When I lived in a developing country in Asia many years ago, I looked towards the developed West and was wrapped in envy and a sense of inadequacy. Middle class westerners had plenty of material goods, excellent physical infrastructure, plentiful jobs, rules of conduct that were respected, guaranteed incomes, predictable lifestyles, excellent healthcare and a sense of entitlement that the world and their governments owed them a good quality of life. I felt shafted. In my part of the world we had import bans, shortages of most goods, local industry not worth talking about, corrupt governments, patchy healthcare, crumbling colonial infrastructure, and wars to unsettle us. What I hadn’t counted on was that the West was aging and the East was young, vibrant and bound to burst out of its fetters soon. What I also did not realize was that the fortress walls that had cloaked the advanced West from the backward East (aka barriers to trade) were about to fall off their artificial foundations.
So I came west with a lot of optimism, and after a honeymoon period, I saw the tide begin to turn. Now I live in the West and over here there is crumbling infrastructure, governments mired in debt, high unemployment, healthcare and pensions under siege, industry shrinking and going east, no guarantee of incomes or of employment. The only affluent middle class here will soon be retired public service employees on indexed pensions, who got out early and have only declining healthcare services to contend with. I still feel shafted. And one can never go back.
The lesson from this radical shift is that there is no free lunch. I wrote down my learnings:
1) Walls erected artificially will come down.
2) Inflated benefits will convert into piles of debts – phone any western government!
3) The rich will exploit the poor, always. One can only be rich if someone else is poor. It’s a relative thing. It happened in the Middle Ages, it happened in Dickensian times, it is happening now. It will happen whenever vigilance and resistance is dropped.
4) Standards only apply if there is energy and discipline to uphold them.
5) We will work until we die. “Man will earn his living by the sweat of his brow,” still holds true today, instead of “Man shall retire to a beach at 65 and stare into the sunset with a margarita, while money collects in his bank account.” Maybe this latter mantra works for a privileged few who will die of boredom, but not for the majority of us. Professor Emeritus on full pay has gone out of fashion; temporary worker on minimum wage is in.
6) Our children will be worse off than us because we did not teach them survival. A well fed stomach does not make one lean and mean. A survivor is lean and mean. And as the world lurches over the 7billion mark heading towards 10 billion in the next 50 years, only the lean and mean will survive
7) There are no guarantees in life: guaranteed, employment, guaranteed government largess, guaranteed lifestyle – all myths that we created for ourselves in a post war boom when happiness was at a low base.
Having fortified myself with these newly minted seven pillars of wisdom, I realized that it really does not matter where you live these days. Each place brings its own set of challenges; each challenge enriches the soul. The pursuit of happiness is a myth. Ours will be the pursuit of experience. Now, I finally get it. But did I have to travel all the way from east to west to find out?