Are we as Americans basking in the sunlight of our strong economy? Or are we more like Henny Penny, believing that the sky is falling? As much as I hate to say it, it seems that the predominant feeling in the US is one of anxiety, unhappiness, and fear, these days.
We are living in a bit of a paradox. Americans have reported that, when it comes to their personal well-being, the majority aren’t feeling particularly happy. This information comes via a study conducted by Gallup and health-information outfit Sharecare, which found that, between 2016 and 2017, Americans have experienced large dips across a variety of “well-being measures.” Included in the report were more instances of folks feeling physical pain, worry and downright depression.
Compare this to data on the US economy, which show substantial growth. For instance, unemployment has reached 20-year lows, while wages are starting to increase and inflation remains docile. Perhaps more importantly to our feelings is that earlier this year, consumer confidence was higher than its been in almost two decades. While more recent data indicate that this index is cooling a bit, folks still seem to be optimistic about the economy.
So, it’s pertinent to ask, “What gives?” Why are we, as a nation, feeling so low in light of all the good economic news?
There are a few theories out there about what’s contributing to our collective depressed mood. One of the most predominant ideas centers on the role of technology in our everyday work and personal lives.
It is pure fact that we have made technological leaps and bounds over the past several decades. While much of this technology has made our new modern world easier to navigate, it has also lead to dread about just how much is too much tech – specifically, whether our ever-expanding capabilities will render a plethora of jobs obsolete.
This is a fear that does have a rational basis. As but one example, we’ve all heard of the “Retail Apocalypse,” painted as the end of brick-and-mortar retail in the wake of the rise of Amazon and e-commerce. But this is not the full story.
Often overlooked is the fact that retail employment has been geographically trending alongside population growth, which suggests that there hasn’t been any major change to retail jobs yet. And there is also the point that, with any major technological change, even if certain jobs become obsolete, new jobs are created to fill their place.
The best example of this phenomenon, called “creative destruction,” is with the proliferation of Automatic Teller Machines (“ATMs”).
Back in the 1970s, ATMs hit the banking scene. A couple of decades later, between 1995-2010 to be precise, the number of ATMs ballooned from 100,000 to 400,000. As you can imagine, people were concerned that traditional bank teller jobs would be rendered extinct. Instead of evaporating the job pool, however, ATM innovation had the opposite effect.
The number of bank teller jobs increased from 500,000 to 550,000. Why? Because ATMs reduced the cost to operate a branch by reducing the number of tellers required. So, banks opened more branches, tellers became “relationship managers,” and these employees saw a shift in their jobs, as they had more time to spend with customers. All of these changes occurred when ATMs were implemented to handle routine transactions.
If we look closely, we can see a similar shift happening in e-commerce. Big hitter Amazon has had to open more warehouses, and the recent acquisition of Whole Foods has opened the door to a whole new way of grocery shopping, resulting in the creation of grocery hubs and personal shoppers. So, while the jobs that are available to Americans may look different, there will still be jobs, nonetheless.
And then there is the influence of technology in our personal lives. According to some experts, social media is making folks unhappy. How? There’s Facebook, which can make us jealous of our friends (they took another vacation!). Then there’s Twitter, that hotbed of political fighting, and Instagram, that other platform that shows us just how much better off other people are and everything we’re missing out on.
Our cell phones are now tiny computers with never-ending access to the worldwide web. They can be as addictive as any drug, and it’s an obvious truth that the more time we spend on our screens, the less time we have for actual human interactions. It’s become almost instinctual for us to reach for our phones when we have even a moment of downtime.
Many experts believe that technology and social media have become such a massive part of our modern society that they must be a part of the problem with how we’re feeling, leading other commentators to advocate for a “digital Sabbath” once a week from all social media and email.
Of course, seeing the economic glass as half-full (even in the best of times) is hardly a new phenomenon. To borrow from Gilda Radner’s great character Roseanne Roseannadana, “It’s always something – if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” In the 1970s we worried that inflation and an oil shortage would bring the US economy to its knees. Even in the go-go 1980s, we fretted that Japan was going to eat our lunch. Then it was the dot.com bust. Then came the housing meltdown.
And yet, here we are in 2018, not just surviving, but thriving in an economy that features record-high market numbers, and incredibly low unemployment.
We, humans, are wary by nature; we’re always sniffing for a whiff of danger. That trait has served us well since we were both hunters and prey on the African grasslands. But when I sniff the economic wind today, I still smell possibility.