I asked my wife, Margaret that question recently. She rattled off an unqualified “yes” – we are more mobile, we have more occupational choices, we have way more choice in products and services, and one that really resounded – “we bounce back more easily”. I asked her to elaborate on that. She said way more of us recover from health problems, career setbacks, even bad personal actions like crime and bankruptcy. Our ancestors rarely recovered from such a hiccup.
Margaret was born humble – on a dairy farm in Ireland. She spent years in psychiatric nursing in London, and we have lived in Tampa, the last 25 years, where she has continued her healthcare, been a home school teacher and helped edit my books and with other functions in our corporation. Tampa is a middle class city in a middle class state. We have had a comfortable life, but not one which would have prompted the unqualified “yes” to my question comparing lifestyle with her parents.
I then asked her how our two kids, both in their twenties would answer the question. I expected her to say they have had way more toys than we had. Again her answer surprised me. She said they have way more positive experiences than we did. While being home schooled she made sure our kids got a wide range of choice in extra curriculars – chess, fencing, jazz dancing, diving, rowing, soccer, taekwondo among others. I flew for the first time when I was 21. By that age my daughter had already been to 20 countries.
I have asked many other people the same question, and when they think about it for a bit, they come back with answers like “The diseases I saw as a child have long since been eradicated” “I had never heard of quinoa, sushi, hummus, and so many other global food items growing up”. “Did you know we have over 100 different SUV models on our streets today? My parents’ car was so basic in contrast” “International calling was so expensive we only called on birthdays and then were screamed at to get off the phone in a couple of minutes” and “I was born in a communist society. I am clearly better off than were parents were”
Warren Buffett, in his annual shareholder letter, observed earlier this year
“American GDP per capita is now about $56,000. As I mentioned last year that – in real terms – is a staggering six times the amount in 1930, the year I was born, a leap far beyond the wildest dreams of my parents or their contemporaries. U.S. citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more.”
Yet, academic study after another tries to convince us we are worse off than our parents were. A year ago, I may have believed them. But in writing my recent book, Silicon Collar, I noticed a similar disconnect. Every practitioner I interviewed across 50+ work settings in a variety of industries was pragmatic about automation – how mature, how expensive, likely gradual impact on jobs. Every academic and analyst I talked to was, in contrast, massively pessimistic that automation was about to lead to jobless societies. If I had not had the resounding pushback from the practitioners, I would have been as pessimistic as the academics.
I urge you to do the same. Ask yourself and your friends, neighbors and co-workers the same question I have been asking. I think you will find these “practitioners” of life are far more positive than the academics, in spite of all the challenges we all face, and that in balance, we are better off than the generation before.
Cross-posted at Medium