Maslow's America

Time's "Person of the Year" should have been Abraham Maslow.

The great psychologist is the key to understanding the biggest economic story of our day ? a story that's been obscured by stock tickers crawling across the bottom of every television screen, by breathless magazine covers about dot-com fired insta-wealth, and by the endless decoding of Alan Greenspan's every emission.

Deep into the middle class, Americans are enjoying a standard of living unmatched in world history and unthinkable to our ancestors just 100 years ago. This development goes well beyond today's high Dow and low unemployment rate. (Insert startling factoid about VCRs, longevity, car ownership, antibiotics, indoor plumbing, or computing power here.) And demographics are only deepening the significance of the moment. Roughly seven out of eight Americans were not alive during the Great Depression ? and therefore have no conscious memory of outright, widespread, hope-flattening economic privation. (Note: long gas lines and short recessions don't qualify as life-altering hardship.) As a result, the default assumption of middle class American life has profoundly changed: the expectation of comfort has replaced the fear of privation.

Enter Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I imagine that at least a majority of Americans have satisfied the physiological, safety, and even social needs on the lower levels of Maslow's pyramid. And that means that well over 100 million people are on the path toward self-actualization, trying to fulfill what Maslow called "metaneeds." This is one reason why work has become our secular religion ? and why legions of people are abandoning traditional employment to venture out on their own. (It's also why I guarantee that in the next twelve months we'll see newsmagazine stories about despondent, unfulfilled "What's It All About, Alfie?" Internet millionaires.)

What happens when life for many (though, of course, not all) Americans ? and ever more people in the developed world ? ceases being a struggle for subsistence and instead becomes a search for meaning?

It could herald an era of truth, beauty, and justice. Or it could get really weird.