This is the first generation of Americans in modern history expected to enjoy lower living standards than their forebears. It is the first generation in modern history whose life expectancy is dwindling. It is the first generation of modern Americans whose educational attainment is declining. It is the first generation of modern Americans who face less opportunity than their parents.
Shorter, nastier, dumber, harder, bleaker. That’s the future for not only Americans, but for many in the world’s richest countries.
Let me be clear why this is so remarkable. It’s not that the great wheel of prosperity is merely decelerating. It is that it actually seems to be turning backwards. The great wheel of progress already ground to a halt—several decades ago, if measured in terms of average incomes. And the real danger now? That it may be beginning to spin—in reverse.
Perhaps it’s just a blip. Perhaps it’s a temporary malfunction. Perhaps I’m overreacting — after all, the economy’s growing, right?
Yes… it is. And that’s precisely the problem.
For that is what tells us we are in truly uncharted water. The economy is indeed “growing.” But the top 1 percent have taken 95 percent of the gains in this so-called “recovery.” The plain fact is that the average household is poorer in the “recovery” than during the “recession.”
We cannot suggest that an economy is perfectly fine—nay, even healthy—just because a tiny number are growing richer while the lives of the vast majority are literally growing shorter, nastier, dumber, harder, and bleaker.
I can think of many other examples of progress slowing. Of prosperity decelerating. The great wheel’s motion is never even; there are bumps in the road of human progress — sometimes the great wheel spins furiously, sometimes, it hums along gently, and sometimes, it sputters and strains.
I can think of almost no other example in the history of modern democracies of progress actually becoming regress. Short of war or cataclysm, it is literally unprecedented. And that’s not the half of it. It’s unprecedented…because it should be impossible. If the rich get richer, it should be precisely because they create goods of real value to people, which elevate their living standards. In a working economy, “growth” should reflect real prosperity multiplying.
But when growth rises and living standards fall? That begins to hint that there is something wrong—very wrong, perhaps terribly wrong—with the way things are. It suggest that what is happening to this society is not merely a simple, passing, self-healing ailment; but a chronic, possibly permanent, definitely debilitating condition. Not a flu—but a cancer.
Economics has no language—no word—to describe this condition: one in which the economy is “growing” but human progress is reversing. It’s not a depression—for that’s a situation where growth flatlines. It’s not a recession—for that’s just a temporary setback in growth. A “dark age” would signify both a decline in growth and a decline in living standards.
We have no words for this condition because economics has no concepts with which to fully grapple with—let alone understand—it. And economics has no concepts with which to understand this condition because economics believes, more or less, that it simply isn’t possible. Progress cannot go backwards when an economy is “growing”; because growth, as I’ve noted, is believed by the acolytes of the cult of economics to be the alpha and omega of human prosperity.
What, then, do we call it?
For we must give it a name, this secret hidden in plain sight. The secret that, if it were to be mentioned, would—and should—instantly discredit our leaders. Would and should silently condemn our institutions.
Given that the growth rises even as life expectancy, mobility, and educational attainment fall — that GDP expands even as the lives of the vast majority contract from shrinking health, intelligence, income, wealth, relationships, stability, security, meaning, and purpose — I suggest we call it a Great Inversion.
In this post-recession twilight zone, our economy is upside-down and inside-out.
I won’t pretend to smile, pat you on the back, and offer you bullet-pointed “solutions.” Because to a phenomenon this great, this unprecedented, this historic? I don’t believe there are any.
But I do believe that maybe, just maybe, if we have the wisdom to think through the above, the empathy to feel the tremendous suffering the future already surely holds, and the courage to see what is right in front of us—well, then, maybe, just maybe we can reach another turning point.
Not one in which human progress goes into reverse. But in which it goes into overdrive. In which the great wheel hits the redline and we all surge forward.
That’s the real challenge of the 21st century. Not just more tired, piecemeal incrementalism; not more excuses for a broken status quo; not more apologists and yes-men for leaders barely worthy of the term; not more dead ideologies and empty dogmas—the very ones that led to a Great Inversion. But revolutions. Millions of them. In every mind; in every undreamt dream; in every skyward eye. In every life.
Source: by Umair Haque, Harvard Business Review