In the 1980s, additional trends emerged, including the breakdown of bipolarism, serious regional integration (Europe and perhaps North America), and the growing recognition of resource and environmental constraints (although the importance of these constraints remains controversial).

Postindustrial Society

Postindustrialism, though often used as a buzzword, actually has profound significance because of three trends that occur in advanced economies. First, postindustrial societies have enough wealth to address most of the material aspirations of their populations, but the palpable improvements experienced in rapidly developing industrializing economies are lacking.2 While there is often a correlation between income growth and satisfaction or optimism, there is no clear correlation between the level of the income base and satisfaction. Since expectations rise with what one gets,3 slow improvements often seem like disappointments rather than modest successes. Recent and future scientific breakthroughs are less likely to be appreciated. Gadgets are no longer regarded as improving the quality of life or productivity, even if they do. People marvel at the ingenuity of computers but rarely acknowledge the improvements in quality of life that they bring.

Second, where basic material needs have been met for the bulk of the population, further progress becomes increasingly difficult because of the diminishing returns on efforts to address the residual cases. Thus educating the total population adequately is dramatically more difficult than educating 90 percent of the population; employing everyone capable of holding a job, including those who have been unemployed so long that they are no longer job seekers, is vastly more difficult than creating job opportunities for the rest of the population; the diseases and health conditions that remain are, almost by definition, less tractable than those that have been eliminated.

Third, when basic material needs are being met, needs for security become relatively more prominent. Avoiding “negatives” dominates over the accumulation of positive benefits such as wealth, education, and culture. The fascinating aspect of the “negative” needs—health, occupational and environmental safety, public safety, national security—is that they also present severely diminishing returns on effort, and yet there is little notion of satiation. At least thus far, increasing health expenditures and breakthroughs in health technology simply expose people to the next disease or decrepitude to strike them. Public safety and national security are limited by nasty escalation feedback loops. As Aaron Wildavsky4 points out, going from moderate safety to maximum safety is extraordinarily costly and often backfires, because the complexity required to approach maximum safety can create other risks. In general, then, reducing the chances of being mugged, murdered, exposed to carcinogens, or “nuked” from 1:5,000 to 1:10,000 may require huge expenditures and impressive technological breakthroughs but would be unlikely to reduce the demand for more improvements, and apparently would have little impact on feelings of security.


The wealthiest countries these days grow at an annual rate of 2 to 4 percent when things are going well; industrializing economies like Korea, China, or Indonesia may grow at over 10 percent annually.


The so-called revolution of rising expectations.


Aaron Wildavsky, Searching for Safety, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, N.J., 1988.

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