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Why Our Children Will Be Better Off Than We Are -- In Ways That Matter

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Everyone wants their kids to be happy. No one wants their children to be worse off than them. So it becomes news when the Pew Research Center reports that the number of Americans who believe that their children will be better off than they are is in decline. The actual question was about our children's standard of living, and in the news reports this was automatically associated with "better off," the assumption being that economic success is the measure of well-being.

If we measure well-being just by consumer spending, household income, capital investment and similar signposts, the future is certainly in doubt. In a rebalancing world, all these measures are going to decline. There is an alternative way of thinking and a growing number of voices -- David Korten, the New Economics Institute, Olivia Saunders and Peter Barnes, plus the country of Bhutan (see article in Yes! magazine), for example -- who are defining what a new economics, a post-consumer society, would look like.

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It all begins with shifting what we value and counting what is in abundance and within our means. This means that measuring ourselves and our children by financial wealth is not news; it is not even particularly important and does them a great disservice. And if income as we know it shrinks, there will actually be some fringe benefits.

Our children will be better off than we are, but not because they will make more money.
Here are some measures that a new economic conversation will be taking into account:

  • Our children's health will be better. They already know more about nutrition, vitamins, exercise, smoking, fast food and weight than any of us knew at their age. Even if their actions are slow to catch up with what they know, the net effect will be better health.
  • They are going to pay more attention to the planet. They already know more about that, too. Over time their purchases, their way of building, traveling and relating to the earth will have to adapt to what the earth can hold. The environment may not get better, but how they relate to it will shift in a good direction.
  • They will find satisfaction within walking distance. More of what they want and need they will produce themselves or find nearby. This will result in a more satisfying life. With less money, the high cost of fuel and the shrinking traditional economy, they will have to participate in creating their own entertainment, growing their own produce, tending to their own children, wearing the same clothes longer, cooking what is in season and available.
  • They will barter and trade more. This means looking more carefully at what talents and resources are invisible but close at hand. Neighbors can be providing what we used to go to professionals for, like sewing, car repair, child care, health tips, pre-owned clothes and maybe even, some day, a cup of sugar.
  • They will have more passports. They will be more likely to have been in other cultures and maybe be less drawn to like-mindedness. Building walls may be the long-term political agenda for the West, but more of our children will have studied a second language and at least have met and been among the people that we want to keep out.
  • They will be more locally and self-employed. They will stop working at disappearing jobs with big companies. Which means they will be less mobile, keep what they have longer, learn to get by and be less dependent on others.

What this calls for is a shift in our assessment of well-being. It can no longer be about the money. New indicators of "better off" require a shift in what we measure -- from what is scarce, subject to competition, must be purchased and is disposable, to what is abundant, based on cooperation, homemade and can be conserved.

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of "Building Communities from the Inside Out" and the author of "The Careless Society." He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

Peter Block is founder of Designed Learning. They are coauthors of "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods." See other McKnight and Block posts at www.AbundantCommunity.com

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