I went to bed last night, my head spinning somewhat after a long day playing Frisbee on the beach, a party where a little too much wine had been had, and confusing internet headlines about Lehman Brothers, one of the oldest investment banks around, possibly going the way of the Dodo bird (and many other birds these days).
This morning the rumors and speculation turned into tragic fact. Not as tragic as, say, deadly hurricanes turning beleaguered cities and island nations into muddy swamps and war zone look-alikes, but tragedies nonetheless. The cliché of business being "just business" and totally divorced from its role in communities, identity, and just plain survival, is now being tried against a class of people not familiar with the idea that sometimes hard work, planning, and intense "wanting it" do not necessarily materialize into success. Sometimes they don't even materialize into a week's worth of groceries. Jane Green recently blogged about a phenomenon I'd noticed but hadn't really thought about until recently – the entitlement philosophy – which has led to a whole generation of people (dubbed "Generation Me") thinking they should be applauded and showered with all the material and psychological gifts associated with achievement just for showing up. There's even a popular saying – "80% of life is just showing up". A generation drunk on self-importance, disdainful of "lesser" people, and patting itself on the back because it did nothing more than win the "lucky birth" sweepstakes.
I wonder how this philosophy plays out in Brazilian shanty towns where armed gangs of children scavenge for food (anyone who has not yet seen City of God needs to RUN, not walk, to the video store), or pretty much anywhere in Africa, Latin America, huge swaths of Eastern Europe, the Middle and Far East, or indigenous Australia and the South Pacific Islands, where increases in food prices this year have meant absolute catastrophe for millions.
Or even in Middle America, where "middle" now means barely above the poverty line.
It is, in fact, a dog-eat-dog world out there folks, and no amount of reality TV, books, articles, or "vicarious luxury" products like designer perfumes, handbags, shoes and "bridge" lines trying to sell us an alternative universe of untold riches available to the average Joe and Jane will change that. It's not about "showing up". It was about consuming, at least as far as this continent was concerned, and now America is in the process of passing the baton of conspicuous consumption over to other ambitious nations that have clawed their way up to this privilege.
And yet, all I hear about is Bristol Palin's pregnancy, Palin as a pig with lipstick, pro-choice/anti-choice, drilling, drilling, and more drilling, and barely any acknowledgment at all from the people currently running the show that there's any problem at all, that the price you pay for having the freedom to buy the biggest car your line of credit will get you, the biggest house in the fanciest neighborhood your mortgage broker says you qualify for, and as many useless gadgets as you feel like, is that sometimes you will go broke. It's called a "market economy" and it's a tailor-made philosophy for Generation Me. It speaks to disinterest in people perceived as "lesser" and their problems, to the feeling that anyone who is good enough can be on the winning side, to the hope that you can one day be one of the thousands of millionaires (and even billionaires!) this wonderful country manufactures.
Now, that's all good and well when it's factory workers, mechanics, janitors, teachers, firemen, and Wal-mart greeters who are falling through the cracks of no-holds-barred capitalism. They didn't go to school. They didn't work hard enough. They didn't want it badly enough. They didn't earn their success.
I wonder if the (former) investment bankers, admin assistants, accountants, lawyers, and IT support technicians are giving each other the "you should have wanted it more" pep talk this morning. I wonder, as these people might currently be wondering if they'll get any severance pay at all, if laid-off accountants and IT administrators, and secretaries will continue to be hostile towards labor unions who guarantee things like severance pay.
Will white-collar workers' inflated sense of entitlement finally bring about the kind of grassroots change, righteous anger, and standing up to corporate interests that blue-collar workers failed to achieve? Because we're not talking about construction workers, nurses or janitors anymore – we're talking about US and this isn't supposed to happen to US!
The silver lining of this dark economic cloud is that we may see the end of Generation Me, and perhaps, if we're lucky, a Generation We, or at least, a Generation Aware. Maybe I'm living in some sort of fantasy land that exists only in my head, but perhaps when people like me and my friends start getting laid off from our well-paying jobs, when we see it won't be so easy to get back on our feet this time, when our home values (and retirement packages) begin to erode, we may no longer be as quick to blame the poor for their poverty, to be aghast at a welfare system that guarantees healthcare to everyone, even if it means having to wait our turn in line. Maybe we will endeavor to be less ignorant, to focus less on acquiring "market skills" now that we know how fickle the market is, and get ourselves some life skills instead, some humility, a sense of history, and our miniscule, insignificant place within it.
But, judging by how mesmerized the public remains by this magician's trick of a cute, hopelessly clueless (or pretending to be) hockey mom with a king crab for table-top knick-knack, and no ideas about how to steer the economy if not towards a recovery but at least away from certain doom, I think my fantasy will remain just that – a fantasy.