Standards of Living

My mother has told me that, in her circle of friends, people now speak in hushed tones about the fact that their children’s generation will have a lower standard of living than they do. They are worried, very much so. They feel this is a sign of impending doom.

She and I, on the other hand, are not so sure about the doom part. Certain things about standard of living are pretty much unarguably good: people being warm and dry, in houses that aren’t hazardous to their health, with enough food to eat and clean clothes to wear. We want children of all generations to have access to good schooling (and I mean public schooling, with good-quality textbooks, access to the internet, and well-maintained buildings with art and other extracurricular programs), as well as access to jobs when they graduate from school. We want people to have not only their rights, but knowledge of them, and jobs where they are given leave to go vote (because that’s the law, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t always happen). We want people to have health care, access to healthy food, and paid sick leave and family leave.

Sometimes, though, I think that a “falling standard of living” means something else entirely: less money in the bank, less people able to afford five- and six-bedroom houses, less free money for closets full of clothes they don’t wear. I’m guilty of wanting all of this at some time or another. I wanted shiny cars. I found myself wanting to drop hundreds of dollars on clothes that I didn’t absolutely love. Who doesn’t want to have so much money that they never have to worry again? I get it.

But, as we start to get rid of more and more stuff in anticipation of moving at some point, I realize just how much I had that, instead of adding to my life, actually detracted from it. I felt suffocated by things. I was actually afraid of moving because I was going to have to pack things I never used and never wore. I didn’t buy things I really, really liked because I told myself, “I already have one” (except, one I didn’t like at all). I bought things for the person I wanted to be, not the person I was, and then I felt too guilty to spend money on things I liked.

And it isn’t just me. I saw executives with fantastic cars that, as I said a few weeks ago, they only drove between multimillion dollar homes they never saw, and the parking garage at work. They had it all…theoretically. But their home lives were falling apart, and they never got to see the people they loved. Did they have a higher standard of living than me? In every survey or economic measure, yes. But I’m not so sure they were happier.

Don’t let anyone tell you about your standard of living. If you’re happy, if you have what you want or it’s within reach, let yourself be happy and not anxious. Please, remember that there are not only billions of dollars spent each year trying to get you to want things, there are also a lot of economists and sociological scholars that got used to a culture of buying new things all the damned time – a dress here, random party decorations there, something off an infomercial…

We have student loans. We often don’t have the jobs we want. All of these are legitimate problems, and they need solving. My point in this post is not to discount any of that. It’s just to remind you that no economist or social scientist can tell you more about how happy you are, or about your standard of living, than you can.

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