The Breeding of Individualism and the Unraveling of Civil Society

As a child growing up in the United States, much of the social conditioning applied to my generation honed in on the importance of the individual and his or her right to self-advancement.  A sort of all-for-one entitlement program, the concept of rugged individualism maintained a hovering presence.  The assumption that a person could do and be anything was a major theme integrated into the pedagogy of the mainstream classroom.  It was argued, to raise the self-esteem of young people, schools should dismantle the practice of rewarding only those who excelled in a particular area in exchange for a practice of recognizing all students, regardless of the achievement, if any.   Most institutions maintained a discipline policy and that occasionally included a corporal component.   To a certain extent, depending on how it was reinforced in the home, this mode of rearing contained the potential to develop a certain degree of responsibility in the youth.  For most, it was recognized that attached to every action was a reaction; if someone violated the school policy or the expectations of public behavior it was expected that a consequence would follow be it through punishment or forthright disapproval.  If a young person failed to turn in their homework or hit a baseball through the neighbor’s window, it was generally understood that it came with a price.  Casually hollering profanity in the public square would be considered shameful and chances were, someone would let you know, regardless of age.  Before venturing outside the lines of acceptable behavior, those with sense enough to understand how the game was played would carefully weigh the risks.  Over the years, however, the same proponents who called for an end to the selection process of rewarding excellence (sometimes with material recognition but not always) also asserted their influence over the realm of behavioral management which has resulted in an erosion of societal values that have upheld the values of empathy and respect that traditionally held together the national fabric of social norms and civic responsibility.   

The game of finger pointing at young people for the degradation of the county while criticizing the previous generation for getting us into the mess we find ourselves in is nothing new.  (Think back to tirade depicted in the 1957 film, Twelve Angry Men by Juror Number 3, who was anxious to see a young man executed to get back at his son’s generation of “ingrates.”)  To an extent, the assertions of blame have often been correct.  Historically, this is no phenomenon.  As societies advance though the sacrifices of their predecessors, there reaches a point when the beneficiaries of that struggle loose contact, hence, appreciation for the work it took to elevate their society to its current status.  No more readily has this been observed than in the example of refugees who came to the United States with very little means and set up small business, often in the form of groceries and restaurants.  Often times, these families pooled their resources together to rent a small space, sometimes living in one part of the building while running their business from the other.  In the tradition of a true family operation, the children were commonly employed where they were useful and every extra bit of money was stashed away in a college account.  A generation or so later and these children have little, if any connection to the hardships faced by their grandparents, therefore, the concept of struggle is far removed from their reality.  On a larger scale, the same can be seen in a survey of fallen empires.  Once the economic conditions allow for the expansion of growth, the country comes together to achieve something great that can be passed on to future generations but over time, the work ethic erodes and the once great nation begins to crumble.  Corruption sinks into to the ranks of leadership and in one way or another filters down to the common person who no longer sees the need to deal honestly with their fellow countrymen.  The culture of bribery becomes the norm from securing a business license to school registration.  History is rife with examples from the Maya to the Babylonians.   

Civilizations often reach a point where the pampering of the youth in an effort to shelter them from hardship results in national detriment.  Of course, the intent is not to hinder their success but to further it through providing a head start in life.[1]  Unfortunately, this approach is very susceptible to the boomerang effect.  It is not uncommon to speak with young people from across the economic spectrum who believe they are entitled to material wealth without the struggle normally involved.  In poor neighborhoods, I have spoken with high school students who “know” they will be the next LeBron James or Lil’ Wayne.  Dreams of fame and hero worship have always been with us.  If a young person were asked in 1962 who they would like to be someday chances are John Glenn’s name would have come up.  These days heroes are known less for what they achieve than for how much they earn, however.  A 2007 Pew Research study found “81% of 18- to 25-year-olds said that getting rich was among their generation’s most important goals; 64% named it as the most important goal of all. In addition, 51% said that becoming famous was among their generation’s important goals. In contrast, only 30% chose helping others…”[2]   Furthermore, they often overlook the hard work required to attain these goals and the 30% figure illustrates that careers which fail to meet the “getting rich” level, i.e., civil servants, are less desirable than ever.  But what else can we expect from a generation indoctrinated with bling? 

In Japan, young people sometimes speak of their future careers as lifetime recipients of the estates of their grandparents.  It appears that this assumption has become widespread as Japan now suffers from a deteriorating social system that depends on a large tax base to support its aging population through its national pension system; the problem stems from a generation of young people who lack fulltime employment, sometimes due to economic factors but more often because they lack the commitment to hard work commonly found among the generations before them.[3]  Not unlike Europe, where people surmise that the social programs, which have made life so much easier, are self-sustaining, most of these so-called “freeters” are unwilling to recognize the contradiction that exists between a functional social contract and their refusal to pay into it.  Over the summer, the world looked on while London youths took to the streets in drunken mobs, looting shops and robbing anyone who appeared vulnerable.  Unlike riots that erupt from an act of injustice by the state, the violence that broke out in the UK was more about feeling entitled to the property of others.  This, in a country where secondary students are actually paid 30£ a week for school attendance (not performance, mind you).  The protests in Greece over the recent austerity measures are yet another example of people riding the entitlement wave, financed specifically by the rest of the European Union although in this case Goldman Sachs paved the way by lending them money to cover up their public debt.[4]  Once their entry to the EU was secured, they wildly extended their debt even further knowing full well it would be backed up by Germany if something went awry.  Now that it has, no one is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to balance the books−“besides, isn’t that why we joined the EU to begin with” they might ask?   

The present condition we find ourselves in does not exist in a vacuum but has been decades in the making.  In the years since the “Greatest Generation” mastered the art of efficient production and lifted the US to its present superpower status, subsequent generations have found themselves far better off by measure of material well-being and education.  In the quest to continually increase the living standards of our children, we have (perhaps subconsciously) removed the element of struggle from the process, yet life itself is a struggle.  To attempt to remove struggle is to replace reality with an artificial existence, hence, the widespread use of drug use in west societies.  Life begins with struggle; the first breath of a newborn is a struggle, the first step we ever take is a struggle, forming our first words is a struggle.  The consequences of failure can be severe, if not deadly.  Yet, somehow it is believed that sheltering children from every other discomfort will lead to the development of more successful generations in the long term. 

Beginning in the 1970s, the practice of singling out children for praise based on their achievements began to be coupled with awarding others likewise for lesser accomplishments.  Rather than trophies being handed out to a select few, the push to give everyone a trophy began to emerge.  These days children are often told they can perform certain skills when in reality, they cannot.  “Telling Johnny he can read, doesn’t mean he can,” an elementary teacher once told me.  But in the effort to avert low self-esteem, Johnny is told he can read.  Here, the question needs to be raised, which is better for Johnny’s self-esteem: telling him he can read when he cannot, or his knowing he can read once he has learned how?  In the effort to fulfill a child’s reality with meaningless rewards, we are perpetuating a society removed from where they are and the skills necessary to arrive at where they wish to be.  In contrast, real success provides the motivation to excel in other endeavors.  Self-esteem without substance is often expressed in arrogance and a deficit in moral decency.         

In 1994 a new disability was coined by the American Psychiatric Association: Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).  Students diagnosed with this condition would no longer have to endure the consequences of acting on poor decisions.  Paired with the failure to provide an adequate learning experience that recognizes excellence, subsequent developments in behavioral science called for a departure from traditional modes of punishment.  Spanking is now equated with hitting and the paddle that traditionally hung in the principal’s office has been replaced by a disciplinary form that yields a significantly lower success rate for the average recipient.  Of course, researchers have learned that one punishment doesn’t fit all, which is true.  Some children respond better to the loss of privileges than the rod, but in practice, parents and school administrators have found it easier simply to ignore behavior problems, often blaming the teachers for being too strict.  I was once criticized by a vice principal in front of a parent whose child was habitually late to class.  Perhaps I was being “too rigid” in enforcing the district tardy policy, he said, in effect, suggesting that I ignore it.  This response has filtered down to society in general.  In generations far gone, when a young person behaved inappropriately in public, they were often reprimanded by the adults around them.  No one would dare do so today.  I recall a friend telling me that on a train ride to Himeji, an elderly woman whacked his shin when he brought up his right ankle and rested it on his left knee (pointing your foot at someone is considered disrespected in many Asian cultures).  Unfortunately, she represents a dying breed in Japan, long extinct in the US.  In California, that kind of behavior would have been grounds for assault charges.

In my first regular teaching assignment in the US, I was given a handbook to help guide new teachers into a successful school year by implementing some of the virtues of the Japanese education system.  One of the first lessons I learned as an exchange teacher in Japan, however, is that much of their methodology is based on ours, especially when it comes to our groundbreaking work on classroom management, although, to be fair, practices vary significantly between schools.  In some cases, teachers wouldn’t give a second thought before smacking a student who got out of line while at other schools, the opposite is true.  I know of one case where a student kicked his teacher, a pleasant, middle-aged woman with a delicate frame, in the chest and sent her to the hospital.  Another student hit a girl in the face so hard as to break her jaw.  Neither of these students even missed a lunch hour.  Perhaps they were simply ODD.  The sad side to all of this is that by adopting American concepts of teaching and learning while supplementing these with loose behavioral expectations and greater attention to standardized testing, Japan is undermining their reputation as leaders in a variety of disciplines and industries.  Worse yet for American schools trying to emulate the least effective elements of a system we authored.

The paradoxical effect of diminished expectations and having pride in achieving mediocrity have resulted in a generation ignored among Generation Xers, sometimes described as suffering from low self-esteem in adulthood, exactly what their parents had hoped shelter them from.[5]  Yet, rather than attempt to revive high expectations in academics and behavior that was all but done away with by their parents’ generation, they’ve perpetuated it by further dismantling the rewards system and attaching psychological diagnoses to excuse poor behavior.  (Not everyone has given up on rewards, however.  By going into debt, Visa and MasterCard have now filled that vacuum with a new set of rewards. Just google “rewards” and see what pops up.)  The push for education reform has failed to take into account grade inflation[6] that has led to students studying less but achieving more (at least until they reach college where 35% are required to enroll in remedial math and English courses).  The culminating effect of these developments is the rapid increase in narcissistic tendencies which are fed by a culture prioritized to promote the individual, even if it means at the expense of the community. 

At no other time in history has the inclination toward narcissism been so pervasive in American culture and indeed, throughout the developed world as a whole, due in large part to the export of western values via globalization.  According to a 27-year study conducted by the University of Michigan, researchers found a 30% increase on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) in college students.  Also cited is a 2003 study that demonstrated a 68% increase between the 1950s and 1980s in teens who agreed with the statement “I am an important person.”[7]  Indeed, narcissism is most associated with excessive self-importance.  In questioning the origin of this problem, the authors point out a popular song sung commonly at pre-schools, ‘‘I am special/I am special/Look at me...’’[8]  Of course, anyone who has observed modern parenting has seen this type of message reinforced again and again.  Many parents trying to avert grocery store meltdown are more likely to give into kids who not only want to select the items going into the cart, but begin eating them before they arrive at the checkout.  Simply saying “no” is a taboo with such parents who prefer a hands off, free-exploration approach.  In the long term, however, they’re setting up expectations for future shopping experiences.  As the scenario suggests, young people are largely only playing off the role they’ve been assigned and in the meantime are learning less about empathy and respect and more about manipulation.

Generations who came before have complained about the attitudes of young people for millennium.  In the 16th century, adults began referring to young people as whippersnappers after the youths who could be found standing on corners and snapping passersby with strips of cloth.  Although considered a term used by the elderly to describe the young, by no means is it new to the vernacular.  It can be expected that those who are critical of the youth of today, were themselves the ire of the generation before them.  But as the University of Michigan study suggests, the increase in narcissism has less to do with generation gaps more to do with modernity.  In their study, participants were limited by age thus the same increase in self-importance may in fact be cross-generational, which would seem a reasonable conclusion. 

In the last several years, the west has witnessed unimaginable disregard for others, especially within areas of investment and finance, which actually brought the developed world to the brink of economic collapse in 2008a situation we are still reeling away from.  Be it the schemes of Bernie Madoff or the investors at Countrywide and the American International Group, the insatiable thirst for more ended in the liquidation of savings and retirement accounts around the world.  Even more unfathomable is the expressions of entitlement many of those responsible exhibited.  Rather than face termination, AIG executives were awarded $165 million in bonuses after landing $170 billion in taxpayer bailouts.  The recipients of these funds were not the young whippersnappers on the corner obviously, but Boomers and Xers who are rearing the next generation.  The current debate about ending offshore tax shelters and other loopholes that would reset the tax rate of the wealthiest 1% of Americans to that of the middle wage earners illustrates this behavior even further.  In hindsight, however, such outcomes are a logical product of an individualist culture.

There is some speculation that technology is the prime mover in the increased level of narcissistic tendencies. Compared to previous generations that had to decide on a greater collective level what to watch or listen to, today we can plug into our ipods and isolate ourselves to the internet where we are encouraged to “broadcast” ourselves and where we can have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook even believing our trips to the toilet are worthy of tweeting.  As the Michigan study points out, however, tailored programs to suit the individual are not the stimuli for narcissism, rather narcissism has motivated the way we implement technology in our lives.[9]  How we utilize technology may have significant implications in our interactions and our ability to have empathy for others.  One of the obvious indicators of the direction this is taking is the polarization that seems to have enveloped the developed world.  The ease with which social isolation validates or own opinions is enhanced by filtering any views that expose our weaknesses.  This is evidenced in the rapid deterioration of journalism in recent years.  No longer do the networks provide slightly biased reports on political issues.  Nowadays people tend toward the extreme right or the extreme left outlets for their news, with little room for moderate, let alone, objective reporting.  Further complicating the situation is people’s trust that what they read on the internet is either newsworthy or accurate.  On a macro scale, the implications this has for society is staggering.  The west seems to be split into distinct camps with a “you’re either with us or against us” banner waving above each side.  In the US, we go from voting all of the republicans out of office, to voting them back in per the next election cycle.  The same is occurring in Europe between conservatives and liberals.  Citizen involvement has been reduced to strict republicanism where people expect their representatives to change things while the voters pat themselves on the back every few years for filling in some boxes.  No one seems to understand the meaning of sacrifice anymore.  We want, but are we willing to give?  Go to war?  Yes.  Pay for it? NO.  War bonds?  Ration what?  Forget that; go shopping!  What better way show our patriotism than to buy that new big screen or a Rolex?  "It’s not how you feel, after all, it’s how you look," or so I was told by a salesperson at the Oaktree when I was a freshman in high school.

With increased motivation toward the importance of the self and a distancing from empathy, people are less likely to uphold the social order that has traditionally been the cornerstone of stability.  While it would appear to some that empathy has actually risen among young people, most of these gains can be attributed to the increase service hours required for graduation and the push for cushioning college applications.[10]  Based on the shuttering rise in the NPI measure, the intention behind the increase in volunteerism seems less to do with empathy and more to do with the ME factor, i.e.,  “what’s in it for ME?”  One of the most disturbing byproducts of situation is the lack of civil involvement which in generations past provided a sense of ownership and belonging.  Young people are less motivated to contribute to the betterment of the community when they view the country as owning them something.  Not only do civic duties loose go unfulfilled, basic courtesies are exchanged for convenience.  Case-in-point: cell phones and driving.  Everyone knows it’s unsafe, but nearly everyone engages in it.  Even simple etiquette is completely ignored and often with the intent to ensure others recognize they’re having a conversation and therefore must be important.  (As I am writing, a table of middle aged men impatiently wait as one of their cribbage buddies takes a call at the table, holding up the game.)  One-sided convenience seems to be the latest trend, be in where people decide to parkoften endangering others but saving a 45 second walk, or drivers having conversations in the street while drivers behind them wait; allowing children to run wild at the public library may allow parents to get what they need more quickly but it doesn’t do much for the patrons who are looking for a quiet place to read.

There are solutions, however.  Obviously, the task is a complicated one but to begin, parents have to reintroduce the word “no” into the conversation with their children and begin being consistent in raising expectations.  Schools can reinstate higher expectations for our students and recognize excellence when it’s achieved.  Instill a work ethic that includes incentives to take ownership in and responsibility toward the community.  Teach children that contributing doesn’t always come with money attached.  Japanese students for example, are expected to clean their own classrooms, hallways and bathrooms, sometimes even paint the wallsa lesson we can emulate.  Don’t conserve resources and recycle simply for the savings or because the city will leave your garbage on the curb if you don’tdo it because it’s the right thing to do.  Call on Congress to ensure equity in the tax code, for so long as the wealthy skirt past paying their fair share, those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will see no reason why their taxes should go upWashington voters shot down a tax on soda and candy and a temporary income tax on high income earners last that would have went toward closing the budget gap and actually lowering property and even some business taxes; as a result, we’re cutting teacher salaries, health care, and laying of large numbers of state workers who actually perform necessary functions.  To live life with purposeful intentions to do good is a central tenant in Islamic and other modes religious practice which grounds people to serving the community; through serving Allah, one serves humanitySimple acts of kindness can make a significant impact on how we interact with one another and our environment.  As the prophetic model teaches, postpone or even relinquish your rights to ensure the rights of othersnot the other way around (imagine the world we’d live in if everyone cared more about their neighbor’s rights than their own).  As adults, simply implementing the golden rule of “do unto others…” would go a long way.  After all, the habits we form from observing our parents outweighs anything they could have said to us and the same will hold true for our children, less we wish to continue the process of dismantling what our forefathers, free and enslaved, struggled build, that is.                         


[1]  Patricia Dalton.  “Let Go, Already: If It's All About the Children, The Children Will Never Leave,” The Washington Post, December 29, 2002; B01, http://lists101.his.com/pipermail/smartmarriages/2002-December/001408.html (accessed October 5, 2011).
[2] Jean M. Twenge, Sara Konrath, Joshua D. Foster,W. Keith Campbell, and Brad J. Bushman, “Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” Journal of Personality 76, pp. 875-901 (2008): 891.
[3] Akagi Tomohiro.  “What’s Hope for the Freeters?” Ahsahi Shinbun, March 2008; 204.  (Translator unlisted.)
[4]  Terry Gross, “How The Financial Crisis Created A 'New Third World,” review of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis, Fresh Air, Interview transcript, October 4, 2011: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=140948138
[5] M.J. Syephey, “Gen-X: The Ignored Generation?” Time, April 16, 2008, http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1731528,00.html (accessed October 5, 2011).
[6] Twenge, 893.
[7] Ibid, 878.
[8] Ibid, 892.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

*Video feed from the introduction to Capitalism, A Love Story, by Michael Moore, courtesy of Blake Higgins.

1 comment:

サムライ said...

Great article. I wrote a response to it here but it got deleted when I tried to send out my comment. Sorry! Good article.