Our planet is seriously overpopulated with expectations. They come in countless varieties, from positive to negative, from economic to astronomic, from environmental to cultural. All of these expectations, of course, are in our own minds. The personal ones are basic to our experience as human beings and mostly self-created. I suspect they start with breast feeding. At the age of four I was eager to fulfill my expectations of meeting the Easter Bunny in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. By five I was already nourishing expectations (fostered by my father) of becoming as famous as Picasso! I am still burdened by a multiplicity of expectations as evidenced by this blog in which I have expectations that I can educate, inform and make a difference.
Expectations are pervasive in our lives and so, consequently are disappointments. When our expectations are met and things go according to plan or hopes, we feel relieved, accomplished and on track. When the result to which we aspired is frustrated or not met we feel stymied: we have not lived up to the expectations we placed upon ourselves. This leads us to ask why we engage in such an excess of expectations about ourselves and the world around us? In effect, are they infectious? Indeed our values, beliefs and expectations deeply affect the ways humanity moves.
In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens’ most famous novel, its hero, Pip’s social advancement in life reflected the aspirations of the Victorian era. Although the expectations referred to by the title were for the monetary legacy which was to come to Pip, the author’s drive was certainly fueled by “The Great Exhibition” of 1851. The new social mobility depended on people having ideas and expectations “above their station,” which further inspired the younger generations to climb up the social ladder.
A hundred years later, the children of the 1950s generation who just finished school or graduated from a college or university in the UK could expect to earn more than their parents and were soon to own their own homes. They had expectations that their children, in turn, would follow up on the advances that their parents had made. Today, however, the idea that each generation would be more fortunate than the last no longer holds true. Many of the young “are struggling to earn a decent wage in an increasingly insecure and low pay labor market.”1 Their expectations are no longer on the optimistic side and are replaced by frustration as they are forced to accept that the political and economic realities of our time appear to have little to offer them.
Most Americans, on the other hand, want to hold on to their expectations and their beliefs that they are continuing to live in an age of advancement. However, the era of expectations aroused by power, scale and speed in the 20th century no longer are valid. Compared to the optimistic expectations of the 20th century the more modest advances being made in the 21st “raises a critical question about the nation’s future prosperity.”2 There are now few who have expectations that the great days for the economy lie ahead. Robert Gordon in his book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, expects that the labor force will not fare well while the baby boomers get older and the supply of female workers flattens. Meanwhile there are fears that the growing concentration of income in the hands of the top tenth of one percent of the population will continue to rise while the bottom 99 percent will hardly improve. This may well result in the massive growth of negative economic expectations including those of more bank failures, flat growth curves, saturated markets, as well as dangerous pollution levels.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, populations around the world developed linear expectations for the improved material aspects of life. The revolution of rising expectations caused desperate people living on the land to leave their roots to find a better life in the cities. Their short-term economic aspirations have led to ever rising expectations. Nothing arouses expectations as much as the steady digital transmission of flowing images of the wealthy environments and riches in the advanced nations. From the urban slums and favelas, viewing the clothes, food, housing and automobiles in western films arouse desires and hitherto unimagined expectations that they now will struggle to fulfill.
All humanity strives to meet such basic needs as nourishment, water, clothing, housing, security, and sustainability. However, the population explosion of the 20th century has augmented the number of people desiring the material benefits of capitalism which they have been unable to reach. Their expectations also have gone into reverse: the winds of despair are blowing from every direction. The environmental challenges of air and water pollution, floods, cyclones, acid rains, and oil spills are all enhancing their negativity and doubts about their chances for advancement. Even small goals seem out of reach. Negative expectations do not lead to progress. They often encourage violence and revolt.
There are systems scientists who would like to strike a balance between positive and negative trends though a globally integrated social, cultural and technological approach. However, this is not going to cope with the essence of our expectations as human beings. After all, most of our expectations are self-imposed. We have basic expectations of being understood, of being heard, as well as having privacy. We want to be successful, but being successful often requires living up to huge expectations we set for ourselves.
Looking around me, I wonder whether our expectations are often preventing us from actually enjoying life? Do expectations not restrict our imaginations, limit surprise, deny the mysterious? Many of us suffer from expecting perfection or demands from talents or abilities which we do not possess.
There are times we must overcome the challenges of some of our expectations. Setting up expectations for oneself and then seeing oneself as a failure for not meeting them is unworthy. Even worse are the unrealistic expectations which involve setting up nearly impossible goals which are then abandoned — even before any efforts are made, because of gnawing self doubts.
Letting go of our self-imposed expectations can often set us free to live our lives by exploring its incredible possibilities which may stimulate our own potentials. The point is to decrease the scope of our expectations, not to lower them. Michelangelo reputedly said: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our goal.” Indeed we must recognize that the best of the arts and the sciences have been dependent throughout the ages on the exceptional fulfillment of human expectations.
1Larry Elliott, “An economic model that’s creaking with age,” The Guardian, February 15, 2016
1Eduardo Porter “Living in an era of reduced expectations,” The New York Times, January 20, 2016.