Friday, July 31, 2015

The Cost of Stagnation: We're Living in Limbo

This erosion of opportunities to complete life's stages and core dramas is rarely recognized, much less addressed.
The idea that human life subdivides rather naturally into stages is based on our natural progression from childhood into adulthood and eventual (if we're lucky) old age.
Confucian thought views life as a developmental process with seven stages, each roughly corresponding to a decade: childhood, young adulthood (16-30), age of independence (30-39), age of mental independence (40-49), age of spiritual maturity (50-59), age of acceptance (60-69), and age of unification (70 - end of life).
Each stage has various tasks, goals and duties, which establish the foundation for the next stage.
Each stage is centered on a core human challenge: for the teenager, establishing an identity and life that is independent of parents; for the young adult, finding a mate and establishing a career; for the middle-aged, navigating the challenges of raising children and establishing some measure of financial security; for those in late middle-age, helping offspring reach independent adulthood and caring for aging parents; early old age, seeking fulfillment now that life's primary duties have been accomplished and managing one's health; and old age, the passage of accepting mortality and the loss of vitality.
The End of Secure Work and the diminishing returns of financialization are disrupting these core human challenges and frustrating those who are unable to proceed to the next stage of life:
1. Teenagers are being pressured to focus their lives on achieving a conventional financial success (see "Training for Discontent" in From Left Field) that is becoming harder to achieve.
2. Young adults without secure full-time careers cannot afford marriage or children, so they extend the self-absorption of late adolescence into middle age.
3. The middle-aged are finding financial security elusive or out of reach as they struggle to fund their young adult children, aging parents and their own retirement.
4. Increasing longevity is pressuring the late-middle-aged's stage of fulfillment, as elderly parents may require care even as their children reach their own retirement (65-70).
The financial pressures generated by the demise of financialization and the End of Secure Work are not just disrupting each stage; they are upending essential financial balances between the young, the middle-aged and the old.
The elderly, protected by generous social welfare benefits paid by current taxpayers, also benefit from the soaring value of assets such as real estate and stocks. Meanwhile, financialization's asset bubbles have pushed housing beyond the reach of most young people.
Downsizing, lay-offs, low-paying replacement work and poor decisions to buy houses near the peak of the prior bubble have left many of the middle-aged with high fixed costs and a stagnant or increasingly insecure income.
The stresses of trying to make enough money to afford what was once assumed to be a birthright--a "middle class" lifestyle--is taking a heavy toll on the mental and physical health of the middle-aged, leaving many of them too tired for any fulfilling activities and easy prey for destructive self-medication.
This erosion of opportunities to complete life's stages and core dramas is rarely recognized, much less addressed. We are constantly bombarded with messages to innovate, keep up, be fulfilled, etc.--essentially impossible demands for those with multiple generational and/or business duties.
The most workable and productive response to these financial disruptions is to focus not on what's scarce and fraught with intense competition (the top 5% slots of conventional financial security) but on what's still abundant, which is opportunities outside conventional hierarchies, ways of reducing fixed costs and life-skills that happen to be entrepreneurial, adaptive and fulfilling.
When I talk about the Mobile Creative class in Get a Job & Build a Real Career, I'm not talking about a finance-centric definition of success or a path to join the top 5% in Corporate America and the government. The herd is chasing those dwindling slots, too, guaranteeing frustration and failure for the 95% who won't secure one of those slots.
What we're really discussing is a way of living that places a premium on independent thinking, maintaining very low fixed costs, establishing a healthy honesty with oneself and one's associates and customers, the ability to make realistic assessments of oneself, one's successes, failures and errors, and a focus on challenges, opportunities, risks, adaptability, flexibility and experimentation, all with a goal of building one's own human, social and material capital--the foundations not just of well-being but of any meaningful measure of wealth.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 20. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to subscribers and major contributors ($50+/year).

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