The Good Old Days

Life is more complicated for many Americans today than it was for previous generations.  The pace of life is faster, and overall we just seem to be a lot busier.  This leads to a bunch of questions, such as:  Has the world really changed?  Can we reverse the trend?  Whether or not we can, how can we find satisfaction in today’s world?

First, let’s step way back and recognize that progress has brought more work, not less.  In fact, anthropologists have compared hours of work across different cultures.  To do this, they had to include everything people do to maintain their life — not just going to traditional workplaces, but also providing and maintaining food, clothing, shelter, transportation and so on.  By that definition, cleaning house, cutting the grass and washing the car would be included as “work”.  Planting a flower garden or reading the newspaper wouldn’t be work.  Since they couldn’t go back in time, the scientists compared work weeks across various contemporary cultures — ranging from modern developed societies through the more rustic cultures of the developing world.  It turns out that hours of work increase from the most “primitive” to the most “sophisticated” cultures.  The North American work week (all inclusive) averages out somewhere above 50 hours per adult, while at the other extreme, the most isolated jungle tribes (in places like the Amazon Basin and the forests of New Guinea) have a work week as short as 12 hours per adult!  Think about it:  These folks don’t have to constantly learn new skills — they already know how to find the right fruit and catch the right small animals.  Their wardrobe (if any) never goes out of fashion.  They never worry about keeping up with their boss’s changing demands, cutting the grass or replacing the furnace filters.  Maybe they’ve got it made.

Before we rush off to buy a ticket for Brazil, let’s pause for a moment to recognize that the  jungle tribes of today are the survivors.  There are no more saber tooth tigers, and where their modern successors (tigers, leopards etc.) are abundant, the human tribes were either wiped out or evolved rapidly towards gun ownership.  Isolated tribes today have got to be pretty well adapted to the local flora, fauna and diseases.  So, it would be impossible for the billions of people who cover the rest of the earth to consider adopting their lifestyle.

But how about a more modest return to the “simple life” of our more recent ancestors?    After all, many of us have a nostalgic idea that life in small town America two or three generations ago was simpler and less frantic.  Some people long for a return to that “healthier” way of life.  I’m not buying that either.  Diseases like influenza and polio killed or crippled millions;  women had very few opportunities outside traditional roles, and were generally expected to be subservient to men;  African Americans suffered blatant discrimination;  discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was much worse than it is today;  basically, there was much less tolerance for any kind of diversity.  Meanwhile, globalization is here to stay, society at the speed of electronics is the new norm and most people are not ready to give up homes maintained to 21st century standards.

So if the fast-paced and complex modern world is here to stay, how can we make it feel like this is progress?  How can we make this world more satisfying? Where do we fit in?  I think these are the most important questions for most people.  I also think they are generally best answered at an individual level.