We Live in a “Special” Time: A New Stage in “Economic Growth”

One pervasive, persistent and seductive prejudice—at least since the advent of modern science—has been for each generation to believe it lives in special times, unlike all that came before, during which momentous events occur and civilization-changing advances are made.

Although we may not be aware of this prejudice or admit it, we all share “presentism,” a bias in favor of the present. Among other benefits, it helps provide our lives with purpose and meaning.

And for at least several hundred years, every generation has indeed lived amid momentous events and civilization-changing advances. They happen all the time.

Whether people perceive and understand these changes is another variable.  Indeed, any given generation may never understand the long-term significance of the changes it experiences.

Today, increasingly defining us are profound, irresistible changes in what we call “economic growth.” Indeed, growth has entered a new stage which, like the white spaces of unexplored territory on old maps, is still mostly terra incognita.

The essence of this new stage first began to appear in the U.S. during the late 1800s: problems and opportunities associated with wealth.

Among other things, wealth has fostered what some (many?) people experience as spiritual emptiness. Emblematically, novelist David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest (1996), in which people entertain themselves to death by watching too much television, followed by The Pale King (2010) in which office workers die of boredom–and then, in real life, Wallace committed suicide.

We constantly encounter this new stage of growth in pieces that do not fit together in any way we can understand.  Many people who are economically well-off, for example, are fearful, insecure and working harder than ever.  Indeed a recent poll found a significant majority of adults in the U.S. fear “outliving their money” more than they fear death (Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, “Reclaiming the Future,” 2011).



Mayu says:

So it seems that we are, indeed, hopeless.
Amidst our slow recovery from the Great Recession is a renewed commitment to economic growth, a greater zeal for rushing the doors of Wal-Mart the morning after Thanksgiving, and a perpetual chase for the horizon of a better tomorrow.
The recession taught us that we must prepare ourselves and safeguard our economy by making as much money as we can and spending and acquiring as many things as we can, or else the shadow of the “double dip” recession will outpace humanity.
The Growth Emperor may be naked, but it seems that we have no alternative. This is the current narrative of the great American society.
Dr. Swerdlow is right that our obsession with economic growth has become our civic religion. It seems that we’re constantly being bombarded by advertisements, images, and stories that tell us that a good, successful American is one who has enough money to provide for her family and live comfortably, which means buying a giant plasma TV and a Wii to go with it.
News outlets, both local and national, also seem to be bent on reminding us that economic growth should be our foremost concern. Black Friday is always preceded with local news outlets’ reports on the projected profits of retailers, even though most of us don’t really know what that means except that our consumption is tied to the overall economy.
Even in our classrooms, it is ingrained in our minds that we are there because we want to make more money than the high school graduate bagging your groceries; maybe with a semblance to reality, but a concern that seems to place questions of wealth as a prior question to our happiness.
Simply put, our obsession with economic growth and wealth is a well-ingrained phenomenon that has been reinforced by the very real fear of economic stagnation as seen in the last few years.
Our examination of and challenges to our concepts of growth and wealth will then require challenging fundamental assumptions we hold and values that we’ve been taught to cherish.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Hopeless? No.
We DO have alternatives to the Growth Emperor.
They are right in front of us.


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