Friday, May 9, 2008

How high IS our standard of living?

A young man I know plays in a band. He is a dedicated and promising musician. He went off to college planning to prepare himself for a career as a high school music teacher. But every time he opened the paper, he saw another story about school systems cutting their arts and music programs because they did not have enough money. He was forced to give up that plan.
His story made me think about the work life of many other Americans. Ours is a competitive system that most people consider good because it produces ever more new and cheaper goods. But goods become cheaper when they are cheaper to produce. Production costs are often lowered by substituting machines for human beings. Jobs that, at one time, required skilled workers are now done by intricate machines. Workers have become machine minders, feeding raw materials to the machine. Any child could do that. It takes little skill to do that work and it is very boring.
Richard Sennett, a sociologist, describes how baking bread used to be highly skilled work. Now the loaves all ready to be baked are trucked to the store from a central kitchen. The workers in the local bakery put the frozen loaves into a very sophisticated, computerized oven, push some buttons and wait until the machine is done and signals them to take the bread out. All they do is mind the machine. When the machine breaks, they are forbidden to try and fix it. Instead they must call for the technician who repairs the oven. The people in the bakery have no skills; they wait on the machine; in case of malfunction they wait on the technician. Mechanization has produced more and cheaper goods but it has also ruined many a good job and replaced it with a very tedious one. The price of more consumption goods is often the work life of those who produce them.
Reflecting about this, we must ask what constitutes a “high standard of living.” In terms of economic statistics, we are doing very well. We have more things, newer things, and more money than most other people in the world. But does money buy happiness?
Robert Lane, a sociologist at Yale University, has documented in considerable detail that the explosion of goods and money in the last decades in the US has not increased happiness. Most people, his research shows, lead good lives to the extent that they have lively and extensive relations to family, friends and neighbors and to the extent that their jobs are challenging and allow them to take some pride in it. But people are becoming more and more isolated; relations to family and friends are more distant and are loosing intimacy. Work no longer nourishes self-esteem because,. more and more, it is done “just for the money.”
If our children cannot get a decent education unless we send them to private school; if the good job you had migrated to Asia and the job you have now pays less and is less desirable; if the jobs that were once available demanded a good deal of skill and the jobs that exist now are routine and numbingly repetitive, are we living a good life? Will the HD television set, the cell-phone that plays movies and gives you access to the internet and to e-mail really compensate for being bored at work and being unable to get a decent education for your children?
We call ourselves “the richest nation in the world” but cannot afford music classes in schools.
We need to stop talking about how high our standard of living is and ask ourselves: what really matters, whether electronic gadgets are more important or satisfaction at work, a better image on the tv or a good education for children.
Do we really have such a high standard of living if we loose happiness with every year?