Chicken Little?

This post originated in a series of conversations I had over the holiday with my in-laws who were children of the Great Depression. But it’s also something I’ve thought about for a long time. The catalyst for posting probably came from Shannon’s recent missive “Why Wait?”. If you’re looking for thoughts on pedagogy, this post probably isn’t for you.

Two years ago, I had an interest in globalization, but didn’t really know that much about it. Having twice taught a first year seminar on the subject, I have turned an interest into at least a modest amount of expertise.

I generally take an optimistic view of life. I believe in the American Dream. As a mainstream economist, I also believe that international trade and investment are beneficial for both countries participating in such transactions. Though some individuals in both may be harmed, the gains to each country in the aggregate offset the losses. Change always has losers as well as winners, even change that is ultimately for the good. What I’m beginning to question is how long the US will continue to be among the most economically affluent nations in the world. What I suspect may be coming is that the US will continue to grow, but certain other countries will grow more quickly and surpass us. China comes to mind. This outcome is not a certainty, but what’s clear is that the US has no manifest destiny to remain at the top of the economic heap. What will be required to keep us there is innovation, investment, education, and hard work. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll be able to maintain those. Why? Because I think most Americans, especially the younger generation, have become complacent about their economic affluence.

As an educator, I spend a great deal of time interacting with students. As a parent, I do the same with children, my own and many others. I’m also a child of the 1960s, and had parents who lived through the Great Depression. At the risk of being reductive, here’s what I’ve concluded from these interactions:

* My parents’ generation believed that if they didn’t work as hard as they could, learn as much as they could, and save as much as they could, their families would go hungry (no hyperbole intended). As a result, they achieved a significant of economic affluence as evidenced by the growth of the middle class in second half of the twentieth century.

* My generation believes that if we work hard, learn much, and save, we will be economically successful. And we largely have been, as illustrated by the wealth of the baby boomers.

* The younger generation seems to believe that they will be economically successful, whether or not they work hard, learn or save. And as a consequence, they don’t seem to be doing those critical activities very much.

My students don’t seem to work very hard at school. They don’t seem to take college that seriously, and they don’t see learning as their full time job. Most of them seem to have part time jobs, not to pay for school-related expenses–that I could understand–but rather to pay for what to me at least are luxuries. Some students have told me that they take part time jobs because they have free time! I often wonder what these students think they are in university for? Shannon makes the same point, I think, when she notes

College is a unique environment unlike anything else we will ever experience, yet we focus on other things, even ignoring the reason colleges where created in the first place.

At one level, these students seem to be behaving the way I remember kids in high school doing: kids who were not particularly engaged in school taking a part-time job where the money was “good” and then making a career of it. I fear that many of my students will being doing essentially the same thing: not staying in a part time job, but ending up in second tier jobs because they didn’t work to their potential in school. And I worry that more and more jobs like that will be the norm in this country because Americans aren’t willing to put in the work necessary to be qualified for something better.

Some of this is to be expected, what economists call an income effect: As people become more affluent, they work less and take more leisure. The problem I see is that as a nation, we seem to be behaving myopically. If we did this wittingly that would be one thing, but I wonder if most Americans understand what’s going on? And even if we do, don’t we have a responsibility towards future generations?

There are places in the world where people are hungry, figuratively and literally. Increasingly they are competing with us for jobs. Increasingly I think they will be winning them. Americans will end up taking second-tier jobs with second tier incomes. This will happen slowly, and we won’t even notice until it’s a fait accompli. I hope I’m wrong.

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4 Responses to Chicken Little?

  1. Laura says:

    I think you are right. I don’t want you to be right, but I think you are right. I’m the child of baby boomers and my dad always talked about how his goal was to be better off than his parents. I wanted to be better off than my own parents. In most ways, I’m not–primarily because of my career choice. But, I have made some other financial decisions that will make me better off. I’ve been saving for retirement since I was in my early 20s, something my father put off until his mid-forties.

    I don’t know how we instill a work ethic in the younger generation. Maybe they will be perfectly well off thanks to their parents, who may have set up trust funds, etc. Maybe they will use their leisure to contribute to the world or their communities. It would be nice to have a generation of thinkers rather than a generation of people who just want to be entertained.

  2. Steve says:

    The money is only a symptom to me. I’ve never thought about being better off than my parents. Or not. For me, the financial side is only part of it. I’m not worried about my own situation. I just worry that future generations will feel more and more like Tim described in his excellent post: Lacking control of their own lives. None of us really has control, total control, but we can make choices that change the trajectory of our lives. I don’t want future generations to have fewer choices.

    WRT trust funds, you must have a different class of students than I do.

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