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Wealth alone no longer the goal

I blew five bucks in a liquor store on Mega Millions. The jackpot was $120 million Tuesday night. By morning, I realized that I did not have the winning numbers, and did not even come close, and that I might have a gambling problem - the problem being that I never win.

OK, I exaggerate. I've come out ahead at Pimlico twice since 1978 and, in 1980, I won a case of King Syrup in a Sons of Italy linguini-and-crab dinner raffle. I didn't know what to do with King Syrup, so I put it in the basement next to a supply of Quaker State 10W-40.

But I digress.

Who wants to be rich, anyway?

Apparently, not many of our fellow Americans, if you go by a survey recently published by the Pew Research Center, a wonderful source of information on political and social trends. Pew calls itself a "fact tank," though frequently the "facts" are based on public opinion surveys.

In this one, the Pew researchers spent about a month interviewing more than 2,400 adult Americans on their priorities in life.

The Pew findings shattered the notion that we're all about money - a nation of shallow, self-centered, greed-is-good, affluence-seeking wannabe's who will sell our souls to become part of the super-nouveau riche.

"Only 13 percent of adults say it's 'very important' for them to be wealthy, ranking this personal priority far behind six others measured," Pew reported April 30. "Four times more people (52 percent) say 'doing volunteer work or donating to charity' is a very important priority ... and about five times more Americans (67 percent) say it's very important to them to have enough free time, the top-rated value in this survey."

Being successful in a career, having children, being married and living a religious life also ranked ahead of getting rich.

And that's just lovely, but pardon me while I have a cynical interlude and enumerate why I think people responded as they did.

1. Most of us won't admit that, yeah, lots of moolah is really important.

2. Many Americans have come to the realization that they won't live as well as their parents did, or accumulate as much wealth.

3. The current recession, the nation's dependence on imported oil, the economic revolution in China and global environmental problems all feed into lowered expectations for the average American. Most people have little hope of ever being rich.

I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

The Pew survey gets even more interesting.

"Fully 22 percent of those with family incomes of less than $20,000 a year say it's 'very important' for them to be wealthy," the report says. "That's more than double the proportion of adults who earn $100,000 or more a year. ... [But] when the analysis is expanded to include those who say being wealthy is at least 'somewhat important,' affluent Americans emerge as the group that is most likely to say they place at least some importance on wealth."

So, a good amount of the have-nots want to be rich - they have ambitions, a good thing - while the haves want to stay that way, and that's in itself ambitious, especially in the current economic climate.

"Fewer Americans now than at any time in the past half century believe they're moving forward in life," concluded another Pew survey, also published in April. "A majority say that, in the past five years, they either haven't moved forward in life (25 percent) or have fallen backwards (31 percent). This is the most downbeat short-term assessment of personal progress in nearly half a century of polling."

I've been sensing a profound change in our culture that the Pew surveys underscore. It's happening from the ground up.

While the super-rich take off into the economic stratosphere, insulated from a multitude of looming earthly crises with their wealth, millions upon millions of Americans are left to endure a period of stress and correction on the ground. Economic forces - the demand for resources, and the rising costs of everything from health care to food and fuel - combined with developing human and environmental crises around the globe, have contributed to a discernible sense of dread, but also to a reconditioning of American attitudes.

We need to adapt. We need to change. Everyone knows by now that we've spent too much and saved too little, that we went too long with SUVs over more fuel-efficient vehicles, that the boom in housing values was surreal, that environmental concerns - from global warming to the overharvesting of seafood - require us to rethink how and where we live for the sake of our children's future.

And if the kids don't understand this yet, they soon will. They'll have to.

What I sense is a reshaping of the American lifestyle to prepare for a period of expanding populations and demand for precious resources, a switch to a smarter, healthier, more efficient and more modest way of life. There's a kind of instinctual adaptation going on, and it will become more profound in the next generation, Class of 2008 and beyond.

This is not wishful thinking. This is a prediction.

What the Pew survey revealed is probably genuine - winning Mega Millions would be nice, but getting rich isn't a priority for most people. Living within your means is, taking care of family is, getting involved in your community is, saving your piece of the planet is. In the world up ahead, we won't measure "moving forward" only by the accumulation of wealth.

Dan Rodricks is the host of "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.


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