The Economic Roots Of Your Life Crisis
Iknow: it’s not manly, dignified, or barely mentionable in polite conversation. But here’s the thing. Lately, I’ve been in the middle of a fullblown where-is-it-all-going-and-what’s-thepoint- anyways life crisis. Dragged kicking and screaming to a party where I couldn’t handle the small talk, after a while I finally just blurted out: “I’M HAVING A LIFE CRISIS AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT!” After staring at me pitifully for a moment or two, my friends admitted one by one: “So am I.” Which left me a little puzzled — because, of course, I thought I was the only one lucky enough to be having a life crisis. A few days later, I asked on Twitter: “Who’s having a life crisis?” Result: an angst-ridden tweetstorm of “me!” This thoroughly unscientific result has led me to ask: are we, just maybe, in the midst of an epidemic of life crisis? And if we are, why this tsunami of angst rumbling across the globe? Is it a generation spoiled by excess, too narcissistic to care whether Homeless Hotspots cross a line of basic decency? Is a life crisis the ultimate emblem of privilege, bastion of those who don’t have to worry about subsistence? While it’s true that none of us are perfect, I’d suggest that there’s a reason — beyond the infinite power of human superficiality — for our collective angst.
Here’s my hypothesis. We’re not having life crises (just) because we’re a little bit spoiled, vain, and shallow — but also because we live in an era of titanic institutional failure.
All around us, yesterday’s institutions are buckling and breaking, creaking and cracking (markets, governments, universities, corporations).
The point of institutions, their social utility, is to guide and shape human interaction in authentically beneficial terms — to provide welllit, familiar paths to living meaningfully well.
Institutions are a little like highways, whose destination is prosperity: get on the highway, take the right exit, and voila. Or at least they were: today, those highways are crumbling, and more and more of us are slowly beginning to find out — sometimes, the hard way — that too often, they just might be roads to nowhere. Consider: decades of stagnant incomes (except for the richest); political gridlock reflected in dismal “approval” ratings; low rates of job satisfaction (nevermind actual fulfillment); record lengths of unemployment; marriage rates on the decline (again, except for the richest). No wonder only one in five parents think the next generation will have a better life.
Today, while our institutions might just barely keep the people formerly known as the middle class from hunting large mammals with stone axes, they’re tarnished when it comes to many of the facets of a meaningful prosperity — security, fulfillment, connection, humanity, purpose. And that, I’d bet, is what’s really behind today’s life crisis epidemic. As yesterday’s institutions continue to fracture, stutter, creak, and collapse, in the human world, it often feels as if we’re left adrift on the open ocean.
Today’s logic might be summarised thus, as two of my intellectual heroes, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, have recently argued in their new book, Why Nations Fail: “Join us — we’re here to take advantage of you.” Acemoglu and Robinson call these extractive institutions — and according to them, institutions that extract value, instead of creating it (in my language, institutions that don’t create thick value), are the roaring engines of decline.
A life crisis, I’d say, is a crisis of human potential foregone. It’s when you know you’re not living up to your potential, but it’s frustratingly difficult to see what, if anything, can be done about it. So what does one do about it? I think we dream big, and act bigger. For example: remember my tiny list of broken institutions? Put one in your crosshairs and reinvent it —not just in your own town, but so that your own town sets an example for the globe.
I think we have to subvert the rules. If institutions, as Nobel Laureate Douglass North once famously described them, are the “rules that shape human interaction,” then the rules are broken.
You know it, and I know it: if you play by the rules today, you’re probably going to end up broke, lonely, miserable, exploited, and empty.
When the rules are broken, never play by the rules.
I think we have to invest differently. If the future looks uncertain or desolate, perhaps that has as much to with what we don’t consider part of “the economy” — love, trust, purpose, passion, human growth — as what we do: money, machines, and shiny stuff lining the beige exurban aisles. Maybe it’s time to invest in the soft stuff — people, experiences, ideas, your own human, social, and intellectual capital — instead.
(The author is Director of Havas Media Labs and author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto.)