Many people – economists and philosophers included – are still making mistakes about life and its possibilities.

A crude mistake is the view that income is the sole reward that comes from employment. Standard economics likewise teaches that how much work a person of given wealth supplies to the economy depends on the pay and nothing else. That view may have described well enough of most employment in the 18th century and earlier. However, it came more and more to be seen as missing things in the 19th century.

Commentators began to understand that a basic part of people’s lives is the experience they have in the workplace – good or bad. In the 20th century, American philosophers from John Dewey to John Rawls argued that people are gratified by employment that offers “meaningful work,” not just good pay. The philosophers generally had in mind the mental stimulation and sense of pride that comes from the problem-solving needed when confronted by unexpected challenges.

Yet this problem-solving is not the core experience of work in the “modern” economies – the economies that modern societies developed in Europe and America over the 19th century. Companies formed in those economies did not generally wait for the occasional opportunity opened up by the discovery of some scientist somewhere – the picture of innovation inscribed in everyone’s minds by Prof. Schumpeter in his 1911/1912 book, The Theory of Economic Development.

In the modern economies, all sorts of people might be conceiving new methods of making their products and new products to make – not waiting for scientists to bring some new opportunity on a silver platter. This is what I like to call dynamism: the power to generate innovation in a nation’s economy in addition to any Schumpeterian “manna from heaven” through science and technology.

In a modern economy, then, a wide range of people might often be imagining something new – and large numbers of the economy’s participants might be dreaming that they will someday have a new vision. My 2013 book Mass Flourishing suggests that, with all the modern values in place for the functioning of a modern economy, a nation might be alive – almost giddy – with new visions and dreams of future visions.

What exactly are the satisfactions that may come from participating in a modern economy – an economy borne of a modern society? More recent writings of mine propose that we use the word prospering to refer to getting better terms for what one is achieving through one’s initiative and ingenuity. Then we could use the term flourishing to refer to the satisfactions of acting on one’s imagination, from venturing far into the unknown and having the thrill of discovery.

Is this flourishing through innovation any longer of any importance to us in this century? The answer must be yes for those of us who have grown attached to modern values. We continue to need not just opportunities to solve problems and gain knowledge. We want to feel alive, as Cervantes and Melville well knew: to have the courage to act, the fun of hitting on new things and the thrill of voyaging into the unknown. 

{Adapted from Mass Flourishing for Thrive Global 24 April 2019 d10}


  • Edmund Phelps

    Edmund Phelps, 2006 Nobel Laureate in Economics; Director, Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University and author of Mass Flourishing

    Professor Edmund Phelps, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics, is Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University. Born in 1933, he spent his childhood in Chicago and, from age six, grew up in Hastings-on Hudson, N.Y. He attended public schools, earned his B.A. from Amherst (1955) and got his Ph.D. at Yale (1959). After a stint at RAND, he held positions at Yale and its Cowles Foundation (1960 - 1966), a professorship at Penn and finally at Columbia in 1971. He has written books on growth, unemployment theory, recessions, stagnation, inclusion, rewarding work, dynamism, indigenous innovation and the good economy. He is the author of Rewarding Work (1997, 2007) and Mass Flourishing (2013)