New Measures of Better Off

by Peter Block on July 12, 2010

Tagged as: Gifts / Hospitality / Association / Health

The Pew Research Center reports annually on social trends in America and recently reported that the number of Americans who believe that their children will be better off than they are is in decline. This was considered news and was reported on TV and radio. What is interesting is that the actual question is about the standard of living of our children and this is automatically associated with “better off.” The assumption being that economic success is the measure of “better off.”

If we just measure our well being by the current economic thinking, then consumer spending, household income, capital investment are the signposts and on these measures, the future is certainly in doubt. There is an alternative future, however. There is a growing number of voices, such as David Korten, the Schumacher Society (now called New Economics Institute), Olivia Saunders and Peter Barnes, who are defining what a new economics, a post-consumer society, would look like.

It all begins with a different set of questions and a bias towards valuing what is in abundance and within our means. This means that measuring ourselves and our children by financial wealth is not news, it is not even particularly important, whatever direction it goes. And if income as we know it shrinks, there will be some fringe benefits.

I actually think our children will be better off than their parents, despite the fact that they most likely will have less money. Here are some measures that a new economic conversation will be taking into account:

  • Their health will be better. They already know more about nutrition, vitamins, exercise, smoking, fast food and weight. Even if their actions are slow to catch up with what they know, the net effect will be better health.
  • They are going to pay more attention to the planet. They already know more about it. Over time their purchases, their way of building, traveling and relating to the earth will have to adapt to what the earth can hold. The environment may not get better, but how they relate to it will shift in a good direction.
  • They will find satisfaction within walking distance. More of what they want and need they will produce themselves. This will result in a more satisfying life. With less money, the high cost of fuel and the shrinking traditional economy, they will have to participate in creating their own entertainment, growing their own produce, tending to their own children, wearing the same clothes longer, cooking what is in season and available.  
  • They will barter more. This means looking more carefully at what talents and resources are invisible but close at hand. Neighbors can be providing what we used to go to professionals for, like sewing, car repair, child care, health tips, pre-owned clothes and maybe even, some day, a cup of sugar.  
  • They will have more passports. They will be more likely to have been in other cultures and maybe be less drawn to like-mindedness. Building walls may be the long-term political agenda for the West, but more of our children will have studied a second language and at least have met and been among the people that we want to keep out.   

What this calls for is a shift in our assessment of well being. It can no longer be about the money. It is a shift in what we measure — from what is scarce, subject to competition, must be purchased and is disposable, to what is abundant, based on cooperation, home made and can be conserved.

Let us know your thoughts and comments.

~ Peter ~