youth) that, for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans are not optimistic that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, as they answered the question:
In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents–very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?
This isn’t exactly the post that I thought it was going to be. I was going to argue against the implicit assumption of the way the question is phrased–the conflation of greater and greater achievement of material wealth with being qualitatively “better”–as being economically unsustainable, and in the manner of a Red Queen’s Race, actually a recipe for ever-diminishing quality of life. But I wondered then if I was trying to read more into the question than was actually intended for the sake of having an argument, and a blog post.
What if we start instead by questioning what a “good” life is, before we try to quantify likelihood of whatever a “better” one is? What would I include as requisites for a good life?
To love, and be loved in return.
To leave the world a better place than you found it–kinder, safer, more beautiful.
To be able to do work you know is meaningful.
To have a rich internal life, in addition to external relationships to keep you strong.
To serve something higher than yourself.
To be fed, and to be sheltered.
To be known.
To know joy, loyalty, and faith.
To live through grief.
To be content with who you are on some basic level.
To know what it is to be alone, and what it is not to be.
To know your own history, your own narrative.
To be needed.
I can’t fathom a complete life without reading, writing, and music.
And I don’t know that happiness or comfort have much to do with it, so much as satisfaction in their pursuit.
As I look at my list, of course I hope the next generation, and my children if I ever have them, will have a better life, in terms of having more of all of these things. But I couldn’t care less about whether they’ll have more stuff or a bigger house or another advanced degree.
Am I optimistic for them? I’m not sure yet. If they’re able to start exercising some common sense when it comes to environmental protection, if they’ll abandon the suburbs and exurbs for liveable communities again, if they’re more creative, resourceful, skeptical, literate, compassionate, committed to justice and equality, less interested in war and domination, more able to teach themselves, less able, willing or entitled to take any level of material wealth or comfort for granted.
I’m not sure yet.