One of the goals of setting up the US government is to provide a high degree of freedom for citizens to pursue their own goals. Over the ages, the democratic process has done a good job in adapting to gradually changing definitions of what kinds of activities should protected. Democratically, the goal of happiness is based the results of popular elections of representations.
Even though we all agree in the basic goal, the type of freedom we want changes as we get older. As our population gets older, the democratic elections gradually put more emphasis on the older generation’s definition of happiness. Laws become enacted to make these goals easier to attain and to add restraints elsewhere to protect these goals. This is how the democratic process necessarily works, but I worry that it could lead to a result we will later regret.
Consider the changing goals for pursuing happiness of broad age groups in broad generalities.
- Young adults (say between 19 and 34) are motivated to define themselves. They want maximum freedom from regulation and other burdens to allow them to try new things, to take risks, to build their reputation and brands. Young adult goals for freedom may be to start businesses, change and refine their careers, or take a chance on something completely different. Excessive taxes or regulations interfere with these goals.
- Early middle-age adults (35-54) are generally established in career, business, family and investments. They want freedom to protect their continued enjoyment of those careers. They want their careers and investments to continue to grow and are less inclined to take new adventures. These adults begin to demand more regulation to protect their business, investments, and family so that they can continue to grow. Their greater confidence in income also allows them to tolerate higher taxes.
- Later middle-age adults (55-70) are increasingly interested in spending their accumulated assets on more leisure activities and entertainment. They are also increasingly interested in regulations to protect their assets and more defensive of pension benefits and entitlements.
- Old age (above 70) are mostly in the retirement stage. Their goals are enjoying their leisure. The are interested protecting their wealth or retirement/entitlement benefits and maximizing their quality of life despite increasing health related issues.
Initially, the country’s consensus for defining happiness aligned closely with the goals of the young adults. The constitution itself was written and ratified with a large (if not majority) input from from young adults. Later even if they did not alone make a majority of votes, their goals had a large influence on government because older adults recognized the value of the energy and enthusiasm of the young adults to make new things happen.
Gradually the definition of happiness shifted to what was more appealing to the older adults. As this started, young adults accepted this for a variety of reasons. Young adults may compromise their goals as an expression of obligation to the older generation. They also accepted the notion of postponed gratification of the promise of retirement benefits, by focusing more of their attention to retirement investments.
Retirement investments were aggressively promoted to the young adults because of the magic of compound growth when starting very young and maximizing contributions. This marketing had considerable success in changing their goals of happiness to be more like the older adults.
There are still plenty of young adults who wish maximum freedom to try new things and to define their own destiny. But they are becoming outnumbered not only by the older adults but by some of their old age group who are sold on the older adult goals.
This is changing our nation from one that celebrated building new wealth to one that is concerned with protecting that wealth and spending it on leisure or health maintenance.
Although we are still the same constitutional government and we still broadly agree we have the required freedom to pursue happiness, the change in definition of pursuit of happiness has changed the nature of the nation. It is a nation of leisure opportunity instead of economic opportunity.
We may agree this makes us happy but we should pay attention. There is a qualitative difference in happiness defined by wealth-financed enjoyment of leisure, and the happiness that come from being innovative that can create new wealth.
We are not creating new wealth. Our national wealth is more likely to decline than expand. Continued payouts for leisure and expanding our debts assumes that our wealth will increase.
We should also pay attention to the opportunity costs of the young generation. Debt, regulation, and taxes are hampering their opportunities to develop their inherent potential. If we agree that the better definition of happiness is maximizing leisure, then we need to assure that the young adults will enjoy it when they get older.