Bill of Goods

Posted: April 13, 2008 in Consumerism

I’m hearing more and more stories lately about some young person in middle school, high school, or even college who makes the strange decision that he or she would rather not work so hard and then abjures skills, experiences, or a degree program being offered on a silver platter. (Attracting people to actually work at something has never been harder.) It puzzles me that even ingenues could lack the foresight to recognize that building a foundation or developing oneself pays dividends over time, unlike frittering away one’s time and having nothing later to show for it. The declined opportunity could be joining a sports team, learning to play a musical instrument, studying nursing, etc. Doesn’t matter. What they have in common is that they all take a commitment of time that provides substantial benefit. Even modest time commitments like a nature hike are declined as too much effort.

As a youngster, I had the usual spans of free time: after school, weekends, and glorious summer. I spent a great deal of time in Boy Scouts, reading, studying, playing trombone, playing tennis, swimming, riding my bike, and various other endeavors that kept me occupied. But I also worked — a lot. It started with the time-honored paper route and transitioned to winters spent shoveling neighbors’ driveways and summers tending lawns. There was rarely a time when I didn’t pitch in and do the work. It would never have occurred to me that it was too much effort to be worth my time. At least two things provided motivation: self-discipline and a Protestant work ethic. Whereas self-discipline is an acquired skill, the Protestant work ethic is a value system. In hindsight, I was lucky to grow up in a family where both were operative, and I instinctively responded in kind. I may also have been lucky not to have grown up at a time with too many easy distractions (other than TV, of course).

Not so with many youngsters these days. Despite some unevenness in their diffusion, almost everyone who wants them has access to cellphones, video game systems, computers, DVDs, and an impressive array of cable channels. Although enjoyable enough, these distractions’ greatest benefit may be a thumb workout. Otherwise, the way they’re typically used, they’re monstrous time sucks. One doesn’t have to go far to find a kid (or sadly, an adult) who would rather sit at the computer and watch an endless string of YouTube videos rather than, say, go on a 10-mile bike ride. The ride is just too much work.

My suspicion is that in our current consumer culture, many kids have absorbed the imperatives of the day (as I did in my day), which are built on the premise of enjoy now, pay later. By my lights, it’s easier to get a job or do the necessary work first, bank the earnings and acquired skills, and go without things I can’t afford until later. Indeed, part of my motivation was that unless I lay a substantial foundation, I’d never be in a position to reap rewards. The current model is reversed: build up debt (or cognitive and educational deficits) first and work it off (or repair one’s failings) later. Put another way, one can spend a period of youth working hard to avoid a lifetime of hard work or enjoy leisure in youth and pay for it with a lifetime of work.

What’s at work here? I think that marketing machinery that has matured over the last 30 or so years has successfully sold people (not all youngsters by any means) a bill of goods, namely, that the good life is characterized by having lots of stuff but without necessarily haven’t worked (yet) to acquire that stuff. As children, provision of that plenitude is on one’s parents’ backs, but especially as young adults, many learn quickly that while working as baristas at Starbucks they can’t afford the luxuriant lifestyles their parents afforded them. Yet they rely irrationally on the promise of rescue by inheritance, lottery winnings, fame, or some other quick, painless event involving no effort. It’s a recipe for disillusionment and suffering.

  1. My father, who I think went too far in this direction, wasn’t wrong when he claimed that the greatest gift a parent can instill within a child is a love for work. Who would argue against work in favor of indolence?
    Even your leisure, Brutus, “Boy Scouts, reading, studying, playing trombone, playing tennis, swimming, riding my bike,” required focus and effort that rewarded you far more than any passive lying back.

  2. lazy bum says:

    My mother encouraged us to pursue pleasure at all costs. We could afford to because we were independently wealthy.

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