Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Welcome To The "Woe Is Me" Generation

October 19, 1998

Thoreau in his book, "Walden," stated, "The cost of a thing is the amount of . . . life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." Time at work spent to acquire goods and services is the real measure of the cost of living. Our free market economy provides more and more goods at cheaper and cheaper prices.

Once a good or service becomes affordable and spreads through society, competition drives the price down. When it becomes commonplace, its price continues to fall even more. We have a standard of living that would make kings of former years redden with envy.

The following facts were taken from a report, "Time Well Spent: The declining real cost of living in America," published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Using average incomes as a base, a home in 1919 cost 7.8 hours of work time per square foot, a home in 1956 cost 6.5 hours per square foot, and a home in 1996 cost 5.6 hours per square foot. The modern home has air conditioning, central heat, dishwasher, garage, two or more bathrooms and a full range of kitchen appliances.

At the turn of the century, Americans spent 72 percent of their incomes for food, shelter and clothing. Today it is 38 percent. A new car worth $3,038 in 1955 took 1,638 hours of work while a similar 1997 model car valued at $17,995 took 1,365 hours of work. The cars of today have air conditioning, power steering, cruise control, air bags and other features. If you had wanted to take a coast-to-coast flight in 1951, it would have taken you 71 hours to earn it. In 1997, it takes only 16 hours.

I could go on and on. We are living better and feeling worse. The bounties of living in North America are great. Our cup overflows with material goods and yet there is no bounce in terms of happiness. What is going on?

Our attitude toward debt. One answer is that we are living beyond our means. We spend more than we take in. Too many choices, not enough discipline.

I heard a saying once that stuck with me: There are two kinds of people - those who understand interest and those who pay it. Statistics show that rates of credit card debt, consumer debt and bankruptcies are rising sharply.

It seems like half our junk mail is for new credit cards or tempting checks that can trigger a loan. This flood of easy credit cards can be as pernicious and enslaving as pornography. With the uncertainty of a tightly interdependent world economy, it is wise counsel to get out of debt.

Needs or wants? A second answer lies in our confusion about needs and wants. The engine of our vibrant consumer economy is fueled by super slick advertisements and the entertainment industry. Films and TV portray typical households lavishly furnished with the latest gadgets and gewgaws of technology. Our ever expanding horizon of wants is widened by the explosion of innovation and awareness. Little by little our wants become necessities.

"You can never get enough of what you don't need because what you don't need never satisfies." - Mary Ellen Edmonds from, "Thoughts for a Bad Hair Day."

Comparisons and happiness. Our happiness depends on who we choose to compare ourselves. If we are comparing ourselves with someone more fortunate, then we feel bad. If we compare ourselves with someone less fortunate, then we feel better.

The Joneses we are keeping up with no longer live next door. Our new neighbors are electronic guests in our home invited by the magic of television. The lifestyles we see are the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Well, not entirely. Our children and teenagers actually see how others live. They visit their friend’s homes and see what amenities they have. Each family may have something special. Nobody has it all. Children bring home wants and dissatisfaction - not from any particular lifestyle, but from the combination of perks they have seen. They want a lot.

An important task of parents is to teach children the value of money, to work for what they get, and to give them a chance to know and serve the less fortunate. This way, they won’t cultivate feelings of entitlement into self-centered narcissism. There won’t be nagging feelings of being deprived when, in fact, they are most fortunate. Or that something is wrong with them when they don't have what others have. Or living in fear of not having all they want.

What about adults? We are susceptible too. What we don't know is that when we get close to the Joneses, they refinance.

In the midst of the myriad of affordable goods and services, we need to say no to ourselves and to our children. We need to be clear about what we want and need, appreciate what we have and live within our means. No matter how poor we are, or think we are, we become rich when we serve others and look after those less fortunate than ourselves.

With a little perspective and good sense, we don't need to join the "woe is me" generation. We can live extremely well - and be content too.