You would think that by the 21st century, we would know something about what it takes for humans to live fulfilling lives. After all, we’ve witnessed enormous advances in science, psychology, sociology, and related fields over the past couple of centuries.
The great mystery is that we seem to be doing worse, not better.
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Clearly, a lack of information isn’t the problem. Between the academic conferences, whole sections of bookstores and armies of pundits like Harvard psychologist (and Prudential spokesman) Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, we are given the secrets of well-being and offered reams of data, advice and lessons on what to seek and what to avoid.
With mountains of knowledge, why aren’t we better at setting up our society in a way that helps us to prosper? Isn’t that the point of having a society in the first place? Unfortunately, ours is increasingly designed by politicians indebted to the 1 percent for the express purpose of enhancing and maintaining the power of the very top rung. The rest of us are left to cope with a rocky, competitive life path that leaves us isolated and exhausted. Inequality is stunting our growth as human beings.
We are doing an especially poor job at setting the conditions for our development as social beings. Recent research in Scientific American shows that today’s college students are less empathetic than generations past. We are less involved in our communities and less fulfilled in our jobs, our families, and our relationships. As the great psychologists have taught us, it is accomplishment in these areas that give us the feeling of significance as human beings. Yet at each stage of life development, we have adopted policies, practices, and habits of mind that thwart us and cultivate anxiety, loneliness and antisocial behavior.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, an American child called Jamie (or James, if you prefer) and follow her though the key stages of life.
1. The Child
From the very beginning, the American child faces grave challenges. There is a one in three chance that Jamie will be poor. Compared to other advanced countries, it will be harder for her to leave this condition. According to recent research, if the birth lottery sets Jamie down in certain parts of the country, like the Southeast or the Industrial Midwest, her chances of leaving poverty are lower still, and compounded if she doesn’t have access to good primary schools or has low family stability.
If Jamie is to grow up with a sense of ease and engagement with her peers and community, she needs to have a sense of trust in her caregivers. If Jamie is poor, this will be especially difficult to do. In most U.S. families, all of the adults work, and because America’s labor practices are outdated and incompatible with family life, even if Jamie is not poor, her caregivers are likely to have a difficult time balancing work and parental responsibilities. America’s lack of paid family and medical leave, workplace flexibility, and childcare will make things stressful for the family, and Jamie will absorb this stress.
To add to the strain, Jamie’s parents will probably experience job insecurity, so even if they are not out of work, they will constantly fear what will happen if the pink slip arrives. Planning happy things for the future, like vacations or summer camp, is always difficult when insecurity hangs in the air. Jamie’s circumstances will fluctuate with the level of unemployment, and since the social safety net is not robust in America, there’s little to shield her if something goes wrong.
As she gets older, Jamie should be developing a positive sense of herself and her abilities. Yet she will be tested relentlessly in school and likely find herself in a competitive environment where achievement is measured in numerical scores and where her normal creative and inquisitive instincts are often hindered. She will sit most of the day, and her food will likely be highly processed and often unhealthy. Her favorite vegetable just might become ketchup. Jamie has a one in three chance of being overweight or obese, which will hamper both the development of her physical skills and her self-esteem.
When Jamie reaches her teenage years, she will want to become more autonomous and form stronger relationships with her peers. Unfortunately, there are likely to be few places for her to gather with friends outside of scheduled sporting events and practices, which are the focus of extracurricular activity in the American child’s world. Jamie may have a hard time just taking a walk: her neighborhood might not even have sidewalks, and most places require a drive in a car. A shopping mall may be the only public space where Jamie can meet friends outside the home, so she absorbs a link between being socializing and consumption.
Jamie’s natural desire for stimulation outside the boring routine of her life will urge her to experiment with harmful substances and behaviors. Even if Jamie is from a family in comfortable economic circumstances, she may be smothered by helicopter parenting, which hinders her autonomy. A constant focus on achievement may leave her feeling constantly inadequate. There is a 30 percent chance that Jamie will be involved in bullying, either as a victim or perpetrator. She has more than a one in 10 chance of having a depressive disorder by age 18. Her chances will increase as she ages.
2. The Young Adult
Young Americans today face staggering obstacles as they try to branch out on their own. If America is still having a youth unemployment crisis when Jamie hits the job market, she will have difficulty landing a job if she has a high school diploma, or even a college degree. If she does find a job, there’s a good chance it will be part-time and/or poorly compensated. And to get it, she may well have to serve as an unpaid intern for many months.
The late start and lack of good jobs early in her career will probably haunt Jamie all her life — her future wages will suffer and her challenges will be greater. Because she can’t qualify for unemployment insurance if she’s looking for her first job, even America’s meager social safety net won’t be much use to her. The dumb luck of having a family with resources will often make the difference between survival and failure.
If Jamie goes to college, she is likely to have to take on crushing debt, and it will inform her choices as she thinks about what kind of work will pay it back. The debt will impact her in ways she did not expect: Jamie will have to pay a higher interest for a mortgage, and this may delay setting up a household of her own. She might well end up being a “Boomerang Baby” and move back in with her parents (currently, 36 percent of young adults ages 18 to 31 are living with Mom and Dad).
Like most young adults, Jamie will probably long to establish intimate, loving relationships with other people. But if she is not able to establish herself in the realm of work or live independently, she may feel like a failure and withdraw into anxiety and isolation.
3. The Adult
By the time Jamie is a full-fledged adult, she has likely already gone through economic shocks that have depleted her savings, if she had any, and impacted her personal relationships. Unless Jamie’s family has enough money to cushion these blows, economic and job insecurity either for herself or her partner will take their toll. The moment Jamie starts getting comfortable in a relationship — planning for a future life as a couple and talking about having kids — the prospect of economic setbacks interferes.
Those constantly tossed around by their jobs and unable to find firm economic footing will have challenges getting to the commitment stage. Jamie may decide that given the insecurity of economic conditions, committing to a partner or a family is just too risky. When the future is unforeseeable, and you can’t really know what you’re signing up for, why sign up at all? Another possibility is Jamie may decide that economic calculations are more important than romantic attraction or compatibility in her choice of mate.
When and if Jamie establishes a household and a family of her own, she will find that between the demands of work and childcare, she is constantly exhausted. She may become increasingly aware that no matter how hard she works and how hard she tries, there is no way to make the anxiety go away. Even if she is a decently paid professional, her job is still likely insecure, and she may begin to experience some of the symptoms researchers have begun to identify with job insecurity, such as low morale and a bleak view of the future.
Her sex life will probably suffer. A recent Swiss study discovered that men and women facing job insecurity are 53 and 47 percent more likely, respectively, to experience low sexual desire than men and women who have secure jobs.
Jamie may begin to slip into a fantasy world to try to counterbalance the reality of the restrictions she senses. As her expectations become downsized, she watches movies and TV programs where fancy homes, luxurious clothes and exotic vacations offer escape to a better world over the rainbow. Her relationships and her community ties become strained.
4. The Middle-Aged American
In middle age, Jamie will want to feel a sense of usefulness and pride in her accomplishments. But American society is structured to make these things elusive.
Americans can no longer count on a stable career, and unfortunately, we have not set up reasonable policies, like basic incomes, to compensate for this situation. Between deliberate wage suppression, deregulation, unfair tax polices, and austerity measures, Jamie, like so many Americans, may find herself at the mercy of ruthless corporate practices. For Jamie, this means that her strong psychological need for security and stability may keep her from achieving social cohesion and stable family life. With little free time and precious few vacations, Jamie has not had enough time to establish hobbies, connect with nature, or engage in civic activities. She may find herself with little deep involvement in the world.
As a woman, things are especially precarious for Jamie. Recent research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers suggests that the subjective well-being of American women has dropped both in absolute terms and in relation to men. Jamie may well be experiencing economic burdens from both sides as her children enter college and as her aging parents begin to require assistance. She may feel increasingly lost to her job and her family responsibilities, and find little energy left over for self-fulfillment. If Jamie is a woman of color or in the low-income group, she is more likely to have been divorced and to have borne the responsibilities of out-of-wedlock children. If Jamie loses her job in middle age, she will have a harder time finding a new one, and may have to take a job well below her skill level at inadequate pay. According to Stevenson and Wolfer’s research, financial worries are a major factor in Jamie’s potential unhappiness.
Jamie has health worries, too. In the U.S., obesity peaks in middle age: If Jamie is African American, she has a 40 percent chance of being obese. Since chronic conditions associated with a lack of physical activity are on the rise in America, Jamie may well have cardiovascular, endocrine and musculoskeletal problems.
By the time she reaches middle age, long-term job insecurity may have caught up with Jamie’s body in various ways: she may suffer depression, increased blood pressure, and a lack of libido that won’t go away. Unfortunately for Jamie, women between the ages of 35 and 60 in America are increasingly afflicted by mental health and addiction problems. They are experiencing record-breaking rates of eating disorders.
The suicide rate for middle-aged Americans has taken a leap over the past decade, as years of economic stress and abundant prescription painkillers lead frustrated people to self-harm. Jamie is more likely to die from suicide than a car accident.
5. The Senior
As an older adult, Jamie will want to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. If she can do this, she will have a sense of well-being, but if she can’t, she may fall into bitterness and despair. For an American who has reached her senior years, the chances of security, dignity and a fulfilling retirement are falling.
Jamie will likely be living on a severely limited budget: The median income of older persons in 2012 was $27,612 for males and $16,040 for females. Most of her income will probably come from Social Security, and if the foolish plans of Republicans and many Democrats are put into place, this income will become more meager, and she will have to wait longer to get it.
With the shift from traditional defined-benefit pension plans to investment retirement accounts such as 401(k)s, Jamie is more likely to run out of money in her golden years — currently her chances would be 43 percent, and this number will rise unless Social Security is expanded or some other adjustment is made for American retirements. Much of her money will likely go to healthcare: In a key report, “Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being,” researchers found that older Americans are spending more on healthcare than ever before. Some researchers predict that in two decades, healthcare costs could be more than seniors receive in Social Security.
Jamie may feel increasingly isolated as she gets older. Almost half of American women over 75 live alone. Divorce rates among middle-aged and senior Americans have been increasing — doubling between 1990 and 2009 for those over 50, which can have economic ramifications, especially if Jamie is poor.
Jamie will have a one in 10 chance of suffering from dementia, which will make her vulnerable to financial predators and the lures of casinos, which increasingly cater toward the elderly. Her life expectancy is lower than that of other industrialized nations, and if she is at the bottom of the distribution level, her life expectancy will be decreasing.
Recent polls suggest that Jamie will have a one-in-five chance of having a serious illness, no sex life, or feelings of sadness or depression.
Does it Really Have to Be This Way?
There are many less depressing possibilities for Jamie’s tale. So many of the burdens of Jamie’s life are not inevitable, at any stage. Policies and practices that enhance our human ability to thrive during each chapter have been enacted in other countries today, and even in our own history.
Relatively small changes, like increasing the minimum wage or paid family leave, can ease some of the burdens. Bigger changes, like expanding Social Security, or establishing a basic income, or adjusting the tax code to confront gross economic inequality, will take more political muscle. But various egalitarian movements in our history have shown that Americans are capable of standing up to a system that strips them of the possibility for a good education, a decent career and even a normal family life. A system of ruthless oppression that takes away so much from us as human beings is not our inevitable fate.
Normal human life and the contemporary reality of America are increasingly at odds. There have been giant social movements before, and there can be again. It may take a catastrophe, such as another devastating economic crisis, to fully galvanize us, but history has shown that we don’t have to accept systems that stunt our human potential and become the enemies of life itself.