The future will be good for matchers and bad for strivers
"Matchers gain, strivers lose," he writes in a new book, "The Complacent Class."
Matchers, aka enthusiasts, are people who are motivated by personal interests, whether that's record collecting, hiking, cooking, or obsessing about "Game of Thrones." "The enthusiasts are not trying to come out ahead of everyone else; rather, they seek to have some of their niche preferences fulfilled for the sake of their own internally directed happiness," Cowen writes.Strivers, on the other hand, are motivated by beating others. "These are the people who strive to have the biggest office, bed the most mates, earn the most money, or climb whatever the relevant status ladder might be," Cowen writes.
It's not hard to see how recent trends have favored matchers. This group has benefitted from technology - from Tinder to Spotify to Google - that makes it easier for them to pursue their interests and find other people who share them. Meanwhile, strivers are suffering, faced with more competition than ever and a greater awareness of how many people around the world are beating them.
"Unlike the enthusiasts, the competitive strivers often face more intense competition for what they want because everyone else also can pursue it through online means," Cowen writes. What's more, "[t]he internet makes it harder for them to feel they have reached the top of the heap."
Striving is often thought of as a good thing, and no doubt Cowen would agree that some kinds of striving are good. What he's getting at with this division, however, is the difference between people with a cooperative attitude and those with a competitive attitude: between those who are happy to share the pleasures of the modern world and those who are stuck in an old mindset.
America today has a lot of strivers. Many Trump voters, for instance, might be considered strivers if they are upset that other people (e.g., liberals, Chinese, women) are gaining income and opportunities at their expense.
America also, though, has a lot of matchers. Case in point: millennials."[Millennials] are not actually indifferent or lazy or lacking in enthusiasm - quite the contrary - but more and more of their passions take forms other than those of the old climb-the-social-ladder variety," Cowen writes. "Millennials might therefore appear to be lacking to the older generations who don't quite get the new terms of competition and satisfaction. In reality, the Millennials are doing pretty well with respect to the options the world has given them, and they are helping move that world toward more contentment and also less interest in grand projects or topping previous records of achievement."
Cowen described a similar divide in his last book, "Average if Over," where he talked of communities of underemployed but happy hipsters (think Williamsburg and east Berlin) spreading around the world. That's a fine outcome for people who appreciate that lifestyle and have the skills to pull it off. It's less good for people counting on a traditional career and middle-class lifestyle and those who lack the skills to adapt.
How good the future will be may depend on which mindset is more prominent.
Cowen admits to being somewhat torn -"I sometimes say that I am a happiness optimist but a revenue pessimist," he writes-but on the whole, he seems gloomy. "The Complacent Class" focuses on trends like rising segregation, disappointing economic growth and technological progress, and a recent uptick in civil unrest and crime, not to mention the populist backlash that carried Donald Trump to power. His conclusion from all of this is that we're at the start of an age of dangerous instability.
Still, it's not hard to come away from the book with a brighter outlook. If enough people become matchers, and if happiness rises enough, then who cares about GDP?