We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history, and if it lasts for another eight months it will be the longest ever. If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime.
The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled. As Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute recently noted, the median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year. Thanks mostly to government transfer programs, incomes for the bottom fifth of society have increased by about 80 percent over the past four decades.
And yet are we happy?
About 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago.
As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.
So why the long faces?
Part of the problem is Donald Trump. People can’t feel good about things when they think the country is disastrously led.
Part of it, as Noah Smith of Bloomberg theorizes, may be disappointment among the well-educated young. They graduated from college, saddled with debt, and naturally expected the world to embrace them as their parents and schools had done. Instead, many entered into the gig economy, where a lot of work is temporary and insecure. Normal professions for liberal arts grads, like the law, are drying up.
How many unpaid internships can you endure before you lose faith in the system?
But the biggest factor is the crisis of connection. People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.
And they are dying. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives.
And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.
Economic anxiety is now downstream from and merged with sociological, psychological and spiritual decay. There are thousands of employers looking for workers and unable to find any. Many young people do not have the support structures they need to persevere in school and get skills.
Many working-class men have not been raised in those relationships that inculcate the so-called soft skills. A 2018 LinkedIn survey of 4,000 professionals found that training for those soft skills — leadership, communication and collaboration — was the respondents’ highest priority. They valued these flexible skills more than specific technical ones, and find them in short supply.
There’s an interesting debate going on in conservative circles over whether we have overvalued total G.D.P. growth in our economic policy and undervalued programs that specifically foster dignity-enhancing work. The way I see it is this: It’s nonsense to have an economic policy — or any policy — that doesn’t account for and address the social catastrophe happening all around us. Every single other issue exists under the shadow of this one.
Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric that simply does not exist here.
To make the crucial differences, economic policymakers are going to have to get out of the silos of their economic training and figure out how economic levers can have moral, communal and sociological effect. Oren Cass’s book “The Once and Future Worker” begins this exploration, as do Isabelle Sawhill’s “The Forgotten Americans” and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.”
It’s not jobs, jobs, jobs anymore. It’s relationships, relationships, relationships.
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