What is Affluence?

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Compared to other societies throughout history we might say that today’s Western culture is one of “Affluence.”  At the same time, ironically, it’s a culture of great want and dissatisfaction.  Everyone seems to need something else, something newer, something bigger. We spend the better part of our lives working so we can afford things that most people in history didn’t have – or even know about.

It’s not enough to have one house, we need a 2nd one near a great vacation spot too. Or if you prefer a more trivial example.  How many people do you know who only have one pair of jeans or one pair of shoes?  There was a point in history not all that long ago where most of the population in the world would have been quite content with one pair of nice jeans and good shoes – and wouldn’t even considered that someone might own a different pair for nearly every occasion.

So what exactly is Affluence?  I like the definition I read recently in Marshall Sahlins book, Stone Age Economics.

 “An affluent society is one in which all the people’s material wants are easily satisfied.”

In other words Affluence is achieved by either producing more material goods or wanting fewer material goods.  Sahlins book, written in the 1960s, challenged the anthropological assumption that ancient hunter-gather societies lived at a barely subsistence level.  While studying small Hunter-Gatherer societies that have survived to modern times, Sahlins made a stunning discovery.  In many ways Hunter-Gather societies are more affluent, as measured by the above definition, than most of us would ever imagine.  Sahlins called them “The Original affluent society.”  Sahlin writes,

“Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. But taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production, all the people’s material wants usually can be easily satisfied.”  

So the material wants of the tribe are easily satisfied, which translates to a lot more time for leisure, social activities and sleep. Part of Sahlins surprising finding was how little time was spent securing the basic needs of the group such as food and shelter and how much time was spent on these other activities.   This is why he label’s them Affluent.

We might have more material comforts than our primitive ancestors, but our material comforts create a burden they didn’t know.  We have to pay to store, insure, fix, maintain, replace, transport and finance all this stuff.  We work far longer hours and endure greater stress than they did to support our ever-growing hunger for more.  We might pity their circumstances but they might pity ours.

So what is affluence?  Is it getting what you want or wanting what you already have?

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