Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves

I often discuss with a good buddy of mine in Seattle the distinct possibility that all liberal democracies like ours have a built-in self-destruction mechanism.

The best way I can explain this is with the micro-example of a family. A parable, which was told to me by an economist, is known as "The Story of Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves" :

1. The first generation couple comes to America penniless, often not speaking English. But they work hard in blue collar jobs or perhaps starting their own small business, making sure their kids get a great education. By the time they pass away they likely have saved up a few hundred thousand dollars in equity, often in the form of a house, the mortgage of which was completely paid off.

2. The kids of this couple are instilled a good work ethic by their parents. They work hard in school and then work hard in their white collar professions. But they also want their own children to have a better & easier life than they did. So they start giving their kids things and more things and more things. What they don't realize is that in doing so, they're destroying the work ethic of their children.

3. By the time the kids - now the 3rd generation - graduate from high school, they have been handed everything and don't have a care in the world other than where to find the next party. Their work ethic throughout college, which they might not even make it to, is questionable. Ditto for when they enter the workforce. Implicitly they know that they will inherit everything from their parents, who have become very successful in their work lives, so their motivation to achieve anything on their own is muted.

4. The 3rd generation stumbles through life, not at all clear about what's important. Even the term "strong work ethic" sounds square and irrelevant. All they care about is vacation time and getting high, be it from alcohol or drugs or sex. When they have kids, these youngsters have little to no moral guidance and no memory of who their great-grandparents were or how they struggled to provide for the generations below them. So when these kids graduate from high school, if they even do that, they're back to working in blue collar jobs, just like their ancestors who first came to America.

It's clearly a generalization, but I think it's quite profound. In the larger picture of North America I think it speaks volumes about the predicament we're in. Too many in our society, having been given so much, seem to have lost track of the notion that it's the inherent duty of each of us to give more back to our communities and our nations than we should ever expect to get in return.

Once this mindset becomes too widespread then society will have reached a tipping point from which it will be exceedingly impossible to recover.

This is my fear for the future.

1 comment:

David in North Burnaby BC said...

Canerduh a "liberal democracy"? hahahaha .....
Good one, Robert. Very dry.