Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Declining Opportunities for "Earned Success"?

I am quite intrigued by Arthur Brooks' arguments about "earned success", which I have seen in several places but which are summarized nicely here. To briefly summarize, Brooks suggests that it is not ultimately income that correlates with happiness, but the feeling that our success (which yes, is often reflected in earnings) is the result of our drive, and that we have contributed in some way to improving humanity's condition. Whether that is by solving a scientific problem, making something useful for someone else, or creating beauty doesn't matter.

I agree with the notion, but I find it mildly depressing, because I believe that the future will offer fewer professional opportunities for earned success. Most of the people I know (and admittedly, New Yorkers and other northeast urbanites/suburbanites are an unrepresentative sample) do not feel their jobs are contributing towards anything bigger, at least not in any way they can observe.

And the future seems likely to create more of the same. Most of the jobs created in the western world are based on various types of information manipulation: packaging facts and ideas for consumption. It may be lucrative, it may even be challenging, but it quite often feels detached and utterly meaningless to the people in these positions. Our corporations, our systems of production and distribution, are so large that few people really have a view of how their contribution fits in. In other words, they feel they are part of a machine and not in control of their own success. This is even happening in healthcare, where doctors and nurses frequently complain that they spend much more time doing administrative tasks and less tending to patients.

This is not cause for despair, exactly. There will always be jobs in research, in the arts, and in engineering that offer what corporate positions increasingly do not: a sense that your effort makes an impact. And for the rest of us, we may have to find earned success in our families or our avocations as we are denied it in the working world.

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