Scarce or abundant? What’s your life index?
When people age (or should I say that they are not young anymore?), a common enough sign is that they reminisce far too often. Haven’t you heard the middle-aged talk incessantly (and garrulously) about how things were a lot “different” in “their time”, where different is a euphemism for the word better? These sweeping statements cover almost anything – life, the standard of living, character, goodness, badness, skills, jobs, friendships, marriage…anything under the sun.
The remit of this article is not to judge whether there’s merit in such sweeping claims but to posit a certain idea. Which is?
Well, it is about seeing life (living or leading) through the lens of scarcity vis-à-vis abundance. And this is relative. Every generation lives in a state of abundance (you can also call it better preparedness) compared to the earlier ones, particularly when the time frame is thirty or forty years or even more. I am a fifty-year-old man, so it’s not easy for me to visualize what it is to be twenty-two in the year Two Thousand and Twenty-two. Biases will creep in.
I started my professional journey in 1994; I was twenty-two back then and living in the megapolis called Bombay. Even after so many decades, I find it hard to write ‘Mumbai’; when I speak, it’s always just that – Bombay. Liberalization had happened three years ago, but its effect was primarily contained in a very small circle. Not every middle-class home had a phone connection, even in a prosperous city. The wealthier lot had something called “Cordless”. You could move around the house and speak without bothering if the telephone wire was long enough. Often the dragged conversations were disproportionately longer! It was no less an engineering marvel, and folks like me were wonderstruck. Only a genius could have “invented” such a thing, and we told one another in hushed tones.
Innovation was still not a part of urban innocence.
Having a desktop PC – large chunky machines that swallowed those ugly-looking floppy disks – at home was a luxury that few could afford in the 90s in India. The term itself was misleading. PC. Personal computer. There was nothing personal about it just as it was with telephones and televisions. Many people (friends, relatives, lovers, their friends, and their lovers too) staked a claim and urgency was cunningly manufactured to gain access rights.
So why am I ranting – incessantly, if not garrulously?
The companies back then could impress young recruits easily. Easily or not is debatable but do read on. A landline connection (with a 3-digit extension, of course) and a desktop PC (yes, the ones that ate floppy disks for “brunch,” a freshly minted term) that ran on Windows 3.1 (or some such risible number) were often adequate, to impress even an Ambani scion though it’s peculiar to visualize how a twenty-year-old Mukesh Ambani would have acted back then or if his illustrious father called the sons frequently (and needlessly?) on those chunky telephones (yes, with 3-digit extensions or more based on hierarchy).
Now fast forward to 2022.
This is probably the second generation of Indians that own/operate far better-performing devices (and more expensive, too) in their personal capacity than what companies can provide. Think of Apple laptops, iPhones, and iPads, and you will get the drift. Very few companies today can provide Apple products to their employees. If you extend this idea to include salary, foreign trips, conspicuous consumption and more, one will probably agree that we operated from a position of scarcity vis-à-vis the young people of today. And we were far wealthier than the earlier generations. Increasingly, employers are finding it difficult to “impress” their employees or to use more modern terminology – to keep them empowered, engaged, and motivated with a high sense of ownership.
So, what’s the point?
When resources are scarce, and genuinely so, life is led or lived a certain way. When times are bad, the common goal is to come out of it at the earliest. People are aligned and work towards meeting this goal. The challenge is about allocating limited resources to live a life of contentment. When resources are abundant, we still want to be happy, but there are too many tugs from different directions. Too many promising pathways – that lead to Ithaca – to choose from. For an individual, it’s not easy; for a leader, it’s even more so.
It may be argued that in the 80s and 90s, there weren’t too many distractions that weaned away young minds. Today, a young adult sits down to study, and his/her phone starts to ping uncontrollably. Often unsupervised as well. There’s an unstoppable flow of information where each stream claims superiority over the other. And sometimes not-so-tacitly. The difference between the haves and the have-nots (for instance, in college admissions) can be a few decimal points. But these decimals make all the difference right at the beginning. Even Usain Bolt would cringe in embarrassment. I am certain when 6G comes along and is made available at the local kirana stores, and not too many years from now, any student scoring less than 100 per cent will be impaled. And be done so in public. Other students who scored above the pitiable number will throw their smartphones (or greatly dumbed-down phones) at this lot to leave no stones unturned. We will go back to Biblical times but with a twist. They can’t possibly throw those chunky desktop PCs that baited floppy disks mercilessly.
On Facebook, I often see comparisons between players of vastly different eras. Who is the GOAT – greatest of all time? Sir Don Bradman played cricket, and so did Sachin Tendulkar, but did they play the same sport? During the time in which Sir Don played cricket, pitches were left uncovered overnight; there were no helmets and bouncers weren’t restricted, making batting far more complicated than it is today. But look at the other side – umpiring was suspect many times, fewer nations played the game at the highest level, fielding was ordinary, fewer matches were played in a year, and there was only one game format. When you take all this into consideration, today’s champions face an uphill task, but it is not possible (at least not objectively) to determine which era was more difficult. Or, as 50-year-olds like me would say, “better”.
Human behaviour is manifested by the times & conditions we live in. Abundance and scarcity are never absolute. Today’s kids will sit nonchalantly in an air-conditioned classroom, which would have been an unimagined luxury in “my time”, but tomorrow’s kids will demand a Metaverse environment even in a public space because it will be made affordable and accessible to the masses, by then. They would want to talk to their avatars while taking a dump in the washroom. Our behaviours change radically as we move up the prosperity curve (regarding resource accessibility).
The basic idea of value is derived from scarcity. If something is not available easily and more people need it, then that object (or intangibles as well) becomes valuable, and our response is usually marked by respect (if not deference).
What? It may be the time, it may be technology, it may be income levels or a host of other large factors. And that object or service is no longer scarce. The value or the perceived one plummets. Can we remain in awe of it? Unlikely.
Is that disrespectful? It depends. On what?
Disrespectful is when we do not acknowledge that we have been standing on the shoulder of giants all along, and that’s why we can look much further into the horizon. And to giants – they ought not to scoff at those who came later and are now standing on their shoulders. If progress is to be made, then every generation must make way for the newer lot to come in someday. And the newer lot must not deny the foundation that they stand on.
Psst…I used a laptop to write this essay. I hope you have the last laugh.