Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 5, 2005
Boomers' sense of entitlement
Emerging global economies shake our lifestyle expectations
On the Other Hand
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
One of the strangest disparities in history," wrote Richard Weaver in his seminal Ideas Have Consequences, "lies between the sense of abundance felt by older and simpler societies and the sense of scarcity felt by the ostensibly rich societies of today." Weaver made that observation in 1948, at the opening threshold of the prosperous 1950-1970 era, confirming him as a visionary and prophet.
If his words resonated convincingly 57 years ago, they echo even more resoundingly today.
SENSE OF SCARCITY
I thought of Weaver's comment when it occurred to me that while several major stock indices have been flirting with record highs, unemployment in Canada is hovering around 30-year lows, and the federal and most provincial governments running at least modest surpluses, Canadians seem gripped by an oppressive sense of scarcity, focused particularly on record high oil prices (although crude is still, at $60+ a barrel, well below its inflation-adjusted peak of around $90 a barrel in the early 1990s).
However, scarcity angst has deeper roots than spiking prices at the pumps. Especially among the big baby boom generation, of which I am a member, there is a perception that the era delineated by the end of the Second World War and the 1973 Arab oil embargo represents a benchmark of economic "normality" to which we yearn to return.
Subjected to more careful analysis, those 27 years were a historical and economic aberration facilitated by a confluence of circumstances and events never before experienced in history and unlikely to be repeated.
The North American postwar economic boom, during which jobs were plentiful, wages steadily rising, mass-produced consumer goods increasingly plentiful and affordable, social security enhanced, and socio-economic mobility almost universally upward, was due in large part to the fact that the U.S. and Canada had been spared the wartime destruction and dislocation suffered by Europe and East Asia, which left those regions' economies incapable of exerting serious competitive pressure on North American industry.
Other elements of 1950s-'60s economic presumption were that the looming scarcity of raw materials and consequences of ecological and environmental degradation had only occurred to a few perceptive thinkers and barely registered on the vast majority.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. (I haven't found corresponding Canadian figures) the unemployment rate for married males averaged 2.7 per cent through the 1960s, making even layoffs and terminations only moderately traumatic. Overall, to those who grew up in that environment, it seemed like material prosperity, upward mobility and social security could all advance in lockstep.
NO ROSE-COLOURED GLASSES
But it's not that way anymore, and even when it seemed to be, the idea was illusory. In the fat and prosperous 1960s, average household income was, inflation adjusted, only about two-thirds of what it is today. A big part of the disconnect between nostalgia and reality is our higher expectations now of what constitutes material well-being and virtual necessity.
Our middle-class family owned a large home in a nice neighbourhood, but we got our first television (used, black and white) in 1962, around the same time as our first vacuum cleaner. We used a wringer-washer into the '70s, and things like automatic dishwashers, clothes dryers, and home air conditioning were considered luxuries of the very wealthy. Two or multi-car families were a rarity, even with gasoline at the equivalent of 12 cents a litre, and people drove less - 20,000 km a year being heavy use in those days.
And of course things like computers, iPods, the Internet, cable TV, video games, microwaves and a vast array of household, yard and home workshop appliances people consider almost basic necessities in 2005 didn't exist in 1965.
TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGING
Then there's the electric power it takes to run all that stuff. If we actually lived the way we did in the 1950s and '60s, it would certainly be a lot easier to make ends meet, even with a single breadwinner. (Speaking of which, eating out was an occasional treat back in the day - and ordering in virtually unheard of, although grocery stores delivered.)
Interestingly, the higher-in-real-terms incomes and material luxury enjoyed by most in the early 21st century don't feel nearly as secure or sustainable, and the feeling isn't entirely irrational. North American wage earners are obliged to compete in a global context, not only for employment, but also as consumers.
The biggest factor driving oil prices higher, for instance, is skyrocketing energy demand in the breakout economies of China and India, which are, not coincidentally, where many "offshored" erstwhile North American manufacturing and, increasingly, service jobs have gone - something we as a consumer culture addicted to material prosperity and upward mobility are going to find it a challenge with which to accommodate ourselves in coming decades.