In the Pursuit of Happiness, Americans Face Moving Target

Economist Michael Cox speaks of "The 'Woe is me!' generation" - the baby boomers, of which he is one.

"By any objective standard, we have it good," says the economic adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Yet, despite that, many baby boomers and many in the next generation feel discontented, even unhappy, with their material lot.

A college student drinks bottled water from France, and his or her dormitory room contains a television set, a VCR, a phone with an answering machine, and a stereo, Mr. Cox notes. Many students have an automobile and, especially for safety among women, a car phone.

But as Stanley Lebergott, a professor emeritus from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., says, the market with its vast profusion of goods and services, doesn't always make people happy. He indicates happiness may have as much to do with family, religion, friends, nature, and art. But the fact that more than 100 million consumers keep buying the many thousands of products offered says something about consumer satisfaction, Mr. Lebergott says.

Cox offers several reasons why baby boomers may feel sorry for themselves:

*His generation is reaching middle age - some hitting 50 and some others a "mid-life crisis."

*Their grandparents can afford not to live in their children's homes. So the grandchildren don't hear about how granddad "had to walk five miles through the snow to school." Baby boomers thus are ignorant of economic history and progress.

*The hope of obtaining certain goods has been replaced by expectation of having them. Baby boomers expect to get any kind of fruit in the winter, more than one vacation a year, air conditioning, two or three cars, a VCR, and so on. They see many of these as "entitlements" and are disappointed if they are not obtained.

*They romanticize the past. For instance, they may see movies of World War II and regard it as a "grand American fulfillment." They ignore the casualties and the difference between history and nostalgia. Often, says Cox, "the good old days were horrible."

*Inflation is down, and thus pay raises may seem mediocre. When inflation was high, a worker might boast of a 15 percent pay hike. Boomers may blame the general economy for their problems.

*"Politicians need a dependent populace," says Cox. "They have a natural stake in saying, 'Life is hard, vote for me and I will make it better.' "

*Doomsayer profiteering has become widespread. "Bad news makes good copy," Cox says. This is often reflected in the nightly TV news or in newspapers.

*The computer has brought a technological revolution. "Progress destabilizes the economic world" and causes turmoil in the job market, he says.

Speaking at a conference in Boston of the National Association of Business Economists earlier this week, Cox handed out a sheet comparing living standards in 1970 with those in 1990. It noted that 76 percent of new homes have central heat and air conditioning in 1990, versus 34 percent in 1970. Only 1 percent lack complete plumbing, versus 7 percent two decades earlier, 55 million have cable TV, up from 5 million; 67 million households have videocassette recorders, up from zero; and 79 percent have a microwave, up from less than 1 percent. In 1990, 75.9 million people were using computers, versus less than 100,000 in 1970. Workers got an average of 22.5 paid vacation days and holidays in 1990, up from 15.5 in 1970. Attendance at performances of symphonies and orchestras has risen to 43.6 million in 1990 from 12.7 million in 1970.

Lebergott goes back further in time and talks about cars without safety glass and that had to be cranked by hand to start; housewives needing 44 hours a week cooking and cleaning in 1900, compared with 17 hours nowadays; mothers washing diapers in cold water by hand and hanging them out to dry, rather than using diaper services or disposable diapers.

Thomas Jefferson, he notes, put into the US constitution the right to the "pursuit of happiness," not the right to happiness. "Happiness is a moving target."

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