Every day the Universe
Asks you who you are—
You answer with what you think,
what you do, what you say.
Some time ago I wrote about post-materialism and it sparked a lot of interest. Some things have changed. My son has graduated and is struggling like most young people today. A generation that grew up believing they could do anything, be anything, is discovering that truth my generation sold them was wildly over-blown. Maybe even a lie. And a good lot of the twenty-somethings did everything we told them to. They went to college, got their degrees, took on debt when necessary, and tumbled full force into the real world. Young people with so much potential and so much to offer are stuck in minimum wage jobs, if they can get those. Many have bounced back home. Never have we seen so many twenty and thirty-somethings living in their parents’ basements. Never!!
This situation has become a topic I return to again and again, and it’s with a very heavy heart. I look at my daughter and son, friends, family, and neighbors where no one in this generation is thriving. Some are doing better than others, but when compared to the opportunity available to my parents and my own generation, it’s obvious it’s a different world. The recession is supposedly over and unemployment low. But we have not gone back to what we were, and sadly, we probably never will.
In the current reality, I think it bears asking is post-materialism valid? Valid only for a few?
Ronald Inglehart developed the idea of post materialism in the 1970s as a sociological theory to explain an ongoing transformation of individual values within a society. He argued that as western nations achieved a level of economic prosperity and physical security, its members transformed their values seeking more autonomy and self-expression. Ah, this sounds a lot like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As people meet their basic survival requirements, we move up the pyramid until we are striving for self-actualization. Maslow confined his theory to how individuals are transformed and Inglehart wanted to see how societies as a whole might be transformed.
So to be a post materialist, you must first meet your basic survival needs (food, shelter, security). OK, done (for me). But not for young people who are living paycheck to paycheck without benefits.
Once your basic needs are met you move up Maslow’s hierarchy and as you do, you start to realize you’re no happier than when you were struggling. This brings to mind Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness. I believe it was in that book I first learned American happiness peaked in the 1950s. BEFORE I WAS BORN! Sixty plus years later, we have higher incomes, higher levels of education, better health care, bigger houses, more cars but we are less happy overall. Remember when we were told (and believed) that he (or she) who has the most toys wins? We played the game, we toed the line, we consumed and bought all the right stuff, we competed with the Joneses, and we became… less happy. Maybe we were even miserable because the promise of happiness slipped away as we had to go looking for a storage shed to rent for all the loot that was supposed to make us positively giddy.
We looked around and saw it wasn’t working. We stopped playing the game. We got rid of the excess stuff and looked inside to see what would fill the void. We began to talk about “downsizing”. The value shift from possessing things to experiencing and self- expression took hold.
Inglehart recognized that younger people (raised in economic security) were more likely to identify with the values of post materialism. But older people who were raised with the struggle of material existence may or may not shift out of that paradigm.
So given the current environment, we’ve essentially taken an economically secure generation and thrown them into struggle. We’ve kicked the chair out from underneath them. Inglehart probably didn’t see that coming. Values, I believe can be molded in adversity. I would expect today’s younger people to begin to identify with materialistic thinking because they will struggle to obtain the basics in life. Post-materialism as mainstream probably can’t happen if the majority of younger people haven’t met their basic needs. Post-materialism may now be relegated to a minority, elitist idea. Or, perhaps the younger generation can strike a new path to balance. It remains to be seen.
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(How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God)
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014
I’ve always regarded the word atheist as a quagmire. What does it mean, really? People mean so many different things in using it. Even after reading Watson’s book, I’m still puzzled. So let’s more away from that term and look at the meat of the book.
Watson traces the history of thought following Friedrich Nietzche’s 1882 pronouncement, “God is dead.” The big questions about the meaning of life and how to live it are quested after by artists, writers, poets, philosophers, and scientists. The 626 page tome follows hundreds of individuals and their pursuit to answer the stickiest of questions in a post-modern world where salvation doesn’t exist.
This is a book for everyone because it is about our collective history. Unless you have a PhD in philosophy, you won’t know all the people Watson brings up in his survey, but names like James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and countless others, will ground you in the familiar. Some chapters are absolutely fascinating. Did you know that some people thought poetry would supplant God? Or that many intellectuals looked forward to WWI as a way to purge the modern age? Other chapters are a slog to get through. But persist.
Watson takes us on a journey to understand where we’ve been and perhaps where we’ve going. In the end, we see the search for meaning seems to be universal and that many have answered the call by looking to transcend this life while others (the subject of Watson’s book) look for meaning in this world in diverse and rich ways.