One of the main themes in this presidential race is whether our kids will have better lives than us. I hope they do, but I often wonder what each candidate thinks would constitute a better life, what it is we should truly seek for those who come after us.
Because it can’t all be about bigger houses and more cars and better toys, can it? Not still.
What about freedom from fear and connection to community? What about free time to relax, for friendships, to play with grandchildren and care for parents? What about a beautiful and clean planet? What about serenity and gratitude and all the other things that do so much more than designer jeans and large green lawns to bring us peace and happiness?
Historically, most folks didn’t have enough stuff, and the stuff they did have wasn’t, by our modern standards, very good.
So if you asked the average Joes or Janes in the year 1150 what they desired for their kids, mom and dad likely would have answered, “Well, not being gnawingly hungry at all times would be lovely. Not living in crowded, squalid filth. Not being annoyingly hot or achingly cold quite so often. Fewer bedbugs would be lovely, and not, you know, dying giving birth or from the fever ’n’ ague at age 17. Maybe one book of their own to read at night and the schooling to do so.”
We’ve come a long way. Many of us are so much more prosperous and materially blessed than the average person was in 1945 or even 1975, particularly in the United States, that it’s beginning to seem like further meaningful quality-of-life improvements might be best focused on stuff other than stuff.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, living space per person in the United States has almost doubled since 1973 — from about 500 feet per person to about 1,000. Houses and apartments are much better and much bigger, and they’re shared by significantly smaller households. That average household had 1.86 cars in 2009, up from 1.16 in 1969. And the majority of them have modern climate control and dishwashers and washing machines and cable television and vacuum cleaners and so many powerful gadgets, from the Kindles to the desktops to the laptops to the iPads to the iPhones, that they could easily outcompute anything NASA had until a few decades ago.
Not everybody is this prosperous, and lifting up those who aren’t is an important personal and national challenge. If you do not have these things, your vision of a better future will include them, and so should our societal vision for a richer tomorrow.
But for people who have achieved a reasonable level of material comfort, shouldn’t we wish for more for our kids and grandkids than just more?
A 5,000-square-foot house is not necessarily better than a 2,500-square-foot house. An iPhone 26 won’t, I fear, be much better than the 6. You can only drive one car at a time or wear one pair of shoes. At some point, belongings become chores. You work for them, maintaining passwords and warranties and lawns and huge homes, more than they work for you. The “tiny house” movement shows people are feeling the oppression of possessions.
We don’t want to go backward, and many fear we might. Few would be comfortable with our kids having less. Stabilizing the economy, job market and social structure to minimize that fear and keep the middle class prosperous and growing is the main challenge for our leaders.
But beyond that, when our potential leaders talk about giving our kids a better life, it’s hard not to wonder what they mean. And to wonder whether they know what kind of world and life we’d truly like our children to enjoy.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.