Fearless Reason

Fearless reason in an age of frightened absurdity.

Tag: Localism

Modern Malaise: Gen Y

Something is amiss with modern man; a sort of subtle melancholy that at times defies articulation. The history of humanity has thus far been defined by hardship and the struggle for survival. Our forebears lived lives that were nasty, brutish and short, where each day was an unbearable struggle to merely survive. However, over the past hundred years or so a large portion of the human race has managed to pull itself up from the drudgery of mere survival, to a place of prosperity and ease. Physical comfort and survival accomplished, the question has become: What now?

Those stuck in the paradigm of survival have concluded that if what they have now is good, surely more is better. So they set out to acquire ever more wealth, luxury and ease; often at the expense of enjoying any of it. However, an increasing portion of the population, particularly those in Gen Y, are no longer satisfied with their predecessors’ imperative of survival.

This is the generation who has known no great wars, and was born into a world of material abundance and digital connectivity. Survival was never at risk for this cohort, so they often fail to see the necessity or wisdom of the ideas that drive modern society. Survival assured, Gen Y wants more than their parents’ suburban mansions, with garages filled to overflowing with once wanted but now unused adornments and diversions. Instead, they wish to live lives filled with meaning, in communities that foster growth.

People are changing, and the world is soon to follow. What many are experiencing now is the birthing pains of a new paradigm, and a new age. As survival chafes against the paradigm of prosperity, many find themselves trapped in old patterns that leave them feeling empty and unfulfilled. They work jobs they hate, doing thing they find meaningless or wrong, to buy things, once acquired, they no longer want. They live in a world of survival, because they cannot see how prosperous they are. This person feels trapped, and their life meaningless. They know there is a better way, but they see no way to achieve it. They feel trapped in a struggle for survival, not born of the necessity to survive, but out of a system and circumstances that seem to allow no alternative. In short, they are caught in the inertia of a world predicated on a paradigm that enriches their flesh, but impoverishes their soul.

However, only our choice to adhere to inertia’s mandate gives it any power over us. To live a life of prosperity, one need only decide they are prosperous and enjoy their wealth. I do not speak of the ornaments of survival that have given birth to the tremendous waste and shallow consumerism of our society. Instead, I speak of the richness of living a life with meaning, with people you love. To be prosperous, one need only live a life in which your values and actions align, and those you love are cherished.

Consider what the world would be like if everyone engaged only in those things they found meaningful, good and worthwhile. Is it somewhere you would like to live? If so, what is stopping you?

Quality Living

Since industrialization American culture has been defined by a drive towards efficiency and productivity. Since that time efficiency, standardization, and volume of production have been the aspirational goals of every business and product, and have come to be the defining characteristics of American culture. For many years now Americans have not only evaluated their businesses by these industrial values, but also their lifestyles.

It is the values of the assembly line that gave us Walmart, McDonalds, and the other national chains that litter every exit ramp across America. This has lead many to lament the death of the small town idiosyncrasies that once made American culture so diverse and rich. However, most have gladly traded diversity for the certainty of a hamburger that tastes the same in every state, and large quantities of cheap products located at a store near you.

Over the past 20 years or so, however, America has been undergoing yet another transformation, as the service sector has displaced the industrial as the engine of economic growth and prosperity. The service sector currently consist of 76.8% of America’s GDP, compared to 22.1% for the industrial sector. This means the majority of Americans make their living by providing services of a menial, professional or technical nature rather than making products.

Though I do not believe this transition is either wise or sustainable, I must admit its impact on American culture is proving to be quite interesting. Just as the industrial age gave us national chains, the service age has created a backlash against them. Sometimes referred to as the “new American localism” many young professionals and others at the forefront of the service economy have expressed a renewed interest in buying locally and investing in their communities.

In many ways this shift can be attributed to the nature of the service economy and the decentralizing effect of technology. For the most part industrial workers are cogs in a machine. Their tasks are often repetitive, isolated, and require low to moderate skill. Free thought is neither valued nor cultivated in this worker, whose greatest virtue is that he is replaceable. The service economy worker must have a very different skill set. Even the most menial of service economy workers has some degree of ongoing interaction with other people, whether they be customers or fellow workers. As one moves up the ladder of the service economy to the higher skill jobs it also becomes apparent that creativity and knowledge are also highly valued traits.

As people are increasingly free to live and work where they want, in jobs that require knowledge and imagination, it is not surprising these people are willing to invest in the communities they have chosen and seek out things that reflect their own individuality. It is similarly not surprising that the cities that best reflect these values are seeing the most robust growth in their moderate to high skill service sectors. Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston are all consistently ranked as having the best quality of life, as well as being the best places for young professionals. It is important to note that the criteria these surveys use to rank quality of life usually includes things like quality local cuisine (non-chains), and vibrant creative communities. In this way McDonalds is being replaced as the symbol of American culture and civilization by the locally owned coffee shop.

I am optimistic about this new trend in American culture. While living in Europe I was always impressed by the richness of people’s everyday lives. I found that people their seemed to know a secret that Americans did not, which is that while work may be a science, living should be an art. There are many great and wonderful things that came out of the industrial age. America has experienced tremendous economic prosperity because we fully embraced the ideas of efficiency and productivity in the workplace. However, these values should stay in the workplace. Transferred to everyday life these ideas strip life of all its beauty and dignity, causing us to sacrifice quality for quantity and alienating us from our communities.

Whatever happens to the service economy into the future I hope the American people retain this renewed interest in quality living. Let work be science, but make living art.