There was a state of affairs in many places across the world that enabled many to build meaningful lives by 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 long, that people stopped thinking about why they were doing it.
I want to argue that the meaningful lives that resulted from this were accidental rather than as a result of following a certain path and that today, following this path might undermine one’s attempt to live a meaningful and happy life. Across the world, people are following this path and coming up short. They are doing what is expected of them and what they thought would make them happy. Yet their lives are filled with anxiety, stress, and a life lacking meaning. Why?
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.
We Want To Do Better Than Our Parents
The key part of the default path was not only that you succeeded by doing what everyone else was doing, but also 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.
When Steinbeck wrote that, a gold rush was underway. The US economy was still in the early days of a period called the “Great Boom” and anyone working in the US or other advanced economies was set to cash in on the enormous dividend of a global industrialization effort that would last well into the 2000s.
In addition to this, the baby boomers entered a workforce in the 1970s with little to no competition, as the biggest generation at every point throughout their entire careers and staying in senior leadership positions at most companies longer than anyone expected. As the economy has slowed to 2-3% growth per year, it has meant that current generations can no longer simply show up to work and know that everything will work out.
A central “fixed-point” as Venkatesh Rao puts it in the American Dream is owning a home. In 1975 the median house was around 500 square feet per household member. Now, it’s closer to 1000, and this is with smaller families, which means that people are buying bigger houses than previous generations despite having fewer kids. The cost of homeownership has also gone up as regulations, increasing financialization, and delayed housing purchases have all put pressure on a purchase that many adults had achieved by their mid-twenties.
Women have also entered the workforce to a massive degree but what this means is that less of life is built around local communities and more is built around accelerating a career. Instead of relying on local energy to solve problems, people now rely on outsourced providers and services to meet their needs to keep their career dreams going.
So people are working hard at working their way towards success but not realizing that they are not developing the skills or mindset that might help them learn how to live a life worth living.
People Have Stopped Having Faith In This Story (But Don’t Have An Alternative)
People have stopped believing that if they “work hard” and do what their parents did that they will earn the same rewards. While economists will argue that the following chart should be adjusted for household size, many young people now generally agree with the takeaway from the following graph:
They don’t trust that they will get what they think they deserve. As Seth Goding says, “the educated, hardworking masses are still doing what they’re told, but they’re no longer getting what they deserve.”
Another reason people have stopped believing this story is that the story has split into three different paths.
Research from Pew (see below) has shown that the middle class has been 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, which many people are falling back into the lower-income tier of the economy
This has taken the “American Dream” and turned it into three unique stories, each with its own flaws.
The American Dream was historically a middle-class dream. One where the differences between people were not as pronounced and it seemed that if you were working hard along with everyone else, that it was a fair game. However, that changed. Morgan Housel argues that things started changing in the 1980s and since then,
The economy works better for some people than others. Success isn’t as meritocratic as it used to be and, when success is granted, is rewarded with higher gains than in previous eras.
In a sense, the “American Dream” split into three different stories, all with their own issues.
- 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, once maintained by stay-at-home parents, people with time after work, and opting-in to a different kind of social ethic, 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 and at best they can get a taste of that upper-class luxury experience, if only for a little bit of time.
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.