After the Christmas holidays, with all that downtime to contemplate life, I tend to get philosophical. And today I have a new hypothesis about what is ailing our economy and our society.
For centuries, people’s main goal was to achieve something. It might not have been very big; it may simply have been to own their own farm; to be able to feed their families through the winter; or to build a bigger barn to pass on to their kids. Whatever it was, they worked hard at it.
At times this focus to achieve became an obsession, as the movie Wall Street brilliantly depicted in the 1980s. Achievement, in and of itself, is not always a worthy goal. But the idea of bettering oneself, and bettering one’s community, is something that our nation was founded upon.
Something dramatic has occurred in the last ten or fifteen years. It had its roots earlier than that, but it’s really coming to its zenith now. As a society, we’re no longer aiming for achievement. We’re aiming for leisure. We work to earn money so we can relax, rather than working for the pleasure of it or for the joy of feeling productive. Our aim is not to contribute and build; it’s to be entertained. We’re no longer active; we’re passive.
Business owners I talk to can’t get over the change in work ethic today among workers. Twenty years ago, people would have jumped at the chance to work overtime and earn something extra. Today they’ll sacrifice money for more time off.
That’s not always a bad thing; many of us need to be spending more time with our families. But when that time off is taken just to vegetate in front of a screen, something’s wrong.
Such trends first show up in the young, because the youth soak up the culture most. Look at the number of young men in their twenties and thirties who are still living with their parents, because they have little drive to become independent. Many of these men, and many teenage boys coming up right behind them, spend more time playing video games than just about anything else.
The trend has hit females, too, but it hasn’t struck as hard for a variety of reasons. First, the school system is more geared to girls’ learning styles than it is to those of boys, so girls are often engaged while boys are turned off. But more than that, women have a built in biological survival mechanism. They want their future children provided for. And the more men slack off, the more women become overachievers to compensate. You can see the trend in the Caribbean, in Eastern Europe, and in the African American community in the United States. In places where men drop out of life, many women become super responsible. When women pursue education, of course, that’s something to applaud. But when the gender balance is out of whack, it doesn’t bode well for society.
The other place trends often pop up is in where our spending is going. After all, you can tell a lot about the state of a person’s heart by looking at their wallet. And the most dramatic change over the last decade and a half is the astronomical increase in consumer debtload. Between 1999 and 2005 Canada’s debtload increased by 47.5%, with the majority of that coming from lines of credit. We’re living on borrowed money. We’re buying things to make us happy and electronics to keep us entertained rather than building a life built on something solid.
Maybe one of the benefits of this economic downturn is that we will all be reminded that running after leisure and things to make us happy, and doing so irresponsibly, isn’t the best path to either happiness or success. Perhaps, this year, we will find that elusive balance between overwork and leisure, where we provide responsibly for our families, try to contribute, but at the same time remember that quality time with those we love can’t be bought, and shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of work. We’ve had a wake-up call. Will we heed it?