Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Layer 228 . . . Life Begins At . . .

Remember when people used to talk about life beginning at 40? Channel 4 are currently running a series of programmes called Life Begins at 60.

I guess the meaning of this expression used to be that after passing the age of 40 people usually had more confidence, more money, more opportunities for self-expression and enjoyment, etc. Child rearing used to be pretty much over by that age, and more freedom and autonomy were potentially on offer. Even if you were still responsible for kids, they were normally past the stage of needing constant attention and supervision by the time you reached 40.

Of course life could still be wonderful before the age of 40, but as a young(ish) adult you were still in many ways a work in progress, and not fully formed. Becoming a mature human being, and possibly at one with yourself and the world - self-actualised as it were - was something to look forward to, and a thing to appreciate when you got there.

With the passing of the decades and the Americanisation of our society, people tend to work harder, commute further, work longer hours and become more exhausted. These days many people no longer feel in control of their lives, as they career ever-onward with their careers and their busy, busy existences, getting and spending money, trying to keep their heads above water.

For many people these days a new life can begin at 60(ish), in the sense that post-retirement they can finally get out of the rat race and start to fully enjoy their lives. Not having to spend time doing zillions of things you'd much rather not be doing, you can finally focus on the things that really matter, whatever they may be. Even for those who love their work, their profession and their careers, there can be a huge benefit in starting to live differently, away from a lifetime of duties and responsibilities.

I mentioned in Layer 226 Jeff Koons's remark, “We should follow our interests and focus on them. There's nothing else you can do in life.” Which is all very well, but being a committed professional, or just someone who's trying earn money so that their family can live well, may well mean that many other interests have to fall by the wayside. Post-retirement, people really can follow their true interests, whether or not they're able to make money from them.



How much money is enough?
By Robert Skidelsky


In 1930, Keynes predicted that by 2030, we'd be working a 15-hour week. But he underestimated our appetite for wealth
The economic downturn has produced an explosion of popular anger against bankers' "greed" and their "obscene" bonuses. This has accompanied a wider critique of "growthmanship" – the pursuit of economic growth or the accumulation of wealth at all costs, regardless of the damage it may do to the earth's environment or to shared values.
John Maynard Keynes addressed this issue in 1930, in his little essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren". Keynes predicted that in 100 years – that is, by 2030 – growth in the developed world would, in effect, have stopped, because people would "have enough" to lead the "good life." Hours of paid work would fall to three a day – a 15-hour week. Human beings would be more like the "lilies of the field, who toil not, neither do they spin."
Keynes's prediction rested on the assumption that, with a 2% annual increase in capital, a 1% increase in productivity, and a stable population, average standards of living would rise eight times on average. This enables us to work out how much Keynes thought was "enough." GDP per head in the United Kingdom in the late 1920s (before the 1929 crash) was roughly £5,200 ($8,700) in today's value. Accordingly, he estimated that a GDP per capita of roughly £40,000 ($66,000) would be "enough" for humans to turn their attention to more agreeable things.
It is not clear why Keynes thought eight times the average British national income per head would be "enough." Most likely he took as his standard of sufficiency the bourgeois rentier income of his day, which was about 10 times that of the average worker.
Eighty years on, the developed world has approached Keynes's goal. In 2007 (ie, pre-crash), the IMF reported that average GDP per head in the United States stood at $47,000, and at $46,000 in the UK. In other words, the UK has had a five-fold increase in living standards since 1930.
It is likely that Keynes's "target" of $66,000 will be achieved for most western countries by 2030.
But it is equally unlikely that this achievement will end the insatiable hunt for more money. Let's assume, cautiously, that we are two-thirds of the way towards Keynes's target. We might therefore have expected hours of work to have fallen by about two-thirds. In fact they have fallen by only one-third – and have stopped falling since the 1980s.
This makes it highly improbable that we will reach the three-hour working day by 2030. It is also unlikely that growth will stop – unless nature itself calls a halt. People will continue to trade leisure for higher incomes.
Keynes underestimated the weight of “relative” needs, especially as societies got richer, and, of course, the power of advertising to create new wants, and thus induce people to work in order to earn the money to satisfy them. As long as consumption is conspicuous and competitive, there will continue to be fresh reasons to work.
Keynes did not entirely ignore the social character of work. "It will remain reasonable," he wrote, "to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself." The wealthy had a duty to help the poor.
Keynes did not really confront the problem of what most people would do when they no longer needed to work. He writes: "It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional economy." But, since most of the rich – "those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties" have "failed disastrously" to live the "good life," why should those who are currently poor do any better?
Here I think Keynes comes closest to answering the question of why his "enough" will not, in fact, be enough. The accumulation of wealth, which should be a means to the "good life," becomes an end in itself because it destroys many of the things that make life worth living. Beyond a certain point – which most of the world is still far from having reached – the accumulation of wealth offers only substitute pleasures for the real losses to human relations that it exacts.
Finding the means to nourish the fading "associations or duties or ties" that are so essential for individuals to flourish is the unsolved problem of the developed world, and it is looming for the billions who have just stepped on to the growth ladder. George Orwell put it well: "All progress is seen to be a frantic struggle towards an objective which you hope and pray will never be reached."

There are several interesting responses to this on the Guardian's CiF, including,

I would love an explanation from Dr Skidelsky -- or anyone else -- of the apparently insatiable need of the rich to acquire more and more wealth. What human being, what family even, needs billions of dollars or pounds to live a good, comfortable, secure, even luxurious life? There seems to be something which impels millionaires and billionaires to go on adding to their fortunes ad infinitum -- or perhaps I should say ad nauseam -- regardless of how much actual use it can be to them.
This does not arise from envy on my part -- at nearly 80 I have enough money for my needs and don't want any more. I am just intensely curious and desirous of understanding this strange phenomenon.

I know quite a few people earning what I consider large amounts of money. None of them are particularly happy but they are all considerably happier than the people I know who are living on paltry benefits and being treated like criminals by the DWP.
The happiest I know (not a scientific survey obviously) are those who have medium or even low - but not appallingly low - incomes and time to spend on family and friends.
As someone who has been forced out of the rat race by illness I know when I re join it it will be on a part time basis and hopefully doing something that I enjoy.
We only have one life. Unfortunately those struggling to earn more and more and more and voting to keep more and more of that wealth all to themselves are not only ruining their own lives - they are messing it up for the rest of us.

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