One amusing part of blogging is that people are constantly reacting to things you said years ago. The medium requires you to leave a trail of opinions that don’t change as you change. Visitors stumble across different spots on this trail and react in their own way. Some people like what they find and they follow the trail back to its source, which in this case is a 33 year old white man sitting on a rock eating a banana. Others don’t like what they find and move on, but many people tell you what they think of you first.
There are two interesting consequences of leaving several years’ worth of opinions pointing to your name and face. One, you end up having misgivings about almost everything you’ve ever written — because no one thing you say quite represents you — and two, people expect you to defend every point you’ve ever made, as if you are delivering it live.
As it does on a fairly regular basis, my “Designed Lifestyle” article caught fire last week, when it appeared on a big blog. Many of you are probably reading this post only because you followed the trail from that particular three-year-old breadcrumb. Welcome.
I have misgivings about 95% of my articles and the Designed Lifestyle piece is one of them. It’s a bit glib in places , and it implies a simpler and more conspiratorial relationship between workweek culture and big business than is probably there. The gist is true, though: consumer-product companies certainly want you to be unambitious outside of work, accustomed to paying for convenience, gratification, and other unnecessaries — and that the forty-plus-hour workweek is the greatest perpetuator of this unhealthy norm. Very-high-level marketing does exist, and it works.
I do understand the criticisms, and agree with many of them. But if you skim through the 500 opinions in the comment section, there’s one recurring criticism that I think is out to lunch: that the whole thing is the limited perspective of a privileged white boy, who is complaining about the evils of being employed when he should shut up and be happy that he has a job at all.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m privileged and always have been. Having a supportive family and a fully-able body are immeasurable blessings I did nothing to deserve. Being born in Canada alone is a tremendous privilege.
Having a job at a time when others don’t could also be viewed as a discrete privilege on its own, but I think that’s a little shortsighted. The incredible rights and personal freedoms that allowed me to work at my then-new job (or not work there) are far greater privileges, which afford a person far greater possibilities than any particular job could provide. By becoming a complacent collaborator in a system that limits the growth of both my species and myself, I am taking my greatest privileges for granted.
In other words, I’ve always felt that achieving a “decent life” by everyday consumer standards is a pitiful use of the incredible privileges available to a healthy, self-directed person living in the incredible age we live in. Staying employed by a big company whose aims are irrelevant (or just as often, completely perpendicular) to your own values for forty years and retiring to a house on the coast is the epitome of taking one’s Western privilege for granted. I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice to do that, but they are almost certainly leaving most of their gifts on the table.
Imagine, for a moment, that the internet-using class of the Western world is, right now, experiencing the peak of human civilization — that there will never be more opportunity, for the typical citizen, for making a great life than there currently is. The typical Westerner has never been more privileged, never had such a well-paved path to personal greatness and fulfillment. And imagine that during an era of incredible technology and possibility, most of these privileged people continued to overspend, underachieve, complain, and fill their time with minimal-return activities like watching reality television. If I’m mistaken, and what looks like widespread complacency is actually widespread happiness and fulfillment, then I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. Disregard this post and enjoy the day.
But those of you still reading may recognize that this scenario could easily be true; we may realize in 30 years that it will never again be as good as it was in 2013. There is absolutely no reason to believe that your privileges, no matter what they are or how they compare to those of others, will continue to increase indefinitely. Yet often people talk about “the state of the world today” as if these are the dark times. Every generation’s pessimists believe they’re living in dark times. They buy what network news sells: despair. This is Bob Dylan’s famous highway of diamonds with nobody on it. Right now.
Imagine arranging the lives of every person who has ever lived, in order of how much opportunity they had in their time, to do the kind of work they wanted to do and live the kind of life they wanted to live. Where do you think you fit? It’s extremely unlikely that you aren’t near the very top. Argue with that at your peril.
From my angle, it’s an incredible time to be alive. It’s never been easier to learn to do anything you want to do, for free. If you’re reading this page you have access to that power. Depending (slightly) on where you live, it has probably never been safer to say what you want to say, to find an audience for your ideas, to start your own business, to wear what you want, to go where you want and to love who you want.
It is possible you’re experiencing a set of political or social circumstances that truly limit you. I know there are readers everywhere, including countries with political violence and theocratic oppression. But the vast majority of you are sitting on a mountain of untapped privilege.
Use your privilege. For the sake of those who never had it, or even just for the times in your life when you had much less, make use of the insane powers afforded by widespread literacy, high levels of personal freedom, and access to the most empowering of human innovations: the Internet.
If this year were the peak of civilization, and in a few decades people looked back on the era we’re in as The Golden Age, the younger generation would view many of us the way we view lottery winners who end up broke. They would find it hard to believe you were waiting for a better time.
Photo by David Cain