pursuit of gratification
Hillary Clinton is on to something when she says young people have
a sense of "entitlement." This may seem a little rich
coming from an icon of the Boomer generation, and she retreated
from her remark that young people think "work" is a four-letter
word after her daughter, Chelsea, scolded her for saying it, but
you don't have to be an old fogey to see that youth isn't what it
used to be.
A puzzled old fogey asks Marlon Brando's character in "The
Wild One," the 1953 movie about a motorcycle gang invading
a California town, "What are you rebelling against?" Brando's
character replies, "Whatcha got?" This was the ethos of
the '50s rebel, trying to figure out how to rebel and find something
to rebel against. Two years later James Dean expressed similar angst
in "Rebel Without a Cause" -- the title says it all.
The '60s changed all that. Hillary and her Boomer generation wrote
the book on rebellion, against parents, war, Puritanism and against
"the greatest generation" which won the war so their children
could "make love, not war" without the distractions of
work and responsibility. Now even Hillary decries children growing
up in the "culture that has a premium on instant gratification."
Their toys feed their appetites. They walk down the street with
cell phones pasted to their heads, talking to their friends. They
turn on their Blackberries and iPods to listen to their favorite
music with the other ear. They play video games that maim and kill
without getting their hands dirty. It's a phenomenon for the globe.
An exhibition in Frankfurt, "The Youth of Today," eschews
the theme of rebellion because the popular culture absorbed what
1960s rebels said they wanted -- sexual liberation and entertainment
24/7. They can rock around the clock. But they're the insiders now,
and that creates problems for everybody. Summerhill, a famously
permissive "progressive" school founded by A.S. Neil in
England in 1927, encouraged children to recite Shakespeare to the
cows, enjoy communal nude swimming and anything else that occurred
to them. Now Summerhill has introduced, of all things, rules. Once
the do-as-you-like school without any discernible structure, Summerhill
is changing because the culture is no longer giving kids anything
to rebel against. "What we see in society is often a lot of
spoilt brats," Zoe Neill Readhead, the founder's daughter who
now runs the school, tells the London Times. "Children now
come from homes where they have been overindulged."
Americans agree. More than 80 percent of Americans polled by the
Sacred Heart University Polling Institute say American young people
feel more "entitled" than they did a decade ago. Asked
what careers they most wanted for their children, 9 in 10 said medicine,
followed by teaching and starting a business. (Their children would
likely offer very different answers, but that's work for another
survey.) Frank Furedi, a British sociologist, says society sends
a message that the pursuit of happiness is more important than work
ethic, and that creates problems. "Happiness has become the
buzz word of our times," he writes in the London Daily Telegraph.
He notes that the BBC has turned "The Happiness Formula"
into a six-part series. "Politicians, educators, celebrities
and cultural entrepreneurs frequently insist that happiness is the
solution to our problems and that we have a responsibility to be
happy." That, it seems to me, is looking at motivation upside
John Stuart Mill famously observed that happiness is the wrong
goal: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to
be so." A sense of entitlement is a little like happiness --
an unearned emotion -- which is why it often coincides with the
breakdown of the work ethic. "Happiness" is more easily
achieved through hard work. The opposite of hard work is sloth,
and lazybones can't be happy because he spends so much time trying
to avoid what he doesn't want to do. Instant gratification is an
addiction, casting the seeker of instant gratification in the thrall
of demanding more, more, more.
"Today's emphasis on feeling good reflects the fact that the
individual self has become the central focus of social, moral and
cultural life," writes Frank Furedi. "Feeling good"
becomes an escape from civic virtue and the demands of community
life, where hard work, sacrifice, altruism and commitment are antithetical
to immediate gratification.
A late education is better than no education at all, but Hillary
obviously finds small consolation in the fact that it was her indulgent
generation that put into play what she now rails against. Life can
be a tough schoolmaster.
published in the Washington Times, 19 June 2006