Are we imprisoned by growth?

Photo by Anthony DeLorenzoEconomic growth and technological progress have brought us many privileges, especially in the last 200 years or so. Inventions like computers and the internet have indeed completely changed the face of the world. But we owe a lot to ideas such as specialisation of labour. The modern economy has basically evolved from a series of fragmented (and primarily self-serving) tribes into a giant machine with many gears to be oiled and turned.

The idea is that each individual has turned into an instrument for local society, specialising in one specific cog. Whilst incentives are still designed to allow us to be self-serving (the wage ladder), the larger goal is to perpetualise the ever-growing economy. It’s a very smart and elegant idea, and one that early economic thinkers were insightful to realise.

Early progress in this area obviously led to a big improvement in quality of life for people living in such a society. But fast forward to where we are now. The last few generations, at least in the more developed world, have been relatively comfortable compared to most of history. People in these economies, who now don’t really have to worry about basic survival requirements, have freed up cognitive space to think about their ‘happiness’. And the context of this happiness has changed. There is a need for greater fulfilment of personal goals, a greater opportunity to become aware of one’s own tastes and a requirement for ambition beyond that of survival and reproduction.

I feel that these two facts – the progress of economy and the need for personal fulfilment – are now somewhat at odds with other. The machine keeps going if the wheels keep turning (with the occasional ‘grease’ provided by policy). But the wheels have evolved into spheres that aren’t restricted to movement in one dimension any more. Yet, these spheres are forced to move along the same dimension.

There has been a liberation of understanding provided by increasingly better education, and a massive increase in labour mobility (you have a lot of freedom in deciding which wheel to be). But once you have picked a path, socio-economic expectation is that you roll along that one dimension for the larger part of your life. Indeed, this is the best way to move the giant machine forwards. If the wheels-that-are-now-spheres decided to go in different directions, progress would be much less effective. The big question is, are we near, or have we reached a point where the benefits to the individuals in an economy by the constant churning of growth are no longer as great as the individual satisfaction that would be achieved by allowing for a less rigid societal structure?

I don’t know the answer. Abandoning the economic philosophy entirely would obviously be a bad thing. It’s brought humanity very far in a very short space of time. But should we continue to push children through an education system that highly values very specific traits and attributes, and to a large extent, outcasts unconventional thinking? Should we punish individuals for having multiple talents and not wanting to be pigeonholed doing the same task in one narrow area for the rest of their lives? Should we continue the regimented ‘work week’ and devote more and more hours out of our lives to an arbitrary institution that we are conditioned to endorse to prevent ourselves from having an existential breakdown?

A possible argument is that, yes, we are able to opt for more freedom to move in multiple directions after leaving school, as long as we are prepared to sacrifice income. I think that line of reasoning is only partially true. People are highly influenced by social pressures. Relative incomes are as important, if not more so, than absolute incomes. There are expectations placed upon individuals if they want to have a family or be perceived as successful amongst their peers. Aside from this, there is often very little acknowledgement that you are doing anything ‘worthwhile’ if you decide to leave the beaten path. Rather than having an equal footing to pursue your individual talents and interests, you may well end up finding yourself in a constant battle to validate your existence in the face of the rest of the world. Hence, the wage vs freedom tradeoff is not that simple. Uncertainty, lack of security and a lack of support would also play a role.

I asked a professor yesterday whether all economists stick to one line of research, because I find it difficult to constrain myself to one interest at any given time. He replied that, although he sympathised because he shared my view, unfortunately it was also true that specialisation in one very small area was the most efficient way forward in research as a whole. My question is this: are all spheres content with being constrained to move in one direction, and are we  neglecting the potential for interesting tangents by doing so?

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