Sometimes I teach modern world civilizations at the university where I work. About the time we get to the turn of the 19th century and begin discussing the angst of the 1900s, I tell my students how the economic lives of people have evolved across millennia. Here is how I put it.
From the very beginning until about roughly the 18th century, people were producers of things they consumed
From about roughly the 18th century to about roughly the 20th century, people were producers of things other people consumed
From about roughly the 20th century to about now, people have been consumers of things other people produced
Of course, this progression of our economic lives really only applies to people in developed countries. Surely most people in the world today exist economically in one of the first two scenarios.
Sometimes the angst of modern times is blamed on the influence of people like the master’s of suspicion; Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. That view has merit. But I wonder if more cognitive and social dissonance resulted from the lightning fast shift in economic purpose. Humans in developed economies went from thousands and thousands of years of making food that sustained life and crafting pyramids or cathedrals that sustained meaning, to a few dozen years of making PowerPoint decks that cannot sustain 18-minute attention spans.
Perhaps the most innovative economic idea of our times would be this. Do work that creates something for ourselves and our communities to sustain our lives and our purpose.