Society pushes us to follow a certain normal path in life. Do it and you will be rewarded, we’re told.
Study hard and work hard. Then you can buy a house, a couple of cars, and a gigantic TV. Maybe get married and have a few kids somewhere along the way. That’s supposed to be the dream, right?
Maybe it used to work that way. Or was it always just a fairytale?
These days if you follow what’s normal, you don’t end up healthy, wealthy, and happy.
Instead, you end up sick, miserable, and under a mountain of debt.
It starts at school.
For 12+ years you’re told to sit still (or they’ll drug you) and pay attention so you’ll know what’s going to be on the next standardized test.
Pass the tests, and then you’re supposed to borrow tens of thousands of dollars and spend another four years (minimum) going to university. You have to do this, they tell you, to be able to get a good job.
A “good job” is one where you work in an office instead of at the gas station. The kind of job that requires you to spend eight or nine hours a day shackled to a chair – plus another hour or two commuting back and forth – five days a week, fifty weeks a year.
Every now and then you can take a break from counting down the hours until lunch in your cubicle to go and stand around the designated break room water cooler and chat with your dejected coworkers about pop culture, fantasy football, and what you did last weekend (“I can’t remember”).
If this sounds depressing, don’t worry, there’s a pill for that. Besides, it’s all normal.
Just keep it up for a few decades and you will slowly but surely climb the corporate ladder. As a reward, you’ll get a little more salary each year (paid to you in a currency that’s worth a little less each year).
This is important.
You need that steady-drip of salary to service the debt you’ve accumulated from your “education” and by buying poorly made things that you don’t need, can’t afford, and won’t make you happy.
You buy all that junk in an effort to distract yourself from the fact that you are perpetually tired, chronically sick, and your pants don’t fit anymore. Probably because you spend your entire life slumped in a chair, eating fake food, and staring at a screen.
Finally, when you reach
62, 65, 67 years old, you’re allowed to retire. Now you just have to hope that the money in your 401(k) doesn’t run out before you die (you have been contributing, right?).
But don’t worry about all that now, just keep on scrolling slack-jawed through the never-ending news feed that tells you how to think, what you’re allowed to say, and which cut of jeans are in style this week.
Oh look, the next Netflix episode is starting in 5…4…3…2…1…
How did we end up here?
Much of what’s considered normal today has roots in the industrial revolution — from our regimented, clock-driven schedules and school systems to our relentless focus on productivity at all costs.
Our ancient ancestors were hunters and gatherers. Mostly nomadic, they roamed the land together in extended family groups in search of food. Life was all about survival.
Then, about 12,000 years ago, people began to settle down, cultivate crops, and herd animals. They traded life in the wilderness for the predictability and scalability of agriculture. Communities remained largely self-sufficient. Most grew their own food and made their own clothes.
The agricultural era lasted until the industrial revolution, about 200 years ago. That’s when new sources of fuel, and technologies like the steam engine, made it possible to produce much more than ever before. Millions of people moved from farms and villages into cities to work in factories.
Cities were dirty and rife with disease at the time. Factory work was dangerous, but it obliviated the need to worry about seasons, droughts, and crop failures — and it came with a steady paycheck.
Workers acquired new and distinctive skills, and their relation to their tasks shifted; instead of being craftsmen working with hand tools, they became machine operators, subject to factory discipline.Industrial Revolution
As the nature of work changed, we didn’t just become machine operators, we became part of a much larger economic machine.
Somewhere along the way we convinced ourselves that it was normal to put work at the center of our lives and the machine’s needs ahead of our own.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. The doors had been locked to prevent theft by employees.
110 years later, Amazon is in the news, after leaked reports that their delivery drivers have resorted to urinating in water bottles and defecating in delivery bags, because they have no time for bathroom breaks.
I remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in school when I was a kid. The lesson was supposed to be about the organized labor movement and the origins of workplace safety regulations, but the lesson I took away was:
Because smart kids who study hard don’t have to work in dangerous factories (or drive for Amazon).
Instead, we’re told that if we do well in school and go to a good university, then we’ll have our pick of high paying jobs at prestigious companies.
Goldman Sachs is the premier investment bank in the world. With an acceptance rate of roughly 4%, it’s harder to get into Goldman than it is to get into Harvard or Yale.How To Get A Job At Goldman Sachs
A survey of young analysts working at Goldman Sachs was leaked to the press recently. Here are a few highlights from the results:
- On average, “first year analysts are working over 95 hours per week” (that’s 16 hours per day, 6 days per week, for months) and “sleeping five hours per night”
- One respondent wrote “I can’t sleep anymore because my anxiety levels are through the roof”. Another said, “My body physically hurts all the time and mentally I’m in a really dark place”
- The analysts surveyed recommended, “80 hours per week should be considered max capacity”
The survey may not be perfectly scientific (small sample size), but none of this is new or surprising.
In 2015, a 22-year-old Goldman Sachs analyst, Sarvshreshth Gupta, took his own life after telling his parents, “it is too much. I have not slept for two days, have a client meeting tomorrow morning…”
A terrible tragedy.
Even worse, it wasn’t an isolated incident:
There have been numerous suicides and unexpected deaths among financial-services employeesWhy Wall Street Bankers Commit Suicide
These are jobs that the best and brightest young people are supposed to aspire to?
This is not normal!
And it’s not just our work…
The truth is that much of what we’ve been told is normal is optimized for maximizing corporate profits and GDP, not for our wellbeing.
The absurd “food pyramid” that they taught us as kids, hung in our school lunchrooms, and printed on food packaging was cooked up by people with a vested interest in selling us refined carbohydrates:
When our version of the Food Guide came back to us revised, we were shocked to find that it was vastly different from the one we had developed….
Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings….
Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industriesLuise Light, MS, EdD, former USDA Director of Dietary Guidance and Nutrition Education
Perhaps that’s one reason why obesity increased by more than 50% from 1962 to 2014 (CDC).
But who wants us to be healthy? Our illnesses and addictions are boosting the bottom line:
While millions of Americans struggled to cope with the effects of opioid addiction and the overdose deaths caused by Purdue’s fraudulent marketing strategy, the company generated an estimated $30 billion in OxyContin sales and the Sacklers became one of the richest families in America.”U.S. Congress
It’s not just painkillers.
70% of Americans are on at least one prescription drug. More than half take two (Mayo Clinic).
Young and middle-aged adults use antidepressants most frequently, while stimulants to treat attention deficit disorder are the most common medication for 12 to 19 year olds (Bloomberg).
Perhaps it’s not normal for healthy kids and teens to have to sit still indoors all day? Or maybe the lessons at school just aren’t interesting enough? After all, kids can play games like Fortnite and Minecraft or scroll through TikTok for hours non-stop.
Our standardized school systems are byproducts of the industrial revolution, designed to churn out obedient worker bees:
Factory owners required agreeable workers who would show up on time and do what their managers told them. Sitting in a classroom all day with a teacher was good training for that.Universal education was first promoted by industrialists who wanted docile factory workers
Today’s schools are still preparing kids for jobs in factories – jobs that don’t exist in this part of the world anymore.
Since a high school degree isn’t enough to get a decent job, the system tells kids that they should go to university. But our universities are not doing so well at preparing kids for today’s jobs either:
Over 40% of recent university graduates are “underemployed” (working jobs that don’t require a degree). Only about 27% of degree holders are working in a job that is directly related to their college major. (Federal Reserve).
But why should the universities care about student outcomes? They’re too busy making fistfuls of money:
The average cost of attending a four-year college or university in the United States rose by 497% between the 1985-86 and 2017-18 academic yearsForbes
Those figures don’t sound normal. Where does all that money come from?
Our entire economic system runs on debt.
The average 22 year old who graduated in 2020 has an estimated net worth of negative $39,915.
How’s that for a head start in life?
And 72% of all student loans are in forbearance – the borrowers aren’t paying back on time (Experian). The banks probably figure that the government will bail them out when it all goes bust eventually.
In the meantime, the average American adult carries $92,727 of debt. 75% of adults carry a credit card balance from month to month (BankRate).
All that debt keeps us stuck on a treadmill.
We borrow money today to buy stuff that we can’t afford, and as a result we have to work more and earn more so we can pay the bill tomorrow.
The machine keeps on churning…
As you read all this, you should be thinking: Something doesn’t make sense here.
The machines are supposed to work for us, not the other way around. And all this money, progress, and technology should improve our lives. Not some macroeconomic indicator. The actual, visceral, day-to-day experience.
But that doesn’t just happen automatically — especially not if you follow the normal path in life…
It’s up to each of us to forge our own path and create the life we want to live.
Some of us have already begun.
To be continued…
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