In late May, leaders from the world's eight most powerful nations met in Birmingham, England, for a three-day summit to discuss such issues as trade, international crime, nuclear weapons control and even the year-2000 problem. At the end of their meeting, on Sunday, May 17th, the so-called Group of Eight released a statement emphasizing their desire to "improve the quality of life for people everywhere."
The summit made me ask myself if the quality of life has improved in the United States during the past 30 years. Before we can answer that question, however, we must define quality of life. We can probably all agree that it includes freedom from hunger, fear, pain, and religious and racial prejudices, but we may have problems agreeing on the finer points.
Certainly, quality of life requirements have changed over time. The modern perspective can be summarized briefly and ironically in the Milton Bradley game called The Game of Life, where players race plastic cars around a board and gather wealth. The object of the game is to retire with the most material gains as early as possible. As players move around the board, setbacks to increasing their wealth occur, such as getting married, paying taxes and sending their children to college. However, as in real life, a diligent game strategist can overcome these setbacks and retire early in life with a great deal of material wealth.
"There will be quality of work life when people take pride in what they do," W. Edwards Deming stated. Is this the case now? If not, then how do we define quality of life? To begin with, quality itself is difficult to define. ISO 9000 describes it as "the totality of features and characteristics of an entity that bears on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs." Although it doesn't directly state it, this definition implies that to have quality, specific needs requirements for the entity -- in this case, life itself -- are necessary.
Webster's New World Dictionary defines life as an organism's cellular biochemical activities. These are characterized by digestion, salvaging and using energy, growth, reproduction, etc. -- basically, all those properties that distinguish living organisms from inorganic or dead matter. Given this definition, we must next ask ourselves, do we really mean to improve quality of life, or do we actually mean quality of human life?
Certainly our record for improving the quality of plant and wild animal life has been, and still is, despicable. The wildlife population is shrinking as more and more animals are constrained to zoos and parks. The plant kingdom is being continuously plowed under and paved over with cement and blacktop. Rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, despite the environmental movement. Ocean habitats no longer support limitless fish populations. Driving at night used to be difficult due to the large number of insects that collected on my windshield. Now this is a rare occurrence.
So let's agree that when we talk about quality of life, we really mean quality of human life rather than quality of all life. However, the quality of human life must be improving. After all, 50 percent of the people in the United States are overweight based upon new government guidelines. The world's population is exploding. Maybe our quality of life is too good.
An earlier board game, called The New Game of Human Life, offered a different set of objectives than the version described above. This game's ultimate goal was to become immortal. Players jumped forward if they landed on squares labeled "studious boy," "ambitious youth" and "benevolent man." They moved backward when they landed on squares labeled "negligent boy," "complacent man" and "drunkard." The game's objective was described in the rules as "a model for the course of life, which can end only in eternity."
The New Game of Human Life was played in the United States during the 1790s, when George Washington was president. The game can still be found today in historical novelty shops, although it's certainly not a model we use for our lives. Now, people are more interested in the coins in their pockets than the stars in their crowns.
Is there another side of human life that goes beyond the physical to the moral and ethical? Do we have an obligation to our unborn generations? Sure, quality of human life includes ending starvation, controlling our human population through effective family planning, and increasing the emphasis on environmental controls. However, quality of human life also must address morality, ethics and values. These aren't government issues but family ones.
How do you measure the quality of your life? I hope it's not based upon what you collect as you go through the years but by what added value you leave behind.
About the author
H. James Harrington is a principal at Ernst & Young and serves as its international quality advisor. He has more than 45 years' experience as a quality professional and is the author of 12 books.
Harrington is a past president and chairman of the board of both the American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality. He can be reached at 55 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113; telephone (408) 947-6587, fax (408) 947-4971, e-mail jharrington@ qualitydigest.com. Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com.