The Cost of Progress

The kids aren't alright.

Hello friends, and welcome to Young Money! If you’re new here, add your email below to ensure that you receive my next piece in your inbox, and if you want to read more of my posts, check out my archive here!

By most standards, humanity has made more progress over the last two centuries than at any other time in history. It took us nearly 12,000 years to go from a world population of 4 million people to 1 billion, then we exploded to ~8 billion in 200 years.

Despite this exponential population growth, the total number (not proportion!) of people living in extreme poverty worldwide is lower than it was at any other point in the last 200 years.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around just how quickly the world improved in the 19th and 20th centuries. Aviation technology took us from the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 to the moon landing just 66 years later. Insulin and penicillin were both discovered in the 1920s. Polio was virtually eradicated by the turn of the 21st century.

The first transatlantic telephone service was established via radio in 1927. Less than 100 years later, 5.3 billion people around the world can talk to each other on the internet. The smartphones in our pockets have more computing power than the systems that NASA used to send astronauts to the moon. If a 16th-century peasant encountered the Las Vegas Sphere, they would think they saw God himself.

Beyond scientific advances, we have made tremendous social progress as well. Just look at the last century in the United States: women gained the right to vote after the 19th Amendment was certified in 1920. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulated the employment of minors, in 1938. Segregation ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 44 years later, an African American man who was born in the era of segregation was elected the president of the United States.

We have more money, more knowledge, and more freedom than our ancestors had at any other time in history. We can live where we want, do what we want, and spend our time with whom we want.

Despite our good fortune, we have never been more miserable.

Depression rates are higher than ever. We have an obesity epidemic. Life expectancies leveled off years ago. Marriage rates have been in free fall for decades. No one is having kids. Despite every conceivable metric showing that we are “winning,” it feels like we are losing.

I guess this was the cost of progress.

What’s up with this decoupling between our improving quality of life and our deteriorating perception of it? I have a few thoughts.

1) Progress gave way to an optionality that we weren’t prepared for.

For 99.99% of human history, our lives were determined by our circumstances. You probably spent your entire life in the same region where you were born. Your job was the same as your father’s, and his father’s before him. You married a family friend in an arrangement that was brokered by your parents. You shared the same values and religious beliefs as everyone else in your community. Life may not have been easy, but it was straightforward.

Those of us alive right now are the first to truly be the protagonists of our own lives, and we weren’t equipped to deal with this level of agency. For hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved to be tribalistic creatures who thrived within our little communities, but our society has now blown past our biology.

In 2023, you can choose what you want to do for work, where you want to live, what you want to believe, and who you want to date and marry, and that’s a good thing. But it’s difficult to navigate all of these choices, especially when conventional wisdom says to “keep your options open” in all facets of life. Maybe that’s great advice early on, but how do you decide which option to choose?

Consultant David Allen once said, “You can do anything you want, but not everything.” The problem is that we try to ignore the second half of the equation. We maximize for everything that we “can” do, and never stop to think about what we “should” do.

For most of history, the Venn Diagram of what you could do and what you should do was circle.

Now, there is almost no overlap.

So we try, to no avail, to do it all. College applications are a listicle of every possible club we could “participate in” in high school. Careers are nothing but a series of stepping stones, each stop serving as a means to yet another end. We sacrifice depth for breadth, but we arrive in a no man’s land where we achieve neither.

2) Dating is broken.

In 1950, the median age of first marriage was 23 and 20 for men and women respectively. In 2023, those numbers have climbed to 30 and 28. While I don’t think we should revert to a time when college students eloped after Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s spring formal, navigating the sea of singleness as a young adult wears on people after a decade, especially when the dating market in 2023 is a gamified shitshow.

No one is really single thanks to Hinge, Instagram, and the advent of the iPhone. Not getting enough attention? Text one of your 57 Hinge matches. Catching feelings for someone? That’s dangerous! Tell them you’re busy for the next few weeks and go out with someone else. Dilute your attention until your feelings dissipate. Did your date go well? Maybe, but what if someone who is marginally taller, hotter, wealthier, or more charismatic is just a swipe away? You should probably self-sabotage this connection and keep looking.

Vulnerability is a death sentence when everyone is two messages away from being replaced, so millions of Millennials and Zoomers are forced to play round after round of this cat-and-mouse game, racking up little dopamine hits along the way.

And if constant exposure to a million-person dating market weren’t enough of a distraction, society has been telling us for years that we shouldn’t “settle down” until we figure our careers out. Sure, we’re wired for affection and every fiber of our being is screaming at us to start a family, but that same affection could derail our careers (though no one ever really explains how).

Let’s keep this cycle going until we’re 32, then panic commit to the next person we click with.

Don’t underestimate the effect that a decade of situationship-hopping can have on people.

3) Our pursuit of empowering the oppressed also enabled the malicious.

The crowning achievement of modern society is the efforts that we have made to close the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

In the US Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It took us 200 years, but we finally took meaningful steps to make these Rights a reality for women, children, minorities, and people of all groups. Social hierarchies have flattened. Slurs have become taboo. People are, for maybe the first time ever, considering the views of those outside of their immediate social groups. Progress is a beautiful thing.

But now, the fear of being branded as a bigot with a scarlet “B” on one’s chest has created the opportunity for bad actors to weaponize shame.

If you don’t like someone, you no longer have to confront them to resolve your issues. Wait until you can take a quote out of context. Accuse them of being antisemitic. Misogynistic. Racist. Sexist. Say they are a terrible person. Turn the court of public opinion against them, or just blackmail them by threatening to make them an example before the mob.

Assume malice where incompetence and ignorance are the more likely culprits. Instead of indexing toward compassion and mutual understanding, crucify folks for each and every mistake to ensure that they fall in line with how you think. Weaponize codified corporate speak, so you can manufacture a way to get someone fired if needed.

And the best part? You get to be the good guy.

4) The hedonic treadmill is real, and it affects all of us.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal published an excellent piece on money and happiness. One of the most fascinating takeaways? Folks across all levels of the income spectrum believed that they would need a 50% raise to feel happier/less stressed.

My $0.02? Because upward mobility is possible, and we have all either experienced it ourselves or we know people who have, we internalize these expectations of more money. Our baseline financial situation is no longer any particular level of money. Our baseline is a state of constant ascent. When that ascent slows, we grow anxious.

We need more. More. More.

5) We ditched God without a replacement.

It’s no secret that our most developed societies are also our least religious. Church membership in the United States held steady from the 1940s through the 1990s, then plummeted in the 21st century, dipping to a historic low in 2020.

Religion gave us community and a code of conduct to follow. It gave us a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Most importantly, it gave us something larger than ourselves to work toward.

While a healthy dose of criticism is good for the soul, Postmodernism convinced us that skepticism about anything and everything was a real signal of high intelligence, and a nihilistic world view was in vogue.

So we discarded our Gods and churches as wastes of time. Lacking a North Star, we had to create our own, so we looked for satisfaction in wealth and status and sex and pride and a million material things. To our shock, these things did not, in fact, make us feel any more satisfied. In fact, they created a self-loathing cycle where we asked ourselves, in frustration, “I’m better than everyone, why don’t I feel like it?”

It turns out that we suck at playing God.

6) We are social creatures who have created a replacement for socialization.

We have a near-existential need to interact with each other. In the past, we fulfilled this need by, actually, you know, talking to our friends and families. Visiting to their houses. Calling them on the phone. Meeting them for lunch and dinner.

But now? Now we can “keep up” with each other without actually conversing with each other, creating a culture of people who know “about” each other without actually knowing each other. We forgot that the point of hanging out with friends isn’t to “stay up to date” with their lives.

The point is to hang out. The means are the ends.

All of these debates about whether or not the “Metaverse” is a real thing are missing the point. The Metaverse is already here. It’s TikTok, Instagram, Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, iMessage, and Slack. We are living in it. And it’s not healthy. 

People are growing sick of this dystopia. They crave something real.

- Jack

If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to subscribe by adding your email below, and check out my archive here!

Jack's Picks

  • Brian Luebben has been a friend of mine for years now, and he just published his first book From Passive to Passionate, where he outlines how he leveraged real estate investing and a passion project-turned business to escape his 9-5 job and redesign his life. If you want a step-by-step guide on how someone actually rebuilt their life from the ground up, give his book a read.

  • Here is the Wall Street Journal piece on happiness and income.

  • The Wall Street Journal also published a behind-the-scenes look at the weekend’s OpenAI situation, pulling from interviews from more than a dozen insiders.

  • Matt Levine gave a great breakdown of OpenAI’s funky corporate structure.

How was today's piece?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.