James Michener published a slim volume in 1970, The Quality of Life. He wrote, however, of matters that affected people in general, America specifically, and all of us according to groups or group identities, or as Eric Hoffer characterized us: the masses.
Michener is a splendid novelist and one of my all-time favorites. In The Quality of Life he was sounding the alarm, and much of what troubled him then has come to pass. It is now, in its way, a depressing book.
Significantly, we did not heed his alarm, or enough of us did not, anyway, that we could exert any effect on the future. (I was an adult when it was published, and I read it soon thereafter.)
We are all concerned in one way or another for the plight of others, the course of history, the fate of humans everywhere. But daily and locally we must be concerned not so much for the masses but for ourselves, individually. A generation ago we were exhorted to “think globally, act locally.”
If a person is not comfortable as an individual, fulfilled, content, and hopeful, then he is unlikely to have a positive effect on any larger group: his family, neighbors, community, nation, or the world. I have, perhaps selfishly, sought to assure that I, the individual, am indeed comfortable from day to day, fulfilled in my personal pursuits, content with my lot, and optimistic. And yet, were I not so selfishly occupied — were my personal needs not being met, my effect on those around me might have been very unpleasant for all.
I am not at all concerned that there’ll be a shortage of work. There will be plenty of things for people to do. The problem is, they may be things that we don’t want to pay much money for.”David Siegel in Bloomberg
Bloomberg published an article 12 January 2021 reporting on interviews with three financial industry executives to learn their concerns for the future, meaning what worries them most.
Is it pestilence and pandemics? Asteroids? Global warming? Warfare and famine?
No. One focused on risks in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. The other two discussed concerns for the future of the human condition. The comment that stood out to me is quoted above.
One almost can’t be quoted in Bloomberg without acknowledging the chasm between the rich and the poor. Two of the three acknowledged that perennial blot on humanity. One of the three was concerned about high unemployment or under-employment and wide-ranging social unrest. The third, quoted above, had a more esoteric concern that what will be left for humans to do, to support themselves, may be tedious and unstimulating.
This latter expert’s concern assumes performing menial labor in exchange for a minimum-but-perpetually-inadequate wage will be the norm.
In his own words: What we’re doing today is finding more and more ways to essentially reduce the need to have humans involved with work. So much of the investment in business in America is to essentially automate away human labor or, even more curiously, to devalue human labor. -David Siegel
The Human Condition
It strikes me that all three financial executives, the “experts,” barely acknowledge the rest of the world. Their careers are in America’s financial dominance of world affairs. I am aware that there are more than mere pockets of humanity but whole nations — and I have reached such places in my travels — where people live no differently than their ancestors did a thousand years ago, but for the addition of T-shirts bearing commercial slogans and the presence of corrugated galvanized sheet metal for roofing.
Humans have withstood some horrible conditions, by modern American standards, and perhaps half the people in the world still do. If the conditions arise that the three financial executives in Bloombergs interviews worry about, modern Americans will be ill-equipped, mentally and physically, to adapt. But their children will and, better still, their grandchildren will. Because they can, and once they know no better, they will.
We can be poor again.
I have pre-adolescent grandchildren. They are too young to announce career choices yet. Indeed, I hope they are steered away from the notion that they must choose specific careers but that they might, instead, choose a way of life.
In my youth I fell in with Albert Jay Nock’s notion that one attends an institution of higher learning for one’s own edification — for tutelage under the best people, the real experts, in their fields of science or the arts, for instance. I earned a college degree in a “subject” which fascinated me before I enrolled in the program and about which I previously knew nearly nothing. What I would do “for a living” afterward didn’t really concern me. I was more concerned with where I might make my home than what I would do for a living once I settled down. (My college advisor called me an anachronism.)
I plan to use my influence with my grandchildren to counsel them similarly. If one decides to become a medical professional, for instance, well, then, that profession can be pursued almost anywhere. (I suspect that, in the future, it won’t be such a lucrative calling, though.)
I hope that my grandchildren will choose a way of life over a profession, though. And in choosing a way of life, one now faces a fundamental dichotomy: urban versus rural. If they attend college for job training instead of for edification, I hope they choose to be trained in a job that fits with each one’s chosen way of life and chosen environment.
As for me, I have been lured by open space, drawn close to the earth, pulled farther from the conveniences of urban congestion and its attending surfeit of human proximity. Were it not for the life I have led, I could more readily have spent my days nurturing monocotyledonous crops than navigating the vagaries of corporate federal compliance or the challenges of serving customers’ inscrutable preferences in mid-morning snacks, e.g., in a metropolitan coffee shop.
Quality of life, to me — and perhaps to many others, should they think about it — has been determined not by career, social status, entertainment, or excitement, but by family, peaceful surroundings, and meaningful after-work occupations to balance the stress and boredom in the job that brings home a biweekly payroll deposit.
It behooves a person, too, to recognize as early in life as possible that one is not going to be famous, rich, influential, beautiful, or long remembered. Expecting any of that leads to disappointment, stress, heartache, and poverty in spirit if not also in possessions. Those who have understood this and written well about it include Helen and Scott Nearing, Eric Hoffer, and E.F. Schumacher.
Caring for oneself and demanding no more of the world than one contributes to it is a theme in my novel, Cold Morning Shadow. As for the children: They have a choice. We need to make them aware that they do.