Friday, May 26, 2006


Why Aren't we Happier?

Last Sunday's Observer carried an interesting piece by Andrew Rawnsley on what he calls the 'Age War'. In it he points out that the middle-aged generation, of which I am a member, is able to live it large on our wealth(we own 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth) and enjoy high disposable income, while our children’s generation is struggling to acquire the deposit for their first properties. In addition, in twenty years time, that fast diminishing proportion of society comprised by our hardworking children and grandchildren will be earning the money which will pay the generous pensions which we hope we’ll be enjoying. Rawnsley warns that, as we oldies vote like clockwork through a lifetime’s habit, our children need to acquire this ancient civic duty as well if they are even to stand a rat's arse of a chance of winning the opening engagements in the Age War. But the article for me prompted two further reflections.

Firstly, Rawnsley has misjudged the sheer scale of advantage which we enjoy. We are almost certainly the most favoured generation in the history of the world and members of my pub quiz team never tire of reciting the smug litany of self congratulation. We have benefited from: no major war of the kind which our parents were forced to fight; for anyone born after the war, no boring old national service(that was why we were so useless muttered our parents); unprecedented material plenty in terms of food and luxury goods; limitless cheap air travel(before it is restrained); good health based on healthy diet produced by post-war rationing; a cultural revolution which banished suffocating deference and ushered in the sexual freedom which Philip Larkin so wistfully envied; the inheritance of our parents’ property; and, to cap it all, life in a free liberal democracy.

Secondly, and this is almost obscenely perverse, we are no happier. Richard Layard in his 2003 Lionel Robbins lectures, pointed out that whilst we have become immensely richer, overall, we have not achieved commensurate happiness. Surveys in leading western countries show that our levels of happiness have remained about the same as they were some forty years ago. So Japanese people have become six times richer and yet are no happier. What in God’s name are we so miserable about? There is something profound about the human condition being revealed by such surveys but at the very least it suggests that with this degree of misanthropic grumpiness, we don’t deserve to win the Age War.

I'm fairly sceptical about happiness surveys. Apart from anything else, people had such low expectations forty years ago. So being happy only meant not being completely bored. Tony Hancock's Sunday sketch summed up nicely what life was like in the late 50s / early 60s. I certainly wouldn't want to go back. And life really isn't too awful for young people today, there was equally loadsa gloom and doom about the future when we fifty-somethings were young (eg I was convinced it wasn't really worth trying too hard to get A levels because nuclear war was certain to wipe us all out) but we've survived and turned out to be a really lucky generation. But nowadays some people seem dissatisfied if they haven't won the lottery every day.....
Hughesey(if I may)
Read my post today for more musings.
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