The Afflictions of Affluence

Robert J. Samuelson, writing in Newsweek, makes a point that I’ve made here many times:

It may seem a bit unnatural, but more and more of our social problems and complaints stem from our affluence, not our poverty.

The obvious example is obesity:

In 1950, Americans devoted a fifth of their disposable incomes to food (and less than a fifth of that to eating out). Now food’s share is a tenth (and almost half is out). We eat what pleases us, and so why should anyone be surprised that the average American now consumes about 150 pounds of sugar and sweeteners annually, up roughly 20 percent since 1980? The only saving grace is that some of the extra food “is thrown away—otherwise, all Americans would weigh 300 pounds,” says Roland Sturm, an obesity expert at the Rand Corp.

Compared to worrying about starving to death in the winter, dying during childbirth, or the various things that killed us at far younger ages a couple generations ago, though, obesity is a pretty good problem to have.

The other maladies Samuelson describes are almost laughable:

Getting wealthier spawns other complaints. One is the “time squeeze”—the sense that we’re more harried than ever. We all know this is true; we’re tugged by jobs, family, PTA and soccer. Actually, it’s not true. People go to work later in life and retire earlier. Housework has declined. One survey found that in 1999 only 14 percent of wives did more than four hours of daily housework; the figure was 43 percent in 1977 and 87 percent in 1924. Even when jobs and housework are combined, total work hours for women and men have dropped.


Psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College makes the broader point in his new book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” Our individual culture worships choice, but too much of it leads to choice congestion. Consumer Reports now “offers comparisons among 220 new car models, 250 breakfast cereals, 400 VCRs, 40 household soaps, 500 health insurance policies, 350 mutual funds, and even 35 showerheads,” Schwartz writes. People feel overwhelmed by the time it takes to make the “best” choice—and may later regret having made the wrong choice. Purchasing blunders may irritate, but bigger mistakes of choice (in careers, work vs. family) can be profoundly depressing, Schwartz argues.

Indeed, it makes one long for the good old days of the Great Depression.

As material wants are satisfied, psychological desires ascend. But these defy easy economic balm. “Most of what people really want in life—love, friendship, respect, family, standing, fun … does not pass through the market,” writes Gregg Easterbrook in his book “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.” (Note how paradox pops up in these titles.) Indeed, affluence may make matters worse. In 1957, 3 percent of Americans felt “lonely,” according to a survey cited by Easterbrook; now 13 percent do. Although more people can afford to exist apart, it may not be good for them.

Unlike the economic problems, I suspect this is probably a real one. We’re marrying later, divorcing frequently, cobbling together unorthodox family units, and moving around the country far more frequently than our ancestors. Plus, we’ve got a lot more leisure time to worry about issues like fulfillment rather than, say, how we’re going to make it through the winter. We’ve moved a little further up Maslow’s Heirarchy and can now feel “lonely” rather than “hungry.” A pretty good trade, I’d say.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mithras says:

    You’re ready for your subscription to Adbusters now.

  2. Gary Manca says:

    This analysis sheds a lot of light on the otherwise bewildering revival of religion in America. With materialism causing so much psychological maliase, of course people are going to turn to the community and spiritual comfort offered by Evangelical churches. Not surprisingly, those churches tend to be indulgent materially in order to prevent the faithful from losing their cultural anchor. Is it at all surprising that suburban megachurches are the preferred forum for expressing America’s renewed faith in God?

  3. Paul says:

    This analysis sheds a lot of light on the otherwise bewildering revival of religion in America.

    WOW and the fact that the pendulum has swung so far that pop culture has now become a sewer has nothing to do with it.

    Turn on T.V. to any sitcom and watch the clock before they tell a sex joke. Hell, forget the clock- on most sitcoms you CAN hold your breath as they come that often.

    Turn on the radio and get an earful of who wants to rape who’s mother. Crank up a video game and see that to win you have to rape a prostitute and for even more points kill her.

    No, the “bewildering revival” of religion has nothing to do with the fact that modern America is, in many ways, the sewer pit the terrorists speak about. Parents don’t want to set good examples for their children, they only turn to religion cuz they own too much stuff.

    Heavy, heavy sigh.

  4. Eric Akawie says:

    There’s also something about the skyrocketing costs of labor as compared to the plummeting costs of goods. At the turn of the last century, any moderately wealthy person could expect to have several full-time employees running their household, in addition to significant unpaid labor from female relatives (sewing, etc.)

    These days, couples who live in houses worth $500,000 may still not make enough to hire a full time nanny. Who would ever think of having a full-time maid/cook? (How did the Brady’s afford Alice?)