From the perspective of conference organizer Jordan Bober, reduced expectations for young people present an opportunity.
There's no question people entering their adult years today are going to do worse than their parents did, the 30-year-old from Vancouver said. When people in the older generation were coming of age in the 1960s and '70s, he said, they could find a job whenever they wanted one, making possible the "voluntary poverty" movement of activists opting out of the mainstream economy.
"It's not voluntary anymore," said Bober, who has a master's degree in economics from a university in Gothenburg, Sweden. "Even if people of my age want, they won't be able to insert themselves into the dominant economy and get jobs and wages their parents could."
He meets people all the time who are loaded down with debt from going to school, but who are unable to find meaningful work, he said. It's not unusual in B.C. to meet someone who has a master's degree and is working at a minimum wage job in a coffee shop or a hotel.
"That's a massive tragedy and a waste of human resources," he said.
He mentioned how his girlfriend, who is doing demanding work with a master's in political science, is making less money than the receptionist at her shared office space. "It's ridiculous," he said. "People are fed up with that. We have aspirations too... people want to be recognized for the value they're creating."
As he put it, "Inequality is probably one of the biggest issues with the current economy."
Unemployed? Consume less, share more
Bober was one of the organizers of the Living the New Economy conference in Vancouver in October. It was the second such conference, and a third happened in Victoria in December.
The conference was the idea of Nicole Moen, a co-founder of the Healing Cities Institute. She told the crowd of 100 or so on the opening evening in a cold former railway roundhouse in Victoria (the heating system was broken) that she woke up one night wanting to organize an event about money.
Formal and informal topics included things like marketing with integrity, indigenomics, permaculture and alternative currencies. Among the opening night attendees were several representatives of event sponsor Vancity credit union and Victoria city councillor Lisa Helps, who also heads a microcredit agency. Interviews with several participants can be found here.
The conventional economy is about self interest, while the new economy is about co-operation and gift relationships, explained Sacred Economics author and degrowth activist Charles Eisenstein in a video address to the conference.
With youth unemployment over 50 per cent in parts of Europe and pushing 20 per cent in the United States, there's incentive for young people to work less, consume less and share more, he said. Partly it's about economic necessity, but it's also about building the quality of relationships, he said.
Long-time environmental activist Donna Morton, part of the opening-night panel, talked about the power of using the financial system to build a better world. She encouraged people to put money into things they love and take it out of things that are wrecking the planet.
"We need to own the financial system," she said. "Political strategies, that used to be my toolbox, but I'm done with that, for me."
In many ways, the New Economy idea turns the necessity of coping with reduced expectations into a virtue of addressing major environmental and social problems.
Bober said he sees a future where people may be less well off materially, but richer in spirit. "People will be living with a lot less money, but it doesn't mean they're going to be poorer," he said.
They may lower their housing costs by finding ways to live in larger groups, he said. Car sharing, where ownership and costs are divided up, will become more common, he said. "It's going to be very rare for people to own their own cars, as it probably should be."
Many will depend on their parents longer, much the way young people are in Spain, where about half the population under 30 years old can't get work, he said.
"The fact is we will never live the way our parents did because we've come up against ecological constraints that are non-negotiable," he said. That's alright, however, he said. "There's so much more to life than living and consuming the way we have over the last few decades."
Part of it is redefining when we think we have enough, he said. "I think we're well under way. People in my circles, and it's not the majority, are very happy even living under the poverty line," he said. "If I have my rent and my food covered, a little bit over that, I'm doing just dandy."
Many people live on a "treadmill" where the work itself leads to costs such as running a car or maintaining a lifestyle, Bober said. "You never feel that you have enough," he said. "I've felt the richest I've ever felt in the last couple years since I abandoned my stable income."
GDP vs. well-being
The ideas are in line with recent thinking about measuring well-being, rather than gross domestic product. In Mark Anielski's 2007 book The Economics of Happiness, the author argues for redefining economic progress to better align with the things that matter to quality of life, including supportive relationships, environmental health and spiritual well-being.
Research quoted in The Spirit Level and elsewhere suggests that as national income per person begins to rise, there are initial gains in both life expectancy and in the portion of people who describe themselves as "very happy" or "quite happy."
As incomes rise further, however, there is little gain. People in relatively poor Tanzania or Indonesia are as likely to say they are happy as are people in much richer Norway or the United States.
The Spirit Level also argues that greater equality would lead to reduced consumerism and a healthier environment. Consumption, often funded by households taking on debt, is very much about social status and people trying to unsustainably keep up with their neighbours, the authors wrote.
For Bober, the key has been making his working life meaningful. "I feel like there's not a wasted moment in my life," he said. "When you feel like you have a meaningful existence, you're not really craving for more."
That was a central message of the Living the New Economy conference. "The new economy is essentially about how we relate with each other," he said. "It's about creating a system that will slowly make the old system obsolete over time."
The goal is to create an economy that's more sustainable and interconnected, he said. It's about how we interact with each other and with the environment. "It's creating an economy that's designed with people and the planet as the priority," he said.
The idea is to get away from the economy being an end in itself and instead empowering people, he said. One of the benefits is people can do it for themselves, he said. "I'm not really keen on waiting for people with the power... to make the changes that are needed."
There are lots of options, Bober said. They include social impact bonds, co-operatives, crowd funding and building a peer-to-peer economy, he said. "It's really kind of a matter of showing what is being done."
Therein lies one possible answer to inequality: transcend it by adjusting your expectations, while working to build the economy you want.
This article is part of a series for the Tyee Solutions Society looking at the causes, costs and potential solutions for wealth inequality in British Columbia, Canada's most unequal province by some measures.
Tomorrow: Raise the Poor, Strengthen the Middle: 'What matters is the level of inequality you finish up with, not how you get it'