(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 24 December 2014.)
Many reports describe the Occupy Movement as a conflict between two generations: an older generation that is more materialistic and willing to compromise, and a younger generation that is more idealistic and confrontational.
Their conflict is also said to be the result of differences in their aspirations related to their respective life cycles and to secular trends.
Winston Churchill was referring to the first kind when he observed “anyone who was not a liberal at 20 years of age had no heart, while anyone who was still a liberal at 40 had no head.” By his interpretation the young and old are different only because the young have yet to grow up and live through the life experiences of their parents or grandparents. Life cycle differences are thus not true generational differences once we recognize that aspirations necessarily evolve over our lifetimes.
But this was not what Chester Tsang, a 21-year-old part-time student who participated in the Occupy Movement, meant when he compared his aspirations with the older generations: “It isn’t only about fighting for democracy, we have different social needs. My generation, we care about social justice. My mother’s generation cared about a roof on their heads. My grandmother’s generation, they just wanted warm food on their table.”
This second kind of generational difference is the result of economic growth. Secular economic trends drive each generation to want different things and to behave differently. Two of the most important consequences of economic growth in the past two centuries have been the enormous increase in the amount of time and money each person now possesses.
Historically, economies around the world did not grow until the Industrial Revolution arrived. Money per person increased rapidly as productivity per worker rose with the spread of capitalism. GDP per capita prior to the Industrial Age rose only slightly between the years 0 and 1850, from US$467 to US$666. But by 2000 it had shot past US$10,000.
Generational differences emerged as a consequence of this economic growth and rising standards of living. This was a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Prior to the Industrial Age, generational differences were rare because every generation faced essentially similar economic conditions except in times of war and famine. Since then, every generation has had to wrestle with new and diverse circumstances because economic growth has brought fresh challenges and opportunities.
Economic growth implies that the skills, knowledge and wisdom of the older generation will become obsolete and less valuable over time. The faster those economies grow and technology advances, the sooner the stock of pre-existing human capital becomes obsolete. Attitudes towards the older generation also change with economic growth. As a general rule, the older generation is less highly valued and less respected in the modern industrial era than in the traditional agricultural era. Modernity can be characterized as the era of continuously rising living standards, a condition that did not exist in the pre-industrial era.
The modern era has also brought better health for people. Even during the 18th century and early 19th century in England and France, almost 50-75% of expenditures of laboring families were spent on food. Continuous rising economic prosperity led to sustained improvements in nutrition. As people’s health got better their average body height increased. Adult men in Britain were 1.66 meters tall around 1775, which increased to 1.75 meters in 1975.
Better sanitation also led to lower mortality rates and longer life expectancies. Life expectancy in the U.S. rose from 43 in 1850, to 68 in 1950, and 78 in 2010. The United Nations has estimated it will rise to 84 in 2050 and 89 by 2100. The late Nobel Laureate Professor William Fogel believed the UN estimates were too low and offered even higher estimates of 87 and 98 years of age.
In Hong Kong, life expectancy rose from 63.2 in 1960 to 83.3 in 2010. The United Nations predicts that it will reach 90 in 2050 and 95 in 2100 (most probably an underestimate as well). For Mainland China, life expectancy was 44.6 in 1960 and 75.2 in 2010. In Taiwan, it was 65.3 in 1960 and 79.6 in 2010. In Singapore, it was 60.2 in 1960 and 82.2 in 2010.
Overall, life expectancy between 1960 and 2010 increased by about 10 years in the U.S., 15 years in Taiwan, 20 years in Hong Kong and Singapore, and 30 years in Mainland China. At the same time, annual real GDP per capita in purchasing power terms grew by an average 2.0% in the U.S., 6.1% in Singapore, 5.4% in Taiwan, 4.8% in Hong Kong, and 4.2% in Mainland China. In the post-World War II period, the quality of life improved both because people have had more wealth to spend and lived longer lives.
The longer life span and reduced hours of work per year have brought about a huge change in people’s lifestyles. A person now spends less time at paid work and more time in leisure activities. Since all leisure activities require work effort, including meditation, it is appropriate to view them as voluntary work without pay, whose reward is psychic income.
With that understanding, one can break down the total amount of time a person can use into three components: paid work, voluntary work, and non-discretionary time. Non-discretionary time is for sleeping, meals, essential hygiene, chores, illness, and travel to and from work, and it is relatively fixed. Professor Fogel has found that the non-discretionary time for the average U.S. male has remained quite stable at around 13.5 hours a day for a century.
Empirically, by far the most important reason why people have more time for voluntary work since 1960 is the increase in life expectancy.
In Hong Kong, the share of time available for voluntary work has increased from 29% for the generation born in 1960 to 50% for those born in 1985. This is comparable to the increase from 29% to 47% in Singapore, from 28% to 49% in Taiwan and from 12% to 49% in Mainland China. Smaller increases over the same period were found in the U.S. (see Table).
Over the same period of 1960 to 1985, the average number of years of schooling for 15 to 24 year olds also increased rapidly – from 6.8 to 11.8 years in Hong Kong and from 4.4 to 10.6 years in Taiwan. Somewhat smaller increases were found in Mainland China from 5.0 to 7.4 years, in Singapore from 4.4 to 7.4 years, and in the U.S. from 10.2 to 11.8 years.
The younger generations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have thus experienced rapid increases in all these key areas – education, life expectancy, and economic prosperity. They also have far more discretionary time available for voluntary work than their parents’ generation. This has created opportunities for them to explore different aspirations for which self-realization becomes the critical issue.
Today, and for the foreseeable future, human capital, especially command of those facets of knowledge that are both heavily rewarded in the marketplace and the key to opportunities of voluntary work, is at the heart of the quest for self-realization. Young people want more flexible working hours during the week, month and year. Taking time off from paid work for a few years to do voluntary work is deemed a rewarding life experience. It is likely that the most desirable jobs in the future will be those that accommodate such aspirations. The sharp separation of work and retirement may become increasingly blurred.
Technology has a role to play. While it once promoted large-scale enterprise and separated workplace from home, it is now facilitating the reunification of workplace and home. This will increasingly blur the traditional division of labor between men and women. Family bonds are likely to become stronger as members spend more time together.
But there are threats as well. Danger lurks for the younger generation in the demography of aging. Rising life expectancy implies that about a third of the population will be over age 65 in less than a decade, enough to prevent entry into the best jobs if elderly professionals and executives choose to stay at work rather than retire. Such a lock on the most fulfilling jobs could mean that younger workers will have to wait an extra decade, perhaps more, to get their turn.
Since younger workers are a major source of new ideas, slowing down the rate of entry of the next generation has negative economic consequences. There will also be political consequences due to their frustration with the lack of upward mobility, especially in a world where inequality has grown in the past 30 years. The young are often too eager to view rising inequality as the product of social injustices, even though it is largely a by-product of rapid economic growth.
A similar situation may soon appear in Mainland China as life expectancies continue to rise, but economic growth adjusts to a slower trajectory. The younger generation there will also be searching for self-realization as their share of available discretionary time for voluntary work rises further; although in their case they may still be constrained by their lower average incomes.
The search for meaning in life, for self-identity and for self-esteem is a time-intensive activity that the younger generation in Hong Kong can now afford. Their parents can only afford to do so in their retirement thanks to an unexpectedly long life.
Table: Hours Worked, Schooling, Life Expectancy, and Share of Time Available for Voluntary Work
|Paid work hours per year||1960||2613||2772||2472||2000*||1863|
|Years of schooling of 15-24 year olds||1960||6.8||4.4||5.7||5.0||10.2|
|Life expectancy at birth||1960||63.2||65.3||60.2||44.6||68.6|
|Lifetime share of total available discretionary time for voluntary work||1960||0.29||0.28||0.29||0.12||0.55|
Note: Asterisked figures are guesstimates.
Robert W Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America, and the Third World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.