February 13, 2016
Seeking a Meaningful Life in Troubled Times
by R B Bhattacharjee
Forget Politicians like Najib and his cabal, dogs will stick with you when the chips are down
In recent years, growing attention is being paid to the pressures of the economic system on people’s lives, in terms of job market volatility, the growing competition for well-paying jobs, consumer debt burden, unaffordable housing, cost of retirement and a myriad of other tensions that rob them of the prospects of a meaningful life.
Many of these issues are linked to the global economy and are perpetuated by ineffective measures to address the structural causes of economic imbalances and overcome obstacles to growth.
These problems exact a heavy toll on society, including public health costs for stress-related diseases, impairment of individual well-being, interpersonal problems, domestic discord and so on.
In reaction to this modern malaise, a small but growing number of people are driven to question what it is that is wrong with capitalism’s promise of plenty that gets people enmeshed in the problems of a deeply-flawed economic model.
Among the answers to this paradox may be that for a majority of people, the current direction of economic activity tends towards a separation between economic output and self-fulfilment. The common experience is that a job is the means for obtaining the resources needed to meet one’s desires and obligations.
The rare individual who chooses to pursue his dreams stands apart from the crowd because he is willing to step out of the familiar measurement of a successful life in favour of his own yardstick.
For the rest, the price of seeking to blend in with conventional notions of a productive life is counted in a constant effort to remain relevant at work, in business and in society.
In the current economic cycle, that effort manifests as anxious attempts to cope with business shifts, financial churn, market movements and the uncertainties that accompany these phenomena.
These uncertainties tend to encourage a search for meaning amid all the turmoil, heartbreak and hardship that has to be endured in order to maintain one’s status as a success in the eyes of society.
Naturally, a portion of these people will find at some point that the game of seeking the approval of others no longer holds much meaning and will look for new ways to define their sense of selffulfilment.
Among them, some are venturing into alternative economic activities, such as social enterprises, that aim to improve the lives of disadvantaged groups through a variety of approaches, including innovative financing models, leveraging new technologies, skill matching and linking small producers to markets.
In the UK, for example, social enterprises are outperforming their mainstream SME counterparts in nearly every area of business, including turnover growth, workforce growth, job creation, innovation, business optimism, and start-up rates, according to the State of Social Enterprise Report 2015.
It is interesting that so much entrepreneurial energy is being generated in the service of others when the conventional wisdom is that the primary driving force for the economy is that all-important profit motive that powers businesses, distributing benefits all along the way – generating jobs, revenue for governments and providing goods and services to society.
This indicates that a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs is emerging that is finding meaning in facilitating social justice, and doing so profitably.
Key to the efficacy of social entrepreneurship is an outlook that prioritises the larger good over individual gain, and the reports on these enterprises are full of inspiring stories of generosity, a culture of sharing, innovative problem-solving and positive energy.
In the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, Class of 2015, for example, the story of Kiah Williams is typical of these traits. A victim of America’s costly medical system, which robbed her family of their home, Williams co-founded a non-profit that redistributes unused medicines to patients in several parts of the US.
This trend foreshadows a mindset shift that can potentially lead to the evolution of economic systems that meet human needs in wholesome, non-exploitative ways. It ought to yield a saner economic model than the current formula that has delivered lopsided growth and is in danger of collapsing on itself despite ingenious efforts to sustain its markets.
Along with social entrepreneurship, social investing is another powerful tool for social change agents to develop income-generating activities that can improve the lives of underserved communities. Social investment has been described as the use of repayable finance to fund revenue-generating activities or to build an organisation’s capacity to fulfil its social mission.
Social investors, in partnership with social entrepreneurs, point the way to a new economic order that is inclusive, focused on those who are most in need and that is guided by a responsible form of capitalism.
However, before they can develop into a mainstream sector of the economy, many more people would need to become disenchanted with the false promise of the current economic system that feeds on an insatiable, self-destructive greed.