There was a state of affairs in many places across the world that enabled many to build meaningful lives through following a standard script. Go to school, get a job, have a family and devote yourself to work and you will be a successful person. In the US we call this the “American Dream” and across the world almost every nation has its own story.
Millions, if not billions, have thrived following this path. It worked so well and for so many people that people began to take this formula for granted.
I want to argue that the meaningful lives that resulted from this were accidental rather than as a result of following a certain path. Today many people are following this default path and are shocked when they don’t find a life they like. Instead they are finding anxiety, stress, and a life lacking meaning. Why?
I will answer this question but first its worth noticing that one major element of this script was not only that you did well, but that you did better than your parents. John Steinbeck captured this sentiment in his book America and Americans in 1966:
No longer was it even acceptable that the child should be like his parents and live as they did; he must be better, live better, know more, dress more richly, and if possible change from father’s trade to a profession. This dream became touchingly national.
For more than 50 years people have gone into adulthood with the idea that they should achieve more than their parents while still following the same general path.
In the past twenty years people have lost track of why this path worked and have assumed that if you built your life around staying employed and buying a house, that it would result in a meaningful life.
This is my accidental meaning hypothesis
Accidental Meaning Hypothesis: Meaning was an accidental outcome of a path of full-time employment, “hard work,” married couples with one partner working, and a house, that aligned with a certain way of living that provided meaning for millions of people for a period of 30-50 years but had more to do with the ways people lived, the fact that many more parents did not work and that there was a much broader middle class. In today’s world people are still aiming at the same external markers of success (house, family, job) but are not finding their paths meaningful.
The default path worked so well early on because it was built on lower expectation of what a good life (the median square footage per person in a house has doubled in 50 years), single-income families, more constrained work hours, and active engagement in local communities. Over time, people have shifted more of their energy towards acquiring bigger houses and putting more focus on work. They are ending up with bigger houses and salaries but fewer friends and relationships.
Stepping off this path doesn’t solve the problem either because the skills needed to build a meaningful life are not the same skills needed to navigate a modern career.
We need less “hard work” at work and more “hard work” on how to live a life worth living.
When Did This Path Stop Working?
There are two major trends that have undermined the default path. The average person was no longer guaranteed to do better than their parents and the middle-class started to decline sometime in the 1990s.
Take a look at this chart:
If you were born in the baby boom in the ten years after World War II you had more than a 7 out of 10 chance of earning more money than your parents. This baby boom coincided with an explosive economy and unprecedented opportunity for the baby boomer generation to move rapidly up the growing corporations without competition from a smaller previous generations that retired earlier.
Anyone aged 45 and below in 2021? You have about a coin flip’s chance of earning more than your parents.
Next add in a second factor.
Take a look at the chart at the left and you’ll notice a confusing trend. The middle class has been steadily shrinking since the 1970s while the lower and upper classes are increasing.
This means that more people than ever have entered the upper tier of the economy. However, this is offset with more people falling out of the middle class and into the lower class.
This isn’t just a story of inequality. It’s a story of an evaporating story that helped people make sense of their lives.
The American Dream is a middle-class dream. It is not one of excess wealth but one of a stable and fulfilling life built around a vibrant community and it appears that less and less people are able to engage in this script.
The upper class must be thriving right? Perhaps not. The best way to think of this is with three different economies and their own unique challenges with living a good life:
- Upper Class (20% of people): People in superstar tech companies are building their lives around expensive convenience and trying to distance themselves from the rest of society and finding that they have achieved the traditional American dream on paper, but are having trouble finding the important things that enrich their life.
- Middle Class (50% of people): People in the middle class who either envy the people in the new elite or are happy with the middle class but finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet let alone do better than their parents
- Lower Class (30% of people): People in the lower class think that they don’t have a damn chance working in their service economy jobs of ever achieving the American dream and the data says they are right.
Shifting economic conditions have nudged people to build more of their life around work and put shift away from local communities. Everyone still wants to do better than their parents but it requires a lot more mental energy devoted to work. Derek Thompson called this new ethic Workism and observed that it was a perfect “blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion.”
Lack of meaning is channeled into an endless search for the dream job that doesn’t exist.
As people put more emphasis on finding meaning at work they move away from the things that seem to matter: relationships, community and connection. Social capital gets built but the playgrounds remain empty.
Increasingly, much of the middle-class has moved away from the stable foundations that made up the middle class for long and are sensing that they too should orient more of their life around work so that they don’t too fall out of the middle class.
This leads to a vicious cycle.
Many of these people are still tied to the idea that if you work hard you’ll be taken care but are frustrated to find that unless you are working in the tech economy or in an elite city hard work isn’t all that helpful and that if you end up rich and working all the time, you might not find your life all that meaningful.
Accidental meaning doesn’t work anymore
We need new scripts for how we think about work. I’m not sure what this looks like but hard work and full-time work for the average person no longer delivers the goods. While new dreams are being hatched in the promise of the creator economy, the results might be even more polarized than the traditional economy.
Right now you own your own meaning and you’ll need to take steps to make sure that you are actively designing your life. This is the advantage anyone who has taken a break or dabbled with self-employment knows. Everyone is operating in the gig economy carving their own path but the knowledge of this is not widespread. The 2020s will be the decade we stop believing in the work hard and you’ll be taken care of script.
Meaning doesn’t happen by accident anymore. It only happens when we figure out what matters.