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).