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Some Historical Perspective, Please

My friend Andy Morriss sent this letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Joe Queenan’s rant on the dismal prospects of the class of 2010 makes ridiculous claim that “Even the Pilgrim toddlers in 1620 had better prospects” than today’s graduates. (“A Lament for the Class of 2010,” May 15). What nonsense. It is true that a young Pilgrim had an easy time figuring out his or her career path than the drama and music major Mr. Queenan profiles – the choices in 1620 were simple: grow food to avoid starving and chop wood to avoid freezing. The class of 1620 lived in a building of “wattle and daub” through a Massachusetts winter. Almost half the Pilgrims died that first winter. The survivors were in debt for their passage to America, probably at a level at least comparable to today’s student loan burdens. But those employed Pilgrims also had to worry about starving and freezing. They had to worry about malaria (rampant in New England then), dying from an infected tooth, getting gangrene from a cut, or contracting smallpox. Their diet was monotonous and low in calories. Their entertainment choices were limited to listening to sermons and reading the Bible. If they were comparatively well off, they might have had three complete suits of clothes. The women could look forward to a high probability of dying in childbirth. Looking forward from 1620, there were the Salem witch trials in the future, suggesting something about tolerance and due process in the colony.

Sure, today’s job climate is tough. And bright young drama and music major Ivy League graduates like Mr. Queenan’s friend may wish they’d majored in accounting or engineering instead indulging their passion for the arts at $40,000 a year. But their lives are immeasurably better than at any time in human history. Adjusted for the quality of life, even if today’s graduates make less money than their parents they are still better off because their money buys them better medical care, better housing, better cars, better entertainment, and better food than their parents bought at the same point in their lives.

Andrew P. Morriss
H. Ross & Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business
University of Illinois College of Law

For further historical detail, see the very fine book by John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony.