Friday, March 12, 2010

Is there a progress paradox?

In his book, ‘The Progress Paradox’ (2004) Gregg Easterbrook suggested that if his readers’ great-great-grandparents materialized in the United States of the present day they might say that it is the realization of utopia, ‘except for the clamour and speed of society, and trends in modern music’ (p. xv). The supposed paradox is that people who live in the U.S. (and other countries with similar standards of living) ‘live in a favored age yet do not feel favored’ (p. xx).

The sub-title of Easterbrook’s book is ‘How life gets better while people feel worse’. His account of how practically everything in our lives has been getting better seems to me to be comprehensive and unassailable. However, I don’t think his suggestion that ‘people feel worse’ while life gets better stands up to scrutiny.

Easterbrook claims:
‘Today Americans tell pollsters that the country is going downhill; that their parents had it better ; that they feel unbearably stressed out; that their children face a declining future ...’ (p. xv).
Let us look at each of the claims made in the quoted passage, in turn:

Have Americans been telling pollsters that the country has been going downhill while their own lives have been getting better? The latest Gallup poll appears to provide support for that proposition: only 19 percent of Americans are satisfied with ‘the way things are going in the United States at this time’. But this data is highly volatile. Since this poll started in 1979 there have been three other periods of sub-20 percent satisfaction ratings - all of which have coincided with difficult economic times. In 1999, after several years of strong economic growth, about 70 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going. The evidence does not support the view that Americans have been telling pollsters that the country has been going downhill during periods when their own lives have been getting better.

Have Americans been telling pollsters that ‘their parents had it better’? No. In surveys conducted by the Pew Research Centre nearly two-thirds of respondents say that their standard of living exceeds that of their parents at the age they are now. The proportions have been similar in all survey years since 1994. (Chart here.)

Have Americans been telling pollsters that ‘they feel unbearably stressed out’? Not really. In a 2008 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 36 percent said they experience stress frequently, a similar proportion said they experience stress sometimes and the remainder claimed that they experienced it rarely or never.

Have Americans been telling pollsters that ‘their children face a declining future’? No, at least not in the survey results I have seen. Research by the Pew Research Centre suggests that the number of Americans who consider that the future will be better than the present substantially exceeded those who consider it will be worse in all years surveyed from 1964 to 2006. It would not be surprising if these numbers have turned around since the global financial crisis – but that could hardly be attributed to people feeling worse while life gets better.

In my view Easterbrook’s progress paradox is a myth.

If there is a progress paradox in the U.S. it relates to the happiness of particular groups rather than to the whole population. For example, there is a puzzle as to the causes of declining female happiness, which is discussed in a recent article by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.

There has also been a declining trend since the 1970s in the percentage of those who identify with the political left who are ‘very happy’. It might be possible to argue that this is a progress paradox if one could believe that self-styled progressives are actually in favour of progress.

Leaving that aside, Gregg Easterbrook’s thoughts about what he calls complaint proficiency might provide an explanation for the apparent decline in happiness of those who identify with the political left:
‘About many things, especially injustice, we should complain. But we practice complaining so much, and on so many minor issues, that we become too proficient: And then complain more, if only because we are confident we are good at it. Expressing gratitude or appreciation does not come easily to us because we practice it so little’ (p. 118).

No comments: