Monday, September 15, 2008

Black Monday and Generation Me

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 clich̩ 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 Рthe entitlement philosophy Рwhich 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 Р"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.


Sybil said...

I really agree with you about this--as an American who lived in South Korea for 12 years and recently returned, I've seen this head in the head in the sand mentality first hand. The next few years will be really interesting if painful.
Sybil Baker

Audrey said...

I agree things have to change and now it looks like they will change and since I'm not in banking I can say, "ah ha!" I was thinking of you last night watching the BBC and there was a report on the AVERAGE Lehman Bros salary reported as being something like $337,000. I would love to know what the MEDIAN salary at Lehman was. Strap yourself in girls, it's going to be a bumpy ride...

Marilyn Brant said...

Your posts are always so thoughtful and thought-provoking, Nadine...and your passion and intelligence comes through in every one. I wish more public figures shared your convictions.

Anonymous said...

Generation Me as you call it has actually been dubbed "Generation Millennials" and 60 minutes did a peice on this 'you should get the job/grade/promoted just for showing up' mentality that has developed in this generation. If you have time, click the link, it's interesting reading....

Nadine said...

Audrey - glad my geeky intro to stats post stuck! And to think, when I started writing that one, I meant it to be about $18,000 handbags...

Nadine said...

Thanks for the link, Dara, I actually ordered a book about that phenomenon which I should be getting from the Book Nook tomorrow. I'll pass it along if it's any good.

Nadine said...

I wish that too, Marilyn, but Sarah Palin's probably very passionate about her right to hunt moose and polar bears until there isn't one left on the planet. I'm trying to incorporate some humility into the delivery, and not become one of those people who get older but none the wiser!

I do wonder why views that are taken as Gospel in most parts of the world, and yet are so hard to convince people of in teh US.
I don't think there's anything particularly revolutionary about anything I've ever said on this blog (I would think that, wouldn't I?) but it always does end up sounding so out there... who do we blame for this? Schools? The media? A "wide frontier" heritage? Intellectual laziness? Who knows.

Nadine said...

Hopefully not TOO interesting, Sybil : )

Everytime I get too doom-and-gloom for my own good, I think about the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, of the Charter of Human Rights, and the abolishment of slavery. Hell, even women's reproductive rights are a massive, totally underrated achievement. Humanity has a way of getting itself to the brink of annialation, and then bouncing back somehow and getting better.

If we really stop to think about it, history is full of examples of people acting very UN-selfishly (and usually not because God asked them to). My family, for example, benefitted from a general understanding in Canada that immigration helps move nations forward and is a good thing. Now the pendelum has swung back in favor of xenophobia. Cycles happen. The question is then: who will manage to whether them, and who will not.

Nadine said...

Audrey - I found this today from an article by Bill Moyers on
"During the last five years of his tenure as CEO of now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld's total take was $354 million."

Don't know what the median salary at Lehman Brothers is, but that's how much the CEO earned for his fina job.

How can anyone look at this and say the free market works absolutely, without any regulations, laws, or protections??? Does a CEO really deserve THAT MUCH more than a janitor based on this kind of performance? And yes, they say it coming. They just figured they'd grab as much as they could before the whole thing collapsed. There's more on that on as well as