Is Life Really Easier Now?
Updated: Oct 21
A couple of weeks ago, my US History class participated in a debate over the idea of whether life was “easier” in the present than it was in the past. My teacher staunchly defended the idea that life was much harder “back then”, recounting his grandparents’ experiences and the countless tragedies that occurred without modern technology - destructive warfare, widespread death from curable diseases, grueling manual labor conditions deemed by today’s laws to be inhumane.
But to his utter surprise, many students in our history class rose up to contradict his statement. I myself was surprised how many students were extremely passionate about expressing the “realness” of the multitudinous issues and struggles in today’s society.
After asking other teachers and even my parents, I found that millennials and older generations all seemed to have a consensus that our predecessors had it much worse than we currently have it. On the other hand, other students and peers my age reacted the opposite, giving me reasons for why today’s life was just as difficult as it was centuries ago.
This led me to wonder where exactly the difference in opinion on this statement came from? Was it some type of generational gap?
Gen-X and Millennials grew up during the world’s rapid industrialization, watching a once tragedy-stricken world full of sickness and poverty become a technologically advanced world of interconnection and increased wealth. Of course, it’s not to say that sickness and poverty have been eradicated in today’s society, however, data shows that the global poverty rates have steadily increased since the 1900’s, and many diseases are now treatable or even preventable with new medical technology like vaccines, antibiotics, and chemotherapy. Outside of poverty rates and death rates, thousands of other technological advancements have entirely transformed what our world looks like from what it was just a century ago.
Gen-Z is the first generation born into this new world of technology, the first generation that grew up with the Internet being a given, constant, and everyday part of our lives. In that way, we are different from all of the generations that came before us. It only seems logical that we should then be the most comfortable, the most happy, the most satisfied, the most successful generation yet, wouldn’t it?
Yet, as I sit here writing this, I can’t at all believe that my generation is the happiest. There is something that makes us feel like our lives are just as difficult as the lives of those who came before us. Some may argue that it’s because we have just lost two years to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe that it’s something deeper. Specifically, I believe it’s because of the shifted standards of “success”.
When debating the relative “easy-ness” of life, you can look at it from the perspective of technology, or even the general physical health of the people. But I specifically want to define the “easy-ness” of life by how “easy” it is to be successful. And just to be thorough, let’s define reaching “success” as feeling fulfilled or satisfied with your life. I would argue that a century ago, it was easier to reach fulfillment or satisfaction with one’s life than it is now.
The bounds of society restricted most identity groups so that people could not go beyond the societal expectations of the time. Therefore, reaching the highest point of success possible within the boundaries you were given was easier.
The lowest class of poor laborers and farmers, while living physically difficult and straining lives, were extremely restricted by their situation, in that their success was usually only relative to the success of those within their class. It wasn’t as feasible to dream of becoming a millionaire or even leaving their social class. Consequently, I believe that many would have been satisfied with owning land and a house, and having enough food every meal. When our immediate needs are not taken for granted, it is in our nature to make them our first priority. Therefore, fulfilling all of one’s individual needs may have been considered a peak level of success for many individuals a century ago.
Well into the 20th century, American women had extremely limited rights, little to no representation, and were still considered secondary citizens to their husbands, etc. etc. People of color in America had even longer of a battle for basic rights. But before liberation movements and the civil rights movement, what was the highest level of fulfillment a woman or a person of color could reach in America? Unfortunately, success could look like marrying into a monetarily stable family, or even just being respected as a human being.
When I think of these relative levels of success, I can only imagine how difficult it was to simply survive, and I have the utmost respect for those who were able to overcome these hardships and reach these levels of success. However, I also believe that because of the way society was structured, success WITHIN the boundaries of your identity group was still more feasible than it was when there were no boundaries.
And now, the boundaries have been lifted.
Well, most boundaries have been lifted. There will always be the boundaries of classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, the list continues, but compared to before, these boundaries have become far more restricted. No longer is it legal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their identity or to take another person as a slave solely because of their race, or have control over a woman’s body (unfortunately, we’re not 100% sure on the last one yet for some reason).
Without these boundaries that made society one thousand times separated and stratified a century ago, every single person is free to fend for themselves, and we can now all participate in one giant race to the top of human civilization. Now, simply by our own merit, we can become everything we have ever dreamed to be and more, regardless of our identity and regardless of our societal constraints. Right?
I argue that no, we are not entirely free from our identity and our societal constraints. Instead, while on the surface no discriminatory actions are “permitted”, an invisible force still separates us based on identity group, known as “implicit bias”, and it sets boundaries as to how high we can go. This phenomenon is known as a “glass ceiling”. Obviously, those boundaries are more permeable than before, but they are still there nonetheless.
However, we now have an added layer to this issue: most of the world markets itself as supportive of equal opportunity now. Before, when inequality was openly accepted and promoted, we saw this glass ceiling and these boundaries we cannot surpass in broad daylight, because nobody was afraid of hiding them. However, now, most systems market themselves as equal, from schools to colleges to businesses and companies. So while we are still suffering from the societal constraints placed on us due to our identities, we must survive in a world that believes everyone now has an equal chance to survive.
Furthermore, as technology develops and the number of people on Earth increases, we are constantly finding new ways to define success, with higher and higher standards for what a successful life looks like. For example, now that every single person regardless of race, gender, or any other identity factor can apply for higher education, there becomes much more pressure for students to get into the most exclusive, best college out there, as it is marketed as an equal fight for all, when in reality our completely different identities and backgrounds makes college admissions a completely different experience for each individual.
This pressure is truly the villain - this idea that we must be successful, which is something mankind has yearned for since his creation. However, it is now much harder to achieve “success”, because it must be relative to everyone else in the world, rather than just relative to those with similar situations as you. People must become CEOs of huge companies, or billionaires, or A-list celebrities, the list goes on, to be considered successful, regardless of their unique identities that could make it easier or harder to reach this “universal” definition of success.
I’m not saying we should go back to stratifying and separating society so that people can only reach levels of success within certain boundaries, I’m just noting that while we are under the guise that society has developed to give everyone equal opportunity, those boundaries from a hundred years ago are still in place today.
And for Gen-Z, the first ever generation to experience an world with new technologies that make it much easier to fulfill our immediate needs, we are now faced with the insurmountable challenge of conquering whatever individual traits and characteristics we have to race to the top of society, not realizing that we are all being placed at entirely different distances from the end point.
So is life really easier now? Is it really easier to feel fulfilled and happy, to achieve what we believe is “success”, than it was a century or so ago?
I’ll leave this answer for all of you to ponder. You can let me know your thoughts or responses by sending me a message at the “Contact” page. And as always,
PS: Here are some random rares!! <3 love you all